Rethinking Lincoln

It’s a good thing they teach geography in junior high, if they still do, because kids have some odd spatial ideas about the world. If you grew up in Pittsburgh – some of us actually did – you thought of Pennsylvania as two large cities with absolutely nothing in-between. There was Pittsburgh on one end and Philadelphia on the other, and some sort of mysterious deep and dark woods in the middle, where no one lived and nothing ever happened. Later you’d discover the state capital was there in the middle, Harrisburg, but kids don’t follow politics, and no one follows state politics. Harrisburg might even have been a hypothetical city someone made up – no one you knew had ever been there – but later you’d find out that those odd green bottles of Rolling Rock beer, which was pretty good stuff, came from somewhere in the middle there, and that they’d put Penn State somewhere out there, in the mysterious middle, near nothing, probably to punish the students, or keep them out of trouble. This might have to do with something from history class – around 1680 or so, Charles II couldn’t pay back William Penn all the money that Penn had leant the crown, so he gave William Penn the place, as a land grant, naming it Pennsylvania – Penn’s Woods. It’s still mostly woods – with a big city on either end – and nothing much happens in the woods. In the seventies there was that meltdown at the Three Mile Island nuclear plant near Harrisburg, but everyone had to look up the place on the map.

The only famous place in the middle is Gettysburg, the site of the famous Civil War battle, the massive battle that pretty much decided that war. That’s as far north as the South ever got, and they lost. Our curious and uneasy amalgamation of all sorts of vaguely autonomous states would stand. After that, there would be a United States, still. That’s also where Abraham Lincoln gave his famous Gettysburg Address – which we all had to memorize in junior high. Luckily, it’s very short. We didn’t think about it much – we were just kids after all. You roll your eyes and do what you’re told. If it’s so damned important you can come back to it later. Grown-ups think about big ideas. Kids don’t.

Adults return to that address, given on the afternoon of Thursday, November 19, 1863, four and a half months after the battle, and this month, exactly one hundred and fifty years ago. The folks at the Patriot-News – an obscure newspaper from that mysterious middle of Pennsylvania – decided this was the year to finally apologize for their editorial the day after Lincoln spoke and retract that editorial:

Our predecessors, perhaps under the influence of partisanship, or of strong drink, as was common in the profession at the time, called President Lincoln’s words “silly remarks,” deserving “a veil of oblivion,” apparently believing it an indifferent and altogether ordinary message, unremarkable in eloquence and uninspiring in its brevity.

In the fullness of time, we have come to a different conclusion. No mere utterance – then or now – could do justice to the soaring heights of language Mr. Lincoln reached that day. By today’s words alone, we cannot exalt, we cannot hallow, we cannot venerate this sacred text, for a grateful nation long ago came to view those words with reverence, without guidance from this chagrined member of the mainstream media.

So Lincoln’s words were not silly remarks deserving a veil of oblivion. What Lincoln said was not “unremarkable in eloquence and uninspiring in its brevity.” That’s good to know. It took them long enough, darn it, but better late than never, even if this was a bit of a PR stunt. Their retraction did make the news everywhere, if only as a curiosity. Now people have actually heard of the Patriot-News, for better or worse. But all publicity is good publicity. Ask Paris Hilton. Ask Charlie Sheen.

People are also thinking about the Gettysburg Address again, which has more to do with the nice round number of years attached to the anniversary of the speech than with that retraction from the Harrisburg newspaper. Kids used to have to memorize it, and maybe still have to memorize it, because it is all of what America is about, distilled into a very few easy words. It’s the Cliff Notes version of America – the proposition that all men are created equal and we have a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, and we ought to keep that going.

That’s simple enough, but in the America Conservative, Richard Gamble says historical context matters too, as this speech was something new, when a “the wartime president fused his epoch’s most powerful and disruptive tendencies – nationalism, democratism, and German idealism – into a civil religion indebted to the language of Christianity but devoid of its content.”

