The acclaimed Lincoln scholar and an economist make the argument that Abraham Lincoln worked tirelessly to maintain economic opportunity for all people—a “right to rise” concept that has been sacred to politicians from then to the present.
Lincoln wasn’t exactly an abolitionist, write Holzer (Lincoln and the Power of the Press, 2014, etc.) and Garfinkle (Future of American Democracy Foundation), but he envisioned that all Americans could embrace the “American dream,” from rags to riches as he had—even African-Americans. The authors concentrate their study on evidence of speeches and acts of Lincoln’s presidency that demonstrated his pursuit of “economic opportunity for the widest possible circle of hardworking Americans.” Lincoln hoped to extend Northern middle-class society into the new territories, and he abhorred the Southern aristocratic mindset that was opposed to social mobility through tariffs and internal improvements—e.g., public investment in infrastructure. New Western territories were, for Lincoln, meant for poor whites to “go and better their condition” and not for the spread of an institution, though protected by the Constitution, that restricted social mobility and depressed wages. The authors carefully sift Lincoln’s speeches, beginning in 1854 with his shrewd political calculation that restricting slavery in the Western territories would mean that at some point in the near future, the “slow but sure arrival of an ever-growing western anti-slavery bloc” would spell the end of slavery in Congress. Time was on Lincoln’s side, and he recognized that the nation “will become all one thing or all the other.” Moreover, he used his own autobiography to sell the “self-made man” story, as the poor farmer’s son who had scant education but huge motivation to better himself. In the second half of this compelling study, Holzer and Garfinkle trace how subsequent presidents managed this vastly changing postwar economic system and the shift from independent artisans to mills and factories.
A well-honed work of driving focus, particularly timely in this new era of economic inequality.