Monday, July 25, 2016
Book Review: A Just and Generous Nation - Abraham Lincoln and the Fight for American Opportunity, By Harold Holzer & Norton Garfinkle
A Just and Generous Nation: Abraham Lincoln and the Fight for American Opportunity by Harold Holzer and Norton Garfinkle is truly a wonderful addition to Lincoln historiography. The first two-thirds of the book deeply examines Lincoln's economic philosophies and how they effected his prosecution of the war and the evolution of his thoughts on abolition. The last third is a look at how Lincoln's successors - through Barack Obama - have lived up to [or moved away from] Lincoln's credo of creating and maintaining a vibrant American middle-class.
At the outset, the authors argue that - while there were many reasons behind why the Civil War was fought - one of the least examined [with the exception of historians like Eric Foner, for instance] is Lincoln's economic faith in the middle-class. As the authors write, "The prevailing arguments - that the war occurred to preserve the American Union for its own sake, to defend or destroy slavery, or to expand or restrict federal authority - fall short because they do not embrace the full vision for the future held by those engaged in the conflict." The largest such engaged figure, of course, was Lincoln.
Lincoln, himself, was a man of peace. The authors ask, "Why would a basically peaceful man who might as easily have allowed the United States to divide in two, with no resulting loss of life or treasure, choose instead to lead a devastating American-versus-American war to maintain a fragile, still experimental union?" The authors declare that their book has been written to answer that question. The answer? "Lincoln went to war in 1861 to ensure that the middle-class society of the North rather than the aristocratic society of the South would define the future of the nation."
While it's true that the Union was sacred to Lincoln, and that he wanted slavery eventually abolished, the authors write, "Lincoln focused his entire political career, in peace and war alike, in pursuit of economic opportunity for the widest possible circle of hard-working Americans. To achieve this ambition he was willing to fight a war to maintain the perpetual existence of the one nation in the world that held the highest promise for people dedicated to this cause."
And what was the threat? The authors answer, "The toxic combination of secession together with an unending commitment to unpaid human bondage [slavery] by a new and separate confederate nation, [Lincoln] calculated, would be fatal to the American dream. It posed a direct threat to a self-sustaining middle-class society and to the promise of America leading the way to spreading the idea of opportunity and upward mobility throughout the world."
Indeed, the authors claim that Lincoln, "was one of the first American leaders to fully grasp that economic opportunity to rise to the middle-class was, in truth, the defining feature of America. More than any other president, Lincoln is the father of the American Dream that all Americans should have the opportunity through hard work to build a comfortable middle-class life."
By the middle of the 1800s, the authors write, "America was increasingly dividing into two distinct sectional societies. The North was expanding its internal economy, while the South clung to it's highly profitable slave-based agricultural economy, heavily reliant on cotton exports to Great Britain. Two different economies, with different, and in many respects opposed, sets of interests now existed anxiously under one flag. And with the two economies came two different cultures and world views, North and South, one dependent, to be sure, on the output of slaves. The growing sectional divide - the growing crisis between North and South - initially played out as a struggle over economic policy. Only later did it also become an explicit conflict over the morality of slavery."
Lincoln was moved to re-enter politics after passage of Stephen Douglass's Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854. He did so, the authors maintain, to defend what he saw as the Act's threat to the economic system Lincoln saw as critical to the American "way of life". It is important to note that, at this time, Lincoln was no abolitionist. Indeed, it would be nearly ten years before he would become one. Instead, the authors say, "Lincoln's emphasis on slavery's economic consequences was quite different from the argument of the abolitionists of the time, who insisted on immediate action to end slavery and begin the process of establishing racial equality. As Lincoln argued [in a speech on October 16, 1854] in Peoria [Illinois], slavery might remain illegal in the South, but that did not mean it should or could be introduced in the western territories. What set Lincoln apart from many of his northern contemporaries was his refusal to affix sole blame for slavery on white southerners. Had their climates been reversed, he often volunteered, northerners might well have embraced and defended slavery with equal vigor [as their southern brethren]."
A closer look at Lincoln's remarks make clear that he had an unstated but shrewd plan. The authors note, "If slavery was banned forever from the West, then every new state admitted to the Union in the future would be a free state, with each of them sending anti-slavery congressmen and senators to Washington. As often as Lincoln assured southern interests that he would never interfere with slavery where it existed, the slow but sure arrival of an ever-growing western antislavery bloc meant that at some point in the future, there might be sufficient votes on Capitol Hill for Congress to initiate the death knell of slavery with an achievable constitutional amendment to prohibit slavery everywhere. Lincoln understood this potential future tipping point. And it helps explain his seemingly restrained and limited public anti-slavery sentiments: time was on his side, as long as slavery did not spread."
