Progressive historian Jon Meacham takes to the cover of Time Magazine to helpfully explain how President Abraham Lincoln saved democracy by destroying it in the bloodiest conflict in United States history, and how these lessons apply to today’s political battles against the dreaded Ultra MAGA. The narrative is clear, but the truth couldn’t be more backward.
This week’s Time Magazine cover story features Abraham Lincoln on one side of a massive crack in the Earth. America’s 16th President gazes down at the crack spreading before him thoughtfully, tinged with melancholy. His signature top hat is in his right hand by his side; his left clutches his lapel. The headline text reads “How Our Greatest President Saved Democracy and We Can Too,” a cover story by progressive historian Jon Meacham. Even without reading a word, the subtext could not be more clear: Another Civil War may be in the works, and Trump supporters, who’ve previously been branded as Confederates and threats to democracy by President Joe Biden himself, are on the wrong side of the divide. Neither the editors nor Mr. Meacham will ever come out and say it themselves, of course, but this can only be interpreted as a call to radically rescind the rights of huge swaths of the country at best, or declare outright war at worst. After all, that’s precisely what Lincoln did to “save democracy.” Today, he is remembered as among our greatest Presidents, second only to George Washington according to many historians, but the hard reality is that Lincoln only enjoys his elevated stature because he ruthlessly prosecuted the bloodiest war in American history on his own countrymen. He prevailed after some 625,000 to 750,000 were dead, over 2% of the total population of the country, the equivalent of almost 7,000,000 today. I do not say that to denigrate Lincoln. I revere him myself as one of our greatest leaders, but the truth, as ever, is far more complicated than the latest progressive narrative. Lincoln saved democracy by completely and totally destroying it, hundreds of thousands, suspending the rights of millions, and disenfranchising half the country. If there are any lessons to be had for today, they are not to follow Lincoln’s lead, who took office far too late to prevent the looming catastrophe, but to heed the advice of those like John Quincy Adams who did everything possible to prevent it.
Abraham Lincoln was elected in one of the most divisive campaigns in American history. He was one of four candidates in the race, earning less than 40% of the vote, and not a single ballot in 10 out of 15 Southern states. In fact, he won only two out of almost one thousand counties across the entire South. Lincoln attained the Presidency by winning every Northern state, plus the new Western states of California and Oregon. The South was outraged regardless because he ran on a platform of stopping the expansion of slavery in the West. This radical departure from previous anti-slavery policies was unacceptable to the slave-holding states, and they began seceding from the Union before Lincoln officially took office. South Carolina adopted the succession resolution on December 20, 1860. By February 1861, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, and Texas all did the same, forming the Union of Confederate States. Jefferson Davis was selected as their President on February 9, 1861. The formation of this nascent country was also accompanied by the seizure of federal forts and other government offices in Confederate territories. Lincoln rejected the notion that states could secede on their own as unconstitutional, but still sought some kind of political settlement to avoid war. There were two potential options before the conflict ensued. The Crittenden Compromise was a Constitutional Amendment that would forever enshrine slavery in the United States as well as punitive fugitive slave laws. This was a bridge too far for Lincoln, who claimed “I will suffer death before I consent…to any concession or compromise which looks like buying the privilege to take possession of this government to which we have a constitutional right,” but he did support a narrower effort. The Corwin Amendment had already passed Congress and would protect slavery where it already existed while deferring any questions on its continuation in states added to the union in the future. As Lincoln put it in his inaugural address on March 4, 1861, “One section of our country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute.”
