Lincoln's aggression

Lorenzo Penya Laurentius at
Wed Nov 22 12:34:49 MST 1995

In a previous post (on October 24) I'd put forward an analogical argument
against the legitimacy of the Catholico-Mohammedan secession in
Yugoslavia, Bryan quotes my argument:

      When the Southern states illegally seceded, thus triggering
      the American civil war, did US troops commit aggression
      against the secessionists by attacking them? You only can
      call such an attack an `aggression' if you assume the right
      to secession. The Southern states had no such right either
      from a moral or from a legal view-point.

To which he replies (on Nov 13):

      I consider Lincoln's attack aggression, yes.

Later on, UticaRose at commented (on Tue, 14 Nov 1995)

      Bryan's "strike back" involved one concession which was truly
      remarkable. Lincoln's attack as aggression ?? Suppressing a
      slaveholder rebellion was not an act of aggression, except
      in the later mythology of the lost cause. Can a war of
      liberation be characterized as aggression ?? Against whom and
      for what end ?? Certainly not aggressive toward the enslaved
      Afro-Americans residing in the South.

and Bryan replied (on Mon, 13 Nov 1995 surely these are different time-

      I stand by my characterization for several reasons.
      1. Legally, - and this is important in the context of my
      argument, which involved Lorenzo's urging of a legalist point
      of view - legally, states have the right to secede. The
      states that made up the CSA did so.
      2. Ethically, I've always supported the right to secede. We
      can go into this at greater length if folks care.
      3. Tactically, Lincoln bore most of the blame for initiating
      full scale war. The south's only warlike acts were to seize
      federal military bases - which could not be expected to
      persist. Four or more of these sites were taken peacefully.
      Lincoln set aside diplomatic solutions to these seizures and
      decided on full-fledged war.
      4. I don't support governments, generally; this places me at
      odds with Leninists and Gramscians, but I live with it (and
      we argue about this on this list). So I'm not willing to
      support a bourgeois military machine even in a good cause.
      Maybe you are.
      Of course I'm not coming out in support of slaveholding. And
      I consider the southern states to be reprehensible. Their
      *act* of secession I admire, but my hope would be for
      continued fits of secession, the breaking down of state
      authority and replacement by local communities. Among other
      reasons, I like this strategy because it seems to open up new
      possibilities for class struggle...

(My apologies for the long quotation, but I do not know how to summarize
what it says.)

1.-- There was no legal basis for the secession. The Constitution of the
United States of America and the other juridical documents founding the
new Republic at the end of the 18th century made no provision for
eventual secession. The colonies renounced any such right (supposing they
had it before entering the Union) and committed themselves to perpetual
union. The international treaties recognizing the existence and
independence of the USA attributed to them (to it, as we now say) a
certain territory (very large, even before the Louisiana purchase, but
that's neither here nor there) without any provision whatever for future
dismantlement or breaking up of the new state (`state' in the
international political-law sense).
      If I am wrong, please, Bryan, be so good as to quote the legal
documents upon which, to your mind, the Confederates could base their
      Admittedly, the ruling dynasties in England, Spain, France and
Belgium supported the rebels (to different degrees). They wanted to
recognize the secession. They did not dare do so. Even had they been so
bold as to extend official diplomatic recognition to Richmond, their act
would have been legally worthless, since they were bound by international
treaties making it mandatory to recognize the independence and integrity
of the USA.
      That the lack of any provision for secession in the Constitution
meant that separation was banned is borne out by three juridical
arguments: (1) There was no legal precedent for any right to secede, so
the mere absence of a recognition of any such putative right meant its
rejection (a common-law argument which is clearly consonant with the
procedures characterizing the Anglo-Saxon juridical tradition, but is
also valid from a more general view-point). (2) Granting any right to
secede to the states would entail putting the international community
before a thorny dilemma and multiplying reasons or pretexts for war;
since the juridical order exists so as to favour human peaceful and
fruitful coexistence, in cases of doubt such interpretation as is the
most favourable to securing such ends is the one to be preferred. (3) if
a separation had been ever so vaguely envisaged, some provision would
have been made for the assignment of common assets, the territories
acquired through the westward expansion -- the Louisiana purchase, Oregon
and the lands seized from Mexico through the rapine war of 1847; when the
secession took place, even the Federal installations in Dixieland were
a subject for dispute (hence Fort Sumter and the first shots of the civil
      As far as i know Lincoln's own statement (in his Inauguration
speech) against the legality of any secession on the part of the Southern
states has never been convincingly countered by pro-confederate advocates
to this day:

