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If at First You Don’t Secede . . .

A Nation So Conceived: Abraham Lincoln and the Paradox of Democratic Sovereignty
by Michael P. Zuckert
University Press of Kansas, 2023; 416 pp.

Michael Zuckert, a political philosopher who teaches at the University of Notre Dame, tries to make the best case he can for Abraham Lincoln, but in doing so he offers substantial material that supports those critical of the Great Emancipator. The book analyzes a number of speeches Lincoln gave, beginning with an early talk about the perpetuation of American institutions, delivered in 1838, and ending with the second inaugural address in 1865, and also discusses the political contexts within which these speeches were given.

Zuckert, a follower of Leo Strauss, argues that the speeches are always carefully organized and thought out and sometimes, though not always, have a hidden meaning that only the discerning few can understand. In this week’s column, I’d like to consider a central argument in the book that libertarians may find of interest.

The argument arises from a well-known fact, much stressed in the book. Lincoln would not allow the Southern states to secede from the Union peacefully. He also thought, though, that government rested on consent, and in that case, if the people of a state wished to leave the Union, weren’t they within their rights to do so? Lincoln said they weren’t: if secession were allowed and you formed a new association, people could secede from that one as well, and soon we would have anarchy. What could be worse than that?

Secession, as Lincoln here conceives it, is a minority refusing to accept the result of a majority’s decision and instead withdrawing from the political unit. Since, as he says, unanimity is impossible, any ongoing system of democratic rule implies a moral decision to accept majority decision (under the conditions Lincoln has specified [these include constitutional checks and limitations.]). . . . To say otherwise is to invite anarchy, for it is nearly inevitable that minorities will feel aggrieved and seek to avoid outcomes they disfavor. If the principle is established that the minority is free to disregard majority decision in this way, the result will almost certainly be that the new independent minority will have a minority within it secede in the same way. And so on, with Lincoln’s projected result of anarchy.

Despite Zuckert’s use of the word “anarchy,” what’s at issue here is not the anarchist-minarchist argument familiar to libertarians. The dispute does not concern whether protective agencies or governments can compete within the same territory. Rather, the claim Zuckert is making on Lincoln’s behalf is that even if a group of people wish to leave a territory, they are not free to do so but must remain subject to the will of the majority in the territory where they now live. If you once allow secession, there is no way to limit it.

Some of us will at this point inquire, “What is the matter with that? Is it supposed to be obvious that large states are better than small ones?” Zuckert has little to say about this, though in one place he suggests that because of the “unacceptable” outcome of continued secession, despotism will be necessary to restore order. But he does not tell what is unacceptable about the outcome other than that Lincoln doesn’t like it.

What happens, you may wonder, if a minority considers itself badly oppressed? Then, Lincoln thinks, it may appeal to its “revolutionary right” to break away from the state; but, if it does so, the state has the right to try to put down the rebellion. The outcome will depend on which side has the superior force. For all his talk of rights, it is apparent that Lincoln is at least at times a Hobbesian for whom “right” and “might” are often difficult to separate. And if the rebels win the struggle, they in turn can suppress attempts by minorities in their new state to depart. The democratic will of the majority must not be thwarted.

Lincoln’s attitude toward secession can usefully be contrasted with that of Ludwig von Mises. Mises was not an anarchist, nor was he a utopian dreamer blind to the problems of successful defense. Here is what he says about this topic: “No people and no part of a people shall be held against its will in a political association that it does not want.”

There is no reason to try to hold a people against its will in a free-market world, Mises explains:

It makes no difference where the frontiers of a country are drawn. Nobody has a special material interest in enlarging the territory of the state in which he lives; nobody suffers loss if a part of this area is separated from the state. It is also immaterial whether all parts of the state’s territory are in direct geographical connection, or whether they are separated by a piece of land belonging to another state. It is of no economic importance whether the country has a frontage on the ocean or not. In such a world the people of every village or district could decide by plebiscite to which state they wanted to belong.

Mises spells out in greater detail what he means by “self-determination”:

The right of self-determination in regard to the question of membership in a state thus means: whenever the inhabitants of a particular territory, whether it be a single village, a whole district, or a series of adjacent districts, make it known, by a freely conducted plebiscite, that they no longer wish to remain united to the state to which they belong at the time, but wish either to form an independent state or to attach themselves to some other state, their wishes are to be respected and complied with. This is the only feasible and effective way of preventing revolutions and civil and international wars.

Although I disagree with this central argument of Zuckert’s book, A Nation So Conceived is well worth reading. Zuckert’s ingenious interpretations are often a marvel to behold, and his command of the scholarly literature is impressive. Suffice it to say that the book is a worthy successor to Harry Jaffa’s Crisis of the House Divided.

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