From the beginning of his presidency, with a Republican Congress with strong majorities, the authors note that, "Lincoln signed into law measures decisively strengthening the role of the federal government in American economic life. Lincoln signed the National Banking Act, which not only revived the National Bank that President Jackson had killed in 1833 but also gave the country its first unified currency and created a national system of chartered national banks, replacing the system in which states and state banks created their own money. The 1862 Homestead Act provided 160 acres of inexpensive land to settlers willing to migrate West. Lincoln favored high protective tariffs to encourage the development of domestic manufacturing. He chartered the first transcontinental railroad, which would link the country from East to West coasts, the greatest 'internal improvement' up to that time. He signed the Morrill Act in 1862, which provided states with grants of land to establish colleges, designed to provide useful education to help 'clear the path' for ordinary people to achieve the American economic dream. And these colleges became the basis of the nation's state university system. All these programs were embodiments of what Lincoln believed to be government's legitimate and vital role in building and expanding America's middle-class economy and society."
Perhaps most noteworthy to the authors' thesis that Lincoln's economic policies were central to his legacy, the authors write, "The federal government's stimulus programs under Lincoln provided the basis for the great thrust forward of the new industrial revolution in the northern states both during and after the end of the Civil War. Lincoln's domestic policies provided the first clear example of the positive role that could be played by the federal government to encourage the economic growth of the nation." A precursor, the authors say, that would eventually lead to the policies of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
While no abolitionist in 1860, the new President did differ from most white northerners in the basic tenets of his opposition to slavery. The authors write, "Lincoln's early opposition to slavery was based on his settled conviction that every person - black or white - was entitled to receive full payment for his labor." By 1860 the majority of the nation's white voters, the authors write, "clearly separated slavery, in their minds, into three separate issues: the political issue of preventing the extension of the southern economic system to the territories, the constitutional issue of abolishing slavery in the southern states, and the social issue of equality for African-Americans. Although many were prepared to address the political issue, they were not prepared to address the constitutional and social issues."
But - like any good leader - Lincoln adapted his thinking to changing realities. The authors write that during his first years in the presidency, "Lincoln's change in political tactics was based on military realities that he could not ignore. At the beginning of the war, there had been little substantial support in the North for the immediate abolition of slavery. Moreover, Lincoln had worried that any action he might take on slavery might cause the border slave states still on the Union side to secede and support the southern pro-slavery cause. But by the end of 1862, that fear had amounted to nothing, and it also become clear to most Americans - North and South - that the war would not end quickly. It was also clear that southern slaves could become a substantial asset in support of the northern army. Then and only then did Lincoln decide to emancipate all the slaves 'owned' by southerners in the confederacy and, following the advice of his generals, encourage them to use the freed slaves to support the Union armies in the field. With one stroke of a pen [signing the Emancipation Proclamation], President Lincoln used his power as Commander-in-Chief of American forces to declare more than 80% of all the slaves in the United States, 'then, thenceforth, and forever free'."
Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation is tackled by the authors. The document has been a source of historical debate, particularly since the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s. As the authors write, "Lincoln's leadership in securing emancipation has been viewed through sharply different lenses by different observers at different points in time.…The preliminary Emancipation Proclamation was regarded in its own time with so much trepidation and outright fear that it provoked a Wall Street panic, Union troop desertion, bellicose foreign condemnation, vast racial unease, and a severe political rebuke from the voters at the polls later in 1862. [Yet] after the war Lincoln was so celebrated and closely identified with the achievement of emancipation that many Americans dubbed him 'The Great Emancipator'. But that term is now considered by some historians as politically incorrect, and Lincoln's reputation as an anti-slavery leader has been called repeatedly into question. Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation is viewed by some scholars not as a revolutionary positive step but as delayed, insufficient, and insincere."
In my opinion, to chide Lincoln for being too slow on abolition is to completely misunderstand the political constraints under which he was forced to work. Still, as the authors point out, part of the blame for today's debate over emancipation belongs to Lincoln himself, and the somewhat convoluted way he rolled out the decree. As the authors note, "Modern historians who apply 21st-century mores to a 19th-century man are not the only ones who have made it difficult to see Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation within the context of his own time. Lincoln himself is responsible for much of the confusion. He so complicated the announcement of his proclamation with continuing public arguments for compensation and colonization that it is little wonder the public had trouble then - and has continued to have problems ever since - in discerning his true motivations."
