A House Undivided Cannot Stand

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The title of this article can be thought of as perhaps the hallmark of the thinking of the American founding fathers, namely, the idea of divided sovereignty. The founders established a confederacy of states that were essentially thought of as independent nations. Indeed, up until the 1860s it was common for Americans to refer to their home states as "my country." The Declaration of Independence declares that the free and independent states were even to have the ability, as individual states, to wage war, which they did during the Revolution.

James Madison is given most of the credit for the idea of divided sovereignty, which is sometimes referred to as federalism or states’ rights. The fundamental idea was that governmental power was to be highly decentralized, with limited functions delegated to the central government, acting as the agent of the citizens of the states. In theory, the central government was to use that power to protect the lives, liberties, and property of the citizens of the states. More importantly, as enshrined in the Tenth Amendment to the Constitution, the citizens and the states were to be able to check or prohibit the tyrannical proclivities of the central government. Petty local tyrannies are bad enough, but everyone understood that the biggest danger to freedom was a centralized state, which was always considered to be the wolf at the door of liberty. The American Revolution was a war of secession against just such a state.

Thus, Abraham Lincoln’s famous political buzz-line that "a house divided cannot stand" is sheer nonsense that flatly contradicts the thinking of the founding fathers. It was nevertheless helpful in his crusade to crush the system of divided sovereignty (i.e., states’ rights) that they had created in the hope that that system would preserve American liberty. In its place was put the centralized, bureaucratic empire that taxpaying Americans all slave under today.

I was reminded of all of this once again while traveling in Europe recently and reading of the peaceful secession of the tiny country of Montenegro on May 22. Montenegrins were permitted to vote on secession, which they approved with a 55.4% majority and an 86% voter turnout. The Times of London reported on May 23 of the mass celebrations in the streets and the final demise of Yugoslavia, the forced (i.e., Lincolnite) union of six separate provinces that was created after World War I.

The strife and violence between these ethnically diverse regions all during the twentieth century was caused primarily by the fact that they were all ruled by a centralized, Lincolnite state. The violence was always primarily over control of that state, or in protest of its policies. Dictionaries (including Wikipedia) typically misconstrue the term "balkanization" by explaining that "separatism" was the cause of all that strife. Not so. It was just the opposite — the centralization of governmental power — that was the problem. Divided sovereignty and decentralization are always more conducive to peace and prosperity than centralized, bureaucratic, totalitarianism.

Prominent members of the Lincoln Cult did not support or celebrate the breakup of the socialist Yugoslavian regime beginning in the early 1990s — or of the Soviet Union, for that matter. In a February 11, 1991 article in The Nation magazine the "celebrated Lincoln scholar" Eric Foner of Columbia University urged Gorbachev to follow "Lincoln’s Lesson" (the title of the article) and use military force to stop the secession of the Soviet republics from the Soviet Union. Fortunately, Gorbachev was not as rabid a Marxist as Foner is. He ignored such advice, choosing not to have his armies kill hundreds of thousands of fellow citizens, Lincoln style, in order to prevent what Foner decried and mourned as "the dismemberment of the Soviet Union."

Part of the old Yugoslavian government followed the Foner/Lincoln strategy and waged wars to try to prevent secession, killing hundreds of thousands in Slovenia, Croatia, and Bosnia, which eventually gained their independence. But Macedonia and now Montenegro were permitted to secede peacefully. This greatly reduces, if not eliminates, the possibility of one ethnic group using the powers of a centralized state to abuse and discriminate against other ethnic minorities, as in the old Yugoslavia.

As America becomes ever more centralized, bureaucratic, and imperialistic, with true federalism being a dead letter ever since 1865, it is heartening to see other parts of the world adopting the Jeffersonian recipe for peace, prosperity and liberty: limited, decentralized government and divided sovereignty (if there is to be government). Americans themselves will have no hope of moving in a similar direction until they abandon all the lies, fantasies, and tall tales about the legend of Abraham Lincoln, the ideological cornerstone of the centralized, bureaucratic, and imperialistic American state.

Thomas J. DiLorenzo [send him mail] is the author of The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War, (Three Rivers Press/Random House). His latest book is How Capitalism Saved America: The Untold Story of Our Country’s History, from the Pilgrims to the Present (Crown Forum/Random House, August 2004).

Thomas DiLorenzo Archives at LRC

Thomas DiLorenzo Archives at Mises.org

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