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Lincolns Economics and the American

Dream: A Reappraisal

Stewart Winger
Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association Volume 22, Issue I, Winter
2001, p.. 50-80

The intense materialism that underlined [Lincoln's] peace plan was typical of
mid-nineteenth century Western civilization. Its optimistic variant was American, and it
was not only shared but carried beyond ordinary limits by Lincoln. This, perhaps more
than any other of his qualities, justified James Russell Lowell's evaluation of the
President as "the first American." He was ahead of his times. He saw the reach of
material prowess as potentially unbounded. It could even play a giant role in bringing
peace to a war of brothers.
Surely, Lincoln was also a highly moral, indeed spiritual, being. Yet this
characteristic was thoroughly intermingled with his materialism and while cleansing it,
also strengthened it. This materialism carried his America along an often glorious and
beneficial road into the twentieth century. [2]
Leave aside for the moment that both Lincoln and the leading American historian
during Lincoln's lifetime, George Bancroft, repeatedly claimed, in one way or another,
that man was not the sole master of his destiny. Boritt's vision of western history
marching Page [End Page 51] in a unidirectional progression toward the materialistic
opportunity society of modern America is hardly unusual. This presupposition
permeates the narratives of consensus historians Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and Daniel
Boorstin; and while they used it in part as a whipping boy, such historians as Richard
Hofstadter, Perry Miller, Louis Hartz, and Sacvan Bercovitch (the darker side of the
consensus one might say) shared this basic picture of American history. Neo-progressive
historians like Eric Foner were even more economically minded, and iconoclastic
tendencies notwithstanding, there seems to be little impulse among current historians
to challenge this basic picture of American history. In line with a subtly teleological
"modernization theory," but counter to much of his evidence, Daniel Walker Howe was

likewise led to see the Republican party as a move "away from paternalism toward a
more impersonal, secular society."[3]
But in order to make American history of one, ever-more-Jeffersonian, piece,
historians have downplayed the Romantic period, interpreting it in light of what came
after rather than accepting it on its own terms. While scholars of American literature
obviously dwell more lovingly on the era, it is easier for historians to skip along from
Jefferson's Declaration and Franklin's kite to Kennedy's inaugural and the Apollo
moonshot, if they can avoid getting too bogged down in the muddy intellectual terrain of
Melville, Hawthorne, Poe, and Lincoln. But at least two of the most important figures in
mid-nineteenth-century American life, George Bancroft and (as Boritt here hints)
Abraham Lincoln, did not write history in quite this way; neither would have claimed
that "endless material progress [was] the heritage of Western Civilization" without
stressing the non-material aspirations they considered more important.[4] Many writers
of this period used the term "Christian Civilization" either to describe a reality or to
characterize an ideal, and with that they sought not just to "cleanse" materialism and
utilitarianism, but to redeem it. After the war, a Twain or a Holmes Jr. would see mostly
hypocrisy in this pre-war Romanticism. But however deserving of derision, it pays to
remember just what the pretensions were that the post-war cynics skewered in their
now-familiar works. Page [End Page 52]
Whether or not they were deluding themselves, Americans of the pre-war period
almost universally sought to make material advancement a means to something still
higher. "This religious impulse fused in the minds of many Whigs with their desire for
economic development to create a vision of national progress that would be both moral
and material." [5] For the most influential historian of the day, materialism belonged to
the Enlightenment (and an emasculated Europe), and though doubtless a necessary
stage in the progress of mankind, this Enlightenment materialism was to be overcome
as part of the providential scheme. In Bancroft's words, "the senseless strife between
rationalism and supernaturalism will come to an end; an age of skepticism will not again
be called an age of reason; and reason and religion will be found in accord." [6] Where
Bancroft projected his own democratic idealism onto the Enlightenment world of
Jefferson, and even onto the Puritans, we in turn have projected our own democratic

materialism into the world of Bancroft and Lincoln. Thus, ironically, our teleological
histories turn George Bancroft precisely on his head. We simply replace his Romantic
idealist assumptions with modernist materialistic assumptions of our own. For however
strongly Lincoln promoted material advancement, as a Romantic intellectual there were
matters for him of much greater importance.
In Lincoln and the Economics of the American Dream, Gabor S. Boritt
reconstructed Lincoln's Whig economic vision and pointed out that economic
opportunity was one of the unifying themes of Lincoln's public career from his first
campaigns for a place in the Illinois legislature through to his death. For Lincoln,
government had a moral obligation to provide economic opportunity for the people,
especially the poor. Accordingly, he stood for positive government intervention in the
economy in the form of a national bank and various public works projects. In
articulating this thesis, Boritt used "the American dream," or simply "the dream," as
shorthand for a cluster of primarily economic values that recurred in the sayings and
doings of Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln himself never used such terms, but that in itself is
no critique. Boritt's economic "dream" was a powerful heuristic device. While Boritt
pushed the interpretive limits of his thesis, he openly acknowledged the points where
Page [End Page 53] it seemed unable to account fully for Lincoln's words and actions.
Even as Boritt pressed forward with his portrait of a very economics-minded Lincoln, he
acknowledged that in Lincoln's speeches, economics always remained subordinate to a
moral vision. "Lincoln," he said, "found pure raw materialism unpalatablehowever
much he relied on it in his attempts to lead men. Life had to have deeper meaning."[7] If
Lincoln did not organize his own thoughts around "the American Dream," it may be of
some interest to know what cluster of words he did use. An examination of Boritt's
thesis provides a good way to appraise the significance of Lincoln's religious language,
language he used to put his economic as well as his political and moral thought into a
larger perspective.
In emphasizing the economic aspects of Lincoln's thought, Boritt built in part on
the work of Eric Foner, who emphasized the economic vision of the Republican party in
the 1850s and placed "at the center of the Republican ideology ... the notion of 'free
labor.'" Like Boritt, Foner acknowledged an important moral element in the antislavery

