Friday, August 14, 2009

Lincoln: Conservative or Conman?

What do you think about Abraham Lincoln? 

I know a lot of folks have been drawing parallels between Abe and Barack lately.  And I'm wondering what's up.  Should I resisting such a comparison because Abe was a conservative and Barack is not?  Or should I be lauding it because it puts Abe's socialistic tendencies in focus?

What did Abe believe?  I'm wondering now...  In 1862, in the middle of the Civil War, Lincoln wrote this to Horace Greeley:
"My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all slaves I would do it..." 
Later in the same letter he adds:  "I have here stated my purpose according to my view of Official duty: and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free."

When I read this, I can't help but see this as I wish everyone everywhere was free, but why should I be the one to free them?

For this and other reasons I'm having a hard time seeing Lincoln as a conservative.  For one thing, during his own time Lincoln had many enemies, but one vocal fan was Karl Marx himself.  Marx congratulated Lincoln upon his re-election, saying, among other things,
"it fell to the lot of Abraham Lincoln, the single-minded son of the working class, to lead his country through the matchless struggle for the rescue of an enchained race and the reconstruction of a social world." 
Last week I went to the Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, and they've set up an entire section just on Lincoln's "agricultural vision."  Lincoln founded the Department of Agriculture in 1862, and was quoted as saying "Now I've organized agriculture."  As the exhibit proudly demonstrated, Lincoln's original staff of nine has now blossomed out to 100,000 employees operating on a budget of $95.6 billion per year.  Heil Obama!

Lincoln fought ardently for a centralized bank long before he was president.  Under his watch this centralized bank was established, and issued greenbacks -- currency which was not backed by the gold standard.

After reading through Marx's goals as laid out in the Communist Manifesto (written in 1848), it's pretty sadly amazing to see that we have all of these in our country. 

Here are Marx's goals:

"1. Abolition of property in land and application of all rents of land to public purposes.

"2. A heavy progressive or graduated income tax.

"3. Abolition of all rights of inheritance.

"4. Confiscation of the property of all emigrants and rebels.

"5. Centralization of credit in the banks of the state, by means of a national bank with state capital and an exclusive monopoly.

"6. Centralization of the means of communication and transport in the hands of the state.

"7. Extension of factories and instruments of production owned by the state; the bringing into cultivation of waste lands, and the improvement of the soil generally in accordance with a common plan.

"8. Equal obligation of all to work. Establishment of industrial armies, especially for agriculture.

"9. Combination of agriculture with manufacturing industries; gradual abolition of all the distinction between town and country by a more equable distribution of the populace over the country.

"10. Free education for all children in public schools. Abolition of children's factory labor in its present form. Combination of education with industrial production, etc."

(From <>.)

Given Lincoln's penchant for "organizing agriculture" and centralizing banks, I wonder how many of Marx's goals Lincoln was excited about.  I also wonder how it was that as early as 1839 (before the Manifesto was written or translated) Lincoln was espousing some of the same causes that Marx did. 

Maybe to understand this I've got to dig into what influenced Marx.  Did he invent socialism, or did he, in a role akin to Darwin's, popularize it?  (Which raises a side question: how did Darwin succeed in this where others had failed?  Or had no one else tried to popularize it before he did?)  Here's my guess: both Marx and Lincoln were influenced by German philosophy.  Marx had the advantage of living in the Deutschland, but there were many German immigrants in the Midwest that could have influenced Lincoln during his formative years.  (As an aside, even someone known for her heartwarming stories for children -- Lousia May Alcott -- wrote about the influence of German philsophy near the time of the Civil War.  In Little Women, she writes of a boardinghouse philosophical discussion that sails over Jo's head.  All she can make out is that the men do not believe in God's existence.  Her head goes fuzzy, but Professor Bhaer (bless his heart!) joins the discussion as a bearded fury, defending God and speaking eloquently about his beliefs in Him.  It's possible that the discussion was about Hegel and his ideas.  If Miss Alcott had heard something of German philosophy, it's possible that others -- such as Abe -- had, too).

It's a puzzle.  Perhaps my approach has been lop-sided, but when I was at the Presidential Museum and I read Lincoln's quote about "preserving the Union" being his primary objective, it set me to thinking about Martin's class, and touched off the search that led to this post.  I know there's more to find out and understand, for sure!  When what a man says and what a man does disagree so violently, as in this case, I look at a man's actions to see what he truly believes.

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