Lincoln's Spectacular Lie
The cornerstone of the Lincoln Legend is a spectacular lie. As eloquently stated by former syndicated columnist James J. Kilpatrick in his 1957 book, The Sovereign States: "The delusion that sovereignty is vested in the whole people of the United States is one of the strangest misconceptions of our public life" (p. 15). Lincoln espoused this fable in order to make the preposterous argument that no such thing as state sovereignty ever existed; the states were never at any time free and independent of the federal government; they did not in fact create the federal government by ratifying the Constitution; and that, therefore, no group of citizens could ever secede from the federal government.
As Emory University philosopher Donald Livingston has said, this is not only a lie, but a spectacular lie. It is still widely believed, however, thanks in part to the efforts of such propagandists as Harry Jaffa and his fellow Lincoln cultists at the Claremont Institute, the Declaration Foundation, and other state-worshipping propaganda mills.
Lincoln claimed that the federal government was really created by the Declaration of Independence, not the Constitution, despite the fact that the former document does not have the legal authority that the Constitution has. But the Declaration itself is an expression of state sovereignty, a fact which contradicts Lincoln's whole thesis. The concluding paragraph declares to the world that the colonists were seceding from the British Empire as citizens of the free and independent American states, not as the people as a whole. "These colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States; that they are Absolved from all Allegiance to the British Crown . . . and that as Free and Independent States, they have full power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do."
When the Revolution ended the King of England entered into a peace treaty not with "the United States" or "the people as a whole" but with the individual states. (In my May 2002 Independent Institute debate with Harry Jaffa he made quite the buffoon of himself by angrily denying this plain historical fact). Article 1 of the Treaty with Great Britain states:
His Britannic Majesty acknowledges the said United States, vis, New Hampshire, Massachusetts Bay, Rhode Island, and Providence Plantations, Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia to be free, sovereign and independent States; that he treats with them as such, and for himself, his heirs and successors, Relinquishes all claims to the Government, proprietary and territorial rights of The same, and every part thereof.
When the sovereign states created a federal government as their agent with the Articles of Confederation they made a point of maintaining their independent status. As defined in Article 1, Section II: "Each State retains its sovereignty, freedom and independence, and every power, jurisdiction and right, which is not by this confederation expressly delegated to the United States, in Congress assembled."
It is important to note that certain powers were delegated to the federal government but not abandoned. Sovereignty always rested in the citizens of the free and independent states.
Although the state delegations that adopted the Articles hoped that the Union created by them would be perpetual, they seceded from the Articles after just six years and dropped the phrase "perpetual Union" from the new Constitution.
Apologists for centralized governmental power dishonestly dwell on the preamble of the Constitution which reads, "We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union . . ." They do this in order to argue that the government formed by the Constitution was created by "the whole people" and not the sovereign states. But the reason why the states were not listed individually in the Preamble is that when it was written it was not known which states would ratify the Constitution. Thus, it was left as a generalized "We the People . . ." It is nothing more than a semantic artifact.
No less a figure than James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, explained in Federalist 39 that the Constitution was to be ratified by the people "not as individuals composing one entire nation, but as composing the distinct and independent States to which they respectively belong" (emphasis added). He also stated that the federal government gets all of its authority from the sovereign states and not the "whole people." The "whole people" who resided in the states stretching from Maine to Georgia at the time had nothing at all to do with the ratification of the Constitution. It was ratified by state political conventions (not state legislatures). Madison continued on to say that each state ratifying the Constitution "is considered as a sovereign body, independent of all others, and only to be bound by its own voluntary act."
We the delegates of the people of Virginia . . . Do, in the name and behalf of the people of Virginia, declare and make known that the powers granted under the Constitution being derived from the people of the United States may be resumed by them whensoever the same shall be perverted to their injury or oppression, and that every power not granted thereby remains with them at their will . . .
New York and Rhode Island made almost identical statements as conditions of ratifying the Constitution.
The phrase "united States" is always in the plural in the Constitution, signifying not one consolidated government but that the independent and sovereign states were united in forming the federal government as their agent with only narrowly defined, delegated powers.
The president is not elected by "the whole people" according to the Constitution but by an electoral college that consists of appointees from each state, chosen by the state legislatures.
Nor may any new state be formed "within the Jurisdiction of any other State; nor any State be formed by the Junction of two or more States, or Parts of States, without the Consent of the Legislatures of the States concerned as well as Congress." (Lincoln clearly ignored this when he orchestrated the secession of Western Virginia from Virginia). Amending the Constitution still requires ratification by three-fourths of the states, not the "whole people."
Thus, all three of these founding documents — the Declaration of Independence, Articles of Confederation, and the Constitution — declare the states to be free and independent. Sovereignty lies in the citizens of the free and independent states, not the people as a whole. The founders feared mass democracy and sought to strictly limit its domain. It is patently absurd to argue that the government they created was meant to be a mass democracy of "the whole people."
Lincoln's theory of the non-existence of state sovereignty never came to be accepted by the strength of the argument, for the argument has no strength and no factual basis. Instead, he waged the bloodiest war in world history up to that point to "prove" himself right.
The myth serves the purpose of making sure that the American people can never regain true sovereignty over their government. It should not be surprising to anyone that the modern-day neoconservative propagandists who perpetuate this myth are all advocates of an even more activist, centralized state (in pursuit of "national greatness," they say). Their latest crusade involves invoking the sainted Lincoln, time and again, to urge President Bush to invade and occupy much of the Middle East. They are advocates of national power, an imperial worldwide empire, and unlimited democracy. They are the enemies of limited, constitutional government although they cynically invoke the founding fathers in much of their propaganda. These are people whose entire careers are based on the perpetuation of a spectacular lie, which is why they become so apoplectic whenever anyone threatens to expose the real Lincoln to the American public.
February 25, 2003
Thomas J. DiLorenzo [send him mail] is the author of the LRC #1 bestseller, The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War (Forum/Random House, 2002) and professor of economics at Loyola College in Maryland.
Copyright © 2003 LewRockwell.com
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