Still, he insisted that peace was possible, so long as the Constitution was followed and future decisions regarding slavery were made through the proscribed processes. “We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies…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.” Ultimately, there was no political settlement to be reached and the Civil War was unleashed. Lincoln encapsulated the root cause in his second inaugural address, four years later, as the war was still dragging on, seemingly indefinitely. “Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the Nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.” Slavery, of course, is the proximate issue that drove the unmovable wedge between the North and the South, but war broke out because of a fundamentally constitutional question: If a political settlement cannot be reached, can states secede from the Union if they choose? Lincoln and the North said, no. Davis and the South said, yes. The Constitution itself says nothing in that regard, and the question itself haunted the United States in various forms for decades. The slaveholding President, Andrew Jackson, faced his own version of it decades earlier under the guise of nullification, the idea that a state could overrule a federal law if they saw fit.
At issue in 1832, was a series of tariffs on foreign goods that protected Northern businesses, but increased prices in the South. One tariff in particular passed in 1828 came to be known as the “Tariff of Abominations.” Jackson’s own Vice President, John C. Calhoun, was a supporter of nullification, believing the Constitution was essentially a compact between the states and therefore states took precedence over country. Jackson himself was a strong proponent of state rights and a jealous guardian of the South in general, but he had a different, more country-oriented philosophy of federal power. For him, the United States did not derive its power from the individual states, but the people themselves and therefore the federal government had powers the states did not. On April 30, Jackson made his position plain at a dinner party. Many of the guests toasted in favor of nullification until Jackson explicitly rebuked them. He toasted to “Our Union, It Must be Preserved.” (In some tellings, he says, “Union or death.”) Unfortunately, this didn’t settle the matter. South Carolina officially voted to nullify tariffs passed in 1828 and 1832 later that year, prompting Jackson to issue a scathing proclamation in response, “I consider, then, the power to annul a law of the United States, assumed by one State, incompatible with the existence of the Union, contradicted expressly by the letter of the Constitution, unauthorized by its spirit, inconsistent with every principle on which It was founded, and destructive of the great object for which it was formed…” He concluded that “Disunion by armed force is TREASON.” War was avoided in that era by a compromise agreement on the tariffs, but the issue was never fully settled, nor does it seem like it could be without a fight. How else can you settle whether or not a national divorce was possible without a war?
At the same time, in the three decades between Jackson’s crisis and the Civil War, political settlements were reached time and again, however grudgingly. John Quincy Adams was in Congress throughout many of these battles, perpetually terrified that a settlement would eventually become impossible. He was a staunch opponent of Andrew Jackson and though the two had almost nothing in common politically or otherwise, he too believed nullification and its obvious offspring, succession, were unconstitutional. Of growing concern to John Quincy was the Southerners’ continued breach of basic democratic norms such as the right to petition Congress and even free debate within Congress itself. The Southerner majority dreamed up the farcical notion that the federal government had no right or authority regarding slavery at all, prohibiting even bringing the topic up in Congress for a period. This flew in the face of our traditions and history itself. The United States government had passed slavery-related legislation in the past, including the banning of the import of new slaves. John Quincy wrote, “We are told that the national government has no right to interfere with the institution of domestic slavery in the states, in any manner. What right, then, has domestic slavery to interfere in any manner with the national government? What right has slavery to interfere in the free states with the dearest institutions of their freedom? With the right of Habeas Corpus? With the right of trial by jury? With the freedom of the press? With the freedom of speech? With the sacred privacy of correspondence by the mail?” In John Quincy’s day, Southern Democrats maintained almost total control over both houses of Congress and the presidency as a result of the Three Fifths Compromise, which effectively allowed slaveowners to vote on behalf of their own slaves, wielding the power of a bound populace in service of binding them. The great majority of early Presidents were slaveholders: George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, Martin Van Buren, James K. Polk, Zachary Taylor, and more.
