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Round Table Discussion

The Litmus Test for American Conservatism

Abraham Lincoln is thought of by many as not only the greatest American statesman but as a great conservative. He was neither. Understanding this is a necessary condition for any genuinely American conservatism. When Lincoln took office, the American polity was regarded as a compact between sovereign states which had created a central government as their agent, hedging it in by a doctrine of enumerated powers. Since the compact between the states was voluntary, secession was considered an option by public leaders in every section of the Union during Hie antebellum period. Given this tradition—deeply rooted in the Declaration of Independence—a great statesman in 1860 would have negotiated a settlement with the disaffected states, even if it meant the withdrawal of some from the Union. But Lincoln refused even to accept Confederate commissioners, much less negotiate with them. Most of the Union could have been kept together. Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Arkansas voted to remain in the Union even after the Confederacy was formed; they reversed themselves only when Lincoln decided on a war of coercion. A great statesman does not seduce his people into a needless war; he keeps them out of it.

When the Soviet Union dissolved by peaceful secession, it was only 70 years old—the same age as the United States when it dissolved in 1860. Did Gorbachev fail as a statesman because he negotiated a peaceful dissolution...

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