Over the course of American history, there has been no greater conflict of visions than that between Thomas Jefferson’s voluntary republic, founded on the natural right of peaceful secession, and Abraham Lincoln’s permanent empire, founded on the violent denial of that same right.
That these two men somehow shared a common commitment to liberty is a lie so monstrous and so absurd that its pervasiveness in popular culture utterly defies logic.
After all, Jefferson stated unequivocally in the Declaration of Independence that, at any point, it may become
necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature’s God entitle them…
And, having done so, he said, it is the people’s right
to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
Contrast that clear articulation of natural law with Abraham Lincoln’s first inaugural address, where he flatly rejected the notion that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.
Instead, Lincoln claimed that, despite the clear wording of the Tenth Amendment,
no State upon its own mere motion can lawfully get out of the Union; [and] resolves and ordinances [such as the Declaration of Independence] to that effect are legally void…
King George III agreed.
Furthermore, Lincoln claimed the right of a king to collect his federal tribute, by violence if necessary. Without even bothering to pretend such authority existed in the Constitution, Lincoln offered (and eventually carried out) a thinly veiled threat that
beyond what may be necessary for [collecting taxes], there will be no invasion, no using of force against or among the people anywhere.
In the words of Tony Soprano, pay up and nobody gets hurt.
But perhaps, as some have said, Jefferson intended his Declaration merely as a political tool to justify American independence from Britain. He surely would never have acknowledged or defended an individual state’s right to secede from the very union he helped to found. Except that he did, in his own first inaugural.
Upon assuming the presidency in 1801, amidst severe political and sectional turmoil, Jefferson said
If there be any among us who wish to dissolve the Union or to change its republican form, let them stand undisturbed, as monuments of the safety with which error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.
In light of these facts, no serious student of history or politics could believe that Jefferson and Lincoln possessed similar visions for America. Or that Jefferson would have condoned the violent subjugation of a single sovereign state (let alone 11 of them), or thought Lincoln’s disregard for the Constitution in any way legal or justified.
Rather, he would have known at once