On November 6, 1860, the 19th presidential election of the United States of America was held. Abraham Lincoln, a relatively unknown politician born into a poor family, received 1,866,452 of the votes; although his three opponents combined received more votes (2,815,617), Lincoln won and became the 16th President of the United States (J. G. Randall / David Donald: The Civil War and Reconstruction, 1961, p. 133).
For the slave states of the South, Lincoln’s election was an insult. The new President was opposed to slavery. A large part of the white citizens of the South considered slave ownership as one of the fundamental rights guaranteed in the Constitution. They not only considered the black population inferior to themselves and by nature servile, but their entire economic structure and way of life depended on slave labour.
On November 13 the legislature of South Carolina under Governor William Henry Gist called a convention that would decide on the future of the State. Popular sentiment was by that time in favour of secession. On December 20 the South Carolina Convention passed by a unanimous vote of 169 an ordinance declaring that “the union now subsisting between South Carolina and other States, under the name of the ‘United States of America’, is hereby dissolved” (ibid., pp. 135-136). Within a few months, six more Southern States seceded from the Union: Florida, Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas.
On February 4, 1861, delegates from these states met at Montgomery, Alabama, where they promulgated their own Constitution. This was the founding act of the Confederate States of America. Jefferson Davis of Mississippi and Alexander Stephens of Georgia were elected President and Vice-President respectively.


The evolution of the Confederacy (source: Wikipedia)


Davis believed – as most Southern Confederates did – that they were faithful to the principles of their forefathers who had fought against British rule and had established an independent state. In his Inaugural Address he stated:

The right solemnly proclaimed at the birth of the States, and which has been affirmed and reaffirmed in the bills of rights of the States subsequently admitted to the Union of 1789, undeniably recognizes in the people the power to resume the authority delegated for the purposes of government. Thus the sovereign States here represented, proceeded to form this confederacy … (quoted in: Hugh Tulloch: The Routledge Companion to the American Civil War Era, 2006, p. 91). 

Vice-President Stephens was clearer about the true motive behind secession: the issue of slavery. The Southern states were primarily slave rural economies, and they resisted attempts by the Northern industrial states to limit slavery. In his Address on the Confederate Constitution of March 21, 1861, Stephens said:

The new Constitution has put  at rest forever all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institutions – African slavery as it exists among us – the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution … [Our new Government’s] foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and moral condition. This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical and moral truth (ibid., p. 93; my emphasis).

Flag of the Confederate States of America

Lincoln, however, was an unswerving opponent of secession. He wanted to preserve the Union, by peaceful means, if possible, or by war, if the Southern states ‘rebelled’ against the central government. In his own Inaugural Address in March 1861, Lincoln declared:

I hold that in contemplation of universal law and of the Constitution the union of these states is perpetual. Perpetuity is implied, if not expressed, in the fundamental law of all national governments. It is safe to assert that no government proper ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination … [No] state upon its own mere motion can lawfully get out of the Union; … resolves and ordinances to that effect are legally void, and … acts of violence within any state or states against the authority of the United States are insurrectionary or revolutionary …

If by the mere force of numbers a majority should deprive a minority of any clearly written constitutional right, it might to a moral point of view justify revolutionBut such is not our case. All the vital rights of minorities and of individuals are so plainly assured to them by affirmations and negotiations, guaranties and prohibitions in the Constitution that controversies never arise … Plainly the central idea of secession is the essence of anarchy. A majority held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations, and always changing easily with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people. Whoever rejects it does of necessity fly to anarchy or to despotism. Unanimity is impossible (ibid., pp. 86-88; my emphasis).

The dispute between the United States government and the Southern states which seceded highlights one of the dilemmas of modern state theory: Is secession admissible? When can a people choose to leave a state and establish a new one? Should a central government suppress secessionists?
The United States is a fascinating example of this dilemma. Its foundation in 1776 was the work of ‘rebels’ who fought to secede from the British Empire. And yet, about a century later, this very state denied a considerable number of its people the right to do the same. As Don H. Doyle points out:

Win a war for independence, and the leaders become founding fathers after whom cities, mountains, and holidays are named; lose the fight, and they might well be branded traitors and rebels and end with their heads on pikes as a warning to others. Rebels and founding fathers seem to be distinguished by their military fortunes rather than by the virtues of their claims to nationhood (Don H. Doyle [ed.]: Secession as an International Phenomenon: From America’s Civil War to Contemporary Separatist Movements, 2010, p. 1). 