crusade of the Republican party in the 1850s; and he noted that Republican leaders "did
develop a policy which recognized the essential humanity of the Negro." But because of
the undeniably racist views so prevalent in Northern society, and because of the
consequent lack of sympathy for the crusade of the abolitionists and the plight of the
slaves themselves, Foner emphasized the ways Republicans also appealed to the selfinterest of voters with a free-soil ideology; and Boritt's "dream" corresponded closely
with Foner's "ideology." Foner also stressed the way Republicans cast slavery as the
enemy of values like the dignity of labor, the Protestant ethic, social mobility, and
economic independence. More than the "convenient rationalization of material
interests," moral opposition to slavery, a belief in the cultural superiority of northern
society, and an economic interest in the free-soil territory as an area of opportunity for
Northern labor all combined to form a coherent free-soil ideology.[8]
Concentrating on the figure of Lincoln, Boritt's "dream" was a similar attempt to
combine into a coherent whole the various elements of Lincoln's thought. Boritt
attempted to unify Lincoln's career temporally as well, and one of the great triumphs of
his book Page [End Page 54] was to show that Lincoln was an unusually principled
politician who stood for the same relatively stable set of beliefs throughout his public
life.[9] This set of beliefs, or "dream," approached what Richard Hofstadter derisively
called "the Self-Made Myth,"[10] and included the belief in rising standards of living,
endless material progress and a market orientation, social mobility, and the belief in
individual opportunity to rise. (Significantly, Boritt did not include among the elements
of Lincoln's dream the ideal of economic independence that Foner had attributed to his
fellow Republicans.) [11] Lincoln also shared the labor theory of value common in the
period, and, like the Marxists in Europe but unlike most American economic thinkers,
[12] this led him to emphasize the rights of labor and to favor the use of strikes to
protect the interests of workers. While phrases like "rising standards of living" savor
perhaps too much of the twentieth centuryand again, Lincoln did not use themBoritt
nevertheless found a consistent pattern of concern in Lincoln's early stand on the
national bank, the tariff, internal improvements, public land policy, and, oddly enough,
his anti-expansionism. Lincoln was also consistent in later presidential activities, such
as military strategy, peacemaking efforts, and his plans for reconstruction. In each of

these areas, Lincoln either sought to use public power to advance the opportunities of
individuals, especially the poor, to have a fair chance in the "race of life"[13] or made
appeals to the economic interests of those whom he sought to persuade. Boritt
convincingly showed that for Lincoln, social mobility, equal opportunity, and
entrepreneurial market capitalism were normative ideals. "The key to this persuasion,"
said Boritt, "was an intense and continually developing commitment to the ideal that all
men should receive a full, good, and ever increasing reward for their labors so that they
might have the opportunity to rise in life." [14] Page [End Page 55]
But Boritt's powerful synthesis of Lincoln's thought into the "American Dream"
was somewhat troubled by Lincoln's moralism. For example, the Democrats saw in the
acquisition of Mexican territory a possible economic expansion, while Lincoln not only
remained impervious to their economic argumentsin the "Lecture on Discoveries and
Inventions" and elsewherehe chided them for their greed and materialism as well.[15]
Any casual reader of Lincoln has to be struck by the consistency with which every
argument, however technical or legal or economic, took on a moral dimension as well.
Boritt clearly recognized this problem and managed it in two ways. First, he noted that
for Lincoln, economics itself was a moral science, or rather, that Lincoln's economic
arguments always included a self-consciously moral appeal as well. [16] "Lincoln's
assignment of a fundamental role to the labor theory makes crystal clear that the
moralist in him 'never abdicated before the economist.'... In economic terms, 'useless
labour' was the same as 'idleness,' Lincoln explained. Thus, as always in his thinking,
economics and ethics merged ..." Lincoln and Marx, Boritt suggested, were both
attracted to the labor theory of value because it enabled them to give their economics a
moral tone. Secondly, Boritt acknowledged that at certain points in Lincoln's career,
economic appeals seemed entirely to disappear in favor of an ethical appeal, as in the
case of Lincoln's opposition to Mr. Polk's war, when he "subordinate[d] economic
matters to his antiwar stand." [17]
To a certain extent, this latter way of viewing the matter undermined Boritt's
effort to unify Lincoln's career on economic principles; and the problem can perhaps
best be seen in Boritt's attempt to bring Lincoln's antislavery convictions under the
umbrella of the "American Dream." Here Boritt employed both of his strategies for

reconciling Lincoln's moralism with the economic dream. First he pointed to the
economic arguments Lincoln sometimes employed in making his antislavery appeal and
argued that the antislavery appeal flowed naturally from an ethical economics. [18] For
instance, Lincoln thought that the Negro ought to have the same right to rise in life and
the same right to the fruits of his labor as any other man. Page [End Page 56] This line
of interpretation was further strengthened by Lincoln's sometime-characterization of
slave masters as "idlers." Boritt made a strong case when he maintained that the same
labor-theory/work-ethic moral that permeated Lincoln's economic arguments could be
and were applied a fortiori in the case of slavery. Slavery was indeed antithetical to the
way of life that Lincoln and the Republicans saw as normative; and on this point Boritt
and Foner shine.
The problem with this argument is that there were others who shared Lincoln's
belief in material progress, economic opportunity, and all the rest, but who were not
antislavery. This applied especially to Stephen A. Douglas. This problem was obscured
from Boritt because he used Marvin Meyers' backward-looking and economically
unsophisticated Jacksonians rather than the forward-looking Young America of George
Bancroft and Stephen Douglas as a foil for his Whig Lincoln: "Lincoln sensed, to borrow
the words of Marvin Meyers, that the Whigs tended to speak to the 'explicit hopes of
Americans' and the Jacksonians to their 'diffuse fears and resentments.'" [19] Thus as
long as it appeared that Lincoln's opponents were "Old Fogies," Boritt could treat
forward-thinking entrepreneurial capitalism as inherently antislavery. But by the 1850s,
Young America had replaced the Jacksonians as Lincoln's chief ideological opponents.
Young America was unambiguously bullish on precisely the economic vision that
Lincoln consistently maintained; and yet it was not antislavery. "Douglas Democrats
had come to endorse economic development, while Republicans now endorsed the
westward movement and had lost interest in the old Whig 'mixed' corporations." [20]
The whole internal improvements debate had died down by 1859, not just because the
slavery issue overshadowed all else, but because Lincoln and Douglas agreed Page [End
Page 57] on the need for railroads and the like. All the more striking then, that Douglas
introduced the Kansas-Nebraska Act in part to facilitate western development and the
transcontinental railroad,[21] the very same Nebraska Bill that aroused Lincoln's

