It is undeniable that Abraham Lincoln was a master of the written and spoken word. For him, the English language was but one weapon in the Union’s considerable arsenal. They also provide a remarkable window in his thought process regarding the war, this nation, and his vision for its future. In documents such as his first and second inaugural addresses, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Gettysburg Address, he reveals so much about himself, his wisdom, and even the very personal suffering he endured during the course of this national catastrophe.
Recently, I had the opportunity to become more familiar with one of the lesser-known pieces of Lincoln’s writing, his July 4, 1861 message to the Congress. This document, which was delivered to Congress in written form rather than via a spoken address, is fascinating because it reveals so much of Lincoln’s thinking on the war in its initial stage and, perhaps, even its very nature in terms of the nation’s future. Lincoln had come to Washington as an anti-slavery president-elect who sought conciliation and compromise with the South, as was evident in his First Inaugural Address, when he pointed out to the South that he did not have the Constitutional power or even the desire to abolish slavery in the states where it was a legal practice.
By the time that speech was delivered on the Capitol steps on March 4, 1861, seven Southern states had seceded, formed the Confederate States of America, established a constitution, selected a president, created a provisional capital in Montgomery, Alabama, and begun the seizure of Federal property and arms. In the wake of his inauguration, four more states would secede and the new Confederate government fired upon and laid siege to one contested piece of Federal property at Fort Sumter, South Carolina. In response, Lincoln declared the Southern states to be in open rebellion and called for 75,000 volunteers to put down the insurrection.
However, as the new Union forces gathered and trained around Washington D.C., Lincoln had made no single, clear declaration as to the war’s goals and, perhaps just as important, his thoughts on the conflict. Realizing this, Lincoln prepared a message to be delivered to the Congress on the 85th anniversary of the nation’s birth which would outline the events that had led to the war and his views on the nature of the rebellion. As a result, much of the document he delivered to Capitol Hill merely recited the story of the events that had taken place up to that time, the government’s response to the crisis, and the resulting requirements for men and financial support. But, at the same time, Lincoln revealed the workings of his wonderful, multidimensional mind wherein he combined his legal analysis of the rebellion as well as his more visionary thoughts on the war and American society.
From a legal standpoint, Lincoln framed his depiction of the Confederacy as an illegitimate institution that was not based on any legal secession process. Rather, in his mind, it was the product of an illegal rebellion based on what he viewed as the specious concept of state sovereignty and state rights. In fact, he stated that, while some might see little value in arguing the difference between “secession” or “rebellion,” he considered it critical and, furthermore, he also believed that those who fostered the rebellion also saw the difference as an important tool in gaining popular support in South for their actions.
At the beginning they knew they could never raise their treason to any respectable magnitude by any name which implies violation of law. They knew their people possessed as much of moral sense, as much of devotion to law and order, and as much pride in and reverence for the history and government of their common country as any other civilized and patriotic people. They knew they could make no advancement directly in the teeth of these strong and noble sentiments. Accordingly, they commenced by an insidious debauching of the public mind. They invented an ingenious sophism which, if conceded, was followed by perfectly logical steps, through all the incidents, to the complete destruction of the Union. The sophism itself is that any State of the Union may consistently with the national Constitution, and therefore lawfully and peacefully, withdraw from the Union without the consent of the Union or of any other State. The little disguise that the supposed right is to be exercised only for just cause, themselves to be the sole judges of its justice, is too thin to merit any notice.
With rebellion thus sugar-coated they have been drugging the public mind of their section for more than thirty years, and until at length they have brought many good men to a willingness to take up arms against the government the day after some assemblage of men have enacted the farcical pretense of taking their State out of the Union, who could have been brought to no such thing the day before.
Lincoln then went on to describe the “sophism” and to thoroughly destroy its foundation. He wrote that the entire concept of legal secession was built upon the idea that there was an “omnipotent and sacred supremacy pertaining to a State--to each State of our Federal Union.” This, Lincoln clearly states, is utterly false, as each state had “….neither more nor less power than that reserved to them in the Union by the Constitution–no one of them ever having been a State out of the Union.” In Lincoln’s legal analysis, states only became such because the Constitution declared them to be so and, without that declaration, they had no existence outside the constitutional framework. He then continued, taking on the concepts of state rights and sovereignty directly.
