In my latest column, I discussed the beginnings of a media frenzy regarding Barack Obama and the rush to compare him to Abraham Lincoln. A major cover story appeared in Newsweek and now subsequent articles have appeared in Time. The subject has also been discussed on many nightly news programs. But this is not just a Democrat phenomenon, as the GOP has always maintained an attachment to its first president. Most recently Michael Steele, running to head the RNC, has repeatedly described himself as a “Lincoln Republican.”
Modern-day politicians, for whatever reason, feel a great need to identify with Lincoln. But as I have written many times in the past, comparisons to Lincoln should not fill us with hope but dread.
Most of the “history” of our 16th president is myth. Many of Lincoln’s most famous sayings and phrases are false. And most of his political stances are, in fact, the opposite of what they have been portrayed.
“Anyone who embarks on a study of Abraham Lincoln,” writes Robert W. Johannsen in Lincoln, the South, and Slavery, “must first come to terms with the Lincoln myth. The effort to penetrate the crust of legend that surrounds Lincoln…is both a formidable and intimidating task. Lincoln…requires special considerations that are denied to other figures of his generation.” Because of this, its very difficult for historians to conduct a genuine study of him, as H. L. Mencken wrote in 1931: “Lincoln has become one of our national deities and a realistic examination of him is thus no longer possible.”
And it is these myths that cause politicians, and the general public, to get a warm feeling about Lincoln and the desire to idolize him. Reading glamorous accounts by adoring scholars have only served to worsen this situation.
The real Lincoln, though, is quite different than the myth that has been depicted in history.
I’ve wrote at length about Lincoln’s war policy and his trampling of the Constitution and individual liberties. But his economic policies were just as damaging and deadly to American freedom. Lincoln considered himself an “old Henry Clay tariff Whig,” strictly following the economic program of Alexander Hamilton and Henry Clay, which consisted of high protective tariffs, direct taxes, federally-funded internal improvements, direct subsidies to big business, and a national banking system complete with paper money not backed by gold.
We are now in the midst of a great financial crisis. So if he were president today, what would Lincoln do? Sadly, not that much different than has been done thus far, a major boost in government intervention.
In the area of foreign trade, a huge issue for Lincoln, he was, according to Pat Buchanan, the “Great Protectionist.” He believed, passionately, in the benefits of a high protective tariff, saying on one occasion, “Give us a protective tariff and we will have the greatest nation on earth.” So I’m always amazed at how self-described “Lincoln Republicans,” including Michael Steele and Jack Kemp, are always free traders. Lincoln loathed free trade.
It must be noted, however, that the Republican tariffs during this era were sky-high, with an average rate of more than 50 percent, and were imposed for the benefit of the great industrialists of the North, the backbone of the party. They were essentially campaign payoffs, which enriched one section of the country, the North, while impoverishing another, the South. This was a grievance many Southerners held against the North and a major reason for secession.
But this is one area where Republicans could actually learn something of value from Lincoln but choose to ignore, as free trade continues to eat away at our manufacturing base. Though there may not be any consensus that tariffs should be that high today, practicing fair trade would greatly strengthen our economy.
To derive more revenue for his imperialistic war of subjugation against the South, Lincoln’s Republicans adopted the first income tax in American history. It was a progressive tax with a top rate that eventually reached 10 percent on all incomes over $10,000 a year. So someone making that much annually had a tax bill of $1,000. In those days a house could be purchased for a thousand dollars! Those making as little as $600 annually fell in a 3 percent bracket. The new tax law also imposed excise taxes on every conceivable item and created a new federal bureaucracy to collect the funds, a predecessor to the IRS. And though it was imposed to fund the war, and fitted with a sunset provision to expire in 1872, Republicans never voted to end it, even when hostilities ended in 1865.
Lincoln, like Hamilton and Clay before him, also believed in direct government aid to industry and “investing” in the economy. In short, he would have loved all these federal bailouts. Federally-funded internal improvements, as they were labeled in his time, are what we today call earmarks or pork-barrel projects. A great example of this part of Lincolnian economics was the funding of the transcontinental railroads. In 1862 Congress passed the Pacific Railway Act to finally fund the construction of a rail line to the Pacific Ocean. The South had been the major obstacle in previous congressional attempts, mainly because the proposed routes would not pass through the southern states and such an enterprise was unconstitutional. But with the South out of the way, Republicans were free to spend taxpayer dollars anyway they saw fit.
In all, five transcontinental rail lines were completed in the 19th century. Four received federal government money for every mile of track constructed, but the last of the five, built by James J. Hill, was done with private funding. As a result, according to economist Tom DiLorenzo, Hill’s Great Northern was a “famously efficient and profitable operation” while the government railroads “were so inefficient that they were bankrupt as soon as they were completed.” The subsidized lines were also rife with corruption and produced a major presidential scandal for Ulysses S. Grant, the Credit Mobilier Scandal, where at least a dozen congressmen were bribed by railroad executives. Vice President Schuyler Colfax, a former Speaker of the House, was also implicated and left office in disgrace.
Lincoln also favored central banking and had been a proponent of the old Bank of the United States, which was a forerunner to the federal reserve system we have today. But since Andrew Jackson had killed the Second Bank of the United States in 1836, no national banking system existed in America until Lincoln signed a series of laws creating one in the early 1860s. These nationally-chartered banks also issued paper currency known as “greenbacks” that were not backed by gold. With so much put into circulation, this fiat money was highly inflationary, and by 1864 had lost two-thirds of its value. This caused an unstable monetary supply, something central banking is supposed to prevent. We seem not to have learned any lessons.
So as we can see, Lincoln was, in the words of Professor DiLorenzo, the “Great Centralizer.” He believed that government, not the free market, was the best solution for economic distress and was the best vehicle for economic growth. The only clear reason that conservatives embrace Lincoln is his supposed attachment to racial equality. This is Jack Kemp’s main argument. But this is also a myth. Nothing in Lincoln’s career even suggests he believed in civil rights for blacks. He wasn’t even an abolitionist. Lincoln only moved toward freedom for the slaves when it became militarily expedient to do so. He was adamant on more than one occasion that the war was not being fought to free slaves, ordered commanders to return runaways to their masters, and drafted an Emancipation Proclamation that freed no one.
For conservatives to revere Lincoln is, to borrow from Winston Churchill, “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.” Nothing Lincoln believed is consistent with today’s Republican economic philosophy. Embracing the mantle of Goldwater, Reagan, or even Coolidge would be much more in line with an economic philosophy of free enterprise. We have a party of centralization. Let us now have a party of capitalism.