indignation and fired the soul of the Republican party. Douglas was as much a self-made
man as Lincoln, but it was Douglas, not Lincoln, who wanted Americans to put
economic development (and political compromise) above morality. According to Boritt,
Lincoln defended the Union on many occasions and in almost as many ways, but by far
his most extensive and determined defense was a largely economic argument.
"Physically speaking we cannot separate," said his inaugural address in 1861. He
provided an indication of his deeper meaning, in his first annual message, as he
discussed the great growth of the nation's population and wealth and pointed to the
'promises of the future.' ... The United States could not be broken up, the President's
annual message declared, because it formed an indivisible economic unit. It was
indivisible because only its unity produced prosperity.[22]
Here Boritt was clearly overreaching; Lincoln's most important and consistent
argument for Union was political, not economic: acquiescing to the demands of a
minority that had no legitimate constitutional grievance would have destroyed the
principle of majority rule on which popular government necessarily depended. More
striking, however, the economic argument for Union was first made in Douglas's Young
America speeches. [23] Douglas argued that civil war could be averted if slavery were
treated as just another regional segment of a diverse American economy, an economy
made strong by that diversity. For Douglas, the North and South formed an economic
unit. Northern economic interest lay with tolerance for the institution of slavery. Lincoln
conceded the point; and it was in the teeth of such economic arguments that Lincoln
and the Republican party made their appeal.[24] According to Lincoln, it was Dou- Page
[End Page 58] glas who said "the question of negro slavery is simply a question of
dollars and cents." Republicans by contrast treated slavery as "a moral, political and
social wrong."[25] Thus Boritt's gallant attempt to make economics central to Lincoln's
argument fails because those economic views themselves were more plausibly used by
Lincoln's opponents to defend not Lincoln's Republican party, but popular sovereignty
and the Kansas-Nebraska Act.
Boritt's attempt to unify Lincoln's thought on the economic issues of the
"American Dream" ignored the fact that even more than Lincoln, Douglas trumpeted the
promises of an expanding economy and the American Dream. But it also implicitly

assumed that the institution of Negro chattel slavery was something other than market
capitalism pushed to an absurd extreme. For Boritt, emancipation "was inherent to the
American Dream." [26] Yet for many upwardly mobile Southerners, the American
Dream consisted of owning slaves and a plantation; and for Douglas, one man's
economic dream was as good as another's. It is difficult to accept the idea that the South
was a pre-market society when it increasingly dedicated its economy to producing
cotton for a world market and when human beings there were another commodity on
the block;[27] and far from sharing in any of George Fitzhugh's Romanticism about a
paternalistic Southern way of life, both Lincoln and Douglas saw it as market-driven
exploitation.[28] They simply did not see the South as anti-modern in this economic
sense. Lincoln well knew that the institution of Negro chattel slavery was of modern
origins. When Lincoln made the preamble to the Declaration of Independence into
something akin to a statement of faith, and when he made the self-evident truth that all
men are created equal into the "central idea of the nation," Boritt was correct to see it as
a major reinterpretation of Jefferson; but if Lincoln identified "the right to rise as the
central idea of the United States," it is not immediately clear how that excluded the right
to rise to the status of slave-owner.[29] Boritt was correct to point out that Lincoln
integrated both his Page [End Page 59] economic convictions and this antislavery into a
unified vision; and he was right to point out that Lincoln maintained this integrated
vision consistently throughout his career. But there was nothing anti-capitalist about
Southern chattel slaveryGeorge Fitzhugh notwithstandingand thus the sources of
Lincoln's antislavery arguments are not to be found in his economic vision. Rather his
antislavery convictions and his economic thinking shared a more fundamental common
source.
Sensing this, the second strategy Boritt employed for reconciling antislavery
moralism and the economic dream was simply to concede that Lincoln's moralism was
more fundamental than his economics. Though it ran counter to his thesis, Boritt
pointed out that Lincoln even downplayed the appeal to Northern economic interest in
the free-soil cause because "he recognized that emphasizing materialistic self-interest
weakened his high moral tone." "Lincoln's opposition to slavery," Boritt further
conceded, "was expressed in moral terms, and he raised the moral ingredient of politics

perhaps to its highest level in the dominant stream of American politics. Under the allimportant moral superstructure, however, he often buttressed his thought with
economicsnot surprising for one who had placed the good science at the heart of his
efforts for more than two decades."[30]
Boritt began his investigation into Lincoln's economic thought because he
observed that so much of Lincoln's writing either treated economic issues or treated the
economic dimension of issues that might otherwise be seen in political or legal ways;
and this alone was a major contribution. But from this he moved to make an economic
vision the conceptual center of Lincoln's thought. Lincoln clearly addressed economic,
or legal, or political issues as they arose; and since many if not most of the issues that
confronted him as a frontier legislator centered around economic development,
economics necessarily occupied much of his time. As Boritt himself put it, "of course
improvements, for [Lincoln] and many others, were ultimately part of broad
advancement that was 'material, moral, intellectual,' to quote his words from 1859. The
material road was merely the means leading toward intellectual and moral elevation.
But while we cannot say that even as a youth he let the ultimate goals out of sight, he did
concentrate the bulk of his energies on the material road. He was, after all, a politician
in a state where economic battles were also the main political battles." Or Page [End
Page 60] again: "For the first period of [Lincoln's] political life economics provided the
central motif. Antislavery was also there but was pushed far in the background with its
triumph placed at a very distant day. After 1854, antislavery became Lincoln's
immediate goal, and the economic policies that he continued to esteem highly and work
for when possible were relegated to the background and to a future triumph." [31]
There was a dangerous ambiguity in the way Boritt used such modern phrases as "rising
standards of living," or "endless material progress." Since these phrases come from the
twentieth century, they have their roots and their meaning in the context of a twentiethcentury economy in which large numbers of people work their entire lives as employees.
But in 1861, Lincoln could still deny that a system of permanent wage labor even
existed![32] Boritt downplayed the ideal of "independence" when he summarized
Lincoln's economic dream, in part because he needed Lincoln's dream to be more
modern, and in part because he associated "independence" with the Jeffersonian ideal

of the yeoman farmer, an ideal that Lincoln explicitly rejected.[33] At the Wisconsin
State Fair, Lincoln refused, as he said, "to employ the time assigned me in the mere
flattery of the farmers, as a class. My opinion of them is that, in proportion to numbers,
they are neither better nor worse than other people."[34] According to Boritt, Lincoln
favored the small producer more for "Whig-Republican economic" reasons than for
"Jeffersonian socio-political" ones; and with this he discounted the "pre-modern"
elements of Lincoln's economic thought, the very ethical dimension that continually led
Boritt to qualify his thesis almost out of existence. [35]
Boritt slighted the fact that, though it had little to do with Jefferson, there was a
kind of independence that was important for Lincoln and the Republicans; and this
"moral independence" rather than the more modern sounding "American Dream" is a
better Page [End Page 61] choice for naming and organizing Lincoln's economic views.
Lincoln's economic thought represented a middle term between the static world of
Jefferson's imagination and what we like to call "modern" economic relationships. The
opportunity to rise, for Lincoln, meant that "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 allgives 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 povertynone 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. [36]
Boritt saw in this last sentenceand in Lincoln's support of unions and strikes
generallya dawning awareness of the new economic reality.[37] But in connection with
the rest of the paragraph, it is clear that Lincoln still thought in terms of economic
independence. A rising standard of living in the twentieth century usually refers to
rising wages in real terms; yet Lincoln and the Republicans envisioned an economy in