      I hold that in contemplation of universal law and the
      constitution, the union of these states is perpetual. [...]
      It is safe to assert that no government ever had a provision
      in its organic law for its termination. No state upon its
      mere motion can lawfully get out of the Union. I therefore
      consider that the Union is unbroken and shall take care that
      the laws of the Union are faithfully executed in all the

      Lincoln told the secessionists (as if he had thought of Bryan
Alexander's argument): `You can have no conflict without being yourselves
the aggressors'.

2.-- The only reason for secession was the desire to preserve slavery and
even, if possible, to enlarge the slave territory north of the Mason-
Dixon line in the new Western territories (the Kansas events anticipated
the war). Thus, secession and slavery rest or fall together. If slavery
is wrong, so was secession, which had no other purpose but that of
maintaining and strengthening slavery. The secessionists had no other
plans. Their movement did not aim at a better form of government, at any
sort of publicly supported welfare or anything of the sort (that's
obvious, but it must be remembered). Some separatist movements may have
some degree of moral legitimacy on account of their advocating some
social or moral advance. No such thing was the case with the
Confederates. Thus, from a moral view-point (still more strongly than
from a legal one) their secession was unjustified. They were the
initiators of conflict and for the worst possible cause.

3.-- When a band of criminal terrorists kidnap innocent and defenceless
civilians, public armed forces are right to intervene against the
aggressors. The confederates were a gang of such criminals, only on a
huge scale. Slavery is against natural law, but it can be cogently argued
to also be against positive law, too. In fact by upholding slavery,
before abolition, the governments of the time were violating basic
clauses of their own juridical principles; so abolition could be
convincingly argued for from a purely legal view-point. The secession
meant that all people kept illegally in bondage were to waive any hope
of liberation. Secession also meant increased difficulties for the
functioning of the `underground railway', the clandestine path to freedom
in Canada for many run-away slaves. What is more (and less contentious)
secession endangered the rights of freemen (and freedwomen), i.e. of
blacks who had been individually emancipated. That is obvious, too: the
slave-owners were bent on making their life more difficult in order to
thwart their help to runaway slaves and renewed uprisings (like Nat
Turner's). Thus, acting against a massive kidnapping of millions by a
bunch of merciless criminals, Lincoln (despite his lukewarm attitude
towards abolitionism at the start of the war) was acting rightly. The
kidnappers, not the police, are to blame in such cases. (Unfortunately,
the police nowadays very often helps the criminals, especially if they
are skinheads.)

4.-- Bryan, you do not support governments of big or middle countries,
but apparently you do support governments of small countries. Dixie still
was a huge country, you know (at least 10 times bigger than Spain). It
developed a bourgeois military machine (nay, many former members of the
federal military joined the Confederate army, as they were Southerners).
You do not support slavery. But without the American civil war, slavery
would still exist. To start with, in the so-called Confederate States of
America themselves. Then in Russia, in Cuba, in Brazil, in Africa, in
India, in China, etc etc. Abolition of bondage or serfdom (the difference
is very tricky) by Czar Alexander II was a direct consequence of the
American civil war. The 1st Spanish Republic abolished slavery in Puerto
Rico en 1873. The restored Spanish monarchy finally was compelled to
abolish it in Cuba in 1880 (by the Zanjon pact). Some years later, it was
at last abolished in Brazil. And so on. Nothing like that would have
happened without the American civil war. Nor is it likely that later on
the confederates themselves would have peacefully given up slavery. Nor
is it credible that, should Lincoln have followed Buchanan's policy
(doing nothing against the rebels), later on the federal government would
have started a recovery war against the South: had the confederacy been
allowed to take root and secure international recognition, the enterprise
would have become all but impossible.
      It is always regrettable when human affairs lead to war and
progress cannot been achieved through peaceful means. But among all wars
waged by humans, none has been more just, or more conducive to greater
human happiness and fraternity, than Lincoln's war against the
Confederate States of America.

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