Thomas DiLorenzo, the President of the Mises Institute, has already reviewed Paul C. Graham’s Nonsense on Stilts: The Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s Imaginary Nation (Shotwell Publishing 2024) in characteristically excellent fashion, but the book is so insightful that some further comments are warranted. It is clear that Graham has a philosophical turn of mind and is a master of linguistic analysis.

His skill is amply on display in his dissection of Abraham Lincoln’s First Inaugural, delivered in March 1861. In that address, Lincoln endeavored to respond to the main arguments that secession was constitutional. Graham calls attention to a crucial point in the beginning of the passage in which Lincoln does this. He said: “I hold that in contemplation of universal law and of the Constitution the Union of these States is perpetual.”

What is the “universal law” to which Lincoln appeals? Lincoln’s argument is that a nation, by which he means a single sovereign body, cannot include provision for its own dissolution. “Perpetuity is implied, if not expressed, in the fundamental law of all national governments. . .no government ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination.” 

Graham easily skewers this argument. Lincoln is assuming just what the states that seceded denied, i.e., that America is a sovereign nation:

“Now, my dear reader, it may very well be the case that the fundamental law governing national governments is that they are perpetual, but the ‘Union’ has a federal, not national form of government. Lincoln seemingly took it for granted that there was one American people with one form of government—a national one—and the states were like counties—not sovereign bodies that created the institution Lincoln is characterizing as national. It should go without saying that this was not the way the States saw each other or themselves when they ratified this second American Constitution. . .

Note, again that the words ‘union’ and nation’ are used interchangeably, as if they were one and the same thing. In the preceding statement he says that ‘the Union of these States is perpetual.’ Now he switches to the word ‘nation,’ saying that perpetuity is a fundamental characteristic of a ‘national government’—a rhetorical ‘bait and switch’ maneuver. . .

Presumably, because a national government is ‘indivisible,’ we may assume it is a ‘government proper,’ the implication being that the actions of the Southern States made the United States an improper form of government. Of course, it is easily perceived that this argument is circular, pretending to be an argument from definition, but it is really a form of equivocation or conflation of ideas by using two words with different meaning as if they were the same (and clearly they are not)” ( In two instances, I have changed Graham’s spelling)

The “second American Constitution,” according to Graham was an illegal overthrow of the Articles of Confederation, usefully reprinted in the book in full.

One might raise this objection to Graham. “You say, and document fully, that the United States was a compact between independent states, not a sovereign nation in Lincoln’s sense; but you don’t reject the notion of sovereignty altogether. In fact, you say that the states that joined in compact to establish the United States are sovereign. What is so great about that? Can’t these states also be oppressive?”

Indeed they can, but it clear both from the horrendous war against the Southern States unleashed by Lincoln down to our own times that the remedy for problems within the states does not lie with the chief agent of oppression, the central government.

In the Gettysburg Address, Lincoln, quoting the Declaration of Independence, said that the United States was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” Graham argues powerfully that Lincoln misread the Declaration. The primary thrust of that document is the “consent of the governed.” Because of gross violations by the British King and Parliament, stated in a long list of grievances, of the traditional rights and liberties of the colonies, these colonies declared that they were now independent states.

Graham views with alarm the attempt to see America as a nation dedicated to a proposition:

Ought is a tricky word and leads us to the field of ethics or moral philosophy. Ought requires a metaphysical foundation—take your pick, but it needs at least one. Ought takes us away from any proposition demonstrably true or false and depends on a kind of political or philosophical faith. . .It is for this reason that I hold to the position that even if we were a nation (which we are not), it is a bad idea for a nation, any nation, to dedicate themselves to a proposition, any proposition. Nothing good has ever come from such a thing and nothing ever will if history or human experience, born out of time and sifted out over multiple generations, is to be our guide.” (emphasis in original) 

I take Graham to be saying, “Forget about the gossamer notion of universal ethical “oughts”. Let’s stick with solid traditions, established through long experience, and among these historical traditions is government by consent. I venture to suggest that Graham has not escaped the realm of “ought”. Isn’t he committed to holding that the colonies acted in a morally proper way in seceding, i.e., that they acted as they ought to, or at least acted as they were morally permitted to do? How does Graham get from “is” to “ought”, and if he denies that such a transition is needed, isn’t that also a “metaphysical” claim?

