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.
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.”
The antidote to slavery, Lincoln insisted, was also economic: free labor. In the 19th century, free labor was the shorthand term for a particular way of viewing capitalism: as a labor system, in which employers and employees struck bargains for production and wages without restriction, and where the boundaries between these two roles were fluid enough that today’s employee could, by dint of energy, talent, and foresight, become the employer of tomorrow.
Slavery was the polar opposite of free labor. With very rare exceptions, it denied the slave any future but that of being a slave, and it replaced the open-ended arrangements of employees and employers with a rigidly dictatorial system. The harmful effects extended beyond the slaves themselves, Lincoln wrote, because in the process, all labor became stigmatized as “slave work”; the social ideal became “the gentleman of leisure who was above and scorned work,” rather than “men who are industrious, and sober, and honest in the pursuit of their own interests.” Men who are industrious — that, of course, described Lincoln. Slavery, then, was not merely an abstraction; it was the enemy of every ambition Lincoln had ever felt.
Free labor, however, was ambition’s friend. Like Adam Smith, who traced the “the real price of everything” to “the toil and trouble of acquiring it,” Lincoln believed that labor laid the foundation for everyone to build up capital of their own. “Capital is only the fruit of labor; and could not have existed if labor had not first existed.” The folly of slavery lay in its assumption that the vast majority of laborers were indolent and without ambition, “that nobody labors unless somebody else, owning capital, somehow by the use of it, induces him to labor.” Since by that rule “nobody works unless capital excites them to work,” the most efficient way to motivate laborers to work is to “buy the men and drive them to it, and that is slavery.”
In a system of free labor, by contrast, the prospect of profit incites the laborer to work and save, then turn into an entrepreneur himself and hire others to labor. Hiring workers, in turn, not only fires the entrepreneur’s ambition, but opens up the path of ambition for his employees, “men who have not their own land to work upon, or shops to work in, and who are benefited by working for others.”
Lincoln was aware that pro-slavery propagandists had begun claiming in the 1850s that laborers in northern factories were, in reality, no more free to make wage bargains than slaves on southern plantations. In fact, they claimed, “free labor” was worse off, because employers had no obligation to provide health care for mere wage-earners or to support them in childhood and old age, the way slaveowners did for their slaves.
Lincoln found this comparison absurd, largely because his own life experience refuted it: “Twenty-five years ago, I was a hired laborer.” A typical young man in this situation, he explained, “has for his capital nothing, save two strong hands that God has given him, a heart willing to labor, and a freedom to choose the mode of his work.” If the beginner really is willing, however, “he works industriously, he behaves soberly, and the result of a year or two’s labor is a surplus of capital . . . and in course of time he too has enough capital to hire some new beginner.” This, to Lincoln, was the key flaw in the slavery defenders’ case: Slavery offered no reward at all for sobriety or industry, while free labor was the “just and generous, and prosperous system, which opens the way for all — gives hope to all, and energy, and progress, and improvement of condition to all.”
He did not deny that there were hired men who never became anything more, but that was not because of any defect in free-labor capitalism. “If any continue through life in the condition of the hired laborer, it is not the fault of the system, but because of either a dependent nature which prefers it, or improvidence, folly, or singular misfortune.” Ambition was not a crime to be punished. “We do not propose any war upon capital,” he insisted. Far from it: He wanted “to allow the humblest man an equal chance to get rich with everybody else” and “leave each man free to acquire property as fast as he can.” The genius of free labor, he explained to an audience of workingmen in New Haven, Conn., was that “when one starts poor, as most do in the race of life . . . he knows he can better his condition.” Lincoln wanted every “man to have the chance — and I believe a black man is entitled to it — in which he can better his condition. . . . That is the true system . . . and so it may go on and on in one ceaseless round so long as man exists on the face of the earth!”
To make this system work, Lincoln envisioned an active role for the federal government, but it was hardly that of a top-down managerial state. “The leading principle — the sheet anchor of American republicanism,” Lincoln said, is that “no man is good enough to govern another man, without that other’s consent.” This was what guaranteed “individuals . . . the sacred right to regulate their own family affairs” and “communities . . . [to] arrange their own internal matters to suit themselves” without wanton interference by government. “The proposition that each man should do precisely as he pleases with all which is exclusively his own” was the “foundation of the sense of justice there is in me.”
So government was not a choice between an all-powerful dictatorship and an anarchistic landscape devoid of highways, traffic signs, levees, and harbor clearance. There were some things that individuals could not accomplish on their own, and it was those things that called governments into being. “The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves — in their separate, and individual capacities,” Lincoln wrote. “In all that the people can individually do as well for themselves, government ought not to interfere.” But “in relation to . . . crimes, misdemeanors, and non performance of contracts,” and the sort of need that “requires combined action, as public roads and highways, public schools, charities, pauperism, orphanage, estates of the deceased,” and protection of “the machinery of government” itself, “there still would be some, though not so much, need of government.”
