PRIOR TO THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR, John Calhoun and Abraham Lincoln articulated two very different ideas of equality. Each idea was powerful, and if followed, would lead to radically different outcomes. Calhoun's organizing principle can be boiled down to two words: state sovereignty. He believed in the equality of sovereign political states. In contrast, Lincoln's organizing principle of equality was the idea of individual natural rights. While Lincoln's idea of individual rights triumphed in the United States with the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Constitutional Amendments and the success of the civil rights movement a century later, the Calhoun / Lincoln debate is, in a sense, still blazing in the arena of international law and in the dilemma of the United Nations.
From a perspective of organizing political principles, it is fair to say that above all else, John Calhoun stood for the idea of "entity equality." He believed that there was no higher level of political morality than that of a state being free to govern itself. Accordingly, if a group of citizens that held all of the political power in a state sought to enslave another group of citizens, the governing group was entitled to do so with the full protection of the law. In Calhoun's logic, this was derived from the fact that the governing group represented the sovereign and equal entity of the state.
For Calhoun, this idea of state equality was the only rational basis of organizing a free society in a stable federal system. No state could infringe upon the rights of another state. For, if state equality was not held sacrosanct and inviolable, then the people of a state could tyrannically infringe upon the rights of the people of another state. There would be no legal principle to stop, for example, the people of Massachusetts from imposing their will upon the people of South Carolina. All that would remain to prevent such imposition would be political and martial power.
In contrast, Lincoln stood for the idea of the natural rights of the individual. Lincoln believed that the fundamental principle of the Declaration of Independence must illuminate all valid legal systems, and accordingly the U.S. Constitution. That fundamental principle, of course, is the idea that "all men are created equal" and "that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights." Lincoln, like the Founders, understood these rights to be universal.
Lincoln held that the purpose of government--at all levels--was to secure the rights of the governed. In Lincoln's framework, no government, even if democratically elected by a certain segment of society, had the right to enslave its citizens, for such would violate the natural rights of the governed. For Lincoln, Calhoun's principle was a farce; one could not, in the name of state liberty, deny individuals their God-given liberty.
Given this context, it is worth asking, whose ideas serve as the guiding principle of the United Nations system of international law? Calhoun's or Lincoln's?
THE UNITED NATIONS is based, first and foremost, on a principle of national sovereignty. In the U.N. framework, all nation states are sovereign equals and are entitled to the same legal protections from outside aggression. According to international law, North Korea's borders are as sovereign and sacrosanct as those of the United States. As a baseline, it is of little import that North Korea is governed by a tyrannical dictatorship that starves and functionally enslaves its citizens--it is still a sovereign nation, legally protected by Article 2(4) of the U.N. Charter. Just as it was not the black slaves, but rather the slave owners who were represented by the southern state governments prior to the American Civil War, it is not the people of North Korea who are represented in the U.N. system but rather Kim Jong Il and his governing junta.
In other words, the Calhoun / Lincoln dilemma is still with us, albeit elevated to the international level. As was true prior to the Civil War, a legal ideology has emerged that seeks to place primary emphasis upon state equality at the expense of human freedom within the various states. It is plain that the United Nations principle of sovereign equality, like Calhoun's idea of state sovereignty prior to the American Civil War, can lead to the legal protection of the oppressors at the expense of the oppressed. This is necessarily accomplished when equality is emphasized among governments, regardless of their treatment of the individuals they govern.
If Calhoun's idea of "entity equality" is the organizing principle of a legal system, then there is indeed no basis for challenging the internal governance of an autonomous and equal entity. There is no basis upon which to say that a free state is better than a slave state (and thus just in acting to free the slaves), or that a constitutional democracy is better than an absolute despotism (and thus just in removing the despot). In such a framework, what matters is the principle of non-aggression between equal sovereign entities--in the case of Calhoun this meant states, and in the case of the United Nations this means nation states.
Perhaps because Lincoln's ideas have prevailed so emphatically in the United States, it is difficult for Americans to embrace a U.N. system that is moored so securely to the "entity equality" logic of John Calhoun. Just as the moral bankruptcy of Calhoun's political philosophy is so apparent when placed in the natural rights framework of Lincoln, so too is the U.N. framework undermined when viewed in the context of individual human freedom.
To Abraham Lincoln, the value of a government was to be determined not by its sacred sovereignty, but rather by the degree to which it secured the rights of the governed. Lincoln recognized that it is not states, but rather the individuals within states who are the true possessors of rights. Accordingly, even an international legal system cannot remain forever indifferent to the character of the governments it purportedly governs; nor can it remain perpetually neutral between freedom and bondage. The degree to which sovereignty should be afforded states that do not secure the rights of the governed is a question that demands asking now as much as it did in Lincoln's day.
Michael Brandon McClellan lives in Southern California and runs the weblog PortMcclellan.com. He was a 2005 Lincoln Fellow with the Claremont Institute.