Mr. Lincoln’s Economics Primer
From the Dec. 20, 2010, issue of NR.


From his first political stirrings in the early 1830s, Abraham Lincoln never had a doubt where his allegiances lay. Henry Clay, Lincoln said, was “my beau ideal of a statesman,” and when Lincoln attached himself to Clay’s newly organized Whig party in the 1830s, he became, a fellow lawyer recalled, “as stiff as a man can be in his Whig doctrines.” In his first political campaign, in 1832, Lincoln announced that “time and experience have verified to a demonstration the public utility of internal improvements.” In the state legislature, Lincoln emerged as the Illinois Whigs’ foremost advocate of a state bank, improved roads and bridges, and the funding of the Illinois & Michigan Canal. He dabbled in commerce himself — unsuccessfully, as it turned out — but left it to become a lawyer, a profession that was being transformed from its pre-Revolutionary role as the arbiter of community morality into a new one as the enforcer of commercial contracts. His case files, significantly, were almost entirely civil and commercial. Only 6 percent of the cases Lincoln handled were criminal; the largest components of his practice were breach-of-contract suits and debt collections.

Lincoln’s Whigs were saddled with a reputation, which persists among some modern historians, for being crotchety, negative, and (above all) rich, while the Jacksonian Democrats are cast as the coonskin-wearing sons of the common man. This pushes out of view the embarrassingly large fortunes that sat on the tables of Jacksonian leadership, especially in the slaveholding South. In 1860, two out of every three estates worth more than $100,000 were in the South, and the wealthiest county in the United States was Adams County, in the heart of Democratic Mississippi. And while Andrew Jackson may have been billed as the paladin of Homo democraticus, he had become quite wealthy through land speculation, owned 150 slaves and a 1,000-acre plantation in Tennessee, and enjoyed a continuing major-general’s salary that amounted to more than $5,000 per annum (well over $100,000 in today’s reckoning).

Nevertheless, Lincoln’s move to the head of the Illinois Whig party earned him criticism as a sell-out to the “aristocracy.” It was an accusation he found incredible. A friend recalled decades later that when a rival Democratic politician began raging about the aristocratic pretensions of the Whigs, Lincoln reached over and pulled open the man’s vest, and out tumbled the frills of a very un-Democratic “ruffle shirt,” along with “gold watches with large seals hung heavily & massively down.” Lincoln pointed out that when his opponent “was riding in a fine carriage, wore his kid gloves and had a gold headed cane, he was a poor boy hired on a flat boat at eight dollars a month, and had only one pair of breeches and they were of buckskin.” “If you call this aristocracy,” Lincoln concluded, “I plead guilty to the charge.”

Lincoln had indeed been “a poor boy.” Lincoln’s father, Thomas, was a typical agrarian yeoman, one of the sort that Jefferson described as “God’s chosen people, if ever he had a chosen people.” A contemporary recalled him as a man “satisfied to live in the good old fashioned way” so long as his “shack kept out the rain” and “there was plenty of wood to burn.” But Thomas’s son found nothing terribly enchanting about the back-breaking work of the farm or the drunken hooliganism that was its chief entertainment. A friend recalled Lincoln’s saying that “his father taught him to work” on the farm “but never learned him to love it.” Lincoln was always reluctant to talk about his poor-boy origins except when they gave him an opportunity to measure how far he had risen above them. On other occasions, he would sum up his early life in twelve words: “I have seen a good deal of the backside of this world.” What attracted him to Henry Clay and the Whigs was not elitism but mobility — a path, through commerce and finance, out of that backside.

It was also what led him into his lifelong opposition to slavery. “I am naturally anti-slavery,” he said in 1864. “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel.” What he loathed in slavery was not just the physical violence — “the poor creatures hunted down, and caught, and carried back to their stripes” — but the economic deadness that confined them to “unrewarded toils.” He even considered his father’s control over his own labor on the farm to be a species of slavery, so much so that he once announced, “I used to be a slave, and now I am so free that they let me practice law.”


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