The whole truth about Lincoln’s war to prevent 11 American states from forming a federation of their own cannot be understood unless it is seen as an extension of a brutal process of centralization that had been going on in Europe since the 13th century.
Medieval Christian civilization contributed to political philosophy by introducing a polity in which small political units and independent social authorities are federated into larger units for certain limited purposes while still retaining most of the rights of self-government. In other civilizations kingly and priestly power were united; in Christendom the emperor ruled over secular matters, and the pope over sacred matters. Dukedoms, bishoprics, small principalities, republics, free cities and leagues of free cities, and other independent social orders each had something of their own to enjoy and defend and were jealous of their liberty. The king could not enter the city of London without the permission of the mayor (a ritual still in place today); and, as Pitt the Elder said, the king of England could not lawfully enter a poor man’s house without his consent.
Europe was a mosaic of thousands of political units and independent social authorities of all kinds, held together by oaths, compacts, and contracts. Something of this federative character of Christendom survives in the Catholic teaching on subsidiarity: that as much as possible should be done by the smallest political unit. In Quadragesimo anno (1931), Pius XI said that “it is a grave evil and disturbance of right order to assign to a greater and higher institution what lesser and smaller organizations can do.” The larger unit is to assist the smaller “and never to destroy or absorb them.”
But just such consolidation was the fate of Europe—and on a scale for which there was no precedent. Gradually, independent social and political entities were conquered by kings and consolidated into their realms. To rule this heterogeneous mass, the kings created a coercive administrative system whereby a single will could reach down to individuals. By the 17th century this system was called absolute monarchy. The Church, which had owned 20 to 30 percent of the land of Europe, was robbed of Her property. Catholic Spanish kings plundered more gold from the Church in Spain than they had taken from the New World. Yet at the end of the 17th century much of Europe was still remarkably decentralized. Germany, for instance, comprised over 200 principalities and some 50 free cities.
The great jump in centralization came with the French Revolution, which sought to eviscerate political authority from all independent social authorities. The French state was conceived as an aggregate of individuals under the centralized administration of coercion built by the kings, but now perversely called a “republic” and expanded beyond anything the kings could have imagined. The person of the king was replaced by a fictitious “nation-personne” called the French people, whose will was said to be sovereign. Jean-Jacques Rousseau famously called this the “general will.” The general will cannot be known by taking a vote of 28 million Frenchmen (even if the outcome is unanimous), because the organic whole is greater than the sum of its parts. The national will can be known, and authoritatively asserted, only by representatives in the central government.
Napoleon put it succinctly: “The Revolution is closed; its principles are fixed in my person. The government in being is the representative of the sovereign people. There can be no opposition to the sovereign.” That is, there can be no opposition to the central government. This is the format of all modern unitary states. It makes little difference whether the government is a single man (Napoleon, ruling 28 million Frenchmen) or only 269 people (a lawmaking majority of Congress plus the president) ruling 309 million Americans; in both cases the central government can define the limits of its own power.
This centralized model would eventually take over Europe. Alexis de Tocqueville wrote,
The old localized authorities disappear . . . and everywhere the central government succeeds them in the direction of affairs . . . the whole of Europe, presents in this respect the same picture. Everywhere men are leaving behind the liberty of the Middle Ages, not to enter into a modern brand of liberty but to return to the ancient despotism; for centralization is nothing else than an up-to-date version of the administration seen in the Roman empire.
By a “modern” version of “the liberty of the Middle Ages,” Tocqueville meant the federative polity of Christendom, recast in a democratic or republican idiom rather than the idiom of monarchy and aristocracy.
That Europe should be republicanized was in the air. But would Europe follow the French model of centralization, or would it follow a republicanized version of the federative polity of Christendom? The latter was a real possibility. David Hume, in “Idea of a Perfect Commonwealth” (1752), sketched out a constitution for a country the size of France federated into 100 small republics. Immanuel Kant imagined an even larger federation of hundreds of small republics. Switzerland and the United Provinces of Holland were already federations of small republics. In 1789 France had some 80 provinces, each with its own political and cultural traditions. Some had identities older than the monarchy. Why shouldn’t these provinces be republics, and France a Swiss federative polity writ large?
This possible outcome of the French Revolution horrified the centralizers. Abbé Sieyès urged the Constituent Assembly in 1789 that
France must not be an assemblage of small nations each with its own democratic government; she is not a collection of states, she is a single whole, made up of integral parts; these parts must not have each a complete existence of its own, for they are not wholes joined in a mere federation but parts forming a single whole. . . . Everything is lost once we consent to regard the established municipalities, the districts, or the provinces as so many republics joined together only for the purpose of defense and common protection.