Lincoln’s rule was neither “big government” nor “no government” but minimal government, with that minimum confined almost entirely to the task of removing obstacles to self-improvement and the development of ambition. “To elevate the condition of men — to lift artificial weights from all shoulders — to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all — to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life” was “the leading object of the government.” And in the ultimate sense, the Civil War, by preserving the Union and eliminating slavery, was waged “in order that each of you may have through this free government . . . an open field and a fair chance for your industry, enterprise and intelligence; that you all may have equal privileges in the race of life, with all its desirable human aspirations.” Such a “nation is worth fighting for, to secure such an inestimable jewel.”
And fight he would: “I expect to maintain this contest until successful, or till I die, or am conquered, or my term expires, or Congress or the country forsakes me,” Lincoln wrote in 1862. But there were many places to do the fighting, and one of them was Congress (from which almost all the southern Democrats had conveniently withdrawn when their states seceded). The landmark pieces of legislation that he signed between 1861 and 1865 — the Homestead Act (1862), the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act (1862), the Pacific Railway Act (1862), and the National Bank Act (1863) — together with the Morrill Tariff of 1861, which was signed into law by James Buchanan just before he turned the presidency over to Lincoln, amounted to nothing less than a repeal of six decades of Democratic dominance of the federal government. They would have made Lincoln’s presidency as controversial as Andrew Jackson’s even if there had been no Civil War. The railway act, which funded construction of the transcontinental railroad, was the ultimate version of Henry Clay’s “internal improvements,” while the tariff hiked import duties to all-time highs to protect American industry. (Lincoln backed the tariffs specifically because of the era’s whopping imbalance between European manufacturing and American manufacturing; whether he would have advocated their extension permanently is another matter.) In 1862 the Indiana Democratic state committee complained that Lincoln had struck “down at one dash all the labor of Gen. Jackson for the last four years of his administration.”
Did this amount to “big government”? Not if we measure bigness by the size of the federal budget. In 1860, federal spending amounted to a minuscule $63.2 million. Factored for a century and a half of inflation, the modern equivalent would be a federal budget of about $1.5 billion. During Lincoln’s presidency, federal spending leapt from $66.6 million in 1861 to $1.29 billion in 1865. But even with the swollen costs of war to absorb, the 1865 federal budget would translate into only about $18 billion in today’s money, using consumer-price inflation as the measure.
The bulk of that spending was war-related, and disappeared as soon as the wartime emergency was over. By 1871, the federal budget had shrunk to $293 million — only 22.7 percent of the size it had been in 1865 — and it would have shrunk even more drastically if not for the cost of servicing the wartime debt (which accounted for 44 percent of the budget) and paying pensions to wounded and injured soldiers (another 11 percent). Lincoln was dead by then, of course, but his successors and the Congress had generally followed his intentions. If Lincoln’s goal was to use the Civil War as the cloak for a permanent transformation of the federal government into an all-powerful megastate, the budget numbers certainly do not show much evidence of it.
The Italian historian Raimondo Luraghi once remarked that, unlike the Lincoln administration, the “Confederate rulers did not want a private capitalist industry” and “did not want to see a powerful industrial bourgeoisie rising in the Confederacy.” So while the Union government contracted out its wartime needs to the private sector, the Confederate government set up government-owned supply facilities “investing millions of dollars, arming and supplying one of the largest armies in the world — and all this as national property or under national control, in a kind of quasi-socialist management.” Predictably, the Confederacy’s nationalized industries did a bad job of supplying and feeding the rebel armies, so among the reasons Luraghi listed for the Confederacy’s downfall was its choice of “the way of ‘state socialism,’ a solution that is as far from capitalism as the earth is from the moon.”
But the fundamental convictions that animated the “Slave Power” — that stability is preferable to mobility, and that top-down management in the name of efficiency and fairness is the default position of human society — were not among the things surrendered at Appomattox. Half a century after Lincoln’s death, another American president would contradict every principle in political economy that Lincoln held dear by announcing that society must stop modeling itself on metaphors like “the race of life” and instead become a “family . . . where men can live as a single community, co-operative as in a perfected, coordinated beehive, not afraid of any storm of nature,” and do so “with an eye single to the standards of justice and fair play.” What a century of Woodrow Wilson’s “family” metaphor has produced, however, is the dreary reality of a government that regards citizens as miscreant children requiring constant correction of their appetites, salaries, attitudes, vocabulary, and even light bulbs.
Hurling Lincoln’s economic principles back against this present-day reality may seem like the height of futility. How many battalions, we may ask, do the economic ideas of a man dead for a century and a half command? But those inclined to dismiss these ideas should beware of Lincoln’s ditch. A generation from now, the question might seem more serious.
— Allen C. Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College. This article first appeared in the Dec. 20, 2010, issue of National Review.