Government By Consent or By Duress (The Different Beliefs of Jefferson and Lincoln)

Historian Charles Austin Beard once said, “You need only reflect that one of the best ways to get yourself a reputation as a dangerous citizen these days is to go about repeating the very phrases which our founding fathers used in the great struggle for independence.” What do you think it says about America as a political society when the thoughts and beliefs of the man who authored our Declaration of Independence are shunned and ridiculed by a majority of the people?

With increasing certainty I believe that, for the average person, patriotism means bowing down and licking the boots of the very people who deprive them of their freedom. For most people the idea of patriotism means faithfully paying your taxes; voting; and obeying the law. God forbid I ask that people learn what our Founders felt about something as insignificant as liberty or freedom from oppression.

In 1821 Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to Judge Spencer Roane in which he stated, “Time indeed changes manners and notions, and so far we must expect institutions to bend to them. But time produces also corruption of principles, and against this it is the duty of good citizens to be ever on the watch, and if the gangrene is to prevail at last, let the day be kept off as long as possible.”

If you really want to know how pathetically we have lived up to Jefferson’s hopes and expectations all you have to do is look at how we shun his beliefs on a multitude of subjects, and how we idolize a president who corrupted the principles our country was founded upon…Abraham Lincoln.

Thomas Jefferson was a staunch believer in State’s Rights; that the individual States not only had the right, they had the obligation to oppose laws passed by the federal government which overstepped its just authority and infringed upon the authority of the States.

In 1798 President Adams signed into law the Alien and Sedition Acts. In opposition to them Jefferson drafted the Kentucky Resolutions, wherein he states, “Resolved, That the several States composing the United States of America, are not united on the principle of unlimited submission to their General Government . . . . and that whensoever the General Government assumes undelegated powers, its acts are unauthoritative, void, and of no force. . . . that the government created by this compact [the Constitution for the United States] was not made the exclusive or final judge of the extent of the powers delegated to itself; since that would have made its discretion, and not the Constitution, the measure of its powers; . . . . that this would be to surrender the form of government we have chosen, and live under one deriving its powers from its own will, and not from our authority; . . . and that the co-States, recurring to their natural right in cases not made federal, will concur in declaring these acts void, and of no force, and will each take measures of its own for providing that neither these acts, nor any others of the General Government not plainly and intentionally authorised by the Constitution, shall be exercised within their respective territories.”

Say what you will about that but it sure sounds to me like Jefferson believed the States had the authority to tell the federal government to go to hell when they felt that the laws being passed violated the Constitution.

By the time Jefferson was sworn in after the tumultuous election of 1800 the corruption of principles he spoke of was well under way. The seeds of nationalism which had been sown by Alexander Hamilton, George Washington and John Adams had taken root, and the people of America liked what they saw. It was so bad that some New England States threatened to secede from the Union in opposition to Jefferson’s policy of, “A wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned. That is the sum of good government.” (Source: Jefferson’s First Inaugural Address)

However, in that same address Jefferson also stated, “If there be any among us who would wish to dissolve this 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.”

Jefferson may have felt that it would be unwise to dissolve the Union, but he felt that as the Union was a voluntary compact between sovereign States that it was within a State’s rights to do so. This belief was later reaffirmed by an outside source, Alexis de Tocqueville, in his book, Democracy in America; wherein it states, “The Union was formed by the voluntary agreement of the States; in uniting together they have not forfeited their nationality, nor have they been reduced to the condition of one and the same people. If one of the States chooses to withdraw from the compact, it would be difficult to disapprove its right of doing so, and the Federal Government would have no means of maintaining its claims directly either by force or right.”

I don’t think I need to explain how Abraham Lincoln felt about that belief; after all, he did raise an army and invade the sovereign territory of 11 States who chose to exercise their right to leave the Union. It really doesn’t matter whether the 11 States of the Confederacy chose to leave the Union over slavery or whether that choice was made because of the tariffs that had been imposed upon them; what matters is that it was their right to do so, and Abraham Lincoln denied them that right when he sent an army to force them into remaining in the Union.