Gamble puts Lincoln’s speech in the context of the political movements and big philosophic ideas of the middle nineteenth century, which he discusses, but the more interesting contention is that Lincoln decided to offer us what amounts to a civil religion. Perhaps Lincoln started all this talk of American exceptionalism, which now is a bit of a religion for us. We do seem to accept the premise of American exceptionalism as a matter of faith, as a basic unquestioned tenet, all empirical evidence to the contrary – at least those on the right do. Why else would those on the right be so angry that Obama is always apologizing for America, even if Obama never actually does that? This is Christianity devoid of its content – the idea of America, not Jesus, is the object of worship – but this is worship nonetheless.

That’s an odd idea, but Gamble can explain how this works:

For anyone who does not already know something specific about the Civil War, the speech creates no picture in the mind. It could be adapted to almost any battlefield in any war for “freedom” in the 19th century or thereafter. Perhaps the speech’s vacancies account for its longevity and proven usefulness beyond 1863—even beyond America’s borders. Lincoln’s speech can be interpreted as a highly compressed Periclean funeral oration, as Garry Wills showed definitively in his 1992 book Lincoln at Gettysburg. But unlike Pericles’ performance, this speech names no Athens, no Sparta, no actual time, place, people, or circumstances at all.

Into this empty vessel Lincoln poured the 19th-century’s potent ideologies of nationalism, democratism, and romantic idealism. Together, these movements have become inseparable from the modern American self-understanding. They have become part of our civil religion and what we likewise ought to call our “civil history” and “civil philosophy” – that is, religion, history, and philosophy pursued not for their own sake, not for the truth, but deployed as instruments of government to tell useful stories about a people and their identity and mission.

That is blaming Lincoln for the neoconservative with their Project for a New American Century with its simple premise. We had seen the End of History and had come out on top, the sole remaining superpower, so we could do what we wanted and could simply remake the world into what it was supposed to be, and we should, by force. This would be OUR century. After all, no nation has ever had the power we have now, exclusive power, really, and we could do some good in the world with it, spreading that fine Western liberal democracy stuff, the best thing that ever was, as shown by the process of elimination. That is to blame Lincoln for the Iraq War, although Gamble doesn’t do that – he only implies that. Gamble is more interested in arguing that Lincoln was redefining America, as Lincoln put in his speech, as a nation dedicated to a “proposition” that all men were created equal, which has proved a bit problematic:

Embedded in the Gettysburg Address, the proposition defined the making of America and why it fought a costly war. We cannot know how Lincoln would have wielded the proposition in pursuit of America’s postwar domestic and foreign policy; his death in 1865 left that question open, as Republicans and even Democrats used the martyred president and his words to endorse everything from limited government to consolidated power, from anti-imperialism to overseas expansion. Under all this confusion, however, Lincoln’s propositional nation helped move America from the old exceptionalism to the new. He helped America become less like itself and more like the emerging European nation-states of mid-century, each pursuing its God-given benevolent mission.

A propositional nation like Lincoln’s is “teleocratic,” in philosopher Michael Oakeshott’s use of the word, as distinct from “nomocratic.” That is, it governs itself by the never-ending pursuit of an abstract “idea” rather than by a regime of law that allows individuals and local communities to live ordinary lives and to find their highest calling in causes other than the nation-state. Lincoln left all Americans, North and South, with a purpose-driven nation.

The problem is with that word “proposition” – anyone who uses that word sooner or later becomes, for better or worse, an idealist out to change the world, everywhere. There’s no living ordinary lives and finding our highest calling in causes other than the nation-state, if the nation-state explicitly proposes a condition for all people that has not yet been met, everywhere. Lincoln turned us into a nation of meddling busybodies, not live-and-let-live Canadians. Generations of school-kids learned that Gettysburg speech by heart, as if it were a religious text, which it might be, in its way. The Harrisburg Patriot-News was apologizing for it apostasy. We stone heretics, symbolically of course, on Fox News. It’s our version of Sharia Law.

