President Lincoln and Secession

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Abraham Lincoln on Secession
In the Words of President Abraham Lincoln

President Lincoln and Secession

Soon after Abraham Lincoln was elected to the presidency in November 1860, seven Southern states seceded from the Union. In March 1861, after he was inaugurated as the 16th President of the United States, four more followed.
The Tenth Amendment states that "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people."
The secessionists claimed that according to the U.S. Constitution, the Tenth Amendment, every state had the right to leave or secede from the Union. Direct language, however, permitting or forbidding secession was absent the Constitution.
The states desired to secede and had challenged the Federal government for that right. Lincoln, however, stated that the secession decision was reserved exclusively for the President and not Congress or the states. Regarding the Constitution and Southern secession, it should have been argued (then interpreted) before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Three Branches of Government
Governmental power and functions in the United States rest in three branches of government: the legislative, judicial, and executive. Article I of the Constitution defines the legislative branch and vests power to legislate in the Congress of the United States. The executive powers of the President are defined in Article 2. Article 3 places judicial power in the hands of one Supreme Court and inferior courts as Congress sees necessary to establish.
  • Executive Branch 
    The executive branch of the government is responsible for enforcing the laws of the land. The president, vice president, department heads (cabinet members), and heads of independent agencies carry out this mission.
  • Judicial Branch 
    Courts decide arguments about the meaning of laws and how they are applied. They also decide if laws violate the Constitution—this is known as judicial review, and it is how federal courts provide checks and balances on the legislative and executive branches.
  • Legislative Branch 
    Article I of the Constitution establishes the legislative or law making branch of government. It has a two-branch Congress—the Senate and the House of Representatives—and agencies that support Congress.
Though in this system of a "separation of powers" each branch operates independently of the others. However, there are built in "checks and balances" to prevent tyrannous concentration of power in any one branch and to protect the rights and liberties of citizens. For example, the President can veto bills approved by Congress and the President nominates individuals to serve in the Federal judiciary; the Supreme Court can declare a law enacted by Congress or an action by the President unconstitutional; and Congress can impeach the President and Federal court justices and judges.
Chief Justice Roger B. Taney stated that Secession was "the case for the Supreme Court." Lincoln, nevertheless, claimed that neither the court nor congress had that right or authority. Lincoln had previously stated that the secession decision was reserved exclusively for the President and not Congress or the states; now, the President had barred the Supreme Court as arbiter. See also President Lincoln on Secession and What Caused the Civil War.
After President Lincoln suspended the Writ of Habeas Corpus during the Civil War in 1861, John Merryman, an accused Southern sympathizer, was the first arrested under Lincoln’s suspension of the writ. Roger B. Taney ruled in Ex parte Merryman that only Congress had the power to take this action. Recent facts state that Lincoln made an aborted attempt to arrest Taney in response to his habeas corpus decision. Lincoln, consequently, simply ignored the court's order and continued to press arrests made without the privilege of the writ. Merryman, however, was eventually released without charges. See also Abraham Lincoln and Secession : The Southern States Secede.

President Lincoln and Secession: The South Secedes
Southern Secession Map.gif
President Lincoln and Secession of Southern States

Lincoln, alone, opposed secession for these reasons:
1. Physically the states cannot separate.
2. Secession is unlawful.
3. A government that allows secession will disintegrate into anarchy.
4. That Americans are not enemies, but friends.
5. Secession would destroy the world's only existing democracy, and prove for all time, to future Americans and to the world, that a government of the people cannot survive.

Lincoln would not allow secession, regardless. The South viewed Lincoln as purporting a strong centralized Federal government that favored Northern interests. Many Southern states, which viewed Lincoln as a despot, now believed their suspicions of Lincoln had been confirmed. See also President Lincoln, Secession, and the South Secedes.
The Supreme Court, furthermore, not the President, was the final lawful arbiter regarding secession. Lincoln had opinions for the Constitution, while the Supreme Court possessed the legal right to interpret the Constitution. Lincoln thought otherwise. See also President Abraham Lincoln in his own words from Civil Rights to Secession and Lincoln, Secession of Southern States, and Causes of the Civil War.
Listed below are some of the comments that Lincoln made against secession.
Physically We Can Not Separate
First Inaugural Address March 4, 1861
Physically speaking, we cannot separate. We cannot remove our respective sections from each other nor build an impassable wall between them. A husband and wife may be divorced and go out of the presence and beyond the reach of each other; but the different parts of our country cannot do this.