Jefferson felt that the States were not required to submit unquestioningly to the authority of the federal government. Lincoln believed that it was his duty to ensure that the States remain subject to the authority of the federal government; regardless of whether the government itself adhered to the document that created it. Jefferson believed in government by consent of the people; Lincoln, on the other hand, did not believe that consent was required; that the States could be forced into obedience without their consent. That is the fundamental difference between the two men, and one which is rarely mentioned in history books or political debates.

Then of course there is the small fact that Lincoln actively sought to limit the liberty our system of government was supposedly established to secure. Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and imprisoned many who opposed his unconstitutional war against the South; he violated the 1st Amendment when he shut down newspapers who printed editorials critical of his policies; he sent troops into Maryland in an effort to block the Maryland State Legislature from voting on the issue of secession; and he even issued an arrest warrant for the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court; although he rescinded it before it was executed.

There is not a doubt in my mind that had Thomas Jefferson been alive in 1860 he would have been on the side of the Confederate States of America. It may have saddened him to be on the side of those leaving the Union he had fought so hard for, but I think the abandonment of the principles our country was originally founded upon would have saddened him even more than leaving the Union.

The Confederate States also did not hate the Union; they only hated the way in which the government was being used which went beyond what they thought were the legitimate powers given it by the Constitution. Confederate President Jefferson Davis once said, “I love the Union and the Constitution, but I would rather leave the Union with the Constitution than remain in the Union without it.”

The Confederacy felt that the government, as it existed in 1860, was unconstitutional and therefore destructive of the ends for which it was established. They sought a peaceful separation from that government; and just like jolly old King George, their government sent armies against them to coerce them into obedience.

Jefferson may very well have foreseen the eventual civil war, as in an 1825 letter to William Branch Giles he wrote, “I see,… and with the deepest affliction, the rapid strides with which the federal branch of our government is advancing towards the usurpation of all the rights reserved to the States, and the consolidation in itself of all powers, foreign and domestic; and that, too, by constructions which, if legitimate, leave no limits to their power… It is but too evident that the three ruling branches of [the Federal government] are in combination to strip their colleagues, the State authorities, of the powers reserved by them, and to exercise themselves all functions foreign and domestic.”

Whatever your thoughts and feelings are about the Civil War may be, if you are honest with yourself you will have to admit that it forever ended the belief that we have a government that exists by consent of the people. I do not consent to it and yet I am forced to obey all manner of laws that violate my rights and liberty…or face the possibility of fines, jail time, or death if I disobey them.

And that is the true legacy of Abraham Lincoln; the subversion of government by consent to government by duress. It all began in the Constitutional Convention when some felt, including James Madison, felt that the States should be mere appendages; that they should only be subordinately useful to the federal authority. It reached its realization when Lincoln ended the belief that the States had any authority to limit the federal government, or question its authority.

Even his praised Gettysburg Address makes no mention of government by consent of the States; rather it states, “…government of the people, by the people, and for the people…” Well people are stupid, they are gullible, and for the most part they prefer comfort and security over the animating contest for liberty.

All I know is that in 1788 Patrick Henry declared, “Perhaps an invincible attachment to the dearest rights of man, may, in these refined, enlightened days, be deemed old fashioned: If so, I am contented to be so: I say, the time has been when every pore of my heart beat for American liberty, and which, I believe, had a counterpart in the breast of every true American.”

People call me radical and dangerous because I come across sounding like I want to overturn the government. That couldn’t be further from the truth. I only want government to limit itself to the purposes for which it was established and leave me free to pursue happiness however I choose. But, as long as it does not serve that purpose, as long as it does not secure to me the liberty that is my birthright, I will oppose your government no matter which tyrant sits at the throne.

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One Response to Government By Consent or By Duress (The Different Beliefs of Jefferson and Lincoln)

  1. jamie says:

    Another great one, Neal!

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