The case against secession was best made before 1861 by James Buchanan and Abraham Lincoln, the 15th and 16th Presidents of the United States. Buchanan made his case during his December 3, 1860 State of the Union address and Lincoln made his case during his March 4, 1861 first inaugural address. Unfortunately for their cases against secession, their speeches were filled with a smorgasbord of logical fallacies and unsupported political rhetoric.
Their speeches also showcase how politicians mislead the public, wittingly or unwittingly, into policies that are destructive to the entire nation. The war that transpired as a result of the general acceptance of their rhetoric was completely unnecessary and avoidable. Its prevention required a President willing to act within constitutional bounds and only resort to war for a just cause and then only as the very last resort to restore justice under God’s Law.
In the interest of avoiding future national calamities, people can better immunize themselves against similar overtures made by modern politicians by diagnosing the fallacies made by Buchanan and Lincoln. To assist in understanding their logical fallacies, each section below is titled by a fallacy under which all the points made by them in their two speeches, are divided. Direct quotes are provided for each point they made with an explanation of the points from a logical perspective.
False Premise, unsound argument
Buchanan argues the principle of secession is inconsistent with the “Federal Constitution”, because it would have made the labors of those who developed the Constitution in vain if States could secede at will. His exact words were, “Such a principle [of secession] is wholly inconsistent with the history as well as the character of the Federal Constitution… In that mighty struggle between the first intellects of this or any other country it never occurred to any individual, either among its opponents or advocates, to assert or even to intimate that their efforts were all vain labor, because the moment that any State felt herself aggrieved she might secede from the Union.”
In this argument, Buchanan assumes the framers of the constitution would not desire disunion of any kind and based on this assumption, he concludes secession is inconsistent with the “Federal Constitution.” Without referencing any other evidence, it is most likely true the framers would have wanted the States to stay in union under the Constitution, but it does not logically follow that just because they may have desired such an end they restricted the States from voluntarily leaving it especially since there is nothing in the Constitution or their writings to support this position.
Buchanan also used judgmental language in his argument when he stated, “the moment that any State felt herself aggrieved she might secede from the Union.” This does not accurately represent the historical events; many southern States had been addressing their grievances to Congress for well over a decade, but Buchanan’s claim makes it seem as if the States threatening secession had not attempted to resolve their disputes by other means over a long period of time.
Buchanan: “The truth is that it was not until many years after the origin of the Federal Government that such a proposition was first advanced. It was then met and refuted by the conclusive arguments of General Jackson.”
In this, Buchanan is further attempting to prove secession inconsistent with the “Federal Constitution” by claiming it was not until many years after establishing the “Federal Government” when secession was first proposed. This argument has three fatal flaws. First, if secession is not expressly prohibited to the States in the “supreme Law of the Land” then it would not matter how long after the “Federal Government” was established before secession was first proposed; it would still be both authorized and legal at any time.
Second, Buchanan’s truth claim is inconsistent with historical facts, secession was first proposed by the New England States during the War of 1812 when many framers of the Constitution were still alive and one was even President, James Madison, the professed father of the Constitution. No one at that time, including the President, claimed the unconstitutionality of New England’s earnest motions towards secession.
Third, far from being conclusive as Buchanan claims, General Jackson’s argument pontificates on the nature of compacts and leagues and uses a straw man to disprove South Carolina’s case for secession. He also holds that secession is not a constitutional right, but does not explain his position in light of the 10th Amendment and then uses an appeal to force by attempting to prove secession an offense against the “whole Union” which will “incur the penalties consequent on a failure.”
Oddly, Jackson’s own language in attempting to make the case of a unitary nation is evidence against his argument. “To say that any state may at pleasure secede from the Union is to say that the United States are not a nation…” Using the verb to be “are” instead of “is” after “the United States” was common until 1865 and it is evidence of the early understanding and nature of the union; i.e., a collection of States not a unitary nation.
Switching from Buchanan to Lincoln, we find the false premises and unsound arguments just as egregious.
Lincoln: “[W]e find the proposition that in legal contemplation the Union is perpetual confirmed by the history of the Union itself. The Union is much older than the Constitution. It was formed, in fact, by the Articles of Association in 1774.”
The Articles of Association from October 20, 1774 explicitly state, “the delegates of the several colonies…[lists the colonies in question]…deputed to represent them in Continental Congress.” This quote shows specific colonies sending delegates to represent their interests against a common source of injustice. It is completely unreasonable for Lincoln to assume, just because a group of colonies voluntarily elect or appoint delegates to represent their interests in this fashion, they are obligated to remain in union from that time hence.
Lincoln: “It was matured and continued by the Declaration of Independence in 1776.”
