The United Kingdom is the first member of the European Union aiming to leave it. With the EU’s short history offering no precedent for this step, observers have scoured British history for analogies ranging from the withdrawal of the Roman Empire from England to the withdrawal of Henry VIII’s England from Rome’s religion. Now with Britain’s envoys serving secession papers, it is timely to cite the thoughts that went through the mind of another historical figure, Abraham Lincoln, voiced when he faced the challenge of secession from a union.

Abraham Lincoln was elected to the American presidency on a mandate to heal a sore that had been festering in America for decades, slavery. The issue was intractable, not least because it laid bare contentions that ran much deeper: taking sides for or against slavery meant taking sides over what it meant to belong to a united country. Today divisions are over trade rather than slavery and the war is fought with soundbites not bullets. Still, there is a parallel, insofar as as with American disputes over slavery, there is more to debates over trade than meets the eye.  “What stirs the Englishman sooner to rebellion,” observed Oliver Cromwell’s partisan John Milton, “than violent and heavy hands on their goods and purses?” Milton knew rebellion in England may be triggered by tax and trade, but underneath lie causes that run deeper. So it was also in the United States when in 1861 Abraham Lincoln spoke out in his Inaugural Address on the eve of the Confederate breakaway from the Union.

Abraham Lincoln came to the White House with debating skills honed in Midwestern courtrooms and was no stranger to swaying down-to-earth juries by tripping up his opponents over points of procedure. His first line of attack on secessionists was that the legal instrument triggering secession was invalid. For, Lincoln said, the Union had been set up through a contract and so all signatories had submitted to be bound by multilateral consensus. If, therefore, agreement by all had brought the Union into being, it followed that agreement of all signatories would be required in order for it to end. Lincoln said:

“If the United States be not a government proper, but an association of States in the nature of contract merely, can it, as a contract, be peaceably unmade, by less than all the parties who made it? One party to a contract may violate it – break it, so to speak; but does it not require all to lawfully rescind it?”

After pulling out from underneath secessionists the rug of legal procedure, Lincoln attacked the secessionist pretence that their actions were inspired by patriotism. Patriotism, Lincoln said, was a value passed from a prior generation to the next one, a legacy that it in turn was charged to pass on to the next – and no single generation had the right to sever the cord linking past to future generations. Settlers once had departed from England to build in America a better future, one that Lincoln reminded his listeners held out the vision of a more perfect union.

Lincoln said:

“One of the declared objects for ordaining and establishing the Constitution, was “to form a more perfect Union.” But if [the] destruction of the Union, by one, or by a part only, of the States, be lawfully possible, the Union is less perfect than before the Constitution, having lost the vital element of perpetuity. It follows from these views that no State, upon its own mere motion, can lawfully get out of the Union, — that resolves and ordinances to that effect are legally void.”

First, Lincoln argued procedure; then, he turned to substance; he left the best for last by appealing to emotion:

“A husband and wife may be divorced, and go out of the presence, and beyond the reach of each other; but the different parts of our country cannot do this. They cannot but remain face to face; and intercourse, either amicable or hostile, must continue between them. Is it possible, then, to make that intercourse more advantageous or more satisfactory, after separation than before?”

There may be some who feel Abraham Lincoln’s voice of conciliation does not resonate with them. Circumstances, they might argue, now are different, and moreover, they might rightly point out a referendum was set, votes were cast, and an issue thus resolved is settled once and for all. But equally, it may be allowed that views moderate over time and confrontation be left behind in favour of something better, a new consensus.

The UK general election took place with the electorate standing at a fork in the road and mapped two alternative routes to pursue: the electorate refused to endorse either alternative on offer. For the country now to reconsider its options would be anything but tantamount to betrayal, to backsliding, to surrender – on the contrary, the capacity to change direction to pursue a prize promising greater benefit is quintessentially British.

One is reminded that Britain’s eminent historians pointed out the uses of studying history for the sake of charting a course into the future. Edward Gibbon ended his magisterial survey of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, with a reflection on what his readers might take away from his study of Europe’s roots in Antiquity and the Middle Ages:

“It is the duty of a patriot to prefer and promote the exclusive interest and glory of his native country: but a philosopher may be permitted to enlarge his views, and to consider Europe as one great republic, whose various inhabitants have attained almost the same level of politeness and cultivation. The balance of power will continue to fluctuate, and the prosperity of our own or the neighbouring kingdoms may be alternately exalted or depressed; but these partial events cannot essentially injure our general state of happiness, the system of arts, and laws, and manners, which so advantageously distinguish, above the rest of mankind, the Europeans.”

Europeans in the European Union over the past half-century have been progressing towards a commonwealth of shared values and customs and while such progress may have been slow and imperfect, even so, it has been greater than any achieved since Edward Gibbon put down his pen in 1776. There is no need to close off the road towards further progress from considerations of trade that short-change past and future generations.