Does Secession Require Republican Government?
This argument is no longer seriously advanced by anyone, but since Lincoln offered it as one of his justifications for using force to deny the States their right to withdraw from the Union, it needs to be addressed. It is also another great example of Lincoln’s skill at constitutional jujitsu.
Lincoln believed a State could not withdraw from the Union since by doing so, the Union could no longer guarantee that State a republican form of government. During his address to the emergency secession of Congress on July 4, 1861, he said:
The Constitution provides, and all the States have accepted the provision, that ‘The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a republican form of government.’ But, if a State may lawfully go out of the Union, having done so, it may also discard the republican form of government; so that to prevent its going out, is an indispensable means, to the end, of maintaining the guaranty mentioned; and when an end is lawful and obligatory, the indispensable means to it, are also lawful, and obligatory.
On one hand, you must admire Lincoln for his brilliance in concocting such a fanciful argument, but on the other hand, you must question his honesty—he was, after all, “Honest Abe”—in trying to pass off such a deceptive and misleading interpretation of the Constitution. You can almost imagine Lincoln sitting by candlelight carefully reading the Constitution in hopes of finding something, no matter how flimsy, he could use to claim the Constitution denied the right of States to peacefully withdraw from the Union. He found this nonsensical argument within the words in Article IV Section 4, which stated:
The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a republican form of government…
The most obvious problem with this argument was that any such language found in the Constitution only applied to those States that remained in the Union. Once a State had withdrawn, they were no longer under the governance of the Constitution, and this guarantee was no longer applicable. This was what Lincoln faced when he assumed office, and therefore his argument, even if his theory had some merit, did not apply.
Furthermore, these seven States were then part of a new confederation having almost identical language to the U.S. Constitution—language guaranteeing a republican form of government. The seceding States therefore continued under a republican form of government thereby making Lincoln’s fabrication of only wanting to guarantee them the form of government they continued to enjoy even more disingenuous.
Could it also have been that Lincoln, in making this argument, was acknowledging that those seven States had seceded? His words seemed to imply they had lawfully left the Union, except for his fabricated requirement to guarantee them a republican form of government.
The irony of this fanciful argument was that Lincoln’s use of military force to deny the will of the people and coerce them back into a government not of their choosing was instead denying them a republican form of government rather than guaranteeing such.