April 4, 2005

In "DiLorenzo Is Right About Lincoln" (LewRockwell.com, 3/22/05), economist Walter Williams offers some insights into what went wrong with the Founders’ Constitution. In this commentary on Thomas DiLorenzo’s recently published book, The Real Lincoln: A New Look at Abraham Lincoln, His Agenda, and an Unnecessary War, Williams traces the consequences of the Civil War that cost the country much more than 620,000 dead unfortunates. The human cost is irretrievable and so is another cost. Williams explains:

The true costs were a change in the character of our government into one feared by the likes of Jefferson, Madison, Monroe, Jackson, and Calhoun — one where states lost most of their sovereignty to the central government. Thomas Jefferson saw as the most important safeguard of the liberties of the people "the support of the state governments in all their rights, as the most competent administrations for our domestic concerns and the surest bulwarks against anti-republican tendencies."

What rights were given to the people, if the states in which they lived were bullied by the central government and their sovereignty jeopardized? The right to secede, of course. Williams continues,

Most of today’s Americans believe, as did Abraham Lincoln, that states do not have a right to secession, but that is false. DiLorenzo marshals numerous proofs that from the very founding of our nation the right of secession was seen as a natural right of the people and a last check on abuse by the central government. For example, at Virginia’s ratification convention, the delegates affirmed "that the powers granted under the Constitution being derived from the People of the United States may be resumed by them whensoever the same shall be perverted to injury or oppression."

Alexis de Tocqueville read the American founding documents to mean that the Union was a voluntary agreement of states, in which no state forfeited its sovereignty and over which the federal government could not rule "either by force or right." Williams claims that the right to secession was a popularly held notion in these early times, and cites DiLorenzo’s lists of northern newspaper editorials that argued for the right of secession.

He writes that Lincoln’s political foe Stephen Douglas, during the senatorial debates, accused Lincoln of wanting to "impose on the nation a uniformity of local laws and institutions and a moral homogeneity dictated by the central government" that would "place at defiance the intentions of the republic’s founders." One could speculate that those who lived closer to the founding period were better in tune with generally understood assumptions about constitutional principles. Williams concludes,

The War between the States settled by force whether states could secede. Once it was established that states cannot secede, the federal government, abetted by a Supreme Court unwilling to hold it to its constitutional restraints, was able to run amok over states’ rights, so much so that the protections of the Ninth and Tenth Amendments mean little or nothing today. Not only did the war lay the foundation for eventual nullification or weakening of basic constitutional protections against central government abuses, but it also laid to rest the great principle enunciated in the Declaration of Independence that "Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed."

Through a brutal fratricidal war, Lincoln achieved the centralization he desired, thus permanently ringing down the curtain on the old republic, and making it impossible for future generations to challenge federal power.

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