Monday, October 17, 2005

Lincoln, Calhoun and the U.N.'s Dilemma

Michael Brandon McClellan calls upon the pre-Civil War ideologies put forth by Lincoln and Calhoun to put forth an interesting theory as to why many Americans seem to reject the U.N.
As was true prior to the Civil War, a legal ideology has emerged that seeks to place primary emphasis upon state equality at the expense of human freedom within the various states. It is plain that the United Nations principle of sovereign equality, like Calhoun's idea of state sovereignty prior to the American Civil War, can lead to the legal protection of the oppressors at the expense of the oppressed. This is necessarily accomplished when equality is emphasized among governments, regardless of their treatment of the individuals they govern.

If Calhoun's idea of "entity equality" is the organizing principle of a legal system, then there is indeed no basis for challenging the internal governance of an autonomous and equal entity. There is no basis upon which to say that a free state is better than a slave state (and thus just in acting to free the slaves), or that a constitutional democracy is better than an absolute despotism (and thus just in removing the despot). In such a framework, what matters is the principle of non-aggression between equal sovereign entities--in the case of Calhoun this meant states, and in the case of the United Nations this means nation states.

Perhaps because Lincoln's ideas have prevailed so emphatically in the United States, it is difficult for Americans to embrace a U.N. system that is moored so securely to the "entity equality" logic of John Calhoun. Just as the moral bankruptcy of Calhoun's political philosophy is so apparent when placed in the natural rights framework of Lincoln, so too is the U.N. framework undermined when viewed in the context of individual human freedom.

To Abraham Lincoln, the value of a government was to be determined not by its sacred sovereignty, but rather by the degree to which it secured the rights of the governed. Lincoln recognized that it is not states, but rather the individuals within states who are the true possessors of rights. Accordingly, even an international legal system cannot remain forever indifferent to the character of the governments it purportedly governs; nor can it remain perpetually neutral between freedom and bondage. The degree to which sovereignty should be afforded states that do not secure the rights of the governed is a question that demands asking now as much as it did in Lincoln's day.
McLellan may be conflating Lincoln's expressed ideology prior to the War with that developed during its course, especially post-Emancipation Proclamation. I'm not a Civil War era expert, but I seem to recall that before the War, Lincoln's argument for maintaining a "United" States wasn't based on a belief that slave states screaming for their own rights of sovereign self-determination was hypocritical. Instead, he believed that the U.S. federal government, as outlined by the Constitution, was the ultimate source of power and authority in the land and that if states could go their own way for any reason, whether it be tariffs or slavery, eventually the Union would dissolve into smaller sections. In the end, Lincoln had publicly come around to regarding the freeing of the slaves as an important goal of the war. Thus, McClellan's theory may be based a bit on a consequentialist view, but it is intriguing nonetheless.

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