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Lincoln and the Civil War

The Civil War completes the Founding by abolishing the institution of slavery. In this great conflict, Lincoln re-affirmed the principles of the Founding and re-established limited constitutional government. Here are three must-reads and some basic Q&As to get a handle on Lincoln and the Civil War. When you're ready for more, explore Lincoln's presidency and the Civil War in greater depth.

Frequently Asked Questions

What was the primary cause of the Civil War?

The proximate cause of the war was the Southern states’ attempt to secede and Lincoln’s refusal to acquiesce to the Union’s destruction. Between Lincoln’s election and his taking office in March 1861, seven southern states had violated the Constitution by seceding. As Lincoln explained in his First Inaugural Address, secession is essentially anarchy, and no republican government can survive if the principle of secession is accepted.

The reason behind secession and the deeper cause of the war was slavery. Every major disagreement between the North and the South was rooted in the issue of slavery. While all agreed that the Constitution did not give the federal government authority over slavery in the states where it already existed, Lincoln and the Republican Party argued that the federal government could prohibit the expansion of slavery into the federal territories. Slave states rejected this exercise of federal power and believed their interests were better served out of the Union than in it.

Contrary to popular belief, the war was not about “states’ rights.” States have no rights—only powers—and there is no right to secede following an election whose results you dispute.

Can individual states secede from the United States?

No. The United States is a government established under a Constitution ratified by the people of the United States acting through state ratifying conventions. That is, the United States is not a league of sovereign-states but a union of states under a national government. As such, individual states have no constitutional right to leave the union at will.

The Declaration of Independence affirms the right of people to “alter or abolish” their government, and there are two ways that this can happen: The government can be altered through the constitutional process of amendment, or abolished by rebellion and revolution, in extreme cases.

During the Civil War, the Southern states tried to maintain a difference between secession and rebellion to give legitimacy to their decision to leave the Union. But secession is no different than revolution. The only way the Southern states could have left the Union was through rebellion after a long train of abuses, but they had not been oppressed by the North when they chose to leave the Union.

Why didn’t Lincoln let the Southern states secede, instead of taking the nation into a civil war?

In his First Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln explains that the perpetual nature of government and the oath of office he swore to “preserve, protect and defend the constitution of the United States” require him to defend the Union and oppose the unconstitutional principle of secession. To reason otherwise would be to legitimize the principle that those dissatisfied with the result of an election may secede at will, thus denying the rule of law. By opposing secession, Lincoln chose the lesser evil of war over the destruction of the country and its constitutional government.

Under the Constitution, states have no right to secede. The people may invoke their natural right to revolution, but only after “a long train of abuses and usurpations,” as the Declaration of Independence states. Lincoln took pains to reassure Southerners that none of their rights had been violated and that he realized he had no power under the Constitution to unilaterally abolish slavery. The Southern states, having explicitly rejected natural rights by embracing slavery, could not appeal to the right to revolution and therefore claimed a constitutional right to secession.

Why did Lincoln say that he was opposed to abolishing slavery?

Lincoln abhorred slavery and was not opposed to its abolition, but he did say that he would not interfere with it in the states where it already existed since the Constitution gave him no such power.

Lincoln believed that slavery was evil and absolutely incompatible with the central American truth of equality. However, he also believed that it was wrong for a political official to exceed the constitutional authority granted to him. As President of the United States, Lincoln had only the powers granted to him in the Constitution, and the power to abolish slavery was not one of them.

Lincoln’s unwillingness as President to abolish slavery unilaterally in the states should be contrasted with his eagerness to outlaw slavery in the territories. Since the Constitution gives the national government power to govern territories—but not to govern states’ domestic policies—Lincoln adamantly opposed allowing slavery in the territories.

For more on Lincoln and slavery, see Allen Guelzo’s First Principles essay “Prudence, Politics, and the Proclamation.

Was Lincoln a tyrant?

No. President Abraham Lincoln was committed to upholding the Constitution and the framework of limited republican government it created. The nation was, however, at war and to preserve the Union, Lincoln had to take certain measures which a President would not normally take in times of peace. As he explained in a letter to the Ohio Democratic Convention in 1863: “the constitution is different, in its application in cases of Rebellion or Invasion, involving the public safety, from what it is in times of profound peace and public security.”

Those who claim that Lincoln was a tyrant rely primarily on his decision to suspend the writ of habeas corpus at the beginning of the war. Lincoln defended his decision on constitutional grounds: Since the Constitution does not specify who may suspend habeas corpus “in cases of rebellion or invasion” (Article I, Section 9), he as President did so because Congress was not in session. When Congress did reconvene, Lincoln requested it retroactively approve all the emergency measures he had taken since the commencement of the war, and Congress did.

Critics of Lincoln also omit to mention the most impressive piece of evidence against the tyranny claim: free and competitive elections were held in the midst of the war in 1864 and the Democrats openly campaigned on a pledge to end the war and drop the slavery issue.

For more on the subject, see Frank J. Williams’s lecture “Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties in Wartime.

Was Lincoln the "father of big government"?