The centralizers won, and Napoleon would leave a baneful legacy of centralization throughout Europe.
But not without resistance. The legacy of the French Revolution split into two contrary paths: the path of decentralization and federation led by Proudhon, and the path of centralization led by Marx. Proudhon wrote a book entitled On Federalism. He was opposed to the unification of Germany and of Italy, and Lincoln’s war of unification. But unfortunately, there was no European experience of a large-scale federation of republics that the Proudhon wing of the Revolution could point to as a model for emulation.
There was, however, in America a federative polity larger even than France. This was precisely what Tocqueville meant by “a modern version of the liberty of the Middle Ages.” It was “medieval” in being federative, but it was “modern” in being republican and in rejecting all ties to government by monarchy, nobility, and bishops. What Sieyès rejected, Americans celebrated.
The French state turned the provinces into administrative units of central authority. But the American Constitution describes itself in Article VII as a compact “between the States.” Jefferson and Madison explained this to mean that the states had delegated to the central government only enumerated powers—mainly coining money, regulating interstate commerce, foreign treaties, and declaring war. All other powers were reserved to the states. Who is to decide whether the central government has encroached upon the reserved powers of the sovereign states? No agency of the central government (including the Supreme Court) could have the final say, because the states are the principals of the compact, and the central government is an agency created by the compact. The agent created by a compact cannot dictate to the principals of the compact what the limits of their powers are.
From this it follows that a state has the authority to nullify an act of the central government that it judges to be unconstitutional. This would require the other states to allow suspension of the act within the state’s borders or to pass a constitutional amendment making the act of the central government constitutional. Should the state reject the amendment, it would have to secede from the Union. This was a civil and lawful way of handling conflicts of interest that would inevitably emerge between states in a federation of enormous and constantly expanding size. (In 50 years the Union would swell to four times its original size.) Jefferson and many others thought the Union would probably divide into two or more federations.
But from the very first there was a serpent in the garden. Alexander Hamilton, like Sieyès, wanted a centralized state ruling directly over individuals without any of those intermediate political authorities whose liberty Tocqueville celebrated and which Americans secured in a federative constitution—and sought to make doubly secure by the Tenth Amendment. At the Philadelphia Convention, Hamilton proposed a president for life who would appoint state governors and exercise a veto over the states. The states had to be eliminated or have their teeth pulled.
Neither happened. And so Hamilton called the Constitution a “frail and worthless fabric.” But he came to see how the federative character of the Constitution (its medieval part) could be subverted by a judicial interpretation favoring centralization and serving the interests of the commercial classes. Hamilton was the muse of Chief Justice John Marshall, Justice Joseph Story, Daniel Webster, and Lincoln. These went so far as to hold that sovereignty is not vested in the people of the several states but in the American people in the aggregate. Lincoln compared the states to counties—mere artifacts of centralized authority (in the same way Sieyès thought of the French provinces). If accepted, this interpretation would logically destroy the states, since the central government would have the final say over the limits of its own powers.
But it was not accepted. From Jefferson’s election in 1800 until 1860, the states were active as political societies. Interposition and nullification were used by states in every section of the Union to protect their citizens from acts of the central government judged to be unconstitutional: Jefferson’s and Madison’s embargoes, the War of 1812, the Mexican War, military conscription, a tariff to subsidize the commerce of one section of the Union at the expense of another, and fugitive-slave laws. In 1859 Wisconsin’s supreme court nullified an order of the U.S. Supreme Court. In a speech celebrating the 50th year of the Constitution, John Quincy Adams said that the “confederated nation,” as he called it, was held together by friendship and common interest, and should that ever fester into hatred, then “better would it be for the people of the disunited States to part in friendship than to be held together by constraint.” Three years later he signed a document with other political leaders declaring that the annexation of Texas would mean the secession of New England. South Carolina seceded only 17 years later.
Clearly, the states paid no attention to the preposterous French-revolutionary-style constitutional interpretation of Hamilton, Marshall, Story, Webster, and Lincoln. Through state interposition and nullification, they kept the federal government within its constitutional bounds. And it worked! As of 1860, the federal government was nearly out of debt, imposed no inland taxes, and lived off a tariff on imports and the sale of western land. With the exception of foreign policy, political power and wealth remained in state and local communities.
