Magazine | February 23, 2009, Issue

Our Lincoln

(Roman Genn)
Obama, he was not

‘What is conservatism?”

This question has been getting more than its usual share of raking over in the post-Bush beginnings of 2009. But it was being asked in terms just as blunt 150 years ago, and the man asking the question was Abraham Lincoln.

Fresh from his near-victory over Stephen Douglas for a U.S. Senate seat from Illinois, and soon to deliver a headline-grabbing speech at New York City’s Cooper Union, Lincoln posed the question to a political rally in Leavenworth, Kan., in December 1859.

In the broadest sense, said Lincoln, conservatism meant “preserving the old against the new.” In the American context, it meant holding the Union together — a determination to “stick to, contend for” the Constitution as “adopted by our fathers who framed the government under which we live.” And in the supercharged atmosphere of the late 1850s, with the slaveholding states of the South threatening to break up the Constitution and the Union, conservatism meant nominating for president “a national conservative man, unhackneyed by political tergiversations and . . . fresh from the people.” Such a conservative president would have not only to think conservatively, but to act conservatively. Despite his deep opposition to the spread of slavery in the United States, Lincoln was not “in favor of the exercise of” presidential power against it “unless upon some conservative principle.”

Still, Lincoln knew his conservatism would be misrepresented — or simply ignored — by a press eager to paint him as an extremist. “If I were to labor a month, I could not express my conservative views and intentions more clearly and strongly, than they are expressed,” Lincoln wrote irritably to the editor of the Louisville Journal a week before his election as president. “And yet even you, who do occasionally speak of me in terms of personal kindness, give no prominence to these oft repeated expressions of conservative views and intentions.”

Lincoln would probably be just as irritated to see how routinely those “oft repeated expressions of conservative views and intentions” are still being given “no prominence” on his 200th birthday. On February 12, the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, whose board of directors is top-heavy with Democratic politicos, will sponsor a “National Teach-In” on Lincoln — featuring three liberal Democrats. The Lincoln Group of the District of Columbia will host a banquet that evening whose main speaker will be George McGovern. And a companion volume to the Library of Congress’s new Lincoln exhibition features commentaries on famous Lincoln documents by Toni Morrison, Jimmy Carter, Gore Vidal, Mario Cuomo, Tony Kushner, Sen. Dick Durbin, Bill Clinton, and Ken Burns (as well as Lew Lehrman, William Safire, George H. W. Bush, George W. Bush, and Newt Gingrich, but the liberals easily outnumber the conservatives).

Not surprisingly, Lincoln’s declaration in Columbus, Ohio, in September 1859 — that the “chief and real purpose of the Republican party is eminently conservative” and “proposes nothing save and except to restore this government to its original tone . . . and there to maintain it, looking for no further change . . . than that which the original framers of the government themselves expected and looked forward to” — is not one of the book’s featured documents.

Still, if Lincoln’s bicentennial laurels are not being plucked from conservative trees, this is not through any fault of Lincoln’s. From his earliest political stirrings in the 1830s, Lincoln was a torchbearer for free markets, individual liberty and economic mobility, the rule of law, natural rights, and prudence in governing. He had no Caesarian notion of the powers of the presidency, no use for what we today call “diversity” politics. Yet he achieved the presidency in 1861, just in time to find himself facing a national crisis that changed all the ground rules by which he expected to put those ideas into play.

At the core of Lincoln’s conservatism was the Declaration of Independence. He said he had “never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence,” and he gave short shrift to the agrarian or aristocratic Toryism of the Calhoun or Metternich school. In particular, he regarded Jefferson’s key sentence — “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” — as the “proposition” to which the American republic had been “dedicated” at its birth.

This was not a proposition confected only by Americans for the unique circumstances of America; created equal was a statement of natural law, “applicable to all men and all times.” If asked to surrender or compromise that proposition, Lincoln said with eerie prescience shortly before his inauguration in 1861, he would prefer to “be assassinated on this spot.” At the same time, though, the proposition owed nothing to the Jacobin spirit of radical egalitarianism. Lincoln’s notion of equality was about leveling up, not whittling down.

#page# Equality meant abolishing artificial aristocratic privilege and opening up the starting line in life to everyone, regardless of who his parents were, what his religion was, or what his race happened to be. The promise embodied by the Declaration was “that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance.” When the Civil War came, he interpreted it as “a struggle for maintaining in the world, that form, and substance of government, whose leading object is, 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.”

The practical purpose of equality was twofold: to create an equal voice for all the governed in their government, and to create an environment, social and economic, in which self-improvement and social mobility could operate freely. “Advancement,” Lincoln declared, “improvement in condition — is the order of things in a society of equals.” Legalizing slavery represented an unnatural intervention of government into the marketplace, conferring unfair labor advantages on white slaveowners at the expense of black slaves and poor white farmers alike. The slave had the product of his labor stolen out of his hands; the farmer could not stand up economically to the vast economies of scale enjoyed by the thousand-bale planters. “Advancement” and “improvement” for both evaporated.