All this may be nonsense, or at least reading far too much into Lincoln’s short speech, but who we are as a nation comes from two main figures, Washington and Lincoln, who we are always reconsidering, as if these two long-dead guys can help us now. Edward McClelland, the author of Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President (as in the 1939 movie Young Mr. Lincoln with Henry Fonda as Honest Abe), considers that, and argues that where we are today, with a disappearing middle class and income inequality off the charts and far worse than anywhere else in the developed world, can be traced back to Washington seeing things one way, and then Lincoln coming along and seeing things entirely differently. These two men still matter. You side with one or you side with the other:

George Washington, our first president, and Abraham Lincoln, our 16th, are the twin icons of that office. Their portraits are side by side in our wallets, in our change purses and on classroom walls during Presidents’ Day observances. Yet they represent different visions of an American economic order, differences that persist to this day. Washington stood for a system in which one man enriches himself by skimming off the excess value of his underlings’ work. Lincoln stood for the principle that every worker is entitled to the full value of his own labor. Call it the battle between Washingtonomics and Lincolnomics. From the founding of this country up until the Civil War, Washington’s order was dominant. It’s been dominant in our era, too, ever since Washington’s native South regained control of the federal government in the 1970s.

If you want to understand why the United States has never achieved the same level of economic equality as other industrialized nations, you have to look back at Washington’s life and career. And then you have to look back even further, to Washington’s ancestors, who settled Virginia. You’ll find that inequality was one of this nation’s founding principles.

McClelland cites David Hackett Fischer’s Albion’s Seed: Four British Folkways in America and reads it this way:

Fischer argued that American slavery did not result in a stratified society, but was established in order to create one. The early Virginia settlers were the second and third sons of aristocratic families in the south and west of England, and they intended to enjoy in the New World the lifestyle that primogeniture had denied them on their fathers’ manors in the Old. At first, they tried to enslave the Natives. When that failed, they imported Africans.

“Virginia’s ruling elite required an underclass that would remain firmly fixed in its condition of subordination,” Fischer wrote. “The culture of the English countryside could not be reproduced in the New World without this rural proletariat.”

From its origins in America’s first colony, this aristocratic system spread throughout the entire South. Its success could be found “in the small and very powerful class of landed gentry, in the large majority of landless tenants and laborers, in the minority status of its middle class, in the general level of wealth inequality… in the magnitude of poverty and in the degradation of the poor.”

As a result of the Virginians’ social engineering, the United States became a colonial nation in which a European-elite has traditionally dominated a combination of indigenous people and descendants of Africans imported to work as slaves. We’re a first-world country and a third-world country, coexisting within the same borders.

Washington believed in and came from a class that believed in the One Percent, as those were the only folks who mattered. George is back in vogue now, but Abe Lincoln wasn’t like that at all:

Abraham Lincoln’s entire life was shaped by disagreements with the Southern planter class, to which Washington and most of our early presidents belonged. When Lincoln was seven years old his family moved from Kentucky to Indiana to escape the fate of the small farmer squeezed between planter and slave. Lincoln’s father eventually settled on a 120-acre farm near Charleston, Ill., where he raised corn and chickens. Despite his popular image as the Rail-Splitter, Lincoln hated the rustic life, and moved to Springfield, where he became a respectable, but not wealthy, lawyer. His two-story house on Eighth Street would not look out of place in a modern suburb.

In Lincoln’s home territory of Central Illinois, many voters hated slavery and African-Americans for the same reason: because both plantation owners and free African-Americans undercut the price of white labor. Lincoln belonged to a middle class of independent professionals and tradesmen that was growing in the North, but was incompatible with the plantation society in the South, and he knew how to appeal to its anxieties.

And that’s exactly what Lincoln did:

During his campaigns for the Senate and the presidency, Lincoln argued that African-Americans deserved economic, but not social, equality. In his debates with Sen. Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln declared that he did not believe African-Americans should be allowed to vote, or serve on juries, or hold office, or marry whites. He did believe that African-Americans had as much right to the fruits of their own labor as whites, that slavery was “a form of theft,” and that a society divided into permanent classes of masters and servants was doomed to medieval stagnation, because workers would have no motivation to better themselves. At the bottom of Lincoln’s moralizing was this message to white voters: If the black man can be made to work for nothing, so can you.

That switches myths around. Lincoln didn’t want to free the black man. He had a beef with capitalism itself, or at least with the idea of exploiting workers, and for a time he won:

As president, Lincoln oversaw a war that destroyed the power of the Southern plantation owners with whom he had so long quarreled. His victory lasted just over 100 years, until the Southern states regained control of the federal government, and began re-imposing Washington’s aristocratic way of life on the nation.