The post-Lincolnian regime that replaced this decentralized polity was not based on consent, rational debate, or constitutional amendments put forth by the people, but on superior firepower. Even after the cessation of hostilities, and after Southern states had ratified the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, the Republican Congress saw fit to destroy ten state governments in the South, along with all civil and political liberty, because those states refused to ratify the 14th Amendment. The region was placed under five military dictatorships. Virginia, the oldest representative political body in the Western Hemisphere, fabled in song and story, and known as the “mother of States” and “mother of presidents,” was now simply “Military District No. 1.” Those who say—reflecting on the tragic consequences of centralization in Europe—that “it can’t happen here” fail to see that it has happened here. And it happened when the wood was green. Today, the wood is dry.
The victory of the Union was viewed as a tragedy by those Europeans who looked to the federative polity in America as a countermodel to French revolutionary centralization. Proudhon opposed Lincoln’s war of unification. Likewise, Lord Acton wrote of the Confederacy that “secession filled me with hope, not as the destruction but as the redemption of democracy.” And he wrote to Robert E. Lee after the war,
I saw in State Rights the only availing check upon the absolutism of the sovereign will. . . . I deemed that you were fighting the battles of our liberty, our progress, and our civilization; and I mourn for the stake which was lost at Richmond more deeply than I rejoice over that which was saved at Waterloo.
But the centralizers in Europe rejoiced at the Union victory. Proudhon’s nemesis, Marx, hailed the centralization of power it achieved as a necessary advance in the class struggle. And London’s prestigious liberal Spectator declared (December 22, 1866),
The American Revolution marches fast towards its goal—the change of a Federal Commonwealth into a Democratic Republic, one and indivisible. . . . Congress, which only five years ago was little more powerful than a debating club, . . . has suddenly become the Sovereign power, begins to be conscious that it is Sovereign.
The Union victory meant that America would henceforth be “one nation, indivisible.” Abraham Lincoln would become the global symbol for suppressing secession. Hitler quoted Lincoln’s first inaugural in Mein Kampf to justify his own efforts at centralization, which required denying that the German states were sovereign political societies. Gorbachev invoked Lincoln to prevent secession from the Soviet Union, and the People’s Republic of China has used the authority of Lincoln to keep Tibet in its grip.
What has been the moral record of these monster states begun by monarchs and made much worse by mass democracy? Bad as the monarchies were, they were never able to exploit more than roughly five to eight percent of a country’s GNP. Mass democracies have exploited some 60 percent. This glut of revenue made possible the creation of global empires and wars of unprecedented scale and intensity. But war has not been the worst of it. R.J. Rummel, in Death by Government, estimates that nearly four times as many people have been killed by their own governments as in all wars, domestic and foreign, fought around the globe in the 20th century.
None of this had to happen. Europe had the resources to follow a different and more humane path. That path was rejected by the hubristic centralizers, intent on trying their hand at building the Tower of Babel. Since the age was a “democratic” one, the brutality and destruction of centralization could be occluded by appeals to “freedom” and the “people’s will.” As Albert Camus observed in The Rebel, we live in a morally inverted world, one in which the flag of humanity and freedom could fly over the Marxist gulags. If we are ever to break free from the grip of modern ritualistic centralization, we must first rethink the political history we have been taught. Doing so will reduce what were thought to be great statesmen to their proper human (and not very attractive) proportions. The statues of the Napoleons, Bismarcks, Lincolns, and Lenins of that world will come down, and the cities and streets named after them will be renamed. Those who resisted centralization (Althusius, Hume, Goethe, Tocqueville, Burckhardt, Proudhon, the Antifederalists, Jefferson, Calhoun, Acton) will appear in a different light.
Jefferson warned that, if the central government of the United States should absorb the reserved powers of the state governments “and reduce us to a single consolidated government, . . . it would become the most corrupt government on the earth.” Perhaps we will now listen to the words of Alexander Stephens, vice president of the Confederacy, uttered in the aftermath of Lincoln’s war of centralization:
Depend upon it, there is no difference between Consolidation and Empire; no difference between Centralism and Imperialism. . . . If the worst is to befall us; if our . . . gloomiest forebodings as to the future . . . are to be realized; if Centralism is ultimately to prevail; if our entire system of free Institutions as established by our common ancestors is to be subverted, and an Empire is to be established in their stead; if that is to be the last scene in the great tragic drama now being enacted: then, be assured, that we of the South will be acquitted . . . by the judgment of mankind, of all responsibility for so terrible a catastrophe, and from all guilt of so great a crime against humanity!