The question of the legitimacy of separatist movements plays an important role in contemporary state theory as well as in matters of foreign policy. One interesting re-interpretation of Lincoln’s argument against secession was made by former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin, who defended China‘s claims over Taiwan by citing the rationale behind the American Civil War. In this article we shall examine in detail Lincoln’s argument against secession and analyse whether China’s call for national unity and territorial integrity is justifiable.

Jiang Zemin, Abraham Lincoln, and Taiwan’s Secession From China

On March 14, 2005,  the Third Session of the 10th National People’s Congress (NPC) of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) adopted the Anti-Secession Law (反分裂国家法; traditional Chinese: 反分裂國家法; pinyin: Fǎn-Fēnliè Guójiā Fǎ, literally: ‘Law Against the Nation’s Division’), which de facto legalizes the use of force in case of Taiwan’s ‘secession‘. According to Article 2 of the Law:

There is only one China in the world. Both the mainland and Taiwan belong to one China. China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity brook no division. Safeguarding China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity is the common obligation of all Chinese people, the Taiwan compatriots included. Taiwan is part of China. The state shall never allow the “Taiwan independence” secessionist forces to make Taiwan secede from China under any name or by any means.

Article 8 of the Law further states:

In the event that the “Taiwan independence” secessionist forces should act under any name or by any means to cause the fact of Taiwan’s secession from China, or that major incidents entailing Taiwan’s secession from China should occur, or that possibilities for a peaceful reunification should be completely exhausted, the state shall employ non-peaceful means and other necessary measures to protect China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity

In the event of employing and executing non-peaceful means and other necessary measures as provided for in this Law, the state shall exert its utmost to protect the lives, property and other legitimate rights and interests of Taiwan civilians and foreign nationals in Taiwan, and to minimize losses. At the same time, the state shall protect the rights and interests of the Taiwan compatriots in other parts of China in accordance with law.

Many foreign observers have interpreted the PRC’s bellicose language and the legalization of the use of force to solve the Taiwan question as a threat against 23 million Taiwanese people who, by these very threats, are deprived of the right to voice their views on the future of the island, and to engage in debates about Taiwan’s place in the world, in a spirit of tolerant pluralism.
However, supporters of Chinese nationalism both in mainland China and in Taiwan are not willing to compromise on the principle of China’s territorial integrity which, according to them, is violated as long as the two sides of the Taiwan Strait are not unified.

Such claims raise several questions: Is the territorial integrity of a state sacrosanct? Can parts of it secede and form a new state according to its inhabitants’ wishes? What is the difference between a rebellion against a rightful central government and a popular struggle for self-determination? Is the PRC leadership right in citing Lincoln’s pro-Union arguments in opposing Taiwan’s independence?

Jiang Zemin and Abraham Lincoln

During student demonstrations in 1986, Jiang Zemin, then mayor of Shanghai, saw wallposters that quoted Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address: “All men are created equal.” This apparently straight-forward message needed, according to Jiang, further interpretation. He held a fiery speech in front of a crowd of students, reciting the whole Gettysburg speech from memory, in English. It did not interest him whether the students understood him or not. He merely wanted to prove a point. He argued that the students were not familiar with Lincoln’s Address, that they were unaware of the “historical context of the speech”.
As President of the PRC from 1993 to 2003, Jiang Zemin often referred to Lincoln to back his own policies. When in a 1997 interview he was asked by an American journalist about the status of Taiwan, Jiang self-consciously turned to Lincoln for help:

The purpose of your Civil War was to unite America together, yet on the issue of Taiwan some of your people support separating Taiwan and China and cannot understand how strongly 1.2 billion people feel about reunification of their motherland. This makes people think that standards you apply to others are not the same as those you apply to yourselves.


This view was echoed by former PRC Premier Zhu Rongji, who once stated:


Abraham Lincoln, in order to maintain the unity of the United States and oppose independence of the southern part… resorted to the use of force and fought a war…. So I think Abraham Lincoln… is a model (Alan M. Wachman, ‘Did Abraham Lincoln Oppose Taiwan’s Secession from China? In: Don H. Doyle [edit.]: Secession as an International Phenomenon: From America’s Civil War to Contemporary Separatist Movements, 2010, p. 367).

Were Jiang and Zhu right in claiming that Lincoln had laid the historical groundwork for Beijing’s use of force to oppose Taiwan’s secession? Why would the US criticize Beijing for doing to Taipei what Washington had done to Richmond in the 1860s?
In order to answer these questions, we need first of all to understand the difference between nationalism and what we may call ‘democratic constitutionalism’ as two distinct foundations of modern statehood.