Absolutely not. If big government means an ever-expanding federal budget and a vast civil service, then Lincoln may deny paternity for both. During his presidency, the federal budget indeed ballooned to meet the cost of the Civil War (from $63.2 million in 1860 to $1.29 billion in 1865), but it shrank once the war ended (back to $293 million by 1870). Similarly, while the federal government employed more people during the war, the number shrank once the war ended.

More fundamentally, Lincoln was deeply committed to the framework of limited government set forth in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. He admitted that he could not do everything he desired—even abolish the evil of slavery. He could only exercise the powers granted to him by the people, through the Constitution. The true legacy of Lincoln is not enlarging government, but ending slavery while preserving the Constitution.

In reality, big government is a Progressive ideal implemented by progressive and liberal Presidents whose ideas opposed the principle of limited government set forth in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

For more on the subject, see Allen C. Guelzo’s special report “Abraham Lincoln or the Progressives: Who was the real father of big government?”

More Resources

Lincoln and the Civil War

Lincoln: A Very Short Introduction
Allen C. Guelzo (Oxford University Press, 2009)
One of the nation’s leading Lincoln scholars offers a brief introduction not only to the life of our sixteenth president, but also the essence of the man and his mind—no small feat given the copious amounts of ink that have been spilled in the quest to understand Lincoln.

Abraham Lincoln: A Biography
Benjamin P. Thomas (Alfred A Knopf, 1952)
By virtue of its vivid writing, scrupulous research, and considered judgments, Benjamin Thomas’s biography is among the very best of the thousands of books on Lincoln. A masterful storyteller, Thomas brings Lincoln and his times to vibrant life and concludes that the martyred president embodied, as few leaders have, America’s fundamental principles of liberty and equality.

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave, Written by Himself
Introduction by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. (Dell, 1997)
Frederick Douglass recounts his life as a slave, including how he learned to read, the cruel whippings and murders of helpless slaves, and ultimately his innate desire to be free. An instant best-seller from the man who advised President Lincoln and became America’s first black “public intellectual.”

Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln–Douglas Debates
Harry V. Jaffa (University of Chicago Press, 1959)
The authoritative response to revisionist historians who asserted that there were no substantial differences between Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas. Taking the reader through a detailed analysis of their famous debates, Jefferson shows that Lincoln affirmed a different and higher doctrine than Douglas.

A New Birth of Freedom
Harry V. Jaffa (Rowman & Littlefield, 2004)
A New Birth of Freedom is the culmination of nearly a half-century of study and reflection by one of the nation’s foremost scholars of American history and politics, Harry V. Jaffa. This sequel to Crisis of the House Divided continues Jaffa’s examination of the political thought of Abraham Lincoln and the legacy of the American Founding.

Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era
James M. McPherson (Ballantine Books, 1988)
Widely accepted as the standard one-volume history of the Civil War, Battle Cry of Freedom offers a dramatic, integrated, and always accessible narrative of the tumultuous period, from the events that preceded secession through the end of the war.

Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America
Allen C. Guelzo (Simon & Schuster, 2006)
Tracing the development and impact of the Emancipation Proclamation, this detailed history illuminates Lincoln’s political and moral reasoning and confirms his sincere desire to stamp out slavery.

Union and Liberty: The Political Philosophy of John C. Calhoun
Edited by Ross M. Lence (Liberty Fund, 1992)
Calhoun was an apologist for slavery, rejected the Declaration’s affirmation that all men are created equal, and asserted “states’ rights.” Yet he is essential reading for anyone interested in understanding the present-day rejection of the Declaration, the Founders, and Lincoln. Of special interest are Calhoun’s Fort Hill Address and his two treatises on government — A Disquisition on Government and the Discourse on the Constitution and Government of the United States.

Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1832-1858
Edited by Don E. Fehrenbacher (Library of America, 1989)
Lincoln is the greatest interpreter of America’s Founding principles, and it was through the Civil War and subsequent constitutional amendments that the Constitution was brought into conformity with those principles. As companion volumes to the other readings, Lincoln’s own writings are crucial to understanding the man. The first volume includes all seven of the Lincoln-Douglas debates.

Lincoln and the Civil War: Online Resources

The Civil War Sesquicentennial
Written commentary and audio lectures by historians and political scientists to mark the 150th anniversary of the Civil War.

Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History: Abraham Lincoln
Features lectures and essays on Lincoln by leading historians, plus a list of Lincoln Book Prize winners.

Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History: Civil War
A one-stop shop for the institute’s Civil War resources, including podcasts from prominent historians, links to the institute’s Civil War journal, and curriculum modules for teachers.

Claremont Review: Lincoln Bicentennial
A fine selection of essays and book reviews from the Claremont Review of Books on our sixteenth president, including pieces by Harry Jaffa and Allen Guelzo.

Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial
In honor of the Lincoln bicentennial, Teaching American History has assembled Lincoln-related primary sources (organized by topic), written and audio commentary from Lincoln historians, lesson plans for teachers, and links to some of the best Lincoln-related organizations on the Web.

Abraham Lincoln Institute
Information about the institute’s annual conference and the winners of its book and dissertation prizes.