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When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.
The southern position assumed that the United States was a compact of southern states. In this perspective, each state individually had agreed to allow the national government to act as its agent without ever relinquishing fundamental sovereignty. Any state at any time could withdraw from the compact with the other states. Most northerners saw the Union as something permanent, a perpetual Union, as a "more perfect Union" than the one operating under the Articles of Confederation.
Lincoln denied that the states had ever possessed independent sovereignty as colonies and territories. He claimed that the states had accepted unconditionally the sovereignty of the national government with the ratification of the Constitution. To those southerners who claimed the right of revolution to justify secession—just like the Founding Fathers had revolted against England—Lincoln answered with a legalistic distinction rooted in common sense. The right of revolution, he argued, is not a legal right but a moral right that depends upon the suppression of liberties and freedoms in order for it to be justified. What rights, freedoms, or liberties were being trampled underfoot by his election? The South still enjoyed all the constitutional freedoms they had always enjoyed. To exercise revolution with no moral cause to justify it is "simply a wicked exercise of physical power." Most northerners agreed with Lincoln that secession amounted to an unconstitutional act of treason.