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What did Washington and Lincoln mean when they spoke of the Union?

Updated: 3 days ago

Written by Samuel Postell, Director of the Center for Liberty and Learning


In his First Inaugural Address, Abraham Lincoln argued that “the Union is much older than the Constitution.” What did Lincoln mean when he spoke of the Union? The Declaration of Independence explains that the Americans were “one people” because they were providentially, philosophically, and hence politically united. In addition to referring to the Americans as one people, it also references the American people using the collective “We.” Furthermore, the document calls itself a “unanimous” declaration of the “united” States of America. The authors saw the separate colonies as previously united, and unanimity implied that they were “of one mind.” In short, The Declaration expressed that the Americans were one people capable of governing themselves. Because the Americans were united as one people and were arbitrarily ruled by another, the Declaration asserts that they have a duty to assert their independence by appealing to their Creator and natural laws of justice. Therefore, the principle of union, the rallying cry of Lincoln, Webster, Clay, and Washington, is one of the bedrock principles of the American founding.


Whereas the Declaration expresses the existence of unity at the time of the founding, Many of the Federalist Papers contemplate the importance of a strong or firm union. For example, Federalist 9 asserts in its first line that “A FIRM Union will be of the utmost moment to the peace and liberty of the States, as a barrier against domestic faction and insurrection.” Additionally, Federalist 10 asserts that “Among the numerous advantages promised by a well-constructed union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction.” In other words, at the time of ratification, one of the most salutary effects of the Constitution was that it bolstered the existing unity between the American people and thereby combatted faction and disunion. As has been discussed in previous essays, in Federalist 9 and 10, Publius argued that the particular kind of union created by the Constitution was the key to subverting the violence of faction, the primary vice of the political system under the Articles of Confederation.


But union was not only an important principle at the time of the signing of the Declaration and the ratification of the Constitution. The Declaration sets forth “self-evident truths” that are meant to guide the American people through time. The principles explicitly enumerated are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” However, in Washington’s Farewell Address he emphasized the principle of “union” as that which secured the principles of the Declaration. In the Farewell Address, Washington counseled the American people: “The unity of government which constitutes you one people is also now dear to you. It is justly so; for it is a main pillar in the edifice of your real independence, the support of your tranquility at home, your peace abroad, of your safety, of your prosperity, of that very liberty which you so highly prize.” He told the people that “it is of infinite moment that you should properly estimate the immense value of your national Union to your collective and individual happiness; that you should cherish a cordial, habitual, and immovable attachment to it; accustoming yourselves to think and speak of it as of the palladium of your political safety and prosperity; watching for its preservation with jealous anxiety; discountenancing whatever may suggest even a suspicion that it can in any event be abandoned; and indignantly frowning upon the first dawning of every attempt to alienate any portion of our country from the rest, or to enfeeble the sacred ties which now link together the various parts.” In other words, Washington argued that union was the principle that secured the self-evident truths for which the Americans had fought in the Revolutionary War. According to Washington, the principle of union was necessary to secure the rights to life and liberty as well as the freedom to pursue happiness. Washington believed that if union failed, then the American experiment failed, and if the American experiment failed, then the prospect of liberty and self-government everywhere was in danger. Therefore, he urged the people to cherish the principle of union.


But why cherish union? Washington believed that patriotism and a dedication to union were necessary to preserve the blessings of the Revolution. For example, when he wrote to a society of Quakers who refused to defend the country in war, he told them that religious liberty was contingent upon the maintenance of the union. He wrote, “We have Reason to rejoice in the prospect that the present National Government, which by the favor of Divine Providence, was formed by the common Counsels, and peaceably established with the common consent of the People, will prove a blessing to every denomination of them. To render it such, my best endeavours shall not be wanting.” In the Farewell Address, Washington argued that the people ought to remain dedicated to the principle of union because “Citizens by birth or choice of a common country, that country has a right to concentrate your affections.” In other words, Washington argued that America was the common country of North, South, East coast, and unsettled West. Patriotism was a necessary virtue for men of all sections and all religious sects. Washington worried the rights for which men fought and died in the revolution may be short lived without the virtue of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the principle of union.


Furthermore, Publius argued that the Americans were destined to become united. In Federalist 2, Publius argued that “Nothing is more certain than the indispensable necessity of Government.” But what kind of government was necessary? Publius argued that “It is well worthy of consideration therefore, whether it would conduce more to the interests of the people of America, that they should, to all general purposes, be one nation, under one foederal government, than that they should divide themselves into separate confederacies, and give to each the head of of each, the same kind of powers which they are advised to place in one national Government.” Publius believed that if the Constitution and the principle of union was rejected, then they would become like the “petty republics of Greece and Italy… kept in a state of perpetual vibration, between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy.” Publius foresaw that unless the Constitution be ratified and the principle of union secured, the country would become a loose confederacy like the EU instead of a firm band of friends. Instead of creating a system of petty republics on the basis of confederacy, Publius argued that the Constitution would create a great republic on the basis of union. The Federalists argued that the constitutional union was fitting because the Americans had a common destiny, a common philosophy, and a common goal.