And that’s where Henry Ford and Sam Walton come in:

Born in what is now Detroit during the Civil War, Ford understood the value of an economically empowered workforce. He turned traditional economic assumptions upside down by treating laborers not as commodities, but potential customers. Before Ford, planters and industrialists had profited by paying the lowest possible wages and charging the highest possible prices. Ford doubled his employees’ wages, to $5 a day, and used assembly-line efficiencies to produce cars they could afford to buy. His philosophy, which came to be known as Fordism, was fundamental to the development of the modern middle class. And although Ford resisted labor unions, once the United Auto Workers was forced on him by two Lincolnian politicians – President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Michigan Gov. Murray Van Wagoner – he granted it the most generous contract of any automaker, even allowing dues check-offs and the closed shop.

Sam Walton built his business on a plantation model with which Washington would have been familiar. The merchant opened his first Wal-Mart stores in Arkansas, Oklahoma and Missouri, paying wages that were low even for a region accustomed to extremes of wealth. He started his cashiers at 50 cents an hour – half the minimum wage – on the grounds that the law applied only to businesses with 50 employees or more, and each of his stores was more lightly staffed than that. Wal-Mart cashiers got raises only when the Labor Department stepped in. Like Washington’s tobacco plantation, Walton’s stores were labor-intensive operations that could only turn a profit if workers were bargained down to the lowest possible nickel. Walton’s product was low prices, which were possible only if his workers earned low wages. Undistracted by war or politics, Walton did Washington better, becoming the wealthiest man in America, with a fortune of $20 billion – the surplus he skimmed off the labor of 1.1 million employees. Wal-Mart also became the largest employer in the U.S., displacing General Motors, which practiced Fordism on an even larger scale than Ford.

That’s as good a contrast as any, and McClelland also cites Michael Lind with this:

For generations Southern economic policymakers have sought to secure a lucrative second-tier role for the South in the national and world economies, as a supplier of commodities like cotton and oil and gas and a source of cheap labor for footloose corporations. This strategy of specializing in commodities and cheap labor is intended to enrich the Southern oligarchy. It doesn’t enrich the majority of Southerners, white, black or brown, but it is not intended to. Contrary to what is often said, the “original sin” of the South is not slavery, or even racism. It is cheap, powerless labor.


For a long time, that was a regional economic strategy, but once the South recaptured the federal government, it attempted to spread that ethos throughout the entire nation – with great success, as evidenced by today’s weak labor laws and lagging minimum wages. Wal-Mart could not have broken out of its cradle in Dixie and become the nation’s dominant retailer without those policies. Even Indiana and Michigan, once-reliable redoubts of free labor, recently became right-to-work states, putting themselves on the same page as every member of the old Confederacy.

The core principle of Lincoln’s political career (as opposed to his presidency) was preventing the spread of slavery into the territories and the Northern states, where it would undermine free labor.

That leaves us with the heir of Lincoln:

Barack Obama is the first president elected from a Northern, industrial state since John F. Kennedy – from Lincoln’s own Illinois, in fact. Much has been made of that fact that Obama fulfilled the advances in racial equality that Lincoln began. But Lincoln didn’t free the slaves with the idea that one of them would become president. He gave them their freedom to prevent their unpaid labor from undercutting the middle class.

All this may be nonsense too, but history can be instructive, or at least diverting. It may also provide a way to think about the current gridlock in Washington, with the disputes about Obamacare and immigration reform that will never be settled, along with so much. Those disputes could be the proxies of Washington and Lincoln still fighting it out. And if Michele Bachmann or Sarah Palin or anyone else on the right starts screaming about American exceptionalism, again, and about how Obama just doesn’t get it, forgive them – they memorized the Gettysburg Address in the eighth grade and never grew up. And as for that vast empty middle of Pennsylvania, do visit there if you get a chance. Nothing much really happens in those endless fields and forests, and that’s kind of pleasant.