In this quote Lincoln is further attempting to prove perpetuity of the union by pointing out the colonies continued their Articles of Association commitment under the Declaration of Independence. Unfortunately for Lincoln’s argument, the Declaration of Independence refutes his claim by stating, “That whenever any form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the People to alter or abolish it, and to institute a new Government”. From these words alone it is obvious the Declaration does not hold that the union is perpetual, but instead terminable if the Government becomes destructive to the ends of life, liberty and property.
Begging the Question
Buchanan: “But they did not fear, nor had they any reason to imagine, that the Constitution would ever be so interpreted as to enable any State by her own act, and without the consent of her sister States, to discharge her people from all or any of their federal obligations.”
Buchanan again assumes the framers of the Constitution would never imagine the Constitution being interpreted to allow one State to “discharge her people from all or any of their federal obligations” without the consent of the other States. In this argument, Buchanan is assuming secession to be unauthorized, which is what he is trying to prove.
He does not provide any evidence as to why he believes the framers would feel the way he claims they felt and he does not reference what the Constitution says to support his argument. The framers left secession out of the Constitution, because it is a right reserved to the States and like many other rights reserved to the States, it did not need to be mentioned. Additionally, secession was not written about in the Federalist Papers, because Hamilton, Madison and Jay were countering “Anti-Federalist” indictments against ratifying the Constitution and trying to convince the public of why each State should ratify it. Their intent was not to explain how States could get out of the agreement if they entered it. This fact does not prove secession to be forbidden or illegal.
Buchanan: “This Government, therefore, is a great and powerful Government, invested with all the attributes of sovereignty over the special subjects to which its authority extends. Its framers never intended to implant in its bosom the seeds of its own destruction, nor were they at its creation guilty of the absurdity of providing for its own dissolution.”
In this argument, Buchanan falsely correlates a State or several States leaving the union with destroying the government. While it is true the framers of the Constitution never intended to implant the seeds of its own destruction in the Constitution, it is not true that if one or several States decide to secede, the US Government would cease to exist or otherwise be destroyed. For example, if three States join in union under a central government, then one State leaves, the government established by the three will still exist; it will just have one less State in its union. In this example, nothing is destroyed or dissolved and neither would it be for a larger number of States leaving a union of States.
While it was most certainly hoped by the framers that if the Constitution were adopted by the various States, they would remain in union perpetually, but they were not so foolish as to include that as a requirement for joining, because very few States would have joined. Logically, just because the framers may have desired a certain outcome does not mean they restricted the States from doing otherwise. The Constitution, being an express powers document, must restrict the power of secession from the States for secession to be unconstitutional, but it does not and neither is there any United States legal document restricting States from seceding.
Lincoln: “Perpetuity is implied, if not expressed, in the fundamental law of all national governments. It is safe to assert that no government proper ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination.”
Just like Buchanan, Lincoln also falsely correlates secession with the termination of the government. Contrary to what Lincoln states, “perpetuity” defined as every State that joins in union under the Constitution must remain in the union is neither expressed nor implied in any of America’s “organic law”.
It only took nine States to ratify the Constitution and if any State chose not to join, they were not compelled to do so. Additionally, before Lincoln was elected, there were 33 States in the Union, if seven decided to leave the union; the government of the remaining 26 States would not and did not dissolve, as history has shown, it instead was powerful enough to militarily subdue the States that departed.
One should also note Lincoln appeals to fundamental law external to the United States’ founding documents to support his proposition, but never once directly references the US Constitution, which is “the supreme Law of the Land”.
Buchanan: “It may be asked, then, Are the people of the States without redress against the tyranny and oppression of the Federal Government? By no means. The right of resistance on the part of the governed against the oppression of their governments can not be denied. It exists independently of all constitutions, and has been exercised at all periods of the world’s history. Under it old governments have been destroyed and new ones have taken their place. It is embodied in strong and express language in our own Declaration of Independence. But the distinction must ever be observed that this is revolution against an established government, and not a voluntary secession from it by virtue of an inherent constitutional right. In short, let us look the danger fairly in the face. Secession is neither more nor less than revolution. It may or it may not be a justifiable revolution, but still it is revolution.”
In Buchanan’s attempt to prove secession unconstitutional, he ironically validates the actions of seceded States as being provided for in the Declaration of Independence. “It [the right of resistance on the part of the governed against the oppression of their government] is embodied in strong and express language in our own Declaration of Independence.” Yet, just because he goes on to say voluntary secession is not an inherent constitutional right, does not mean what he says is true. He provides no other support for his argument and his evidence supports a different conclusion.
If Buchanan could have pointed out where the Constitution either delegates the power of secession to the national government or restricts it from the States, then he would have had a logically sound argument against secession. Unfortunately for his case, he can do neither and according to the 10th Amendment which was ratified in December 1791, secession is a power reserved to the States.
