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July 09, 2016


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Ah, yes, every conservative's favorite fake Lincoln quotation. I've seen it on Facebook.

The apocryphal quote is only a bit more mildly laissez faire than a genuine quotes from Lincoln:

"Property is the fruit of labor...property is desirable...is a positive good in the world. That some should be rich shows that others may become rich, and hence is just encouragement to industry and enterprise. Let not him who is houseless pull down the house of another; but let him labor diligently and build one for himself, thus by example assuring that his own shall be safe from violence when built."
The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume VII, "Reply to New York Workingmen's Democratic Republican Association" (March 21, 1864), pp. 259-260

"I don't believe in a law to prevent a man from getting rich; it would do more harm than good. So while we do not propose any war upon capital, we do wish to allow the humblest man an equal chance to get rich with everybody else."
The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume IV, "Speech at New Haven, Connecticut" (March 6, 1860), p. 24

"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, say its advocates, is free labor---the just and generous, and prosperous system, which opens the way for all---gives hope to all, and energy, and progress, and improvement of condition to all." The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln edited by Roy P. Basler, Volume III, "Address before the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society, Milwaukee, Wisconsin" (September 30, 1859), pp. 478-479.

Where Lincoln most violently clashes with laissez faire is on his apparent adherence to the labor theory of value.

The first and third just show that Lincoln wasn't a Communist.Clement Attlee would have agreed with both.

The second is rather defensive. In a different context, Bernie Sanders said similar things when attacked.

I guess they're mildly laissez faire, if by that you mean that you believe in the concept of private property and dislike expropriation. But that seems like a somewhat useless definition, because it defines FDR as mildly laissez faire.

Jesus, this game is slow.

Lincoln was a Republican, and the Republicans were always the party of Northeastern capitalist money. I think in those statements he was also making a strong contrast between wage labor offered in a labor market, and slave labor.

I think Dave K is right about the labor theory of value, though.

It seems silly to make claims about left-right differences in the context of slavery. (I don't think you're doing that! But some readers might.)

The "left" nature of the early Republicans comes when you move away from slavery. There you have a series of interventionist policies under the Lincoln administration, even discounting the imposition of a income tax as a wartime measure. You've got the Homestead Act, the National Banking Acts, the Pacific Railway Acts, the Land Grant Act, and all the non-income-tax provisions of the Revenue Acts.

I'm not an expert in the Third Party System, but my general impression is the GOP only became a conservative party in the modern sense after the Cleveland Administration. There are things for a modern lefty to admire in Grover Cleveland (Hawaii!) but he wasn't a liberal by any means. And even after the post-Cleveland ideological sorting, you had Teddy Roosevelt (who was opposed by most of his party grandees) and a liberal streak that wasn't extirpated until this century.

Cleveland (uncharacteristically for a President of the time) was a Democrat; do you mean they were reacting to him?

From my reading it appears sectional concerns were still more important than ideology in both parties during the first 50 years of the Republican Party.

Dave: well, yes. But that makes my point.

Matt: sorry -- I must have been so unclear that I don't even understand you're question!

Noel, you'll have to explain how ideological flexibility in the parties makes your point (?)something vague about surprise at Lincoln making a mildly laissez faire statement useful for quoting (out of context no less). I've apparently missed your intent.

I'm not surprised by mildly ideological statements (construed to be left or right by contemporary ears) from most Presidential candidates during 1860-1888. The sectional parties mean candidates can mildly pander to both sides of non-sectional ideological issues. I see that ideological broadness (from a contemporary perspective) in Grant, Harrison and many non-Bourbon Democrats.

OK: Lincoln was not a right-winger by contemporary or modern standards. "Mildly laissez faire," then would mean one of two things: (1) a boilerplate quote (like the ones you gave) that mean only that Lincoln was not a Communist; or (2) quotes that don't actually come from Lincoln (like Duterte's).

So yeah, I was surprised when I read that the Economist reported that there was a "mildly laissez faire" quote from Lincoln. That's why I took the moment to look it up.

To be 100% clear: classfying statements that could have come from Clement Attlee as "mildly laissez faire" strips the phrase of all meaning. Since Attlee said things quite similar to your Lincoln quotes, they are therefore not "mildly laissez faire" by any reasonable standard. That's not surprising, because Lincoln was not a right-wing libertarian.

Poof! That's it, really. But to push the logic back one more step, the reason it's not surprising that Lincoln wasn't a right-wing libertarian is that the GOP was not a conservative party until the 1890s ... and even then, it wasn't wholeheartedly a conservative party until the 1980s.

@Noel: I thought you were using Grover Cleveland as an example of a Republican administration, rather than the reverse.

Why? I re-read my comment; it still seems to clear to me, but obviously it wasn't. How should I have phrased it?

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