which every individual could become self-employed if he, or she, so strove. Rising
wages, and with them, more material wealth, was not for them the goal of political
economy! "The Common Sense philosophy was still the ruling one," wrote Joseph
Dorfman. "Jeremy Bentham had his devotees in the United States, but his apparently
exclusive emphasis on the pleasure-pain calculus, and the greatest happiness for the
greatest number without reference to a theological sanction, unlike Paley, made him
appear dangerous to college teachers."[38] And as Daniel Walker Howe put it, "the
Whigs justified not only the new technology Page [End Page 62] but the system of
industrial capitalism on the grounds of moral benefit to society. They never employed
the argument later apologists for American business would sometimes use, that
profitability itself is an indicator of social utility."[39] Thus in the relentlessly systematic
hands of an Old Fogy like Francis Wayland, political economy was still a branch of
moral philosophy, which itself was ultimately subordinate to the queen of the sciences.
[40] For young Romantics like Lincoln, Thoreau, and Emerson, the goal of political
economy was something roughly analogous to what we might call "moral autonomy"
and what they called "independence;" there was this issue of the soul, and the effect of
economic development on it. Though Lincoln was not sentimental about farming the
way Jefferson was, this passage reveals that he saw the self-made man not as a
permanent wage-earner, but as a moral paragon by no means unrelated to Emerson's
"Self-Reliance."[41]
Boritt was right to drive a wedge between the world of Jefferson and the world of
Lincoln. The shift from the Jeffersonian ideal to the self-made man of Lincoln's
imagination was of historic importance. Boritt noted that Lincoln's arguments in favor
of a high protective tariff "took part of the tendency of protectionist thinking to move
away from the politically oriented tariff policy of Hamilton and the generation that
followed him, which had an air of apologia, a call to sacrifice, about it."
If by the 1820's Clay came to base his case ever more on economic grounds,
considerations of political independence, national welfare, the safety of the Union, and
such, were still salient to his thinking. For Lincoln, and somewhat less so for his whole
generation, the appeal to economic interest became the judicious stand. Indeed the
abandonment of an economics whose ultimate goals were political, for one with frank

socio-economic aims, constitutes the basic difference between his political economy and
that of the old Whigs.
The economic revolution that came to the United States during the middle third
of the nineteenth century, and which co- Page [End Page 63] incided with the growth of
the nation's political security, produced this change in thought patterns. Americans
developed an increasingly candid materialistic outlook even as the memories of the wars
against England grew dim and a new emphasis on sectional loyalty arose in their stead.
[42]
The phenomenon that Boritt here alluded to might be summed up as the decline
of "republican" thinking and the rise of modern "liberal" social theory. This cultural shift
corresponded with an ongoing economic transformation from the mercantile and
apprentice systems to a capitalist society and the wage-labor system. If Madison, for
example, could balance passion against passion and thereby reserve a place of power
and authority for a "disinterested" elite, this was certainly no longer possible in the
world of Jackson and Clay.[43] Scholars have dated this shift variously; for some,
liberalism was implicit from the first colonial beginnings,[44] while others dated it with
Jefferson's Declaration or the Constitution of 1789, [45] Jefferson's election in 1800,
[46] the ascendancy of Jackson in the 1830s, [47] or even as late as the rise of the
Republican party in the 1850s.[48] Much rides on the debate because where one places
this shift usually determines who gets the blame or praise for "modernity." Here Boritt
placed the shift with Henry Clay in the 1820s, but the process was ongoing; and just
where exactly one places this shift and what importance one assigns to it depends on
how exactly one defines "liberal" and "republican." Whigs like Clay came to accept the
realities of life in Jackson's America. According to Whig theory, there were no
permanent economic classes in America, and most Whigs embraced near-universal
white male suffrage. A fortiori there could be no legitimate elites above the political fray.
Thus even more than the Jacksonians, Whigs accepted this aspect of what has since
become known as the "liberal consensus." But where Democrats responded to the end of
elite power by making Page [End Page 64] public opinion the voice of God, Whigs
maintained that the people could be misguided; and of the theoretical differences
between the parties, this was among the most fundamental. Recognizing that appeals to

elite prestige were doomed, yet cleaving to various moral perspectives independent of
the electorate, Whigs advocated universal education and self-conscious moral leadership
in the realm of public opinion, and Lincoln would carry this aspect of Whiggery into the
Republican party.
It is true that even more than Henry Clay, Lincoln based his arguments on the
welfare of individuals. He rarely, if ever, used the classical republican language of public
virtue; and for him, the concept of "disinterestedness" so crucial to republican thinking
amounted to a theological absurdity. [49] (Lincoln extended a notion of original sin or
natural depravity to everyone, including both "the people," and any pampered elite.)
Thus Boritt was correct to point out that the vocabulary of classical republicanism and
disinterested virtue was absent in Lincoln's writings. But although Lincoln's economic
appeals sound forthright to our ears, once again Boritt stumbled over Lincoln's
moralism and found himself forced to add that Lincoln's economic arguments "never
overshadow[ed] his moral perception."[50]
It does not follow that because Lincoln rejected republican language he could
only have been the forthright Epicurean liberal (albeit one with a quirky moral streak) of
Boritt's American dreamand this is of tremendous historiographical significance.
Before the cult of scientific expertise rose in the late nineteenth century to replace it,
Protestant categories again dominated the American imagination, and this was true not
just for evangelicals, but for young intellectuals like Lincoln as well. While the Old Fogy
rhetoric of inherited wealth and classical virtue seemed wooden and even petrified in a
wide-open opportunity economy, Protestantism remained alive and well. Not only did
the Romantic, anti-Enlightenment tendencies of the time lend renewed intellectual
respectability to religious thoughtwitness educated Brahmins like Emerson and
Bancroftbut the evangelical movement "manifested a resurgence of middle-class
Protestant culture." [51] Protestantism had always remained a potent intellectual force
outside of the Page [End Page 65] elite cosmopolitan circleseven in Jefferson's day;
thus the election of Jackson that ended elite domination of political debate contributed
to the rise of a more overtly religious political discussion as well. As a self-educated
intellectual from the bottom of border-state and then Illinois society, Lincoln was
perfectly positioned to take part in these tendencies. Whigs accepted the new social

mobility; nevertheless they attempted to temper the spirit of unbridled acquisitiveness


