The Magazine

The Party of Lincoln

The legacy of the first Republican president.

Feb 16, 2004, Vol. 9, No. 22 • By LEWIS E. LEHRMAN
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

TO REASSESS ABRAHAM LINCOLN on his 195th birthday is to learn a lost truth: During much of his political career, Lincoln focused not on the moral issue of slavery but on economic policy. Yet slavery and economic policy were tightly linked in his worldview.

As Lincoln explained, slavery is grounded in coercion. In commercial terms, involuntary labor is theft. "The ant," he wrote, "who has toiled and dragged a crumb to his nest, will furiously defend the fruit of his labor, against whatever robber assails him. . . . The most dumb and stupid slave, that ever toiled for a master, does constantly know that he is wronged." Slavery differs from free labor as a beast does from a man. Thus, Lincoln assailed slavery on both moral grounds and economic principle. This principle, he asserted, is a truth "made so plain by our good Father in Heaven, that all feel and understand it, even down to brutes and creeping insects."

Lincoln's nationalist economics coincided with the policies of Alexander Hamilton. But we also hear in his speeches echoes of Thomas Jefferson. On his way to Washington, D.C., in early 1861, the president-elect declared in Philadelphia, "I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiment embodied in the Declaration of Independence." Seven years before, he had asserted, "Most governments have been based, practically, on the denial of the equal rights of men. . . . Ours began, by affirming those rights."

But only free labor can exercise equal rights. In 1864--bringing together the central ideas of Hamilton and Jefferson--President Lincoln explained to Ohio soldiers visiting the White House that the Civil War itself was a struggle to create "an open field and a fair chance for your industry, enterprise, and intelligence; that you may all have equal privileges in the race of life." From the war issued the Emancipation Amendments--the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution. This patrimony is the authentic heritage of the Republican party.

From the beginning, America has been different from other nations. Bound together neither by race and blood nor by ancestral territory, Americans inherit but a single legacy: equality under the law and equality of opportunity. Lincoln's equality was equality of opportunity. "I think the authors [of the Declaration] intended to include all men, but they did not intend to declare all men equal in all respects," he said in 1857. "They did not mean to say all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity. They defined with tolerable distinctness, in what respects they did consider all men created equal--equal in certain inalienable rights, among which are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

This is what the emancipator said, and this is what he meant. "We proposed to give all a chance; and we expected the weak to grow stronger, the ignorant, wiser; and all better, and happier together." And so, to be stronger and wiser, Americans have ever been ambitious, at home and abroad, for their liberal democracy. Lincoln, too, was ambitious for American liberal democracy. Indeed, he was history's most ambitious nation-builder, presiding as he did over our most profound war and the preservation of the American Union--the future hope of all liberal democracies. Lincoln's law partner, William Herndon, said Lincoln's ambition was "a little engine that knew no rest." So, too, may it be said of America.

Lincoln was ambitious to use government to good effect. Government, he said, should enable men and women to do the things they cannot do, or do so well, for themselves--in order to develop their freedom, their future, and their country. In his earliest political years, as a state legislator, Lincoln urged that government should be pro-labor and pro-business. During the decades before his presidency, he advocated government support for the creation of canals, railroads, banks, turnpikes, a national bank--all needed to integrate a national market--to the end of increasing opportunity, social mobility, and productivity.

Like Hamilton, the first secretary of the Treasury, and Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky, Lincoln championed an "American system." As an economic nationalist, he advocated a modest tariff to give the competitive advantage to American workers and American firms and to enhance the nation's independence. As a student of banking and monetary policy, Lincoln argued throughout his political career for a sound and uniform national currency.