Lincoln’s best example of advancement was himself. “Twenty-five years ago, I was a hired laborer,” Lincoln said in March 1860. He was little better than “a slave.” But in the unbound atmosphere of “a society of equals,” he had made himself free — “so free that they let me practice law.” And so it was for everyone else in “a society of equals.” Equality was the friend of talent, and the enemy of entitlement.

Lincoln understood that equality of opportunity was not a guarantee of “fairness” of result. “Some will get wealthy,” he conceded, but that was no excuse for class complaint or class warfare. “I don’t believe in a law to prevent a man from getting rich; it would do more harm than good.” His theory of the ideal economy was one where “the prudent, penniless beginner in the world, labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land, for himself; then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him.” He never blamed poverty on an unfeeling capitalist machine, nor, for that matter, did he try to wear the poverty of his youth as a badge of pride.

His father, Thomas Lincoln, was an ignorant farmer who (according to one semi-literate neighbor) “Jest Raised a Nuf for his own use” and shunned participation in the newly emerging market economy of the 19th century for anything more than “his Shugar and Coffee and Such Like.” Abraham Lincoln, however, was initiated into the world of cash markets on the day two men hurriedly hired the boy to take them on his raft midstream into the Ohio River to catch a passing steamer. Each man tossed him “a silver half-dollar,” and while this might seem “like a trifle,” Lincoln thought “it was a most important incident in my life.” He had learned how labor could be converted into capital. “The world seemed wider and fairer before me,” he recalled, “I was a more hopeful and thoughtful boy from that time.”

Lincoln had hardly turned 21 when he bid the farm — and “the backside of the world” — goodbye. He turned to the larger world of commerce, going into business first as a clerk and then as a proprietor in two stores in New Salem, the up-and-coming entrepôt of central Illinois. He failed, as did New Salem. But without much pause, Lincoln plunged himself into the study of law, which (in the memorable phrase of Charles Grier Sellers) enlisted him among “the shock troops of capitalism.” From the time he was admitted to the central-Illinois bar in 1837 until he became president in 1861, Lincoln managed a sprawling legal practice — some 5,600 cases and over a hundred thousand documents. Only 194 of them were criminal cases; the bulk of his practice was civil and commercial, most of it involving debt collections, bankruptcies, and land disputes. By the 1850s, his most frequent and lucrative clients were the Illinois railroads. He did not at all mind foreclosing delinquent mortgages or writing lengthy opinions for the Illinois Central Railroad on how to evict squatters from railroad land. As Henry Clay Whitney, another central-Illinois lawyer, admitted, “I never found him unwilling to appear in behalf of a great ‘soulless corporation.’”

#page# Having built himself up from being “a strange, friendless, uneducated, penniless boy, working on a flat boat,” Lincoln had no desire “to propose any war upon capital.” If anything, he said, 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.” Lincoln had little sympathy for those who complained that the competitive workings of a market economy were impersonal or greedy. “Free labor” — a man’s right to choose his own work, take risks, and reap the rewards, benefiting the community along with himself — was actually “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.” When people failed in their “chance” to rise, “it is not the fault of the system, but because of either a dependent nature which prefers it, or improvidence, folly, or singular misfortune.”

In case of such a failure, the only solution — apart from calling in the forces of privilege and favoritism to put an end to equality — was to allow a free market to correct itself or allow an unsuccessful striver the freedom to make a second try. “Some of you will be successful,” he told the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society in 1859; “others will be disappointed, and will be in a less happy mood.” For them, Lincoln’s only advice was “the maxim, ‘Better luck next time’; and then, by renewed exertion, make that better luck for themselves.” When he was asked by a young schoolteacher for advice about studying law, he wrote back, “obtaining a thorough knowledge of the law . . . is very simple, though laborious, and tedious. . . . Work, work, work, is the main thing.”

But the promise of self-improvement was only one corollary of equality, and it might turn out to be empty unless it was accompanied by equal liberty and an equal voice for all the governed in their government. For this reason, it was the hooting shame of America that while it talked of equality and free labor, it legalized the enslavement and dehumanization of blacks. “When one starts poor, as most do in the race of life, free society is such that he knows he can better his condition,” Lincoln argued; “he knows that there is no fixed condition of labor, for his whole life.” But slavery fixed an entire category of human beings in precisely that hopeless situation, politically and economically, on no basis other than color. For that reason alone, Lincoln was “naturally anti slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.”