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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1 Response to Rethinking Lincoln

  1. Rick says:

    Some thoughts:

    “[Gettysburg’s] as far north as the South ever got, and they lost.”

    Actually, at some point they raided St. Albans, a small town in Vermont, maybe just to prove they could and that nobody in the North was safe. But it was a waste of time and effort, since hardly anybody noticed.

    As for the “Project for a New American Century” and “This would be OUR century.“:

    I think their idea was that, because we had “saved the world” in WWI and WWII, and presided over the collapse of so much of World Communism, many people called the 20th Century “The American Century”, but as this new century approached, there was fear that our time had passed, so the “Project for a New American Century” was a way of putting that idea to rest. Whether any of that was (and is true), of course, has yet to be determined, but I think that was the thinking of all those neocons in their “New American Century” thing.

    I find the idea that the Gettysburg Address espoused “American Exceptionalism” a bit odd. I may, once again, be misunderstanding this “Exceptionalism” thing, but it seems to me it’s the belief that America is the “greatest country in the history of the world”, obviously better than everyone else — the inference being that we don’t have to follow all the rules that everyone else does. In other words, it’s an “anti-foreign” thing, which I think is not at all what Lincoln was trying to get at.

    “That switches myths around. Lincoln didn’t want to free the black man. He had a beef with capitalism itself, as at least with the idea of exploiting workers…”

    Okay, try this instead:

    Just as Europe’s “dark ages”, a time when aristocracy lorded over serfs and there was no middle class — was replaced with the “Renaissance”, in which serfs left the countryside to build an economy in villages and towns, and in so doing, created a middle class — the 1860s in this country was our “Renaissance”, in which a nation who’s economy was largely weighted down by unpaid labor, had to suffer a shakeout before the middle-class could really come into its own. This wasn’t so much a beef with capitalism as an overthrow of America’s feudalism that was keeping American capitalism from coming into its own. In a word, we Americans were “late bloomers”.

    And yes, there probably was that additional problem Whites had with “freed” African-Americans, in that they held down wages, much in the same way that some Americans today have a problem with so-called “illegal aliens”, said to be doing the same, but it can’t be overlooked that Northern Whites actually joined the American army, and fought for a cause that would inevitably free Southern African slaves — in effect, allowing even more freed Africans into the labor market.

    As for those slightly cynical Washingtonism vs Lincolnism economic theories — particularly when it comes to Washington, by example, representing the slave economy, and Lincoln being a racist who only cared about the White worker, and who didn’t believe in giving the vote to black people — it might not give quite enough credit to the idea that people change as they get older; specifically, in Washington making the unusual decision to not break apart his slave families by selling them, but instead turning Mount Vernon into an “old slaves home” until he died, at which point he set his slaves free; and, in a reversal of thinking, Lincoln, giving a speech a few days before his murder in which he promoted voting rights for blacks (attending that speech, John Wilkes Booth reportedly decided to go ahead with his assassination plot). It should also be noted that Frederick Douglass himself once said, about meeting with Lincoln, “In his company, I was never reminded of my humble origin, or of my unpopular color”.

    But other than that, I guess this Washington-Lincoln dichotomy theory seems to hold up, particularly when it comes to describing the South.

    I know I only moved down here to Georgia because Ted Turner decided in 1979 he wanted to start a cable network, and felt he could not have done it in New York City, where all his competitors are located — not just because of the lower wages, and Georgia being a right-to-work state, but because of construction permits and regulations that might have held up his project for years. As it was, I’m pretty sure it was about a year from the time Ted decided to do this, to CNN going on the air on June 1, 1980.

    And it’s not just CNN, but both the Weather Channel and Home Depot started that same year in Atlanta, and in other years, a number of car factories and Waffle House. These are companies that began here — or in the case of UPS, moved here — because there was a vacuum that could not be filled in more developed parts of the country, in much the same way that Japan, and later Korea and Taiwan and China, attracted Western manufacturing decades ago.

    And I’m sure, just as Japan and the rest became more “civilized” by a workforce that demanded better pay and working conditions, the same will happen here, mitigating the attraction of the place. In time, vacuums are filled and all things even out.

    But yeah, that Washington-Lincoln thing is an interesting theory of history.


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