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Mr. Lincoln’s Economics Primer

by Allen C. Guelzo

Free men, free soil, free markets

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.

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