Having never been States either in substance or in name outside of the Union, whence this magical omnipotence of "State rights," asserting a claim of power to lawfully destroy the Union itself? Much is said about the "sovereignty" of the States; but the word even is not in the national Constitution, nor, as is believed, in any of the State constitutions. What is "sovereignty" in the political sense of the term? Would it be far wrong to define it as "a political community without a political superior?" Tested by this, no one of our States except Texas ever was a sovereignty. And even Texas gave up the character on coming into the Union; by which act she acknowledged the Constitution of the United States, and the laws and treaties of the United States made in pursuance of the Constitution, to be for her the supreme law of the land. The States have their status in the Union, and they have no other legal status. If they break from this, they can only do so against law and by revolution. The Union, and not themselves separately, procured their independence and their liberty. By conquest or purchase the Union gave each of them whatever of independence or liberty it has. The Union is older than any of the States, and, in fact, it created them as States. Originally some dependent colonies made the Union, and, in turn, the Union threw off their old dependence for them, and made them States, such as they are. Not one of them ever had a State constitution independent of the Union. Of course, it is not forgotten that all the new States framed their constitutions before they entered the Union nevertheless, dependent upon and preparatory to coming into the Union.
Lincoln then argued that, while the states had specific rights and powers reserved to them by the Constitution, limitless power was not among these, and they certainly had no right to the destroy the government that created them:
This relative matter of national power and State rights, as a principle, is no other than the principle of generality and locality. Whatever concerns the whole should be confided to the whole–to the General Government; while whatever concerns only the State should be left exclusively to the State. This is all there is of original principle about it. Whether the national Constitution in defining boundaries between the two has applied the principle with exact accuracy, is not to be questioned. We are all bound by that defining, without question.
But, while Lincoln’s astute legal analysis is extremely interesting, what I find even more compelling are his views on the nature of the war and the differences between the Confederacy’s concept of government and society and that of the United States. First, even before the first major battle of the war at Manassas, which would follow his message to Congress by only a few weeks, Lincoln saw the war as one that was not only critical to the nation, but also to the future on humanity. Writing that secession had forced upon the nation the issues of "immediate dissolution or blood," he added that far more was at stake.
And this issue embraces more than the fate of these United States. It presents to the whole family of man the question whether a constitutional republic or democracy–a government of the people by the same people–can or cannot maintain its territorial integrity against its own domestic foes. It presents the question whether discontented individuals, too few in numbers to control administration according to organic law in any case, can always, upon the pretenses made in this case, or on any other pretenses, or arbitrarily without any pretense, break up their government, and thus practically put an end to free government upon the earth. It forces us to ask: Is there in all republics this inherent and fatal weakness? Must a government, of necessity, be too strong for the liberties of its own people, or too weak to maintain its own existence?
One cannot help but note in that passage that Lincoln first characterizes the government as being one of and by the people, a phrase he would later make eternal at Gettysburg. This was a critical concept for Lincoln and, in this message to Congress, he would clearly make an argument that, in his mind, the war was being fought for the people, for the common man. In doing so, he would note that, while the Confederacy had adopted a constitution which was very similar to the US Constitution, the very basis of their government and, indeed, the foundation of the society that created it stood in stark contrast to our own. He noted that, while the US Constitution began using the phrase, “We, the People,” the Confederate constitution substituted, “We, the deputies of the sovereign and independent States.” The reasons for this were and are still very obvious: the Confederacy was a government by and for only the political, economic, and social elite of the region. Theirs was not to be a progressive society in which opportunity for all was a basic element. Rather, it was to be one in which a strict social and economic order was to be maintained at all costs, one where there would be no opportunity for a man with social origins like Lincoln’s or even Andrew Jackson’s to rise, to better himself. Therefore, Lincoln saw the coming struggle as one basic to humanity itself.
This is essentially a people's contest. On the side of the Union it is a struggle for maintaining in the world that form and substance of government whose leading object is to elevate the condition of men to lift artificial weights from all shoulders; to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all; to afford all an unfettered start, and a fair chance in the race of life. Yielding to partial and temporary departures, from necessity; this is the leading object of the government for whose existence we contend.
From that basis, he also saw the war as one that would determine the fate of popular government for all time, or, as he would say at Gettysburg, “whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure.”
Our popular government has often been called an experiment. Two points in it our people have already settled--the successful establishing and the successful administering of it. One still remains–its successful maintenance against a formidable internal attempt to overthrow it. It is now for them to demonstrate to the world that those who can fairly carry an election can also suppress a rebellion; that ballots are the rightful and peaceful successors of bullets; and that when ballots have fairly and constitutionally decided, there can be no successful appeal back to bullets; that there can be no successful appeal, except to ballots themselves, at succeeding elections. Such will be a great lesson of peace: teaching men that what they cannot take by an election, neither can they take it by a war; teaching all the folly of being the beginners of a war.
So, here in this address, we can see the framework and the foundation for the vision that Lincoln would reveal over the course of the coming years. Clearly, the seeds that would grow into the concept of a “new birth of freedom” were planted on that July 4th and, sadly, it would take years of bitter fighting and bloodshed to finally bring it forth.