with appeals to what they imagined were the higher ends of man. Increasingly, they
based that appeal on religious grounds. Lincoln's religious utterances reflected this
orientation.
While he noted this significant shift in Lincoln's thought away from the residual
republican ideas still detectable in the thought of Henry Clay, Boritt played up Lincoln's
affinity for Clay and simultaneously downplayed any resemblance between Lincoln and
the evangelical wing of the Whig and later Republican parties. Lincoln, he said, "was not
an evangelical Christian, indeed no formal Christian of any sort. It can be argued that he
shared certain social values that can be broadly termed evangelical. Lincoln did speak
on behalf of temperance, for example, but as with abolitionism, he was much too
moderate a man to be one of the true faithful." (The assumption is of course that no
moderate man could be truly faithful.) Boritt also noted that "Lincoln did not partake of
the nativist proclivities that contemporaries as well as subsequent students diagnosed
among the Whigs (and eventually among the Republicans) ... [and] Lincoln's attitude
toward schools, another modern yardstick of Whiggery, was at best ambivalent." Lincoln
also rejected the elite snobbery of "silk-stocking" Whiggery. At the same time, he
professed great admiration for Clay; and Boritt attributed this, no doubt correctly, to the
politically moderate antislavery views shared by both men, to the positive government
impulse of Clay's American System, and to the ideals captured admirably in that starfated coinage of Clay's, the phrase "self-made man." [52] But while silk-stocking elite
leadership and the classical republican rhetoric of disinterested "virtue" were rapidly
waning, a Protestant vision increasingly replaced those more secular-seeming ideals in
the three decades before the Civil War. Lincoln received the overwhelming support of
Protestant religious groups in 1860 and 1864.[53] He was elected by skilled workers and
Page [End Page 66] professionals who felt they had the most to gain from the economic
prosperity of market capitalism, by native-born farmers, and by voters of New England
descent. [54] His rhetoric reflected this constituency perfectly: he combined the
forward-thinking, pro-development, and positive-government Whiggery of Clay's
American System with the moral concerns of New England and of the evangelical
movement.

In the Wisconsin State Fair speech, Lincoln painted a vivid picture of what he
meant by "free-labor," and in it he associated permanent wage labor with the "mud-sill"
theory put forth by slavery apologists like George Fitzhugh. By the 1850s, Southerners
had begun to defend slavery with a claim that the slave was better off than a factory
worker because they were cared for in old age, and because a slaveholder had an interest
in caring for his "property," which the factory owner could not have. [55] Implicitly
accepting the premise of the Southern argument, Lincoln conceded that a permanent
wage-labor system would be unacceptably oppressive. He therefore had to deny that a
system of permanent wage-labor existed in the North at all. Lincoln's understanding of
the Northern economy reflected his own experience as a successful man who rose
almost from the bottom of the social ladder; he believed in the right to rise. But "free
labor" was not permanent wage-labor; it was neither the necessary drudgery of lower
orders, as it was in classical republican thought, nor was it the somewhat unpleasant
means to material acquisition, as it is in modern economic thought. Labor for Lincoln
was a divine "charge" with its own ends. At the state fair he encouraged farmers to adopt
modern agricultural techniques of "thorough cultivation:"
The effect of thorough cultivation upon the farmers' own mind, and in the reaction
through his mind, back upon his business, is perhaps quite equal to any other of its
effects. Every man is proud of what he does well; and no man is proud of what he does
not do well. With the former, his heart is in his work; and he will do twice as much of it
with less fatigue. The latter performs a little imperfectly, looks at it in disgust, turns
from it, and imagines himself exceedingly tired. The little he has done, comes to
nothing, for want of finishing. [56]Page [End Page 67]
Or again:
By the "mud-sill" theory it is assumed that labor and education are incompatible;
and any practical combination of them impossible. According to that theory, a blind
horse upon a tread-mill, is a perfect illustration of what a laborer should beall the
better for being blind, that he could not tread out of place, or kick understandingly.
According to that theory, the education of laborers, is not only useless, but pernicious,
and dangerous. In fact, it is, in some sort, deemed a misfortune that laborers should
have heads at all. Those same heads are regarded as explosive materials, only to be

safely kept in damp places, as far as possible from that peculiar sort of fire which ignites
them. A Yankee who could invent a strong handed man without a head would receive
the everlasting gratitude of the "mud-sill" advocates.
But Free Labor says "no!" Free Labor argues that, as the Author of man makes
every individual with one head and one pair of hands, it was probably intended that
heads and hands should cooperate as friends; and that that particular head, should
direct and control that particular pair of hands. As each man has one mouth to be fed,
and one pair of hands to furnish food, it was probably intended that that particular pair
of hands should feed that particular mouththat each head is the natural guardian,
director, and protector of the hands and mouth inseparably connected with it; and that
being so, every head should be cultivated, and improved, by whatever will add to its
capacity for performing its charge. In one word Free Labor insists on universal
education. [57]
Here Lincoln couched even his economic views in a larger theocentric moral
argument about the meaning of human life and about our duties to God. Though he did
it with characteristic humor, we should not mistake his seriousness of purpose. If, as
David Brion Davis suggested, the antislavery movement was in some way a moral smoke
screen for the injustices of wage-labor capitalism, this cannot be said for the antislavery
convictions of Lincoln.[58] Lincoln thought the whole person should be engaged in the
work; not just Page [End Page 68] the hands and back, but the whole person, mind,
body, and "heart." Obscured in Boritt's analysis lay the startling fact that Lincoln
extended the critique of slavery to the wage-labor system as well. In one of the only
references we have that he made to the emerging Northern factory system, Lincoln
treated it as a perversion of God's design for humankind!
This is not to say that he was the captive of some dogmatic religious rule, or that
he blindly accepted some article or other of faith; in almost all areas Lincoln was a
remarkably independent thinker who, even when he used the ideas of others, insisted on
sharpening their formulations and passing them through his own filters. Rather he had
a sense of human experience and psychology that was simply too rich and subtle for the
self-interested calculus of Bentham, or, for that matter, Bentham's neo-classical,
"Chicago School" imitators of a latter day. "The leading rule for the lawyer, as for the