Secession is Unlawful
First Inaugural Address March 4, 1861
I hold that, in contemplation of universal law, and of the Constitution, the union of these States is perpetual....It follows....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. I, therefore, consider that, in view of the Constitution and the laws, the Union is unbroken.
First Inaugural Address March 4, 1861
We 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. It was matured and continued by the Declaration of Independence in 1776. It was further matured, and the faith of all the thirteen States expressly plighted and engaged that it should be perpetual, by the Articles of Confederation in 1778. And, finally, in 1787, one of the declared objects for ordaining and establishing the Constitution was "to form a more perfect Union."
Message to Congress in Special Session July 4, 1861
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.
Secession Equals Anarchy
First Inaugural Address March 4, 1861
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 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.
Message to Congress in Special Session July 4, 1861
The principle [secession] itself is one of disintegration, and upon which no government can possibly endure.
We Are Friends
First Inaugural Address March 4, 1861
Friends. I am loth to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained it must no break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield, and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone, all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

President Lincoln, Secession, and South Secedes
President Lincoln and Secession.gif
President Lincoln, Southern Secession, and Civil War

Secession Will Destroy Democracy
Indianapolis, Indiana February 11, 1861
In all trying positions in which I shall be placed, and doubtless I shall be placed in many such, my reliance will be upon...the people of the United States; and I wish you to remember, now and forever, that it is your business, and not mine, that if the union of these States and the liberties of these people shall be lost, it is but little to any one man of fifty-two years of age, but a great deal to the thirty millions of people who inhabit these United States, and to their posterity in all coming time.
Indianapolis, Indiana February 11, 1861
I appeal to you again to constantly bear in mind that not with politicians, not with Presidents, not with office-seekers, but with you, is the question, Shall the Union and shall the liberties of this country be preserved to the latest generations?
Message to Congress in Special Session July 4, 1861
The distinct issue, "Immediate dissolution or blood"...embraces more than the fate of these United States. It presents to the whole family of man the question of 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 the discontented individuals -- too few in numbers to control the 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 the 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?"
Annual Message to Congress December 1, 1862
Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration, will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We -- even we here -- hold the power, and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free - honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.
Lincoln's Thoughts and Opinions
Lincoln may have thought the fifth point was the most important. If you traveled the earth in 1860, and visited every continent and every nation, you would have found many examples of monarchies, dictatorships, and other examples of authoritarian rule. But in the all the world, you would have found only one major democracy: The United States of America. Democracy had been attempted in one other nation in the eighteenth century - France. Unfortunately, that experiment in self-government deteriorated rapidly, as the citizens resorted more to the guillotine than to the ballot box. From the ashes of that experiment in self-government, rose a dictator who, after seizing control in France, attempted to conquer the continent of Europe. See also What Caused the Civil War: President Lincoln, War Powers, States' Rights and Secession.
Those who supported monarchies felt vindicated by the French disaster, but the United States experiment in self-government remained a thorn in their side. Those wishing for democracy could always point across the ocean and say, "It works there. Why can't we try it here"? In 1860 however, it appeared that the thorn had been removed. The monarchists were thrilled with the dissolution of the United States, and many even held parties celebrating the end of democracy.
Lincoln understood this well, and when he described his nation as "the world's last best hope," these were not idle words. Lincoln truly believed that if the war were lost, it would not only have been the end of his political career, or that of his party, or even the end of his nation. He believed that if the war were lost, it would have forever ended the hope of people everywhere for a democratic form of government. See also President Abraham Lincoln: History Homepage.

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