As the “one retrograde institution in America,” slavery turned Americans into “political hypocrites before the world.” Just as bad, by allowing one man to own the fruits of another man’s labor, it discouraged hard work in both. In this way, slavery was turning labor from the path of self-improvement into the lot of the debased and dispirited. The ownership of slaves “betokened not only the possession of wealth but indicated the gentleman of leisure who was above and scorned labour,” and only encouraged the “giddy headed young men who looked upon work as vulgar and ungentlemanly.”

Above all, however, slavery was a violation of natural law, because a man’s right to “eat the bread, without leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns” was indissolubly linked with the natural right to liberty that Jefferson had recognized in every human creature (and that made Jefferson uneasy about the slaves he himself owned). Anyone who stopped his ears and tried to pretend that blacks were excluded from that natural right was “blowing out the moral lights around us . . . and eradicating the light of reason and the love of liberty in this American people.”

Slavery’s defenders made the pretense of blacks’ exclusion easier to maintain by manipulating the language of liberty to their own ends. Liberty became the “right” to own slaves. Slaves became “property” to be defended, as though human chattels were no different from donkeys or pigs. And the decision of any majority on any subject — including who might be the best candidates for enslavement — was construed as the essence of democracy. “The doctrine of self government is right — absolutely and eternally right,” Lincoln said. But “if the negro is a man, is it not to that extent, a total destruction of self government, to say that he too shall not govern himself?” There was a line that even the power of majorities could not cross, a line drawn by nature and nature’s God that no amount of talk about “choice” could ever really efface.

#page# Slavery had to be dealt with, but within the constraints of the Constitution and the rule of law. Americans must be “ever true to Liberty,” but also true to “the Union, and the Constitution — true to Liberty, not selfishly, but upon principle — not for special classes of men, but for all men, true to the union and the Constitution, as the best means to advance that liberty.”

His belief in the 1850s was that the “best means” to ensure the demise of slavery was to confine it to the southern states, where it had long been legal, and prevent its spread into the western territories. Locked into the South, slavery would eventually asphyxiate, as slave-based cotton agriculture used up the resources of the southern soils. Even then, the emancipation of the slaves would have to involve “three main features — gradual — compensation — and vote of the people” in order to ensure its political legitimacy and provide time to create “some practical system by which the two races could gradually live themselves out of their old relation to each other, and both come out better prepared for the new.”

A civil war was not part of Lincoln’s list of possible solutions to the slavery controversy. But civil war was thrust upon him, and the war put into his hands, as commander-in-chief. Yet even the presidential war powers, which he used to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, had to be handled with restraint. When his cabinet urged him to expand the scope of the Proclamation, he demurred: If he based emancipation on anything except the “military necessity” that his war powers authorized, “would I not thus give up all footing upon constitution or law? Would I not thus be in the boundless field of absolutism?” He never saw himself as a crusader, licensed to strike down injustice with a righteous flail. When George Hay Stuart of the U.S. Christian Commission congratulated Lincoln on the abolition of slavery, wrote an early biographer, “Mr. Lincoln replied in a few, short clear words, ‘My Friends: you owe me no gratitude for what I have done. . . . I trust that this has all been for us a work of duty.’”

For all the complaining about Lincoln’s exercise of the war powers and his suspension of habeas corpus, the actual volume of military arrests and trials was small. And for all the complaining that Lincoln used the war to expand the powers of the federal government to an unconstitutional degree, the expansion was never more than a utilitarian device for meeting the unprecedented demands of 19th-century war-making. (The federal government began shrinking back to only 4 percent of its wartime peak within days of the news of Appomattox.) The massive federal bureaucracy that so antagonizes conservatives today was the creation of the 20th century — and especially of Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Lyndon Johnson — not of Abraham Lincoln. The notion of “affirmative action,” of nationalized health care, of “comparable worth” litigation and the wholesale release of terrorist detainees would have reduced him to splutters.

If to love liberty, to hate slavery, and to believe that free labor holds out the best hope of “self-improvement” and “advancement” do not exemplify what American conservatism ought to be, then I am at a loss to know what does. Nor can I imagine what would offer better proof of Lincoln’s conservative credentials than his advocacy of procedural equality, freedom, and an open society. What I do know is that the same voices that twisted liberty into “choice” and clamored for privilege and security rather than openness and mobility have not changed all that much since they were raised in defense of slavery.

The politics of race and blood, and the culture of hedonism and the unbridled personal will, serve inevitably to plant “the seeds of despotism around your own doors.” For Lincoln, moral principle, as captured in the Declaration of Independence and in natural law, is all, or almost all, that unites us, and all that ensures that this nation under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

If those words were his only banner, they would still be enough to show that he is yet our Lincoln.

– Mr. Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College.

Allen C. Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College. 

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