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'A Just and Generous Nation' casts the Civil War as a philosophical battle

If the South had won the Civil War, what would have happened to the American dream of an upwardly mobile, progressive, and middle class nation?

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    A Just and Generous Nation:
    Abraham Lincoln and the Fight for American Opportunity
    By Harold Holzer and Norton Garfinkle
    Basic Books
    320 pp.
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Yet another new book on Abraham Lincoln tenders a novel supposition (It would have to, wouldn’t it, to see the light of day?). The authors of A Just and Generous Nation: Abraham Lincoln and the Fight for American Opportunity argue that the Civil War was not fought over slavery or to preserve the union per se, that these causa belli “fall short” of fully explaining the bloodiest war in American history.

Their proposition is, in essence, that it was about the economy, stupid (apologies to James Carville, who coined the phrase): that Lincoln saw the struggle as being between two diametrically opposed economic and social systems – that if the South won it would prove fatal to the American dream of an upwardly mobile, progressive, and middle class nation.

The authors state their case in the introduction: “What Lincoln feared most was the spread of the Southern economic system. The fear was that the Southern slave-labor system would drive out free labor, first in the West, then later in the country as a whole.” Lincoln, they maintain, felt that slavery wasn’t only bad for the enslaved, but was also harmful to free white laborers as they strove to improve their lot.

Lincoln himself, of course, had been just such an aspiring white worker. Before making his mark in the world, he famously toiled as a rail-splitter and a field hand on his father’s hardscrabble farm. In offering him as the personification of the American Dream, the authors cite no less an authority than Ralph Waldo Emerson, who in his eulogy to Lincoln in 1865 proclaimed: “This middle-class country had got a middle-class President, at last.”

If they belabor their main thesis at times, authors Harold Holtzer, a Lincoln historian, and Norton Garfinkle, an economist, succeed in presenting a thought-provoking case, quoting Lincoln extensively to buttress their analysis. In his first Annual Message to Congress in 1861, the yearling president sounds positively Marxist in explaining his affinity for the working man: “Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not existed first. Labor is superior to capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”

Not all of the quotations are flattering. Lincoln shared some of the prejudices of his contemporaries: He insisted in his 1858 debates with Senator Stephen Douglas that he was not trying to promote social and political equality between blacks and whites. But in the same forum he proclaimed the two races to be equals when it came to enjoying the fruits of their labor.

Indeed, one of the aspects of slavery that most galled Lincoln was that the institution represented the theft of honest toil from millions of human beings. In his Second Inaugural Address, Lincoln pointed out that both sides in the great conflict read the Bible and prayed to the same God, but added this qualifier: “It may seem strange that any men should dare ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not that we be not judged.”

Lincoln support of government “for the people” was not merely rhetorical. He believed in activist policies that, as he put it, “cleared the path” for the nation's citizens to advance and prosper. In the Illinois General Assembly he supported state spending on infrastructure such as canals and bridges. He also tried to broaden the franchise, even proposing that women be allowed to vote.

As President he resurrected the national bank, which Andrew Jackson had torpedoed 30 years earlier. He signed the Homestead Act that offered land and opportunity for settlers heading west; the Morrill Act provided states with federal land grants to establish colleges that would become the foundation of America’s modern state university system. His administration implemented the first graduated income tax and chartered the transcontinental railroad.

In fact, this book could well have been titled “America’s First Modern Progressive President.” The authors spend their last 70-plus pages, nearly one third of the book, tracing Lincoln’s legacy right up to 2015, presenting compelling evidence that, while the Republican Party may claim him as their founding father, the 16th president is, philosophically, much closer  to Franklin Roosevelt than Ronald Reagan. 

The authors point out that in a speech at the 1988 Republican National Convention, President Reagan (the Great Communicator) invoked the Great Emancipator to justify his policies by reciting what he described as Lincoln’s most enduring maxims. The crowd went wild, but it turned out that the words were not Lincoln’s, nor did they accurately represent his beliefs. The party of the man who freed the slaves is no longer the home of African-American voters, and hasn’t been since Roosevelt got more than 70 percent of the black vote in 1936.

If their brief is not completely convincing, the authors do amply illustrate that Abraham Lincoln was more than just a war president or an anti-slavery president. His accomplishments in those areas may have obscured his strengths as an economic theorist and policy maker.

Nothing, however, could obscure the glory of Lincoln’s phrasing. In his Second Annual Message to Congress, he wrote: “In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free – honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best, hope of earth.”

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