What made Lincoln great?
Was it his war leadership, his steadfast honesty, the compelling nature of his life story? A combination of these? Was it his emancipation of American slaves? While it is hard to pinpoint any single quality or achievement that has made Lincoln into a demigod of American history, many would agree that Lincoln (or at least the popular idea of Lincoln) has in many ways come to embody what it means to be “American,” as it were.
Lincoln himself knew, years before he actually committed the act, that Emancipation that would be his greatest contribution to history. There is no doubt that this is so. However, slavery really only became an issue for Lincoln the politician in the later stages of his career. Less known is Lincoln’s earlier dedication to economic issues, particularly in regards to economic mobility.
Gabor S. Borritt, Professor of Civil War Studies at Gettysburg College, deserves much credit for our knowledge of this facet of Lincoln’s career. In his first book, Lincoln and the Economics of the American Dream, he argues that more central even than Lincoln’s dedication to preserving the Union was his near-spiritual belief in every American’s “right to rise.” The book, while not a riveting page-turner, shows the reader just how integral to the well-being of the nation this ideal is. If it was the most fundamental issue to the President who faced such weighty issues as the Civil War and emancipation, how important should it be for us today?
The book begins with the young Lincoln as a member of the Illinois House of Representatives. Lincoln was a member of the Whig party, and most of his economic outlook reflected this: he supported internal improvements (public works, usually in the form of transportation projects such as the Illinois-Michigan Canal), protective tariffs, liberal immigration policies, the creation of a state and national bank, and the sale of public lands to encourage homesteading and to pay down public debts. It was on these economic issues that Lincoln cut his political teeth.
All of these policies combined to become in Lincoln’s mind what Boritt calls his “central idea”, the aforementioned right to rise. Lincoln educated himself in the ins and outs of the economic issues of the day, all with the benefit of the laborer/farmer/entrepreneur in mind. He steadfastly believed that internal improvements and a high tariff would benefit the common laborer, and that a state (and later, a national) bank was necessary to finance these public works.
However, the panic of 1837 and its lingering economic malaise caused a public turnabout against public funding of works projects. Debts from projects implemented before the Panic mounted quickly and the recession brought many state governments to the point of insolvency. The lack of a strong national bank and a national currency didn’t help matters much either. As a result, into the mid-1940s few of the policies the future President advocated had been implemented to much effect.
But what is most important was what these political battles formed in Lincoln: they solidified the philosophical bedrock for his opposition to and fight against slavery.
In Lincoln’s formulation, the most basic of American values was the equality of opportunity to “get ahead in life”, to improve one’s economic lot. Lincoln believed that this principle was enshrined by Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence. The American way of opening a path to improvement for all was vindicated by the burgeoning prosperity the country had just begun to experience. Before the war, he fought for this ideal with purely economic policies. As slavery came to dominate more and more of the public conversation, he began to apply this principle to that issue. Slavery posed a threat to the free labor and therefore a practical stumbling block to a fully realized “right to rise”. If slavery was allowed to spread to the western states, where mining and farming were to become big industries, what would this mean for free laborers who came in search of a better life? What if slave labor infiltrated the developing industrial economy? It was clear to Lincoln that such outcomes would do great damage to the free labor market, and by extension, the American dream.
Thus, aside from the glaringly obvious moral reasons why slavery was not compatible with claims that “all men are created equal”, for Lincoln it went a little deeper than that — it was a systemic challenge to the right to rise for all Americans.
It isn’t hard to see why all this matters today. I read this book because I heard it was a favorite of Jack Kemp’s. I was pleased to find that it was also a favorite of Mario Cuomo’s. Every American should be familiar with the ideas presented here, because Lincoln shows us across time how Americans are ultimately interested in working toward the same goals. As much as the frenzy of media coverage and the political industry wants to convince us otherwise, the vast majority of Americans would agree that the most fundamental function of our government is to ensure that every man and woman has an equal opportunity to improve his or her life — to find meaningful work and meaningful engagement with the community, two necessary ingredients for a happier existence. The debate should rightly be over the details. Lincoln himself said:
“To secure each labourer the whole product of his labour or as nearly as possible, is a most worthy object of any good government. But then the question arises, how can a government best, affect this?”
And therein lies the challenge. We must challenge ourselves to see past the politics of the moment and adopt a longer view. By having a constructive conversation over this most fundamental question we can effect positive change toward preserving what Lincoln saw as our most basic right.