Abraham Lincoln, the North, and Secession: Questions for Lincoln Defenders

Michael T. Griffith


@All Rights Reserved

As I dialogue with people who defend Lincoln's course of action against the Southern states, I hear various reasons for this defense. These reasons include the following arguments:

* "Southern states seized federal installations, in some cases before the state had seceded."

* "The South fired the first shot by attacking Fort Sumter."

* "Secession was the same as rebellion because it would have broken up the Union."

* "The Southern states had no right to leave the Union."

In response to these and other arguments, I pose the following questions to those who defend what Lincoln and the North did to the South:

1. If the South had offered to allow all federal installations to be manned and maintained by federal troops, would this have made any difference in how Lincoln responded to the South's desire for independence? Would he have decided against invading the South? Would he have dropped his threat to invade if the South didn't pay the recently hiked tariff? If the answer is no, which it obviously is, then isn't it invalid to cite the Southern states' seizure of federal installations as justification for the North's invasion of those states? And isn't it therefore invalid to cite the Confederate "attack" on Ft. Sumter as justification for the North's invasion?

2. Why was it ok for the original thirteen colonies to forcefully secede from England, even though this was in clear violation of British law, but not ok for the Southern states to peacefully secede from the Union, even though the Constitution is silent on the issue of secession, even though three of the original thirteen states specified in their ratification ordinances that the people of those states reserved the right to resume the powers of government, and even though Thomas Jefferson said he would allow a state that wanted to separate to do so?

3. Does anyone believe that states like North Carolina and Virginia--two of the original thirteen states of the Constitution--would have ratified the Constitution if they had believed they would be forbidden from ever leaving the Union even if they felt they needed to do so? Does anyone believe that any of the original thirteen states would have ratified the Constitution if they had been told that, no matter what, they could never secede from the Union unless they managed to fight their way out--does anyone really believe this given how jealously the states sought to guard their own rights as sovereign entities and given how worried they were about the federal government exercising unauthorized power over them?

4. Why was it ok for the people of that part of northern Mexico that would later be known as the state of Texas to forcefully secede from Mexico, in an undeniable act of aggression and in clear violation of Mexican law, but not ok for the Southern states to peacefully secede from the Union, even though the Southern states offered to pay their share of the national debt, offered to pay compensation for all federal installations within their borders, and sought peaceful relations with the North?

5. What does the Declaration of Independence mean when it says that governments derive their just powers "from the consent of the governed"? Can anyone deny that the vast majority of Southern citizens no longer wanted to be governed by the U.S. but wanted to form their own nation? Why, then, didn't they have the right to peacefully leave the Union and to form their own nation?

6. Nearly all Americans supported Lithuania's desire for independence from the Soviet Union. Do you know what Gorbachev said to Bush Sr. when the latter told him it was unfair to keep Lithuania in the Soviet Union against its will? He replied that that's exactly what the federal government did when the Southern states sought their independence. If you had been Bush, how would you have justified what Lincoln did in response to the South's desire for independence, and how would you have distinguished between what Lincoln and the North did and the Soviet Union's refusal to allow Lithuania to secede?

7. With regard to Lithuania's desire for independence, if you're going to reply that Lithuania had a right to independence because it didn't voluntarily join the Soviet Union, are you making the argument, then, that a union has the right to use force against member states that want independence if those states joined peacefully and voluntarily, but that it doesn't have the right to use force against seceding states if those states were forced the join the union? In other words, if a state is forced into a union, then the state has the right secede, but if the state joins peacefully and voluntarily, then the union has the right to use force to keep it from seceding? Isn't that a rather anti-democratic theory of government?

8. If you're saying secession is only acceptable if the seceding states can fight their way out, isn't this nothing but mob rule, tyranny by the stronger, dictatorship by majority, might makes right?

9. If the overwhelming majority of citizens of eleven states want to form their own nation, and if they express this desire in democratic elections conducted by their respective states, and if those states then offer to pay their fair share of the national debt, if they offer to pay for all federal forts within their borders, and if they seek peaceful relations with the Union, what moral or ethical grounds would you have for forcing them to remain in the Union? Of course, this was what happened when the Southern states seceded.

10. Wasn't Lincoln's own Secretary of State, William Seward, correct when he said, a few months before the North invaded the South, "It would be contrary to the spirit of the American Government to use force to subjugate the South"?

11. Wasn't leading abolitionist and Republican leader Horace Greeley expressing a sentiment in keeping with the traditional American principles of liberty and freedom of choice when he said shortly before the war began that "We hope never to live in a Republic where one section is pinned to the other section by bayonets"?

12. After the Ft. Sumter incident, which side continued to speak of wanting peaceful relations with the other and which side announced it was going to invade the other--and which side then sent armies to invade the other? Which side sent large military forces into the other's territory in an effort to crush the other?

13. Isn't it revealing that Lincoln threatened to invade the seceded states if they didn't pay the tariff ("duties and imposts")? Could this threat have had anything to do with the realization that the North would lose its economic dominance and would lose a great deal of European merchant traffic if the Southern states were able to trade directly with Europe and to offer European governments and merchants tariff rates that were substantially lower than the federal rates at Northern ports?

14. Was the attack on Fort Sumter really a valid reason to declare war and to invade the South, given the fact (1) that South Carolina and then the Confederacy had been trying for weeks to arrange for the peaceful evacuation of the fort, (2) that the Confederacy had been promised repeatedly by Lincoln's own Secretary of State that the fort would be evacuated, (3) that the South was prepared to pay compensation for the fort, (4) that not one of the federal troops at the fort was killed in the attack, (5) that those troops were allowed to leave in peace and to return to the North after the attack, and (6) that the convoy of ships that Lincoln sent to "resupply" the fort included warships and armed troops?


Michael T. Griffith holds a Masterís degree (Magna Cum Laude) in Theology from The Catholic Distance University, a Graduate Certificate in Ancient and Classical History from American Military University, a Bachelorís degree in Liberal Arts from Excelsior College, two Associate in Applied Science degrees from the Community College of the Air Force, and an Advanced Certificate of Civil War Studies and a Certificate of Civil War Studies from Carroll College.He is a two-time graduate of the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California, in Arabic and Hebrew, and of the U.S. Air Force Technical Training School in San Angelo, Texas, and has completed advanced Hebrew programs at Haifa University in Israel and at the Spiro Institute in London, England.He is also the author of five books on Mormonism and ancient texts and one book on the John F. Kennedy assassination.

Return to Mike Griffith's Civil War Website