man, of every calling, is diligence,"[59] he said. The term "calling" still implied service to
God, and by invoking it Lincoln placed himself in a tradition of providential thought
about the human condition. He tended to overwork himself not out of a desire to gain,
or even to "get ahead," but rather out of a constant and pressing sense that his life had to
have a higher meaning and that that meaning was to be found chiefly in what a less
theological age would call his "career." He was too much of a Romantic to accept
material acquisition as a legitimate purpose in life. He was well aware of his superior
talents, and his "ambition" was to find a worthy outlet for them. Lincoln was subject to
depression when he felt his career was faltering, and he knew whereof he spoke when he
talked about doing the work well only when the heart was in it. Like Francis Wayland,
Lincoln too quoted Genesis: "in the sweat of thy face, shalt thou eat thy bread;" and
unlike Wayland, he turned this argument against the slaveholders. [60] Permanent
wage-labor with a rising material standard of living was explicitly not a part of Lincoln's
"dream." Thus in the analysis of Lincoln's economic thought, the anachronistically
materialistic elements of Boritt's "dream" should be replaced by the rightindeed the
divinely appointed dutyto labor in one's calling, and to rise therewith to moral
autonomy and economic "independence." Page [End Page 69]
Not surprisingly, much of Lincoln's economic thinking followed that of the chief
Whig economic theorist and apologist for the tariff, Henry C. Carey. [61] Carey worked
within the idiom of moral philosophy; he was optimistic about human nature; he
rejected the conclusions of Malthus in part because a beneficent deity just would not act
that way; and any reformed theology in his thought was much more muted and
unitarian than it was in Lincoln's. [62] Still the content of his economic ethics bears
striking resemblance to Lincoln's, and some of the details of Lincoln's economic
thought, like his preference for small land holdings, strongly indicate a direct influence
of Carey on Lincoln. [63] In Carey's writings, Lincoln found support for his Whig
position on internal improvements and the tariff. [64] Like Lincoln, Carey refused to
accept any caricatured economic man in his analysis. [65] Instead he sought to
determine whether the course of history "tended in the direction of developing the
qualities which constitute the real man, the being made in the image of his Creator,
fitted for becoming master of nature and an example worthy to be followed by those

around him; or those alone which he holds in common with the beasts of the field, and
which fit him for a place among men whose rule of conduct exhibits itself in the robber
chieftain's motto, 'that they may take who have the power, and those may keep who
can.'"[66] Like Lincoln in the speeches of 1858 and 1859, Carey thought in terms of an
ongoing economic and technological revolution. Malthus was wrong; in industrial
society, greater population meant greater wealth. Thus through technological
advancement, the dismal science would be overcome. Like Lincoln, Carey rejected the
Jeffersonian ideal of a yeoman-farmer citizenry. And like Lincoln, he favored industrial
development. "Highest, therefore, among the tests of civilization," he declared, is
whether society "enables all to find demand for their Page [End Page 70] whole physical
and mental powers." Because people's powers differed, "diversity of employments" was
essential. Only a diversified economy that included industry could provide such varied
career opportunities.[67] In stark contrast to Jefferson, Carey and Lincoln found farm
life in the nineteenth century stultifying. Carey also sought the liberation of women from
the drudgery of the household in the employments of a diversified economy. While
Carey and Lincoln both rejected the constraints of the old apprenticeship economy that
doomed individuals to the trades and callings of their parents and that favored
deference to hereditary elites, they also rejected an economics that made money and
material the measure of all things. This was the forward-thinking Whig message, and
abolitionists and Temperance advocates joined the Whigs in their admiration of
entrepreneurship. [68] In this narrow window of American history, it was possible to
justify market capitalism on the grounds of higher human aspirations.
The differences between Carey and Lincoln highlight the new Romantic
sensibility present in Lincoln but not in Carey. And this is most readily seen in the
different ways the two men treated history. For Carey, history was a kind of myth, not
unlike the mythic natural histories characteristic of Enlightenment thinkers like Locke,
Rousseau, and Smith. The point of those imaginary natural histories was usually to
show how, beginning with a state of nature, the workings of certain fundamental and
knowable natural laws (and often their subsequent subversion by "unnatural" forces)
had led to the present. Real history could be dismissed as irrelevant while this imaginary
replacement-history was reconciled with the assumption of timeless postulates. Carey's

The Past, the Present & the Future of 1847 was an elaborate installment in this by then
much-hallowed genre. Carey saw history being repeated over and over again much in
the same way that Frederick Jackson Turner would in his treatment of the frontier. [69]
Carey began with "the first cultivator, the Robinson Crusoe of his day, provided however
with a wife ..." and returned to this quaint, if overused image, at the beginning of each of
his chapters.[70] Though further on in most Page [End Page 71] of his chapters he
eventually rose to concrete historical examples, these were only invoked to illustrate
universal principles. The natural laws of economics working everywhere in the same
manner resulted not in a diminishing food supply and misery, but in the rising standard
of living that allowed individuals to pursue ever-higher degrees of self-development.
Carey praised the United States because they have, to an extent hitherto
unprecedented, followed "the things that make for peace;" and because they, less than
any other people, have interfered with the great natural laws under which man lives, and
moves, and has his being. "God," says the wise man, "hath made man upright, but he
has sought out many inventions." We find fewer of these "inventions" in the history of
the United States than in that of any other nation, and it is due to the great cause of
Truth and Human Happiness to exhibit as strongly as possible the contrast between the
unrestricted operation of the laws of God on the one hand, and the results of the
"inventions" of man, on the other. [71]
Though Carey defended the active use of government to advance economic goals,
this was not because he rejected the static view of history typical of the Enlightenment:
he too saw human contrivance or "invention" as interference with natural and therefore
divinely appointed laws. Rather Carey saw in self-conscious technological advancement
the key to the natural system itself. In this way he turned Locofoco and Jeffersonian
economic thought precisely on its head! Government activity was not necessarily at odds
with the workings of the natural order, rather it was the a priori economic theorists and
their free-trade doctrines that hindered the natural workings of the "laws of God."
Though one should add, contrary to Dorothy Ross's analysis, that the economic tenets of
the Democratic party were exceptionalist in the extreme, and that in general it was the
Whigs who questioned American exceptionalism, Ross was correct to see in Carey an
instance of the anti-historical, positivist tendencies of American social sciences more

generally, and thus to see in his thought a rather upside-down form of American
exceptionalism. "Following the lead of the Scottish social thinkers, Americans assumed
a position somewhere between the agrarian Page [End Page 72] and commercial stages
of development and concluded that republican institutions and their huge reservoir of
land insured an agrarian basis and republican progress virtually in perpetuity. America
would progress, but unlike the nations of the past, it would not grow old. American
republicans turned Smith's historicist account of stages of progress into a vision of how
America could escape historical change." [72]
Carey's "scientistic" method of proceeding contrasted starkly with Lincoln's
lectures on "Discoveries and Inventions." In the Discoveries and Inventions lectures,
Lincoln gave a genuinely historical account, including such concrete events as the
advent of printing and the Protestant Reformation. [73] The past was not like the
present (minus of course corruption and priestcraft usually invoked to explain why the
present was better). Rather, the invention of printing and the Reformation made
possible a new way of thinking. Even in his survey of the Old Testament, Lincoln did not
seek a kind of mythic history that in some form had taken place over and over again
throughout time. Instead he looked to date singular inventions, such as boats and
spinning wheels. If Dorothy Ross is correct, most American social thought has entailed
an "exceptionalist" view of America that has been essentially Enlightenment in its static
view of nature and, therefore, anti-historical. [74] In the exceptionalist view, America
represents an escape from history into a natural order; and even many of America's
most prominent historians have been, at core, anti-historical. As Ross put it,
"Romanticism ... provided fuller appreciation of the particular configurations of the
historical world. Emerging in reaction to the Enlightenment attempt to subject all
reality to universal and mechanistic general laws, the romantics grounded value and
sought intelligibility in the individuality and diversity of historical existence." [75] This,
then, may be the most important point to be gained from Lincoln's "Lectures on
Discoveries and Inventions": Lincoln's biblically minded view of history was in fact
historicist; it was therefore at odds with most American social science, including most
especially American economic thought. Page [End Page 73]