This was changing, however, as populations exploded in the North and West, breaking the Southerner’s grip. Abraham Lincoln was the summation of that process, inheriting the legacy of all these averted crises at a point where no more aversion was possible. Interestingly, he received a copy of a letter from Andrew Jackson about the nullification issue. Jackson had written is cousin in May 1833, “I have had a laborious task here—but nullification is dead, and its actors & exciters will only be remembered by the people to be execrated for their wicked designs to sever & destroy the only good government on the Globe, and that prosperity and happiness we enjoy over every other portion of the world.” Therefore, Lincoln took office with every reason to believe himself on firm Constitutional grounds in refusing to accept a secession: Presidents as diverse as John Quincy Adams and Jackson were in agreement with him, not the slaveholders. In fact, no President, Southerner or Northerner had ever acknowledged the ability of states to nullify laws or secede from the Union, much less capture military bases and government offices. James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, did not face this issue directly as President, but remarked about it in the House of Representatives, putting forward the same philosophy as Andrew Jackson. “The honorable gentleman from Massachusetts (Mr. Elbridge Gerry) asks if the sovereignty is not with the people at large; does he infer that the people can in detached bodies contravene an act established by the whole people? My idea of the sovereignty of the people is, that the people can change the Constitution if they please, but while the Constitution exists, they must conform themselves to its dictates. But I do not believe that the inhabitants of any district can speak the voice of the people: so far from it, their ideas may contradict the sense of the whole people.”
In other words, Lincoln’s position was clear and well supported by history. Because the Southern states had unconstitutionally and illegally seceded from the Union, he had the power to suspend fundamental rights like Habeas Corpus and wage war upon them until they surrendered. The Union of Confederate States was no longer part of the United States, and the people in those states, whatever their sympathies for either cause, no longer enjoyed the rights of free citizens. The Emancipation Proclamation would have been illegal otherwise; Lincoln was only able to free Southern slaves and strip Southerners of their property because they were no longer Americans at the time. They were disenfranchised during the war, and for various periods afterwards, only admitted back into the Union in stages, after slavery was abolished and black people were given the right to vote. This process went on for years, long after Lincoln’s assassination and with much bloodshed of its own, making it is fairly incredible for Mr. Meacham to compare any of this to our current polarized politics. As he frames it, “A President who led a divided country in which an implacable minority gave no quarter in a clash over power, race, identity, money, and faith has much to teach us in our own 21st century moment of profound polarization, passionate disagreement, and differing understandings of reality.” What might those lessons be? Mr. Meacham does not make his purpose plain for obvious reasons or clearly state what tactics Lincoln used which might save democracy today, saying only the lesson is “essential for us in today’s unfolding democratic crisis. The forces of unchecked power are self-evidently in the ascendant, and they are the controlling element of one of our two major parties…When an element within the nation seeks its own power and its own way over and above any other factor, that element must be confronted, or else everything might be lost.”
This, of course, is merely another spin on the approved Democrat and mainstream media narrative. President Joe Biden said much the same in a bizarre speech last month. As he put it, “Too much of what’s happening in our country today is not normal. Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very foundations of our republic,” but as we have seen: Narratives are not the truth. In reality, the political party most strongly at odds with American democracy and the Constitutional order is the Democrats. They are the ones that seek to end the filibuster, and when they cannot achieve it, come up with “imaginative” new ways to circumvent it. They are the ones that brand the Supreme Court illegitimate and recommend the remedy of ignoring their rulings. They are the ones that claim the Senate is undemocratic and should be abolished along with the Electoral College. They are the ones that believe unelected government agencies have the power to make endless laws, unchecked without a vote in Congress. They are also the ones that have radically rewritten election law as a result of what Time Magazine itself described as a conspiracy. They insist they are recommending this destruction of our democracy for democracy’s benefit, but in each and every case it’s all about power. The proposed subversion of democracy only serves to advance their own cause, never to slow it down. They want to wield this power in service of their progressive ends, and anyone or anything that interferes must be destroyed. The irony could not be richer when Mr. Meacham claims, “An American President must be committed to something larger than his own hold on power. And the American people must be willing to accept the give-and-take of the constitutional order, even when—especially when—events and moral claims call on us to give rather than to take.” In today’s world, the same as it was in Lincoln’s, the Democrats are the party doing precisely that. Putting this another way, they are the Confederates in this thought experiment.