Still, the aforementioned restraints under which Lincoln led the nation are paramount to understanding what happened and appreciating why - and when - Lincoln did what he did. The authors write, "Modern critics - indeed, many abolitionists in his own time - condemned Lincoln for waiting as long as he did to act on emancipation. But direct and immediate action [in 1861] was not likely to produce the desired result. Lincoln had good reason to doubt, [as late as] the summer of 1862, that he possessed either the public or official support, the military power, or the political opportunity to embark on a new, broad anti-slavery policy without risking political ruin and, with it, the fall of the Union. Obfuscation became not only a tactic but a life preserver."
Although when he showed his Cabinet his plans for the Emancipation Proclamation on July 22, 1862, he did so not seeking their approval [for he had already made up his mind], Lincoln still received pushback from Attorney General Edward Bates, Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase, and Secretary of State William Seward. All were afraid of the political fallout [from emancipation] and the fact that, with military losses piling up, the move would appear to be an admission of panic - confirming fears that the Union was at the end of its rope. Here, Lincoln was surprised. As the authors write, "It [the appearance of panic] was 'an aspect of the case', Lincoln later admitted, that he had 'entirely overlooked'. In response, as he later [said], 'I put the draft of the proclamation aside..., waiting for a victory'. Lincoln, in other words, would issue a proclamation only on the heels of a Union victory, when no one could attribute the move to weakness or desperation."
There was another issue: northern whites. For good reason, Lincoln feared a backlash from the North once the proclamation was announced. As the authors write, "Lincoln may have drafted an actual Emancipation Proclamation and read it to his Cabinet, but he sincerely believed that, unless he avoided any appearance of advocating equal rights for the soon-to-be-freed blacks, he would lose so much white support by his action in favor of emancipation that his administration, and with it the Union, would fall....Lincoln understood that the great majority of his northern constituency were not willing to live side-by-side with former slaves, and definitely unwilling to grant them equal rights. The free states of the North were not only free of slaves but almost completely free of African-Americans."
To address white concerns, Lincoln invited a "Deputation of Free Negroes" to the White House on August 14, 1862 to discuss the question of black rights. Or, at least, that's what the attendees [which included Frederick Douglass] thought Lincoln wanted - a discussion. Instead, Lincoln put on a ferocious performance, lambasting his guests for expecting too much and not appreciating what had already been done. It was a tongue-lashing of the highest order. But the audience wasn't the group of men at the White House. As the authors write, "Lincoln made sure his harsh speech against equal rights for Negroes in the United States (delivered during the meeting with black leaders at the White House) did not just leak [to the press] but poured. There's no question that he wanted this message publicized: he had invited journalists to the White House to record his every word (to the leaders) in order to guarantee it's wide circulation. He was not disappointed then, even if the episode may disappoint us now."
Meanwhile, he waited for a Union victory. Then came Antietam on September 17, 1862. The time had come to issue the proclamation. The authors write, "For months, Lincoln had waited. By means of a sometimes baffling web of public relations feints he had made it seem like freedom had finally fallen into the nation's lap thanks to military victory (Antietam). After a summer-long onslaught of statements that variously confused, dismayed, or heartened Americans of all political persuasions, official silence and selected revelations had emerged as Abraham Lincoln's chief weapons in presenting his decision to issue the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863."
From that point forward, Lincoln began his tilt dramatically toward abolishment of slavery throughout the country. A series of Union military victories in the last months of 1864 led Lincoln to secure passage of the 13th Amendment, abolishing slavery. The authors write, "For all his early reluctance, Lincoln was now in the forefront of the struggle to secure the permanent abolition of slavery in the United States. Largely through Lincoln's efforts, public opinion now tilted in favor of the abolition of slavery. But it was clearly not in favor of equal rights for African-Americans in the North as well as the South. And Lincoln chose not to add his voice to support abolitionist efforts to provide equal rights to the newly freed slaves. Ever the believer that public opinion was the ultimate driver of political progress, Lincoln did not challenge directly the supremacist views of the majority of white Americans. Rather, he emphasized that 'in giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free - honorable alike in what we give and what we preserve'. African-Americans were to escape bondage and enter the promised land; their liberation would ensure that a free America would long endure."
