Abraham Lincoln’s greatest love was politics, but his intellectual passion was for what the 19th century called “political economy” — the way economics and politics intersected in society and government. According to his law partner William Herndon, Lincoln “liked political economy, the study of it,” and Shelby Cullom, who practiced law beside Lincoln in Springfield, Ill. (and later crafted the Interstate Commerce Act of 1887), thought that “theoretically . . . on political economy he was great.” Although Lincoln’s angular, shambling appearance gave him the look of anything but a student of economics — one contemporary said he resembled “a rough intelligent farmer” — people quickly found out that “any man who took Lincoln for a simple minded man would very soon wake up with his back in a ditch.”
Before he was elected the 16th president of the United States, Lincoln “ate up, digested, and assimilated” the premier texts in 19th-century political economy — John Stuart Mill’s The Principles of Political Economy
(1848), Mathew Carey’s Essays on Political Economy
(1822), his son Henry Carey’s three-volume Principles of Social Science
(1858), John Ramsay McCulloch’s The Principles of Political Economy
(1825), and Francis Wayland’s Elements of Political Economy
(1837). These were also the principal statements of classical “liberal” economics — Mill was a protégé of David Ricardo, Henry Carey was the enemy of “all interference with the liberty of man to employ his industry in such manner as his instinct of self-interest may dictate,” and McCulloch edited an edition of Adam Smith.
Lincoln read and absorbed it all, and it had a profound effect. His embrace of classical-liberal economics was the force that moved all his achievements, from victory in the Civil War to the galaxy of economic policies that emerged from his presidency. And Lincoln’s principles are the ones most loathed by the progressive Left today. Barack Obama struggled mightily during his presidential campaign to connect his image with that of Lincoln, but Lincoln’s ideas march against him as surely as the stars march in their courses.
Take the American Revolution to its roots, and you will find it to be a revolution against regulation. Britain’s imperial planners were originally interested in the New World for the quick riches it might yield. When their colonizing forays produced no such fortunes, they banned the development of all but a handful of manufactures in the colonies, taxed the colonies’ carrying trade, and labored to convert them into an agricultural resource. The colonists rebelled, and we know with what result.
The Revolution left America independent — and without much of a manufacturing sector. This suited Thomas Jefferson, who waxed eloquent about the superior virtues of agrarian life and the corruptions of commerce, but not Alexander Hamilton, who worried that an American republic without the economic strength of manufacturing would be easy pickings whenever some over-mighty European empire grew hungry for adventures in the New World. Jefferson won the initial political argument over the shape of the American economy, but Hamilton’s views won the economic argument when the War of 1812 demonstrated just how vulnerable an agrarian republic was to British industrial might.
The next round of this dispute was played out by Andrew Jackson, who shared all of Jefferson’s suspicions about commerce and extended them to its twin enablers, banks and corporations, and Henry Clay, who urged the federal government to encourage industrial development through a public-private national bank, direct assistance for building a transportation network (“internal improvements,” as it was called), and protective tariffs to help industrial start-ups compete with established foreign competitors.
The wild card that roiled these economic disputes was slavery. It coexisted uneasily with commerce, which had little use for slave labor. Slavery prized stability, in which an established hierarchy of great white planters would always rule black slaves, and white yeomen farmers could always be bought off with subsidies (in the form of debtor-relief laws, state laws banning bank and corporate charters, and newer, cheaper land in the West). Andrew Jackson might have railed against “those amongst us who wish to enlarge the powers of the General Government,” but when it came to slavery, his fellow Democrats did not hesitate to enlarge those powers in order to evict the Cherokee Indians from their tribal lands in Georgia and replace them with plantations, annex Texas as a new slave state, and trigger an expansionist war with Mexico to swell the borders of American slavery. The power to promote economic growth, however, was denounced by Jackson as “usurpation” and “mere selfishness.” After all, a federal government that had the power to develop one kind of economic activity, in the form of markets and commerce, might foster experiments in meddling with another — slavery.