Lincoln shared fully in the American Romantic and his life-work represented one of its
highest achievements. "Given the timidity of the colleges, and practical energy of
American politics, and the diffuseness of the subject, it is perhaps not surprising that the
most influential formulation of political science before the Civil War should be the work
of a German immigrant," Francis Lieber.[76] While the colleges were still under the
sway of the old Scottish moral philosophy, the leading intellectuals either came from
GermanyLieber and Schaff; rejected their Enlightenment schooling explicitly, often
under the direct influence of German ideasEmerson, Bancroft, Hawthorne, Poe,
Parker, Bushnell, and John Nevin; or were autodidactsMelville, Thoreau, Whitman,
Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Beecher Stowe. And in an age of great autodidacts,
Lincoln was chief among them. Though he borrowed heavily from Carey, including the
belief that Malthus was wrong and that progress could go on indefinitely, Lincoln
imagined history in an entirely different manner, and this placed him squarely in the
new Romantic movement.
Though there is much justice in the speculation that, had he survived, Lincoln
would have sided with labor in the upheavals of the late nineteenth century, he did not
see permanent wage-labor as a reality, and he did not see those upheavals coming.
Daniel Walker Howe has suggested that, had he lived, Lincoln may well have shared
Carey's deep disquiet over the economic developments of the post-war period.
The final estimate of Lincoln's second American revolution must take into account the
unintended nature of its consequences. The triumph of the northern bourgeoisie
ushered in an era very different from anything Lincoln could have expected or wanted.
His objective, in the broadest sense, was to defend and extend the kind of free society,
he had known in Springfield. This was a society of small entrepreneurs, market-oriented
farmers, young men working for others until they could save enough to set up for
themselves, and striving professionals like himself. It was the same "mixed" society that
Henry C. Carey had celebrated. [77]
Henry C. Carey was horrified when he saw the new economy, and we may believe
that Lincoln, too, would have been grieved by its Page [End Page 74] oppression and its
sordid materialism.[78] In Old Fogy fashion, Carey was more reluctant than Lincoln to
join in the purely antislavery Republican party, but eventually he came around. And

since Lincoln and Carey shared such similar economic ideals, and since a Romantic
outlook generally led to heightened moral sensitivity, Howe is probably correct: We
should be careful not to make Lincoln the champion of "modern" economic
relationships.
On the other hand, Phillip S. Paludan has warned us that we should know Lincoln
"as a man of his age, not as a man too good for it."[79] When Southern apologists, most
notably George Fitzhugh, attacked the Northern free-labor system by citing abuses like
child labor and long factory hours that led to a life of harsh subsistence, Lincoln reacted
as defensively to these attacks as Douglas had to aspersions cast on the ethics of
American expansion. "Republican politicians and abolitionists were stung by this
critique and as Lincoln's partner William Herndon recalled, 'Sociology for the South
aroused the ire of Mr. Lincoln more than most pro-slavery books.'" [80] Even while
Lincoln actively worked to increase opportunities for men like himself to rise, he was
also led, somewhat inconsistently, to mistake his free-labor ideals for the realities of
antebellum life. In this limited way, slavery may have blinded Lincoln to the emerging
problems of industrialization that, as Paludan pointed out, others of Lincoln's time saw
more clearly. Dickens, Hawthorne, Melville, Thoreau, and Emerson all had reservations
about the direction economic development was taking, while Lincoln, in the act of
mustering Northern self-confidence for the antislavery battle, took little note of such
nay-sayings. And Lincoln's belief in the reality of social mobility was not without its
harsh side. Perhaps we see Lincoln at his worst in his dealings with his own family,
people who from Lincoln's point of view at least, failed to do the things that would have
led to greater personal economic success and who he may therefore have felt justified in
leaving behind.[81] As Paludan noted, but for the war William Sherman and Ulysses
Grant would have remained floundering on the frontier just like Lincoln's less successful
relations. At times Lincoln might have shown more understanding of the economic
realities and difficulties of his day; and it seems that hubris, Lincoln's pride in hav- Page
[End Page 75] ing come up from the bottom on his own, at least partially blinded him to
the fact of his extreme good fortune.
Still Lincoln did work to make economic opportunity a reality; and because the
slavery issue necessarily distracted his entire generation from economic issues that

otherwise might have absorbed more of their attention, it does not follow that
antislavery was a smoke-screen for Northern industrial development. In the twentieth
century, even the Left has generally accepted the materialistic assumptions of
capitalism. Thus somewhat ironically, Lincoln and the Whigs submitted their economic
system to an ethical critique rather more stringent than we have tended to apply since.
After apologizing, in effect, for Lincoln's preoccupation with the issue of slavery and his
subsequent inability to anticipate the problems of industrialization, Boritt added that,
After recognizing the Lincolnian failures, it should still be emphasized that to the end of
his life Lincoln continued to move toward the futuresometimes quite alone. The
essential part of his thought was improvement, the advancement of the independent
farmer-workingman-entrepreneur was only the chief means. The latter's inevitable
eclipse, we know now, did not have to diminish the right to rise. On the contrary. As
industrialization entered a stage with which Lincoln had little first-hand familiarity, as
factories and increasingly mechanized farms came to dominate the land, new
opportunities opened up. Mobility in the direction of economic independence was
replaced by mobility toward higher standards of living, and higher positions in the
management scale, in a wage-earning society. Lincoln's understanding of this coming
change was very restricted, but it permitted him to maintain his support of economic
development unwaveringly [emphasis added]. Indeed, the assumption that development
increased mobility was so fundamental to him that by the late 1850s, with most of his
political career behind him, it is no longer enough to say that he favored development
and expanding productivity because it helped people to rise in life. He also favored the
right to rise because it led to development.
Thus in spite of his eloquent support of the small, independent producer that
dominated his America, Lincoln could continually adjust his sights to the changing
world around him. [82] Page [End Page 76]
This passage contains an interesting ambiguity; it says that "in spite of his failures"
Lincoln did apprehend the direction economic development would take in the postCivil
War period, and that he embraced it. But Boritt almost said that Lincoln was able to
"support economic development unwaveringly" because his experience and
understanding "was very restricted." This is probably closer to the truth. Indeed this