Appeal to Consequences and Emotion
Lincoln: “Plainly the central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy. A majority held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations, and always changing easily with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people. Whoever rejects it does of necessity fly to anarchy or to despotism. Unanimity is impossible. The rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissible; so that, rejecting the majority principle, anarchy or despotism in some form is all that is left.”
In this appeal to consequences and emotion, Lincoln likens secession to anarchy and implies if you are for secession you are flying “to anarchy and despotism”, which neither proves secession illegal nor the proposed consequences accurate. If secession were truly anarchy, then the United States was founded in anarchy, because the colonies seceded from England and eventually unified under the US Constitution. Lincoln’s statement is completely false, however, because both the separating colonies and States remained under government and law throughout the separation process, which is contrary to the definition of anarchy; i.e. a state or society without government or law.
In this quote, he also makes a case for majority rule, but perverts this principle in a manner not applicable under the US Constitution. The principle of majority rule is foundational to our constitutional republic, yet it was never intended to cross States lines to interfere in internal State business of which secession is an internal State issue, not a national one.
Each of the original States decided on their own to ratify or not ratify the Constitution, which was not dependent upon the approval of any other State. The title “United States” was derived from the Declaration of Independence where it was used as a description, “united States”, and in which the States were defined as being “Free and Independent”. Furthermore, there is not an associate or union in the world a person or a State can join from which they cannot separate without the consent of others.
Buchanan: “It was intended to be perpetual, and not to be annulled at the pleasure of any one of the contracting parties. The old Articles of Confederation were entitled “Articles of Confederation and Perpetual Union between the States,” and by the thirteenth article it is expressly declared that “the articles of this Confederation shall be inviolably observed by every State, and the Union shall be perpetual.”
Lincoln: “It was further matured, and the faith of all the then thirteen States expressly plighted and engaged that it should be perpetual, by the Articles of Confederation in 1778.”
Buchanan’s quote is an accurate one from the Articles of Confederation and had the Articles not been superseded by the US Constitution, his and Lincoln’s argument would be accurate.
The Articles of Confederation made each State sovereign and independent, giving the national legislature very little power. Under the Articles of Confederation the union was perpetual, because each State was autonomous with very few obligations to the Continental Congress other than providing delegates.
Under the US Constitution, the States forfeited very important powers that would be ruinous to them if they were abused. For that reason, the “perpetual” clause was not included in the Constitution and the Constitution made the Articles of Confederation null and void. Therefore, anything in the Articles that were not included in the Constitution is no longer applicable.
Proof of this is, among other places, in that the Articles of Confederation required unanimous consent of all States to amend it, whereas the Constitution only required nine States to ratify it. If any of the thirteen States did not ratify the Constitution, as two States in fact initially opted not to, they were not compelled to join the “union” as one would expect if the “union” were in fact perpetual.
If one still wants to argue for the perpetuity of the union based on the Articles of Confederation, they are arguing for the union described in that document and not the one in the US Constitution.
Buchanan: “But that the Union was designed to be perpetual appears conclusively from the nature and extent of the powers conferred by the Constitution on the Federal Government…To the extent of the delegated powers the Constitution of the United States is as much a part of the constitution of each State and is as binding upon its people as though it had been textually inserted therein.”
Buchanan falsely correlates the powers delegated to Congress in the Constitution and the obligations in State constitutions as being proof of perpetuity. This claim is nothing more than an assumption and wishful thinking, because as Buchanan points out, it is not textually inserted in any of the documents he referenced.
Buchanan: “The preamble to the Constitution of the United States, having express reference to the Articles of Confederation, recites that it was established “in order to form a more perfect union.” And yet it is contended that this “more perfect union” does not include the essential attribute of perpetuity.”
Lincoln: “And finally, in 1787, one of the declared objects for ordaining and establishing the Constitution was “to form a more perfect Union. But if destruction of the Union by one or by a part only of the States be lawfully possible, the Union is less perfect than before the Constitution, having lost the vital element of perpetuity.”
Both Buchanan and Lincoln attempt to conflate the meaning of “a more perfect union” with “perpetuity”, yet they provide no evidence to support that perpetuity is an aspect of a more perfect union. Coincidently, the framers never connected the two concepts in any of their writings.
To counter Lincoln’s example, one could equally argue if a group of States imposed their will on other States under the Constitution then the union would be less than perfect and if perpetuity were required it would be more like eternal damnation than perfection.
False Analogy and Converse Accident
Lincoln: “If the United States be not a government proper, but an association of States in the nature of contract merely, can it, as a contract, be peaceably unmade by less than all the parties who made it? One party to a contract may violate it–break it, so to speak–but does it not require all to lawfully rescind it?”
In response, one could ask Mr. Lincoln, “Can a family leave a church without the permission of the congregation that approved their membership?” Of course they can and so can a State leave the union without getting permission from the other States or their representatives, especially if the other States have been abrogating their constitutional obligations.
