A Libertarian Lincoln?


The Last Best Hope of Earth: Abraham Lincoln and the Promise of America, by Mark A. Neely Jr., Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 214 pages, $24.95

There can be little doubt that Abraham Lincoln is the most imposing figure in the history of American politics. Washington may be the country's father, Jefferson and Madison its authors, and Wilson and FDR its reinventors. But Lincoln stands tallest as the man who "saved" the union and, not coincidentally, the one who dealt most fully and forthrightly with vexing questions of slavery, individual freedom, and constitutional principles that threatened to destroy the nation he saw as "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

As a result of this stature, the "meaning" of Lincoln is constantly being redefined. For anyone interested in explicating the American experience, the question is not whether Lincoln is important but rather how he matters. Hence, the various and varying uses and interpretations of Lincoln: Democrat Mario Cuomo edits a book of his writings, and the GOP continues to call itself the "party of Lincoln"; southern traditionalist M.E. Bradford likens him to Hitler, while Northeastern fellow-traveler Edmund Wilson compares him to Bismarck and Lenin; conservative Harry Jaffa sees him as a staunch constitutionalist, but neoliberal Garry Wills maintains that, with the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln pulled off a "gentle (if benign) swindle" and substituted a "new constitution" for the old one.

Mark E. Neely Jr.'s The Last Best Hope of Earth: Abraham Lincoln and the Promise of America, a companion publication to the Huntington Library's 1993-1994 exhibit of Lincolniana, is a welcome addition to the existing literature. Neely, who won a Pulitzer Prize for The Fate of Liberty: Abraham Lincoln and Civil Liberties, re-maps heavily explored territory in a way that is consistently fresh and interesting. Though stressing the Civil War period (as befits the subject), Neely explicates the development of Lincoln's political ideology from its Whiggish origins to its Republican terminus. He convincingly debunks many myths—for example, that technology was of primary importance in the Civil War, that Lincoln was a mediocre commander-in-chief, and that he was cavalier about suspending the writ of habeas corpus—and includes an excellent account of the 1864 presidential election campaign. The Last Best Hope is, as one would expect of a book published in conjunction with a museum exhibit, marvelously illustrated, with three thick sections of period photographs, documents, and memorabilia.

Neely also emphasizes a variety of economic and constitutional issues that should be particularly interesting to classical liberals. While intended as a book for the general reader, The Last Best Hope runs deep in its analysis of Lincoln's defense of free enterprise and his related insistence that "if slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong." This Lincoln, to be sure, is not meant to be seen as a 19th-century prologue to Milton Friedman or even Jack Kemp (among other things, Honest Abe was fond of protective tariffs and the labor theory of value), but his recognition of the indivisibility of economic and civil liberties is as relevant in the late 20th century as it was in the mid-19th.

For Neely, Lincoln is "an arch-capitalist" whose "economic ideas were…secondary to the question of slavery" and whose "economic views were elicited by the controversy over slavery." Lincoln, we read, "hated slave expansion for what it would do to the American economy and, more particularly, to free white American laborers, degrading their efforts to rise in life. But mainly he hated the expansion of slavery because he deemed the institution itself immoral." This linkage between capitalism and slavery is subtle but nonetheless crucial to understanding Lincoln's political legacy.

Lincoln's revulsion toward slavery stemmed from an intuitive understanding of natural law, as is evidenced by his reading of the Declaration of Independence. Lincoln took Jefferson's claim that "all men are created equal" at face value; the fact that Jefferson himself had urged the exclusion of slavery from the Northwest Territory was proof enough of the Founding Fathers' contempt for the South's "peculiar institution." Beyond that, slavery was plainly incompatible with the notions of liberty upon which the United States was founded. As Lincoln put it in the 1854 Peoria speech ("his first great speech," according to Neely): "I hate [slavery and its spread] because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world—enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites—causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity."

Despite his recognition of slavery's "great evil," however, Lincoln's ardent constitutionalism originally prevented him from pushing for its abolition in the states in which slavery was already legal. As Neely puts it, "Before the war no prominent Republican, least of all Lincoln, believed that Congress could pass a law emancipating the slaves in any state." For Lincoln, that was a matter to be decided by the individual states. The expansion of slavery to new states and territories, however, was a wholly different matter, and Lincoln consistently opposed all such efforts, believing that the containment of slavery would lead to its eventual extinction. Lincoln realized that this was at best a repulsive compromise, but to have usurped the states' constitutional rights, even in order to outlaw slavery, would have amounted to destroying democracy in order to save it.

Lincoln understood that as long as slavery was considered a "moral right," as opposed to a baneful historical "necessity," no one's liberty was safe. In an 1855 letter to his friend Joshua Speed, Lincoln stressed his contempt for the anti-immigrant Know-Nothing Party on grounds that make this clear. "We began by declaring that 'all men are created equal,"' he wrote. "We now practically read it 'all men are created equal, except negroes'. When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read 'all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics'" (emphasis in original).

Slavery, for Lincoln, was not merely a negative condition that might be extended indefinitely to ever-larger portions of the country. The main reason it was evil was that it fixed an individual's economic and social status forever, even across generations, due to accidents of birth. Lincoln championed a free-enterprise system partly because it provided the means by which people could advance their desires and opportunities. In 1856, responding to a defense of slavery on the grounds that it was a more efficient arrangement of labor and capital than a market system, Lincoln said scornfully that slave owners "insist their slaves are far better off than Northern freemen….They think that men are always to remain laborers here–but there is no such class. The man who labored for another last year, this year labors for himself, and next year he will hire others to labor for him."

Lincoln's thoughts on the matter continued to develop over the years, and in his annual message to Congress in 1861 he laid out the connection between economic and political liberty even more clearly: "The prudent, penniless beginner in the world labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land for himself; then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him. This is the just, and generous, and prosperous system, which opens the way to all—gives hope to all, and consequent energy, and progress, and improvement of condition to all." It has been too long since a chief executive has evinced such a sharply focused understanding of both the ethical and practical arguments for a free-market society.

And in a time when revisionists are wont to reduce major historical figures such as the Founding Fathers and Lincoln to apologists for a racist, elitist political system, The Last Best Hope of Earth, with its subtitled emphasis on "the promise of America," is particularly worth reading. Lincoln realized that the United States was not, as he put it in his December 1862 address to Congress, "the last, best hope of earth" because it was perfect but because it was dedicated to the process, to the promise, inherent in the Declaration of Independence, "that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance." That Lincoln further understood the economic underpinnings required for fulfilling such a promise is especially worth remembering.

Nick Gillespie is assistant editor of REASON.