A philosophy professor named Allen Guelzo discovered in 1995 that one way out of academic obscurity (where most philosophy professors reside) is to become a “Lincoln scholar.” He began writing books that tell the same old, same old, line about Lincoln: he died on Good Friday; he supposedly died for the sins of America just as Jesus died for the sins of the world; etc., etc. His first book of this time is entitled Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President. Seeking redemption for your sins? Then become a Lincoln worshipper, says Allen Guelzo.
Guelzo now teaches at Gettysburg College. He was recently interviewed by the World Socialist Web Site which describes itself as an arm of the “International Committee of the Fourth International” and “the leadership of the world socialist movement” that is “guided by a Marxist world outlook.” The interview is entirely friendly with every question a “softball pitch.” One striking feature of the interview is how Guelzo’s comments on Lincoln and economics are exactly the opposite of historical reality.
One of Guelzo’s first comments on Lincoln’s economic policies is based on a fake Lincoln quote about which Guelzo is apparently unaware. The Marxist Web site asked, “did [Lincoln] not privilege labor [over capital]“? Guelzo’s response is “He does indeed talk about labor having priority over capital . . .” Part of the Lincoln mythology is that Abe supposedly said: “All that loves labor serves the nation. All that harms labor is treason to America . . . . If any man tells you he loves America, yet hates labor, he is a liar.” In their book, They Never Said it: A Book of Fake Quotes, Misquotes, and Misleading Attributions (Oxford University Press, 1989), Paul Boller and John George concluded that “there is no record of [Lincoln’s] ever having uttered these words.”
The biggest howler of the interview is where Guelzo claims than an un-named “observer” supposedly said that “on political economy [Lincoln] was great, that there was no one better than Lincoln.” Nothing could be further from the truth. Lincoln was a Hamiltonian, which is to say he was a mercantilist. He was slavishly devoted to the Whig policy of economic nationalism as expressed by the “American System” of Hamilton and Clay. This “system” was comprised of protectionist tariffs for the benefit of mostly Northern manufacturers; corporate welfare for road and canal-building and railroad corporations; and a national bank to finance subsidies and bailouts and to ladle out cheap credit to politically-connected businesses.
“Few people in the Whig Party were so committed to its economic agenda as Lincoln,” wrote Michael Holt in The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party. “From the moment Lincoln first entered political life as a candidate for the state legislature he demonstrated an unswerving fidelity to Henry Clay and to Clay’s American system,” wrote Robert Johannsen in Lincoln, the South, and Slavery. Lincoln himself once said that all of his economic ideas came from Henry Clay.
In his book Lincoln the Man Edgar Lee Masters gave a perfect description of the Hamilton/Clay/Lincoln “American System”:
Clay was the champion of that political system which doles favors to the strong in order to win and to keep their adherence to the government. His system offered shelter to devious schemes and corrupt enterprises . . . . He was the beloved son of Alexander Hamilton with his corrupt funding schemes, his superstitions concerning the advantage of a public debt, and a people taxed to make profits for enterprises that cannot stand alone. His example and his doctrines led to the creation of a party that had no platform to announce, because its principles were plunder and nothing else.
This was neo-mercantilism, the very system that genuine “greats” in the field of political economy, such as Adam Smith, have always condemned, contrary to Allen Guelzo’s silly and uninformed opinion. Lincoln’s ruminations on political economy ranged from wrongheaded to ludicrous. He claimed that protectionist tariffs would cause lower prices, the exact opposite of the truth; he advocated autarky, or the complete prohibition of all imports of anything that could be grown or produced in the U.S., thereby depriving consumers of the benefits of international competition and the division of labor; and he compared the sound-money critics of a central bank run by politicians to Judas in one of his zanier speeches.
Guelzo informs the World Socialist Web Site that Lincoln never had a political thought that did not flow from the Declaration of Independence. What Lincoln actually said, however, is that all of his political thoughts flowed from the politics of Henry Clay, not the Declaration of Independence. He once said that his career aspiration was to be “the DeWitt Clinton of Illinois.” DeWitt Clinton was the early nineteenth-century governor of New York who perfected the spoils system during the building of the Erie Canal.
Guelzo also repeats the mantra of Lincoln’s supposedly great “love” for the Declaration of Independence. But the Declaration of Independence was a declaration of secession from the British empire. In it the states are described as “free and independent” in the same sense that Great Britain, France, or Spain were “free and independent” states. Lincoln most certainly could not have “loved” the document that proves that America was created by an act of secession, the very principle of the American Revolution.
And of course there is the blather about how Lincoln “did keep the union together.” Of course, in reality Lincoln’s war destroyed the voluntary union of the founders and replaced it with a coerced, Soviet-style “union” held together literally at gunpoint. Had he not done this, says Guelzo, “This would take the United States off the table as a major world player, and then what would you do with the history of the 20th century?”
Let me take a crack at answering this question. Without U.S. entry into World War I, financed in part by the new national bank of the sort that Lincoln longed for his entire adult life, the European powers would have eventually settled their disputes, as they always had done in the past. There would have been no Versailles Treaty that pushed Germany into the hands of Hitler, and the Russian communists would have been much weaker. Consequently, there would not likely have been a World War II and a 45-year long Cold War that followed.
As a decentralized, federal system that had long ago abolished slavery peacefully, as all the rest of the world did in the nineteenth century (including New England, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, etc.) America would have been a counter-example to all the world compared to the centralized, socialistic bureaucracies that dominated the 20th century (especially Russia and China and all the other socialist countries).
America may well have not been transformed from a constitutional republic to an empire with military bases in more than 150 countries. Presidents and their propagandists would not have repeated the Lincolnian mantra that “all men everywhere are created equal” to “justify” foreign military intervention in hundreds of places in the name of “spreading democracy and freedom” (but in reality for the purpose of confiscating resources or imposing mercantilism on foreign lands by military force for the benefit of American corporations).
This is not “capitalism” but corporatism or neo-mercantilism. Real capitalism is a system of mutually-advantageous, voluntary trade and does not require imposition at the barrel of a gun. Allen Guelzo is of course oblivious to all of this and relies instead with such silly rhetoric as when he tells the World Socialist Web Site that sleazy, corrupt, politically-connected lawyer/lobbyists like Lincoln were “the shock troops of capitalism.”