But why should the sections, which had different and contradictory economic interests, agree to subject themselves to a common government which would wield power? Isn’t it true that one section would, upon election, sometimes be given the opportunity to abuse their fellow country-men in different quarters, comprising different interests? Publius dealt with this problem in two ways. First, he argued that the American people were more similar than different. Second, the principle of federalism allowed the states to embrace their particular interests through state law, while allowing the federal government to legislate according to the “great and aggregate interests” of the country.


Publius argued that among the sections, the people were homogenous in their principles and character, even if they embraced different economic interests across the sections. He argued that Providence had prepared the American people for union. He wrote, “It has often given me pleasure to observe that Independent America was not composed of detached and distant territories, but that one connected, fertile, wide, spreading country was the portion of our western sons of liberty. Providence has in a particular manner blessed it with a wide variety of soils and productions, and watered it with innumerable streams for the delight and accommodation of its inhabitants.” Publius also remarked that “Providence has been pleased to give this one connected country, to one united people, a people descended from the same ancestors, speaking the same language, professing the same religion, attached to the same principles of government, very similar in their manners and customs, and who, by their joint counsels, arms and efforts, fighting side by side throughout a long and bloody war, have nobly established their general Liberty and Independence.” In short, Publius argued that “This country and this people seem to have been made for each other.” In Federalist 2, Publius admitted that among the sections there were “slight shades of difference.” However, he argued that the common character and principles of the Americans trumped the consequential differences of economic interest across the sections. Furthermore, Publius and the Federalists believed that the American people would triumph over their differences through their common councils, given enough time.


However, Publius argued that the principle of federalism allowed for harmony in cases where the diversity of state interests clashed; by limiting the federal government to specific and enumerated purposes, the Constitution embraces the “slight shades of difference” among the states. For example, in Federalist 10, Publius makes a distinction between “local circumstances” and “national objects.” He argued that the representative must balance his attention to the local concerns of constituents and the “permanent and aggregate interests of the community.” He remarked that “the federal Constitution forms a happy combination in this respect; the great and aggregate interests being referred to the national, the local and the particular, to the state legislatures.” In other words, Publius believed that a limited government, embracing the principle of federalism, could unite American citizens in common matters while allowing the citizens of states to legislate according to their particular circumstances, habits, and interests.


But what was the alternative to union? One unpopular alternative among the Anti-Federalists was the creation of a confederacy consisting of equal powers for each section of the union. In Federalist 5, Publius argued that the creation of a sectional confederacy was both impracticable and unwise. He predicted that the different sections would become jealous of the most powerful, and would scheme against their neighbors. Rather than cooperation, there would be competition between the sections. Rather than trust there would be skepticism. Publius writes, “Distrust naturally creates distrust, and by nothing is good will and kind conduct more speedily changed, than by invidious jealousies and uncandid imputations.”


So what was Publius’ solution to the different passions and interests that tended toward disunion? Publius’ most famous solution is the creation of the extended republic wherein the factions are multiplied, dispersed, and allowed to drown one another out. But also important is the way in which power is divided. The division of power is best explained in Federalist 51, where Publius explains that in the Constitutional system “ambition must be made to counteract ambition.” Publius first sought to quell factious differences by diminishing them through the extended sphere, but then sought to vent factious passions through system of representation. The Constitution controls the violence of faction in a number of ways (the most important of which is the creation of an enlarged sphere, or a large republic), but here are four general ways the Constitutional system intended to deal with the difficulty of sectional faction by allowing “ambition to counteract ambition”:


  • First, the Constitution divides power between the state and federal government which allows local interests to pursue their ends without interfering with the self-government of other localities. The federal government and local government, each jealous of their powers, will compete for sovereignty through the courts and public forums.

  • Second, when federal legislative power is exercised it is divided. This means majority factions cannot easily exact their designs because a bill must pass both houses.

  • Third, the Senate’s mode of election and representation are meant to balance the power of more populous states in the House.

  • Fourth, Publius imagined that representatives would “enlarge and refine public opinion” meaning that the representative would be less susceptible to the passions of local or sectional factions.


The Constitutional system successfully combated sectional faction under the pressures of the slavery question and Congress proved capable of balancing factious interests until states from the south rejected the Constitutional system and seceded from the union. In the next essay, I will consider how the Constitution and the Congress successfully combated the tendency toward disunion throughout the Antebellum period.


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