Democratic Constitutionalism and Lincoln’s Struggle For the Preservation of the Union

Why did Lincoln make the momentous decision to fight against the seceded states of the South? Why didn’t he allow them to form a separate government? Didn’t the Southern states have the right of self-determination?
In his First Inaugural Address on March 4, 1861, just a few days before seven Southern states declared their secession from the United States, Lincoln pleaded for the preservation of the Union:

All profess to be content in the Union, if all constitutional rights can be maintained. Is it true, then, that any right, plainly written in the Constitution, has been denied? I think not … Think, if you can, of a single instance in which a plainly written provision of the Constitution has ever been denied. If, by the mere force of numbers, a majority should deprive a minority of any clearly written constitutional right, it might, in a moral point of view, justify revolution — certainly would, if such a right were a vital one. But such is not our case. All the vital rights of minorities, and of individuals, are … plainly assured to them

If the minority will not acquiesce, the majority must, or the government must cease. There is no other alternative; for continuing the government, is acquiescence on one side or the other. If a minority, in such case, will secede rather than acquiesce, they make a precedent which, in turn, will divide and ruin them; for a minority of their own will secede from them whenever a majority refuses to be controlled by such minority. For instance, why may not any portion of a new confederacy, a year or two hence, arbitrarily secede again, precisely as portions of the present Union now claim to secede from it?

Unanimity is impossible; the rule of a minority, as a permanent arrangement, is wholly inadmissible; so that, rejecting the majority principle, anarchy or despotism in some form is all that is left (Abraham Lincoln: His Speeches and Writings, ed. Roy P. Basler, 1946, pp. 584-585, my emphasis).

The logic behind Lincoln’s words is that the Southern states did not plan to secede because democratic or civil rights had been denied to them. The founding fathers of the United States had fought against British rule because Britain did not guarantee them the right to have a democratic government. But the citizens of the South did enjoy exactly the same rights and privileges as the citizens of the Northern states, and their elected representatives participated in the US government, army and civil service.
The Southern states did not secede because they were fighting for democracy; they seceded because they did not accept Lincoln’s anti-slavery positions. But Lincoln was a democratically elected leader, while pro-slavery candidates had been defeated in the elections. Lincoln did not want to forbid slavery where it existed, but he believed to have received a popular mandate that at least allowed him not to expand the legal scope of slavery. Because the Southern states did not accept the election of an anti-slavery candidate, they seceded. To Lincoln and most Unionists, this meant the end of democracy itself. In a democracy, people have to accept the result of elections, even if their own candidates haven’t been elected. Therefore, secession would have meant the end of parliamentary democracy, because opponents of the government could have at any time seceded, making democratic self-rule by the people impossible.
Lincoln was not fighting to defend the principle of nationalism; he was fighting to defend the principle of democratic governance. In his Gettysburg Address (here you can listen to the full speech read by Charles Laughton) Lincoln stated:

[We] highly resolve … that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth (ibid., p. 734, my emphasis).

After the secession of the South, a Cincinnati newspaper echoed Lincoln’s arguments:

The doctrine of secession is anarchy. If any minority have the right to break up the Government at pleasure, because they have not had their way, there is an end of all government (quoted in: James McPherson: Battle Cry of Freedom – The Civil War Era, 1988, p. 247). 

Lincoln believed in “the necessity of proving that popular government is not an absurdity. We must settle this question now, whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose” (ibid., p. 248).
Born out of the rational spirit of the Enlightenment, the government of the United States, as Lincoln acknowledged, was not based on the fiction and illusion of unanimity. It was based on the principle of equality, of government by debate, of respect for democratic rules, of division of powers and of peaceful change of government through elections.

Nationalism and China’s Opposition to Taiwan’s Secession

After examining Lincoln’s main arguments against Southern secession, we can now better understand why PRC politicians’ claim to follow the American example is flawed. First of all, the PRC is not a democracy. Its government is not elected, and many rights that the American Constitution guarantees to its citizens do not exist or are restricted by the Chinese Communist government. The PRC is an ideological state. The PRC Constitution states that:

Under the leadership of the Communist Party of China and the guidance of Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought, Deng Xiaoping Theory and the important thought of Three Represents, the Chinese people of all nationalities will continue to adhere to the people’s democratic dictatorship and the socialist road …

