Magazine article The Christian Century

A Just and Generous Nation: Abraham Lincoln and the Fight for American Opportunity

Magazine article The Christian Century

A Just and Generous Nation: Abraham Lincoln and the Fight for American Opportunity

Article excerpt

A Just and Generous Nation: Abraham Lincoln and the Fight for American Opportunity

By Harold Holzer and Norton Garfinkle

Basic Books, 311 pp., $27.99


We are, happily, not finished with Abraham Lincoln, nor shall we ever be. Lincoln's singular combination of principle, passion, and cunning makes him a continuing reference point for our democratic future. Because he was exceedingly cagey on the execution of the Civil War, deliberately ambiguous about policy, and capable of continuing growth, it is not easy to determine his political intention at every turn. His war policy at the outset was designed not to "free the slaves," but to "preserve and maintain the union." Harold Holzer and Norton Garfinkle propose that Lincoln's fundamental cause was for "free labor."

Lincoln had in purview both his own hard scrabble life in his early days and the life of his unsuccessful father. Lincoln meant by "free labor" that every American should be free to advance to the "middle class" and to enjoy the fruit of his own labor. Labor's produce should not be siphoned off to support non-laborers (the ownership class) in a way that denies prosperity to those who do labor.

Lincoln's political aim was to assure that states added to the Union in the west remained free from slavery. His reasoning was twofold: slave labor competes unfairly with free labor, and slave labor denies the slaves prosperity from their own labor. The task, to prevent any more slave states, tacitly recognized that slavery could not continue in a Union with a growing and disproportionate number of states assuring free labor.

At the same time, Lincoln fully respected the constitutional guarantees for slavery in the southern states. He was for some time no advocate of abolition. He eventually justified the emancipation of slaves as a military necessity that was otherwise precluded by the Constitution.

But he kept his eye on the new states that must be free for free labor. Thus Lincoln declared in 1861: "Labor is prior to, and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration." And in 1864 he averred:

   The world has never had a good definition of the word liberty,
   and the American people, just now, are in want of one. We
   all declare for liberty; but in using the same word we do not
   all mean the same thing. With some the word liberty may
   mean for each man to do as he pleases with himself, and the
   product of his labor; while with others the same word may
   mean for some men to do as they please with other men, and
   the product of other men's labor.

Lincoln stated clearly in his "house divided" rhetoric that the Union could not tolerate the democratic practice of free labor and at the same time the aristocratic practice of slave labor that offered unfair competition. Thus, Holzer and Garfinkle contend, the war was fought in order to create a venue for free labor that would not need to compete with an ownership class that lived off the labor of others.

The authors trace the complex political and military steps whereby Lincoln shepherded the Union "to the proposition that all men are created equal"--both equal in opportunity and equal in the chance to enjoy prosperity from free labor. Lincoln saw "that slavery was immoral because it violated the just position that one person should not own the fruits of the labor of another person--black or white. …

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