Still, most important to Lincoln was the preservation and growth of the American middle-class. His most famous address, at Gettysburg, is examined and cited by the authors as clear evidence of his true driving principles. While some historians have taken Lincoln's comment in the Gettysburg Address regarding "unfinished work" to mean securing equal rights for African-Americans, the authors disagree. They write, "A closer look at Lincoln's words and deeds indicates that Lincoln viewed his 'unfinished work' from a different perspective. Lincoln's deeply held political view was that slavery was immoral because it violated the just position that one person should not own the fruits of the labor of another person - black or white. He was determined to sustain the unique democratic political and economic society of the free northern states as the future of America. Lincoln was equally determined to prevent the extension of slavery to the western territories of the United States - to ensure that the slave system would be put 'in the course of ultimate extinction'. Lincoln believed the western territories had to be free of slavery to fulfill the promise of the exceptional American democratic economic society defined by the Founding Fathers and implemented in the northern states. He believed this American system was unique in the world - that it was the last best hope of mankind." The Gettysburg Address, the authors write, "was also the most complete statement of his commitment to a just and generous nation dedicated to government action to help all its citizens to improve their economic lives. It was the first time he used the phrase 'a new birth of freedom' and the words 'government... for the people, shall not perish from the earth'. Looking to the aftermath of the Civil War, he was defining his and the nation's 'unfinished work' as the new task of providing all citizens a government committed to helping all its citizens build a middle-class life."
Lincoln's assassination - an event certainly recognized as one of the great tragedies in American history - is perhaps still not properly appreciated in how profoundly it altered American history. There is no doubt that a second full Lincoln term would have meant a very different-looking America. After his death, three factions emerged, and each had a different plan for reuniting the country. The authors write first there were the, "Democratic members of Congress [who] believed that white citizens of the former Confederate states should simply re-pledge allegiance to the Union, without committing to economic opportunities such as 'forty-acres and a mule for free blacks'. [Second], within the Republican Party, 'moderates' once led by President Lincoln believed that the central issue in the war was 'restoring' the Union as quickly as possible. The moderates also wanted the former Confederate states to extend the electoral franchise to African-American male citizens. But Lincoln and the moderates did not insist that the southern states take immediate steps to provide equal rights for the now free African-American slaves. Like the Democrats in Congress, Lincoln and the moderate Republicans believed the southern rebel states should be returned to the union after renewed pledges of allegiance to the union by 10% of the voters of each of the rebellious states. The third faction, the radical Republicans, led by Secretary of the Treasury Salmon Chase, Senator Charles Sumner, and congressional leader Thaddeus Stevens, believed Lincoln did not go far enough in his plan for reconstruction of rebellious southern states. The radicals believed that the southern states should be restored to the Union only after they had provided equal rights to the former slaves."
Lincoln's assassination shifted the balance of power on Reconstruction from the president to the radical Republicans in Congress, who largely ignored his successor, Andrew Johnson. The authors write, "Without Lincoln's strong executive leadership, the moderate Republicans could not prevail in their efforts to bring the southern states back into the Union quickly, with a few conditions other than an affirmation of loyalty to the Union by 10% of the voters of each state. The radical Republicans were determined to reconstruct southern states so that former slaves would enjoy equal rights as citizens - including the right to vote. Not incidentally, radical Republicans realized that granting the vote to former slaves, most of whom would probably vote for the party that had liberated them, would help to establish a new Republican presence in the southern states that would maintain Republican Party dominance of the federal government."
Without a strong executive, too, Republicans - both moderate and radical - were faced with what the authors call, "an extraordinarily resistant white south." Indeed, without presidential leadership - either by Johnson or his successors - the post-war years saw few changes in many respects. The authors write, "In spite of Lincoln's hopes for extending the middle-class economy to the South [after the war], the southern economy did not change radically in the decades immediately following the Civil War. The former slaves remained tethered to the land with little opportunity to break away from their subjugated position as sharecroppers. It was only once factory job opportunities opened up in the North during World War One and [World War] Two that substantial black migration from the South occurred. But even then, segregation continued in the North as well as the South until the Supreme Court ruled against segregation in it's landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954 and the civil rights crusade took hold in the 1960s."
The latter half of the 19th century also did not see a growth in America's middle-class, one of Lincoln's great dreams. The authors cite "Social Darwinism" as a major cause in that it led to what is now known as "The Gilded Age". According to the authors, "Social Darwinism integrated the idea of evolution and laissez-faire economics into a new doctrine that not only forbade government intervention in the economy, but also provided a moral justification for harsh working conditions and growing economic inequality....The supposedly scientific concept of Social Darwinism provided the basis for supporting segregation in the North as well as the South as the new dominant pattern of separating white Americans from 'unfit' African-Americans."