lapse in Lincoln's discernment seemed so glaring that the Progressive Era would
manufacture a spurious Lincoln quotation to fill the gap: "... As a result of the war,
corporations have become enthroned, and an era of corruption in high places will
follow. The money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its rule ..." [83]
Boritt himself pointed out that as Lincoln worked to bring the giant railroad
corporations into being, he seemed to have had a "totally innocent lack of foreboding"
regarding large-scale capitalist enterprise. [84] These large corporations would soon
transform his world of small independent entrepreneurs into a Gilded Age of big labor
and big capital. More than this, though the Civil War separates the Romantic
antebellum period from the harsh scientism, social Darwinism, and literary "realism" of
the Gilded Age, Lincoln prosecuted the war to preserve that older world of moral and
economic independence. Thus it can hardly be said that Lincoln's vision "triumphed,"
and in making Lincoln "the first American," he should not be made into one of us.
As Eric Foner put it, "The foundations of the industrial capitalist state of the late
nineteenth century, so similar in individualist rhetoric yet so different in social reality
from Lincoln's America, were to a large extent laid during the Civil War. Here, indeed, is
one of the tragic ironies of that conflict. Each side fought to defend a distinct vision of
the good society, but each vision was destroyed by the very struggle to preserve it."[85]
Despite laudable efforts to avoid this problem, there remained hidden in Boritt's
vocabulary of the American Dream and "the American way of life" [86] an unwarranted
projection of the American present onto the screen of Page [End Page 77] the past. We
tend to view the past as a quaint version of the present striving to be more like us. Thus,
from Bancroft on, we have eliminated all tragedy, including tragically, Lincoln's.
Because Lincoln and his generation did not have modern American life in mind when
they unwittingly set its big industrial wheels in motion, it is inappropriate to read them
as cheerleaders of the American way of life as we know it. But it is especially disturbing
in view of Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address. Lincoln in particular almost always
maintained a critical, even prophetic, stance toward the society he knew, and in places
Boritt acknowledges this.[87] Yet in the end this tragic dimension was lost in Boritt's
account:

Both politics and political economy were moral enterprises for him, and so his goal,
which we call the American Dream, was a moral goal. When he, and the majority of the
nation, took a stand against slavery, the moral ingredient of his faith assumed exalted
proportions. Then the war came and he accepted it to save the nation of the Dreamthis
"light to the world," to quote the words of Isaiah that the President knew by heart.
Lincoln felt that as the men of 1776 did "fight, and endure" for the central idea, the great
hope, of America, so must their descendants. And they did as he bade themfor four
long, bloody years.[88]
In 1859, when he necessarily had to make the strongest case he could for the
Northern way of life and its free-labor economy, Lincoln came the closest he ever would
to claiming God's particular favor for American institutions. [89] Even then he was able
to discriminate between the free-labor he celebrated and the real existing New England
factory system. Like English Romantics such as Carlyle and Blake, Lincoln could ask the
prophetic question: "was Jerusalem builded here, amid these dark satanic mills?" And
by the time he wrote his Second Inaugural Address, he denied outright that God's
purpose could be equated with our own.
Nevertheless Boritt carried his economic interpretation to the Second Inaugural:
Even for one of his legendary fortitude the "nation's wounds," and those of the men who
had "borne the battle, and ... his Page [End Page 78] widow, and his orphan," proved
too much to endure by reason alone. As his years of trial were about to end, he turned
for support from a central idea that was the law of man, perhaps the law of nature, to
that same idea as the law of God. Not surprisingly, for such is the way of man, Lincoln
had found that the purpose of his Maker was like his own purposes. [90]
It is fair to say that we have lost much in the way of theological discernment and
sophistication in the last century and a half. Where a man of Bancroft's day could
dream, however foolishly, that "the husbandman or mechanic of a Christian
congregation solves questions respecting God and man and man's destiny, which
perplexed the most gifted philosopher of ancient Greece," a trained academic historian
of the late twentieth century can misread even the surface-level theology of Lincoln's
Second Inaugural Address: quoth Lincoln, "the Almighty has His own purposes." Boritt
remarked at one point that among the factors that led to the Emancipation

Proclamation should be added Lincoln's "perception of the will of God."[91] Though one
can doubt the validity of one's perception, as Lincoln did, and though one can doubt
one's authority to act on those perceptions, as Lincoln did, one's perception of the will of
God cannot be given a subordinate role or even the coequal status of "another factor." It
is by definition the most comprehensive viewpoint.
The point is not to slight a historian whose book for good reason remains on the shortest
shelf of essential Lincoln readings, but rather to emphasize how far from the world of
Lincoln we have come: Rather than the repository of his deepest gut-level ruminations,
Lincoln's religious vocabulary could only be for us the sign of a soft head. By imputing to
Lincoln the idea that America was "this light unto the world," and by putting forward
the thesis that Lincoln equated his own purposes with the will of God, we misapprehend
the Second Inaugural Address, misjudge the character of its author, and miss one of his
keenest, most fundamental insights.
By referring to Lincoln's economic orientation, Boritt discovered considerable
continuity in Lincoln's thought before and after the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. But
he saw that "such continuity [could] also be detected by focusing on his religious, or
stylistic Page [End Page 79] development; or by limiting the inquiry to his expressions
concerning political processes." [92] We have seen that Boritt's "economic dream" failed
to synthesize important political, moral, and religious elements of Lincoln's thought into
a coherent whole. It is true that politics and political economy were moral enterprises of
Lincoln, and for us, this observation is the most important point to be gained from
Boritt's book. Thus Boritt's interpretation was much stronger for its honest reservations
than for its thesis.
The younger generation of Whigs, the men who later provided the intellectual
leadership of the Republican party in the 1850s, belonged to a different world than even
John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, Daniel Webster, and John C. Calhoun. In this brief
period, the Romantic held sway in American public discourse. Romantics tended to look
to the religious thought of the past for inspiration, and since for many the American past
was, roughly speaking, Calvinist and even Puritan, American Romantics returned to
Reformed understandings of the human condition, reactivated and revitalized them,
and inevitably, adapted them to their own purposes. The religious feeling of the period

lends the Civil War its particular flavor, and as much as any other factor, this pathos
probably helps explain the war's enduring appeal to readers of history.[93] Thus if we
want to recover the full colors even of Lincoln's economic thinking, we must explain this
religious dimension of Whig and Republican thought as well. Though their overall
economic outlook differed greatly from that of their Puritan forbears, Lincoln and his
generation reactivated the idea of "calling" and adapted it to the socially mobile,
opportunity economy that existed just prior to the rise of mass industrialization. They
made moral independence and "calling" the goal of political economy, and this should
replace "the American Dream" in our understanding of the period. Page [End Page 80]