On February 6. 1837, John C. Calhoun, Senator of South Carolina, gave a speech in the US Senate in response to demands by northern abolitionists for emancipation of slaves in southern states. Calhoun said the institution of slavery was “a positive good” when compared to conditions and divisions between labor and capital in the North. In the North for example, women and children were forced to work 16 hours a day for starvation wages and the capitalist class cared nothing for their welfare. They had accumulated great wealth in trafficking of slaves to southern states and profit from the product of black slave labor in southern states. History has not been forgiving to Calhoun for his  “positive good.”

Lincoln also had his “positive good.” While he strongly believed slavery was wrong, he was equally firm in his belief that the compromises in ratification of the Constitution legitimating slavery was a positive good because without the compromises there would be no Union. For example, the compromise allowing  2/3 of  the slave population to be counted in determining representation and the compromise provision of considering slaves as property and requirement for return of fugitive slaves to their owners if escaped to a  non-slave state. Thus slavery was legitimated as compromise to southern states.

If there is one word the sums up Lincoln’s political beliefs and actions as President during the Civil War, It is “necessary”. Over the 3 decades of his political career  before being elected President, Lincoln subscribed to the proposition that the Constitution was a necessary compromise with the Southern states; as did Henry Clay and did most statesmen of the day. Except for abolitionists like Lloyd Garrison who thought the compromise Constitution was a evil compact with the devil and publicly burned it. Lincoln believed compromise with the morality of slavery was a necessary and positive good for Union and to fulfill the manifest destiny of expansion to the west and in the  south. 

The one thing Lincoln would not compromise on was secession, because this would break up the positive good of the Union. His predecessor, President Buchannan and his Attorney General believed secession was permitted under the Constitution. Jefferson, Madison and the history of the issue in northern states also supported. Until Lincoln, secession was never considered treason. And there was support in the North, including abolitionists, for southern states to break away. It was necessary, therefore, for Lincoln to declare the seceding states to be in rebellion, declare war (invasion), and assume dictatorial powers as Commander in Chief…without approval of Congress.  He was willing to sacrifice the morality of slavery as a necessary positive good.  It was also necessary to suspend  habeas corpus, the very foundation of the rule of law, and declare total war on the southern states, sparing neither property or persons including noncombatant women, children old and sick.

All was necessary and for the positive good of saving the Union. The end justified the means. His Emancipation Proclamation was justified as a military necessity as Commander in Chief because the compromise Constitution he swore to save did not permit.

In Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, he proclaimed a fundamental and revolutionary change in the meaning of the Constitution. The War was no longer a necessity to save the compromise Constitution but was a moral imperative based upon the Declaration of Independence which he believed was the fundamental founding document and superior to the Constitution.

The Address asserts “Four score and seven year ago our fathers brought forth…  a new nation conceived in Liberty,  and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal”. His reference was to the date of the  Declaration of Independence not the compromise Constitution which was not ratified until 13 years later. The Declaration was followed by Articles of Confederation, not a sovereign nation state.  His meaning of equality was that all men have a right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness (property… the product of his labor).. He did  not mean nor did he ever think the black man was or ever would be equal to the white man morally, socially or intellectually. It is interesting to note that the Constitution of the Confederate States of America is nearly identical to that of the Union except that it specifically legitimates slavery because of the white supremacy that Lincoln believed in.

The important point here is that Lincoln fundamentally changed the meaning of the Constitution from a compromise to a moral Constitution. The question remains, however, was the War and great loss of blood and treasure necessary?  Was it necessary to violate the positive good of the compromise Constitution to achieve Lincoln’s positive good? Hamilton said you cannot expect a perfect constitution from imperfect men.   Would, then, it not have been better to have given a compromise on the positive good of secession a chance?

Charles  A. Landis

Res Publica. Ex ide Fortis.