Although individuals enjoy many liberties and rights, they do not have the freedom to rule the country through elected representatives, nor do they have the freedom to change the basic ideological foundations of the state or to deny the CCP’s ‘leadership’. The PRC Constitution contradicts Lincoln’s democratic beliefs.
As we have seen, Lincoln was not a nationalist. He did not want to preserve the Union because of common ‘blood’, or common heritage between the North and the South. He wanted to preserve the Union because he wanted to save that unique democratic experiment that had begun in 1776 when the elected representatives of the people of the former British colonies decided to form a Union.
The PRC, on the contrary, bases its claim over Taiwan on an entirely different principle: nationalism. While Lincoln’s democratic constitutionalism derives from a positive belief in human rationality and common sense that developed in the age of Enlightenment, the roots of China’s anti-secession policies go back to the romantic principle of nation as a homogeneous community of people who share the same territory, the same culture, the same blood, and the same historical destiny.
In China the concept of nationalism was made popular by Sun Yat-sen, the leader of the 1911 revolution. In his Three Principles of the People, Sun wrote:

Considering the law of survival of ancient and modern races, if we want to save China and to preserve the Chinese race, we must certainly promote Nationalism. To make this principle luminous for China’s salvation, we must first understand it clearly. The Chinese race totals four hundred million people; of mingled races there are only a few million Mongolians, a million or so Manchus, a few million Tibetans, and over a million Mohammedan Turks. These alien races do not number altogether more than ten million, so that, for the most part, the Chinese people are of the Han or Chinese race with common blood, common language, common religion, and common customs—a single, pure race (Sun Yat-Sen: San Min Chu I: The Three Principles of the People, trans. Frank W. Price, ed. L. T. Chen, 1927, pp. 11-12).

Sun’s doctrine of nationalism had in itself many contradictions. For instance, there was in it an inherent tension between multiculturalism and ethnic Han nationalism. On the one hand, he believed that all national minorities should be part of the Chinese state, yet he seemed to argue that the Han Chinese were the core element of the country, to which other nationalities were subordinated. Contemporary Chinese nationalism, both in the CCP and in the pan-blue camp in the Republic of China, is an evolution of Sun’s ideas which has not solved these contradictions.
Nationalism is not a rational foundation for successful and peaceful state-building. In fact, historically homogeneous national communities have been the exception, not the norm. States tend to be heterogeneous. Not only do individuals have different opinions, personal backgrounds etc., but communities are constantly changing through immigration or emigration. The only countries that are – to a certain degree – homogeneous are those where state power either isolates the community from the outside world (e.g. North Korea), or where the state represses and eliminates diversity by force (like Nazi Germany).
One notable example of the folly of nationalism was the Convention Concerning the Exchange of Greek and Turkish Populations signed 1923 at Lausanne, Switzerland. The two countries had large mixed populations, but with the rise of nationalism and the belief that every nation should have its own state, the existence of mixed populations was considered incompatible with state-building.
The ‘Lausanne Principle’ meant the solution of “an intractable dispute over territory by splitting up the disputed area and forcing everybody on the ‘wrong side’ of the newly drawn line to move, until boundaries and ethnic groups coincided perfectly” (see Bruce Clark: Twice a Stranger – The Mass Expulsions that Forged Modern Greece and Turkey, 2006, p. xi). 400,000 Muslims were forced to leave Greece, while 1.2 million Greek Christians were forced to move from Turkey to Greece (ibid., p. xii). This inhumane act of coercion was only one of many tragedies that happened when pure, abstract nationalist doctrines have become state ideology.
According to nationalist theories, identity is never individual. It is collective and sacred, and it must be protected by the state. The main consequences of nationalism have been repression of individual liberties and the shifting of borders – either through ‘unification’ or through ‘secession’. Sometimes, like in the case of German reunification, this principle does not lead to violence. However, nationalism itself is never rational, never objectively explicable, and in most cases it is an obstacle to individual freedom and democratic development. The issue of ‘immigrant integration’ demonstrates how difficult it is to reconcile nationalist thinking with individual self-determination.
Chinese nationalists have made up their mind that Taiwan is part of China. This is to them a sacred truth. Questioning it is tantamount to treason. It is a truth, however, that can’t be rationally explained. It is a dangerous dogma.
Because the PRC bases its claim over Taiwan on principles of nationalism, it is fundamentally different from Lincoln’s democratic constitutionalism. Lincoln was fighting for a rational democratic state; the PRC is fighting for the ideological principle of a united, strong nation in which individual liberties must be sacrificed for the collective good. Moreover, what collective good means is not decided by the citizens themselves, but is dogmatically formulated by a single party in power. This is certainly not the cause Abraham Lincoln would have asked his fellow citizens to sacrifice their lives for.
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