In his memo to House Republicans, John Boehner cites a quote from Abraham Lincoln that, he says, supports the current GOP position on the evils of government spending and debt:
The book Congressman Lincoln by Chris DeRose, which I recently read, includes a chapter focused on Abraham Lincoln’s efforts to help craft a new national agenda. At one point in the book, young Lincoln warns that government debt is “growing with a rapidity fearful to contemplate.”
“[Government debt] is a system not only ruinous while it lasts, but one that must soon fail and leave us destitute,” Lincoln warns his countrymen in Congressman Lincoln. “An individual who undertakes to live by borrowing, soon finds his original means devoured by interest, and next no one left to borrow from –- so must it be with a government.”
Boehner concludes: “Lincoln’s words ring true today, perhaps to a degree greater than ever before.”
But as Luke Johnson points out, Boehner left out the part of the quote where Lincoln called for higher tariffs or taxes:
“By this means a new national debt has been created, and is still growing on us with a rapidity fearful to contemplate — a rapidity only reasonably to be expected in time of war. This state of things has been produced by a prevailing unwillingness either to increase the tariff or resort to direct taxation. But the one or the other must come,” Lincoln wrote in the Whig Circular in 1843.
That’s fun. But I would go a step further. It isn’t just that Lincoln believed in increased revenues to pay down debt. Lincoln was also a firm believer in spending public money on infrastructure and boosting the economy.
As an Illinois state legislator, Lincoln was a leading proponent of using the proceeds from sales of public lands to pay for the digging of canals and building of railroads. As a member of Congress, Lincoln defended the idea of federal subsidies for internal improvements. Indeed, Lincoln was an ardent believer in Henry Clay’s “American System,” which was heavily predicated on government sponsored internal improvements and was one of the most significant instances of government intervention in the economy in the country’s history.
“Lincoln was a tremendous advocate of government spending on infrastructure and economic development,” leading Lincoln historian Eric Foner told me. “As president Lincoln presided over a tremendous increase in government spending, not just because of the war but also on the Homestead land grant system and aid to construction of the transcontinental railroad.”
“Boehner should have quoted the Democrats of the time, who didn’t believe in government spending and felt economic policy should be left to the competition of business interests,” Foner added.
I’m not sure channeling Abraham Lincoln to make the case for the contemporary Republican economic world-view is the greatest idea.