A review of A New Birth of Freedom: Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Civil War (Roman and Littlefield, 2000, 750 pp.)
At a recent appearance before the Heritage Foundation to discuss A New Birth of Freedom, James Bovard asked author Harry Jaffa how Abraham Lincoln’s suppression of Southern secession reflected on his commitment to consensual government. Jaffa responded by citing the supremacy of a presidential election and the anarchic ramifications of political withdrawal.
Secession is by and large equated with a supposedly racist insurrection—the Confederacy—so Jaffa’s assertions seem unobjectionable juxtaposed with this demonized polity. If we juxtapose them with another set of circumstances, however, they betray abhorrent entailments.
On December 20, 1860, a Massachusetts convention passed the following ordinance:
Whereas, Abraham Lincoln has been elected President of the United States, and
Whereas, President-elect Lincoln has affirmed support of the Fugitive Slave Act, and
Whereas, The Commonwealth of Massachusetts and all non-slaveholding states shall be bound to aid in the rendition of fugitive slaves under this administration, and
Whereas, Such complicity with the iniquitous institution of slavery is repugnant to the consciences of this commonwealth’s citizens, and
Whereas, Seeking to throw off this wretched yoke and be a beacon of freedom for the enchained masses of this country,
Therefore Be It Resolved, That the Commonwealth of Massachusetts hereby dissolves its political bands with the United States of America and shall hereafter exist as a free and independent state.
While this resolution is counterfactual, it has been imagined from a genuine context. During the antebellum period, especially after the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, many abolitionists perceived the Union as an albatross that enmeshed their states in the enslavement they loathed. Supreme Court decisions such as Ableman v. Booth (upholding the Fugitive Slave Act) amplified their antipathy to the constitutional order.
William Lloyd Garrison was the Northern disunionist par excellence. The editor of The Liberator placed “No Union with Slaveholders!” on the publication’s masthead since he considered Northern withdrawal not only permissive but imperative. “Give us Disunion and liberty and a good conscience, rather than Union with slavery and moral degradation,” he wrote in the wake of the Dred Scott decision.