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The bad news first:  Abraham Lincoln probably didn't author that disputed quotation that Al Gore attributed to him in the Assault on Reason.

The good news:  Lincoln was not a 19th century Gordon Gecko, and it's hardly less of a historical error to paint him as one.

Follow me to the flip for more about what Lincoln really wrote and thought.

If you haven't seen it, A Siegel has a currently recommended diary, responding to a hit-job of an op-ed by Weekly Standard editor Andrew Ferguson that appeared in yesterday's WaPo, What Al Wishes Abe Said.  Ferguson, alas, is almost certainly right that the disputed words aren't Lincoln's.  A Siegel tracked down a website that claims the quote is authentic and attributes it (as Gore does) to a letter from Lincoln to William Elkins, November 21, 1864.  

Unfortunately for Gore and his defenders, that letter to Elkins doesn't appear in any official collection of Lincoln's papers, published or unpublished.  The first appearances of the quotation at books.google.com come in works published during the 1880s, when Ferguson dates its genesis.  Some of those publications also cite an 1864 letter to William Elkins as a source of the quotation, but no author claims to have seen that letter personally or to known where it was.  An 1897 article in Arena magazine declares "This was in a private letter, and is not found in the state papers."  

And so until someone can point to the location of that letter in an archive somewhere, I wouldn't accept its authenticity.

So if that's the bad news, the good news is that Ferguson has no more of a claim on the historical Lincoln.  Indeed--though he doesn't misquote Lincoln--Ferguson is essentially just as far from the truth when he paints Lincoln as a cheerleader and enthusiast for laissez faire capitalism and the concentration of corporate wealth.

The real Abraham Lincoln was a proponent of what historian Eric Foner calls the free labor ideology.  Here's how Lincoln himself characterized it in an 1861 message to Congress:

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. Capital has its rights, which are as worthy of protection as any other rights. Nor is it denied that there is, and probably always will be, a relation between labor and capital producing mutual benefits. The error is in assuming that the whole labor of community exists within that relation. A few men own capital, and that few avoid labor themselves, and with their capital hire or buy another few to labor for them. A large majority belong to neither class--neither work for others nor have others working for them. In most of the Southern States a majority of the whole people of all colors are neither slaves nor masters, while in the Northern a large majority are neither hirers nor hired. Men, with their families--wives, sons, and daughters--work for themselves on their farms, in their houses, and in their shops, taking the whole product to themselves, and asking no favors of capital on the one hand nor of hired laborers or slaves on the other. It is not forgotten that a considerable number of persons mingle their own labor with capital; that is, they labor with their own hands and also buy or hire others to labor for them; but this is only a mixed and not a distinct class. No principle stated is disturbed by the existence of this mixed class.

Again, as has already been said, there is not of necessity any such thing as the free hired laborer being fixed to that condition for life. Many independent men everywhere in these States a few years back in their lives were hired laborers. 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 is the just and generous and prosperous system which opens the way to all, gives hope to all, and consequent energy and progress and improvement of condition to all. No men living are more worthy to be trusted than those who toil up from poverty; none less inclined to take or touch aught which they have not honestly earned. Let them beware of surrendering a political power which they already possess, and which if surrendered will surely be used to close the door of advancement against such as they and to fix new disabilities and burdens upon them till all of liberty shall be lost.

Some of those claims remain a basic part of the American myth--of America as a land of opportunity where the individual willing to work hard and save can rise in station.  It's essential to remember, however, that Lincoln hewed to that ideology in an era before the rise of large-scale corporate capitalism.  The mid-nineteenth century saw the early organization of factories and railroads, but Lincoln's America--or at least the part of it outside the plantation South--remained a world of small scale proprietary businesses:  family farms, artisans shops, small shopkeepers, and the like.  Lincoln's paean was mythic in some says--ideologically charged, historians today might prefer to say--but it was one that bore some similarity both to Lincoln's own life and to the circumstances that many--if hardly all--white men experienced and/or hoped for.

The rise of large-scale corporate capitalism wasn't really in evidence for some time after Lincoln's death in 1865, even if the Civil War (as Ferguson suggests) did lay some of the groundwork for it.  The emergence of that new economic order spelled the end of free labor ideology and the world of small-scale proprietorship that Lincoln had known.  And it was challenged by a series of labor and political movements, from the Greenbackers and Henry George to the Populists.  One of those challengers, apparently, first tried to enlist Lincoln on his side with the misattributed quotation.

The truth is that nobody--not late 19th century radicals, not Al Gore, not Andrew Ferguson--knows what Abraham Lincoln would have thought of the economic developments that followed his death.  If it's a mistake to attribute to him the sentiments of that quotation, it's just as much a mistake to think he would have welcomed and defended the rise of cutthroat laissez faire capitalism, with its tendencies towards wrenching depressions, violent labor-capital conflict, and the eclipse of small, self-employed proprietors.  

So how 'bout both sides just leave Lincoln out of it?

Originally posted to Hprof on Mon Jun 11, 2007 at 10:40 AM PDT.

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