Graham’s position, fortunately, can be vindicated. Secession is a fundamental moral right. As Ludwig von Mises eloquently puts it:

“”The right of self-determination in regard to the question of membership in a state thus means: whenever the inhabitants of a particular territory, whether it be a single village, a whole district, or a series of adjacent districts, make it known, by a freely conducted plebiscite, that they no longer wish to remain united to the state to which they belong at the time, but wish either to form an independent state or to attach themselves to some other state, their wishes are to be respected and complied with. This is the only feasible and effective way of preventing revolutions and civil international wars…

“[T]he right of self-determination of which we speak is not the right of self-determination of nations, but rather the right of self-determination of the inhabitants of every territory large enough to form an independent administrative unit. If it were in any way possible to grant this right of self-determination to every individual person, it would have to be done.”

This piece was originally published at

David Gordon

David Gordon is Senior Fellow at the Mises Institute, and editor of The Mises Review.


  • William Quinton Platt III says:

    The US military officers’ oath of 1830 reads: “I, _____, appointed a _____ in the Army of the United States, do solemnly swear, or affirm, that I will bear true allegiance to the United States of America, and that I will serve THEM honestly and faithfully against all THEIR enemies or opposers whatsoever, and observe and obey the orders of the President of the United States, and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to the rules and articles for the government of the Armies of the United States.”

    This is the oath of office taken by Robert E. Lee and all the other men who went to war for THEIR States.

    In 1862, the yankees changed the oath to swear allegiance to the CONSTITUTION of the United States.

    The yankees realized the problem with their previous oath…and that’s why the oath was changed.

    Thank you for your efforts.

  • Gordon says:

    In agreeing with Paul C. Graham, David Gordon asks of him, “In fact, you say, that the states that joined compact to establish the United States are sovereign… can’t these states also be oppressive?”, answering in the affirmative, “Indeed they can”.

    The answer is obvious, given how California, NewYork, Illinois, et al. ride herd on the citizens, citizens who vote for it and apparently welcome it. Nonetheless, Messrs. Graham and Brown need not mention academic specifics, but sovereign states, when the central government is limited mostly to interstate commerce and defense, would certainly not sanction forever wars and “aggression abroad”. I doubt even California, individually or collectively with sympathetic others, would vote in referendum to engage where there is neither ally nor enemy.

    Secession may be the answer and just as much a political and legal right as ever. Unfortunately, this time, I’m behind enemy lines.

    • Paul Yarbrough says:

      “Unfortunately, this time, I’m behind enemy lines.”
      I suggest we are all behind enemy lines; at least those who appreciate the above article. Those who guard our exit and escape are mostly the ones who claim to be of the same conviction as we. Most of these “guards” call themselves republicans. But they are, in fact, Republicans.

      • Gordon says:

        You got that right.

        As we speak, the Virginia State Senate has voted to remove tax exempt status of the United Daughters of the Confederacy. The bill is in committee in the House, which is Democrat majority. Having, also, the majority in the Senate, Democrats didn’t need help but two Republican politicians voted with them.

        Passage of the bill will bankrupt the UDC. I expect the Republican governor to veto but the margins are that close.

        • Sam McGowan says:

          Virginia is a high tax state. I know, I used to live there. They tax on nearly everything, and they come up with their own regulations on functions already regulated by the Federal government. They can only remove the state exemption, they cannot cancel the Federal exemption. However, this is a good example of what Radical Republicans and Karl Marx hoped to accomplish with freed slaves.

          • Gordon says:

            I’m Virginia born, raised and lifelong resident. It’s true the measure is only a state measure but there are others watching. It’s also true “only” is the key word from statue desecration and removal – they’re ” ‘only’ Confederate statues “. Even the state burden will be devastating. I read an account that describes “10,000 priceless Confederate items scattered to the winds” because of inability to house them.

