My grandson asked me to help him with information for a debate about Abraham Lincoln and the justice of the American Civil War. Here is what I put together for him. To my surprise, Lincoln came out looking better than I had expected.

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Lincoln and Just War

The Just War Doctrine is divided into two parts: jus ad bellam, or the justice of going to war, and jus in bello, or just conduct within war. Lincoln would be concerned primarily with jus ad bellam, since as Commander in Chief he would be involved in the decision to go to war. He would be involved only indirectly in jus in bello, since he was not actually doing the fighting. It would be his responsibility to issue orders about how the fighting was to be conducted, and to see that those orders would be obeyed. In fact he did commission a study on justifiable conduct in war, and made it an official Army regulation. However, the man whom he commissioned to do this tried to invent it all himself, with no recognition of any of the previous Just War thinking, and moreover it does not appear that Lincoln made any attempt to have those who disobeyed it punished.

Let’s look at the jus ad bellam, which Lincoln would have been directly concerned with.

Just Cause

The first part of jus ad bellam is just cause. Is there a just cause for going to war? Under Just War Doctrine, there are three just causes: repel an attack; retake what was unjustly taken; and aid the victim of an unjust attack.

“Secession” started with the Confederate states seizing Federal forts, shipyards, and custom-houses. However, Lincoln did not respond to these seizures until after the armed attack on Fort Sumter. That attack clearly satisfied the first of the possible just causes. Retaking the forts etc. would satisfy the second just cause. It’s questionable whether gave much thought to freeing the slaves. His main concern was to preserve the Union. Hence I would argue that only the first two just  causes were satisfied. However, only one is needed; Lincoln had two.

Comparative Justice

The relative justice of the two sides is considered here. It is not necessary that one side be completely evil and the other to be completely angelic for the latter side to enter into a war. Being more just is sufficient. However, the degree of comparative justice puts a limit on how much force the more just side can use against the less just side. One of the primary reasons for Secession was to preserve the South’s “peculiar institution” of slavery. Here I think the North satisfied Comparative Justice , but once the war started, may have exceeded the justifiable limits of force.


It would be immoral to spill blood in vain. There must be a reasonable chance of victory before a leader can decide to go to war. Did the Union have a reasonable prospect of victory in 1860? As the war turned out, it was the industrial might of the North that in the long run prevailed, but it’s not clear that anyone at the time took this into account. People didn’t think in those terms back then. Another consideration was whether the Confederacy could obtain support from other nations, particularly England and France. Much of Lincoln’s diplomacy during the war was aimed at preventing such outside support going to the Confederacy. There was no certainty at the outset that this diplomacy would be successful. Probablility of victory? Yes, but looking back, I’d put it at not much better than 50-50 as seen by Lincoln.

Right Intention

This requirement states that the party intending to go to war must intend only to achieve a just peace. That is, the war may not be undertaken in pursuit of loot, slaves, territorial expansion, or some similar objective. In particular, Right Intention means that the belligerent must not take actions that will lead to lasting bitterness on the part of the defeated, nor actions that would prolong the war by being more harsh than necessary to achieve the Just Cause.

Lincoln stated that his objective was to restore the Union. However, the actions of Union troops in the South did in fact lead to lasting bitterness. My father was stationed in Virginia during WW II. One day, when he was home on leave, he said, “They’re still fighting the Civil War down there.” This was eighty years after Appomattox. Even today there are those in the South who will not use the term “Civil War,” but instead refer to the “War for Southern Independence,” or “The War of Northern Aggression.” Whether this level of bitterness could have been foreseen in 1860 can’t be known now. There is no doubt, however, that the war went well beyond “Right Intention,” despite Lincoln’s words about “binding up the wounds.” I think the war clearly failed on this criterion.

Last Resort

This criterion means that all reasonable means short of war must have been exhausted. Only if there is no alternative but to go to war in order to achieve the just cause can war be initiated. It’s worth noting that Brazil imported more African slaves than did North America, and the conditions of the slaves there were even harsher than those in the American South. Yet Brazil abolished slavery in 1888 without a war. This wasn’t without opposition, and the abolition ended the rule of the Portuguese Emperor in Brazil, as landowners who objected to the abolition of slavery overthrew the Emperor. However, the abolition of slavery was accomplished without a war, and without the lasting bitterness that the Civil War brought to the Union. Slaves might have been purchased and freed by the Federal Government. The growth of “free states” blocking the expansion of slavery might have put it on the road to extinction, especially as those states industrialized and became more prosperous than the slave states. Industrialization and slavery don’t go together very well. I think the war failed on this criterion as well.

Competent Authority

A just war must be declared by an authority competent to do so. Under the American Constitution, only Congress can declare war. Here I’ll have to draw a blank. I don’t know if Congress ever authorized military force to end Secession. Clearly Congress did appropriate funds with which to fight the war, so one might conclude that the decision to go to war was made by competent authority. Lincoln did not have that authority himself. He needed the authorization of Congress, whether explicit or implicit.


These are the criteria by which Lincoln’s activities must be judged. Overall I think Lincoln clearly failed on some of them, but satisfied others. However, he must satisfy all, or going to war is unjustified.


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