It appears as if Mr. Lincoln is saying that if one party is in breach of contract the other party is still obligated to uphold it, which is contrary to American jurisprudence. In any case, Lincoln’s analogy does not fit the situation, because the seceded States were not “rescinding” the Constitution, they instead only voted to be peacefully excluded from it.
Lincoln’s Legal Case
Lincoln: “It follows from these views that no State upon its own mere motion can lawfully get out of the Union; that resolves and ordinances to that effect are legally void, and that acts of violence within any State or States against the authority of the United States are insurrectionary or revolutionary, according to circumstances.”
Since Lincoln felt so strongly about his legal case against secession, he should have allowed the Supreme Court to decide the issue, which would have at least postponed war if not avoided it all together if both sides peacefully accepted the Court’s opinion.
If Lincoln had sent the case to the Supreme Court and the court upheld Lincoln’s contention about secession and the southern States still refused to comply, then Lincoln would still need to make a formal request to Congress for a declaration of war, which provides its own unique problems.
War is only declared against foreign nations, not States in union. If the States were legally still in the union, then war could not be declared against them because by declaring war, Congress would be validating the southern claim.
Insurrections are done by individuals or groups like John Brown and his raiders, not States upholding the Constitution. An exception to this is if a State or States are looking to use force to overthrow the government, which was not the case. This put Lincoln into a dilemma because if he waged war against the States, but called it putting down an insurrection, it would be similar to calling a horse chestnut a chestnut horse.
As history has shown, Lincoln did not send the case to the Supreme Court and he explained why in his first inaugural address. “At the same time, the candid citizen must confess that if the policy of the Government upon vital questions affecting the whole people is to be irrevocably fixed by decisions of the Supreme Court, the instant they are made in ordinary litigation between parties in personal actions the people will have ceased to be their own rulers, having to that extent practically resigned their Government into the hands of that eminent tribunal. “
If there ever was a constitutional question of national importance that needed to be arbitrated by the Supreme Court, it was secession in 1861. How convenient for Lincoln to make a legal case from the bully pulpit and then contend it should not go before the Supreme Court, because by doing so the people of America would be “practically [resigning] their Government into the hands of that eminent tribunal.”
As it turned out, by not submitting the case to the Supreme Court the people of America resigned their country into the hands of one man, who provoked war without the consent or knowledge of Congress by unnecessarily sending an armed flotilla to Ft Sumter and then unilaterally calling up troops to put down the South. America was founded as a constitutional republic, not a dictatorship. The President was never intended to act unilaterally, that is why there are two chambers of Congress to represent the voice of the people and the States. His irresponsible decision, as the chief executive, ended up killing over 700,000 Americans, which was almost 2% of the total population at that time.
Nearly no one today agrees with involuntary servitude, but neither should they agree with theft and murder justified by a “good cause.” Additionally, no one should be an advocate or apologist for slavery, but neither should they be an advocate or apologist for unjust wars. Wars which are aggressive vice defensive in nature, not declared by the proper predetermined authority, and not declared as a last resort when attempting to restore justice and the just rule of God’s Law.
Simply because slavery was morally wrong does not mean the North was morally or legally right in waging war against the South, particularly because Lincoln originally claimed he called up troops to “preserve the Union” not free the slaves. As we have seen in the cases against secession both he and Buchanan made, preservation of the union is neither a legal nor a just cause for war. It is also very important to note, every other western nation, except Venezuela, during the 19th century emancipated their slaves without war or bloodshed and so could have the United States.
Many people today think maintaining the integrity of the union is constitutional; never stopping to think their position is neither congruent nor synonymous. The irony is that in the way Lincoln preserved the union he destroyed the voluntary association and State autonomy aspects of the Constitution and made the central government supreme in the United States, which it was not up until that time.
Of the myriad of ways to characterize the reason the two sides went to war, it is most succinctly explained that the North went to war to preserve the union as it existed in 1860 and the South went to war to preserve the Constitution as it existed in 1789.
Over a hundred and fifty years later, we are reaping the rewards of not upholding voluntary association and State autonomy in the Constitution by having the national government interfere in our lives, of which national health care is the latest intrusion. The Affordable Care Act is an intrusion into the lives of Americans, because the national government will fine citizens if they do not purchase what the government mandates they must buy. It should be everyone’s ambition to lead a quiet life and tend to their own business, so they will know how to behave towards people from other states and not be in any need.
 Both North Carolina (Nov 21, 1789) and Rhode Island (May 29, 1790) ratified the Constitution after Washington took office as the first President under the Constitution on April 30, 1789.
 His sending armed reinforcements to Ft. Sumter broke an armistice with the South made by Buchanan in which the North would not resupply the forts if the South did not fire upon them. Additionally, the garrison at Ft. Sumter was not starving as Lincoln contended, because the South was supplying both Ft Pickens and Sumter with fresh meats and vegetables daily.