The Gilded Age itself, the authors write, saw, "Industrial magnates and the business community enthusiastically [take] up the slogans of laissez-faire - an irony, since at the same time big business lobbied the federal government increasingly energetically for what amounted to millions of dollars in preferential treatment. Lincoln's program of government action to 'clear the path' for the poor and disadvantaged was translated into government action to support wealthy Americans. Federal land grants and loans for the railroad magnates in the tens of millions, high tariffs to protect selected industries, and banking and financial regulations that enabled investors to line their pockets at the expense of the unwitting - such were the policies of the federal government in The Gilded Age. Far from maintaining a scrupulous laissez-faire or 'hands off' attitude, the government had its thumb on the scale on behalf of its richest citizens. Railroad magnates received federal lands at minimal cost. State government troops were provided by local and state governments to prevent strikes and reduce labor unrest. Still, despite its contradictions - even its hypocrisy - laissez-faire came to reign as a kind of official ideology of the era."
A key figure, the authors argue, was Andrew Carnegie, His Gospel of Wealth, they write, "turned Lincoln's dream on its head. In Lincoln's America, the underlying principle of economic life was widely shared 'equality' of opportunity, based on the ideal set forth in the Declaration of Independence. In Carnegie's America, the watchword was inequality and the concentration of wealth and resources in the hands of the few. Whereas in Lincoln's America government was to take an active role in 'clearing the path' for ordinary people to get ahead, in Carnegie's America the government was to step aside and let the 'laws of economics' run their course. Whereas in Lincoln's America the laborer had a right to the fruits of his labor, in Carnegie's America fruits went disproportionally to the business owner and investor as the 'fittest'. Whereas in Lincoln's America the desire was to help all Americans fulfill the dream of the 'self-made man', in Carnegie's America it was the rare exception, the man of unusual talent, that was to be supported. Whereas in Lincoln's America the engine of progress was the laboring of all Americans, in Carnegie's America the true engine of progress was the industrial magnate. Whereas in Lincoln's America government was to be on the side of the laborer, in Carnegie's America government was to be on the side of corporate America. … For decades to come, the struggle over government economic policy would essentially boil down to the question: which was the true vision of America, Carnegie's Gospel of Wealth or Lincoln's dream of a middle-class society?"
The authors then review the presidencies that followed Lincoln's. Not until Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, they argue, would America have a president with Lincoln's outlook. They would resurrect Lincoln's vision and overturn the Gospel of Wealth. The triumvirate of Harding/Coolidge/Hoover, however, then returned the government to the Gospel of Wealth philosophy.
Franklin Roosevelt would then become one of the greatest practitioners of Lincoln's philosophy - taking it to levels Lincoln could have never imagined. Indeed, the authors write, "Through each of his initiatives, Roosevelt had taken Lincoln's vision of a government 'for the people' a major step forward. Lincoln had fought to preserve Americas middle-class economy before industrialization took hold. That vision had foundered in the post-Civil War industrial boom. But now, the Roosevelt administration was creating a modern version of America's middle-class economy, one in which the federal government would protect and support ordinary Americans in an increasingly complex and risky industrial and postindustrial economy."
That model held - with significant additions from Lyndon Johnson - until Ronald Reagan. In returning to the Gospel of Wealth philosophy, the authors write, Reagan, "turned his back on Lincoln's belief in government action to help 'clear the path' for the 'prudent, penniless beginner' to rise to the middle-class. In its place, Reagan promoted a new vision, proposing to curb the size and influence of the federal government and to sharply reduce government regulation of businessmen and corporations engaged in the pursuit of 'wealth'. Reagan paid lip service to Lincoln when he said in his first Inaugural Address that, 'Whoever would understand in his heart the meaning of America will find it in the life of Abraham Lincoln'. But Reagan immediately proceeded to dismantle the underpinnings of the middle-class economy and society that were the heart and soul of Lincoln's 'unfinished work'."
But Reagan did more. The authors note, "More than reshaping fiscal policy, Reagan changed the terms of the economic debate. The social contract advocated by Lincoln and revised by Roosevelt - in which government played a constructive role in building a middle-class economy and society - was transformed into the belief that the government had no such responsibility to ordinary Americans."
After a brief shift back toward Lincoln by Bill Clinton was reversed by George W. Bush, Barack Obama has returned to Lincoln. The overall impact of Reagan's shift, however, has - the authors claim - greatly hampered even a Clinton or an Obama in their efforts to return to Lincoln's vision.
The authors conclude, "More than any other president, Lincoln is the father of the dream that all Americans should have the opportunity through hard work to build a comfortable middle-class life. To Lincoln, the economic, moral, and political elements were inextricably intertwined. Together, they represented what is distinctively American about our economy and democracy."