Lincoln and the Social Contract
In The Broken Constitution, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021) Noah Feldman, a professor at Harvard Law School, argues that Abraham Lincoln criticized consent theories of government which allow the legitimacy of secession and defended in their stead majoritarian democracy. In this week’s column, I’d like to look at Lincoln’s argument against these theories.
Feldman says that the
particular vulnerability of self-government that worried Lincoln had to do with the minority’s claim of the authority to secede, hence breaking majoritarian government. In his inaugural address, Lincoln had explained … that “all our constitutional controversies” derive from the division of government “into majorities and minorities.” Ordinarily, in a democracy, the majority was expected to prevail over the minority. But what if the minority held out? “If the minority will not acquiesce,” Lincoln argued, “the majority must, or the government must cease. There is no other alternative; for continuing the government, is acquiescence on one side, or the other.” (p. 161)
Lincoln’s argument against secession, then, is this: if a minority refuses to accept the verdict of the majority, the majority does not back down, and the minority then abandons its allegiance to the government, this leads to the collapse of the previously existing government. If it is objected that the majority and minority groups can after secession form new governments of their own, Lincoln has an answer. “Without agreement between majority and minority, government could not subsist. Lincoln then sta
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