            Indeed, you’re right about the demagoguery.

  • R R Schoettker says:

    “If it were in any way possible to grant this right of self-determination to every individual person, it would have to be done.”

    The only thing that prevents the acknowledgement of this just proposition is the arrogant hubris of people who believe they have the authority to run and control other people’s lives; the fundamental root of all the evil in the world, the practice of rulership.

    “There will never be a really free and enlightened State until the State comes to recognize the individual as a higher and independent power, from which all its own power and authority are derived, and treats him accordingly. I please myself with imagining a State at last which can afford to be just to all men, and to treat the individual with respect as a neighbor; which even would not think it inconsistent with its own repose if a few went to live aloof from it, not meddling with it, nor embraced by it, who fulfilled all the duties of neighbors and fellow-men. A State which bore this kind of fruit, and suffered it to drop off as fast as it ripened, would prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which also I have imagined, but not yet anywhere seen.”

    – Henry David Thoreau, “Civil Disobedience” [1849]

  • Bill Starnes says:

    We are often told that our Confederate Ancestors committed an act of treason by seceding from the Union. However, although secession is not mentioned in the US Constitution, we find in Article IV, section 2, The citizens of each State shall be entitled to all Privileges and Immunities of Citizens in the several States. Some may ask, “why is that relevant?” Simple; after 9 States ratified the US Constitution, it became the law of the land for those 9 Sates. When Virginia, New York and Rhode Island submitted their Ratification documents to Congress, they all 3 stated they retained the right to secede from the Union if it did not prove to be in the best interest of their citizens. The original 9 States agreed to those restrictions. Per the US Constitution, Article IV, section 2, ALL STATES NOW HAD THOSE SAME RIGHTS. Therefore, per Article III, section 3, it was treasonous for the war criminal lincoln to wage war to force those States back into the Union because he claimed they were still in the Union.

  • scott Thompson says:

    …and that I will serve THEM …fedgov got a clever rhetorician to fix that one real quick.

  • My point about “ought” is only pointed at the use of “the proposition” as a moral imperative adopted by the Washington machine. Their “ought” is to stay within the bound of the constitution, not make people equal (equity, these days) or other Faankensteinish projects foisted upon us without out consent.
    Of course, the States of the union can be oppressive, but they are not distant and they are what we have and will have when the SHTF. That’s where the focus should be for beginning to put the Washington cabal into check–or if all hell break loose–protect property and persons, such as we are seeing in Texas.
    The people of America (who are always people of a State i the Union) can only have representation there for reasons I borrow from Donald Livingston and published in the book.
    We can gain easy access to our State representatives–at least it is not impossible–because they live among us and have to face their community because they cannot avoid doing so unless they never go out. They are what we have. We have 50 leaky and unkempt lifeboats that need to be fitted before the Titanic goes down. Nothing much more was intended in the “ought” issue. As for abstract universal rights, it is a useful way to speak (sometimes), but not self-evident. They are derived from reason based on a hypothetical–a thought experiment–based on the question “What would life be like in a state of nature (pre-government)? Few believe there was actually such a state–people come into this world with at least one other person in their society–their mother. Because the mother got pregnant by some man from somewhere, we can imply at least three in this society. But since they both had to be born of their own parents, we can see that there is and can never be an individual with individual rights divorced from social context. It’s a weak philosophical position, in my opinion, useful, but weak. The Divine Right of kings was a self evident truth prior to that, this is why Lock published a deconstruction of this theory before he put forth his own (kinda) theory in regards to the social contract. I provide an entire chapter after the appendices on Hobbes and Locke, especially how that language is grafted into the Gettysburg Address and what it means when read back upon Lincoln’s reading of the Declaration of Independence. I never intended to cover all bases–my sole motivation being to ask (and hopefully answer) whether or not the seductive words of this cunning linguist and master debater given in the Gettysburg address were true–that is, as far as it can be known and documented.
    I think that’s the only clarification I’d like to make at this time.

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