Abraham Lincoln struggled all his life with what appears to have been clinical depression. During one grim bout that spanned 1840-1841, a friend stripped the future president’s lodgings of razors and sharp knives to prevent self-harm. The young Lincoln spent hours seeing a doctor; always beanstalk-thin, he emerged from treatment looking skeletal from stress. “I am now the most miserable man living,” he wrote.
Perhaps his “melancholy,” as it was called then, reinforced the sympathy for underdogs forged by Lincoln's childhood poverty. Lincoln knew first-hand the depressing clawing for survival among those born into want, to the exclusion of things like learning. (Historians believe his frosty relations with his father — Lincoln declined to visit the dying man and skipped his funeral — owed much to Thomas Lincoln’s disdain for his son’s bookishness.) Escaping subsistence through talent and hard work, Lincoln fils knew that privileged people who considered the poor to be idle bums were ignorant. That insight changed history.
Lincoln... knew that privileged people who considered the poor to be idle bums were ignorant. That insight changed history.
When he won the White House, Lincoln didn’t just fight a civil war that ended slavery. He also waged war against inequality, overseeing “the nation's first positive use of the federal government's powers to combat the social ills” of industrialization, as one historian wrote. Laws Lincoln signed “to create a better material condition for the worker,” while primitive compared to today’s federal bureaucracy, were the predicate for modern labor rights and safety nets under FDR, Lyndon Johnson and Barack Obama. He and his Republicans, the progressive party in Lincoln’s day, overrode criticism that federal meddling in the economy was profligate and unconstitutional.
Sound familiar? Today’s debates rehash our ancestors’. Presidents' Day is an apt time to reflect on Lincoln’s lessons for the modern GOP, led by a president who pays lip service to his blue-collar base while pushing ideas that would hurt it.
Heather Cox Richardson, a Boston College historian, says the first Republicans embraced several policies to develop the U.S. economy in ways they believed would benefit both business and workers. Two had been vetoed by the Democratic mediocrity who preceded Lincoln, James Buchanan: The Homestead Act, giving free government land out west to pioneers sturdy enough to farm it for five years, and a Land Grant College Act, doling out more land to states for public universities that would educate “the sons of toil,” as the sponsoring congressman put it.
With secession and Civil War peeling southern Democrats away from Congress, Republicans passed those laws for Lincoln to sign. Homestead was imperfect; the cost of relocating west was often prohibitive, even with free land, and loosey-goosey oversight enabled wealthy speculators to grab many acres. Still, more than one million farmers took deed to their land, the last in Alaska in the 1980s. An author who analyzed failed government programs put the Homestead Act in his chapter on successes.
The Land Grant Act made that chapter, too. Lincoln believed education was “the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in.” Though not as affordable as they once were, state schools’ in-state tuition remains a bargain compared to top private universities, and public schools are essential if we’re to broaden college access, itself essential to taming inequality.
Two other Lincoln initiatives are, ironically, embraced by Donald Trump. A lifelong supporter of public works, the Railsplitter signed bills to construct the transcontinental railroad, which provided thousands of laboring jobs and created a national marketplace. Trump also wants to invest in our transit, roads and bridges, and there’s no doubt we need to do that. But his idea of privatizing some of that work could build a bridge to cronyism. He should learn from the transcontinental railroad; pursuing that worthy goal without sufficient federal oversight contributed to fraud in its construction.
Trump’s second shared enthusiasm with Lincoln is protectionism. Whether U.S. economic growth in the postbellum world happened because of or despite protectionism will be debated by experts forever. But whatever your views on trade, it’s clear that Lincoln genuinely believed that heavy tariffs on imports would promote American goods and benefit American workers. But today’s GOP, a ménage à trois of establishment Reaganites, Tea Party libertarians, and populist alt-righters, with evangelicals sprinkled in several camps, rejects government activism for the common people.
Lincoln was no Marxist... His pioneering prudent government intervention on behalf of the needy simply affirmed that we should try to live by what he called the better angels of our nature.
Trump’s mix of populism and right-wing ideology — shutting out immigrants, tilting tax cuts toward the rich, and repealing Obamacare — can only produce unpleasant economic consequences for working-class voters expecting him to be their champion. By contrast, Lincoln and his peers, Richardson writes, “recoiled from the idea of government as a prop for the rich” and insisted “that a healthy economy depended on widespread prosperity.”
Lincoln was no Marxist. He’d been a railroad lawyer and extolled individual initiative. His pioneering prudent government intervention on behalf of the needy simply affirmed that we should try to live by what he called the better angels of our nature. The Republican now in Lincoln’s chair is governing with appeals to the enduring demons of fear and prejudice.