Howell Raines is a former executive editor of The New York Times and is currently working on a novel set in the Civil War.
In one respect, “A Just and Generous Nation” calls to mind a Watergate-era tome by James David Barber titled “The Presidential Character.” That is to say, it is popular history written with an eye on the next presidential election. This new book is not likely to please members of the party of Abraham Lincoln already disenchanted by watching the GOP candidates on the campaign trail.
In Part One of their book, Harold Holzer and Norton Garfinkle give us Lincoln as a pioneering economic thinker who opened the doors of opportunity for the modern middle class. The latter half argues that only an Obama-esque Democrat can be relied upon to end the alleged Republican “war on the middle class.” In an eye-catching statistical appendix, they martial evidence that marginal income-tax rates for the wealthy hurt gross domestic product and employment when they fall below 35 percent.
In other words, this book is a vigorous polemic in the classical sense of that word — a sharply focused argument in support of a debatable point of view. By cutting to the meat of their political argument, this reviewer does not intend to denigrate the authors’ Civil War scholarship. Holzer is a Metropolitan Museum executive with a solid national reputation among Lincoln experts. Garfinkle is a liberal economist whose thinking and business activities are summed up in the title of his previous book, “The American Dream vs. the Gospel of Wealth: The Fight for a Productive Middle-Class Economy.”
The co-authors preface their book with a quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s eulogy at Lincoln’s funeral service in 1865: “This middle-class country had got a middle-class president, at last.” Indeed, Lincoln was the first chief executive not elected from the ranks of the agrarian aristocrats who founded the republic. His life, he liked to say, reflected “the short and simple annals of the poor,” whose descendants rose, as Lincoln had, in commerce and the professions based on their forebearers’ opportunity to buy cheap land on the western frontier. The federal government, in his view, was to be the activist facilitator of an equitable economic order, manipulating its trade policies to benefit agriculture and industry, and paying for the transportation and banking infrastructure needed to create jobs. The game plan of Lincolnomics was to grow a prosperous middle class, not to enrich owners of factories and plantations.
Was the Great Emancipator also the Great Redistributor? Lincoln scholars may quibble with the sweeping conclusion that in taking office, the 16th president purposely “assumed the role of chief executive of the American economy.” But the premise is well argued and documented, and the abundant quotations seem apt in an election year when voters may make a watershed decision between an enabling governance and a withholding one.
In the authors’ view, Lincoln intended to be an “activist President” in promoting, as a national model and on an ever-expanding scale, the up-from-poverty pattern of his own life. “Lincoln was the first president to use the federal government as an agent to support Americans in their effort to achieve and sustain a middle-class life,” they write. “Even as the Civil War commenced, Lincoln supported a program of direct government action to support his vision of America’s middle-class society.”
Lincoln’s main goals as president reflected the 1860 platform of his vigorous new party. He would work to end slavery, expand federal aid for builders of a Pacific railroad, seek congresssionally funded river and harbor improvements and free land for homesteaders, and even pursue “liberal wages” for the working man.
Part Two of the book is a swift tour d’horizon of post-Lincoln economic history in which Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt carry forward Lincoln’s pro-middle-class, anti-monopolist policies. But over time, economic advantage is tilted back toward the plutocrats by the Industrial Revolution, Adam Smith and laissez faire economics as typified by Andrew Carnegie and his “gospel of wealth,” supply-side economics, and tax windfalls dumped on the rich by the two most important modern Republican chief executives. “Lincoln’s version of the American dream had been betrayed. The new Republican conservative ethos under Reagan and [George H.W.] Bush completely reversed the policies advocated by Lincoln and [Franklin] Roosevelt to use the government to build and sustain an American middle-class society.”
This is a concept-driven book and can’t be expected to look closely at the political-economic world Lincoln created with his hands-on approach. Like most aspects of the war, the financial side was messy, and as always, Lincoln’s involvement as prime mover or hidden hand was complex. The plain fact is that great fortunes were made all around him. Multiple sources attest that he had to know about the corrupt cotton trade conducted by Union generals, sometimes with Confederate collusion. As for those close to Lincoln, no less a figure than Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman protested that War Secretary Edwin Stanton traveled to Savannah, Ga., to take charge of 31,000 bales of cotton captured there and sold them to the Treasury.
Then there’s Lincoln’s abiding passion for transcontinental railroads. Another war historian, Stanley P. Hirshon, recounts how Lincoln allowed himself to be lobbied at the White House on behalf of the Union Pacific by one of his favorite and most able generals, Gen. Grenville Dodge. In the Railroad Acts of 1862 and 1864, Dodge got what he asked for: bond-issue terms that put the railroad in line ahead of the government for repayment. Dodge was builder and part owner of the Union Pacific.
Had he lived, Lincoln might have been chagrined by a contemporary-sounding consequence of the industrial growth he promoted. “By 1890 the richest 1 percent of the population was absorbing half of the entire national income and controlled more than half the nation’s wealth,” the authors assert. “Within three decades after Lincoln’s death, his American Dream of a middle-class society was no longer available to most Americans.”
By Harold Holzer and Norton Garfinkle
Basic. 311 pp. $27.99