Lincoln’s American Dream

A Just and Generous Nation – Abraham Lincoln and the Fight for America Opportunity

Harold Holzer and Norton Garfinkle
Basic Books, NY; 2015
260 pages; Appendix, Notes, Index.

For most Americans, Abraham Lincoln is the iconic, martyred president who prosecuted the Civil War to save the union and ended slavery. Among the reading public, especially those familiar with Doris Kearns Goodwin’s masterful Team of Rivals, Lincoln was a genius political leader. For those who know the letter to Horace Greeley in which he states, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it.” Lincoln’s once unquestioned moral leadership is recognized as political expediency.

Historian Harold Holzer (winner of the 2015 Lincoln Prize) and economist Norton Garfinkle (Chair, Future of American Democracy Foundation) teamed up to produce a perfectly timed and important new book about Lincoln, the American Dream, and the responsibility of a government of, by, and for the people.

In the first half of A Just and Generous Nation, another deeply-held principle for Lincoln is brought into focus, that “a penniless beggar” (as he described himself) could “toil up from poverty” and enjoy a comfortable, middle-class life.

Holzer reacquaints us with Honest Abe’s rise from rural poverty and a difficult family life, which informed his views as president. As a life-long student of the Founding Founders, Lincoln understood the purpose of government as a positive force providing support to the needy and provide opportunities to advance in life for working people. Intimately knowing those struggles himself, Lincoln’s government for the people, did big things that individuals are unable to do by themselves.

In that 19th-century era of rapid westward expansion, Lincoln recognized slavery as a major economic obstacle. If slavery spread into new territories, free men would be excluded from opportunities by the capitalists who owned the labor of their unpaid slaves. Virtually all new wealth created would go to the already-wealthy slaveholders. Lincoln saw that inequity as fundamentally un-American.

For the people, Lincoln passed the Homestead Act, which made affordable farmland available to all, and the Morrill Act, which provided public lands for universities offering higher education in agriculture, mechanics, and military tactics for those not born into wealth. These positive government actions helped level the playing field for immigrants and others. Some of those were my ancestors and, likely, some of your folks, too.

The second half of A Just and Generous Nation is economist Garfinkle’s territory. He steps us through the administrations that came after Lincoln,  and to the present day. We see the results of old-style Gospel of Wealth policies known better today as Reagonomics, supply side, or “trickle down” (hand-outs to the rich), and the effects of Lincoln-esque programs (hand-ups to the poor and struggling) laid out clearly.

The US economy has crashed repeatedly, – not by itself (and never because of social welfare spending). Every crash was caused by bankrupt policies and practices of the wealthy and powerful. For every crash, the poor and working families paid the price. In living memory still, there’s the Great Depression and fresh in mind, we have the 2007 housing market collapse and the taxpayer bail-outs. Americans whose home values and retirement funds evaporated, gave billions in hand-outs to those who stole their future security out from under them.  – Government protecting the rich and “corporate people” gutted the middle-class.

While the media assures us the 2008 recession is over and the economy is recovering, it rarely reports that virtually all the income gains went to the top 10% of the wealthiest Americans. Further, according to 2014 data, that richest 10% owns nearly 85% of all the nation’s financial assets.

In 90% of American households, adults work two, even three, low-wage jobs. If they can save anything for investment, they compete for the thin 15% of the wealth pie left after the rich waddled away from the banquet table. To illustrate the tightrope walk level of stress hardworking Americans face, a Princeton Survey Research Associates survey in December 2015 showed 63% of American households (52% with college degrees) would be financially devastated by an emergency that cost just $500. Life in the United States for 90% of us is closer to the “Hunger Games” than to Abraham Lincoln’s thriving middle-class ideal, but we can fix this.

Holzer and Garfinkle wrote this book with the intention of putting the lessons of history clearly before us in time for the 2016 election year. They illuminate economics, making key points easy to grasp, and apply to our own assessments of candidate policy platforms as we prepare to mark our ballots in November.

    A Just and Generous Nation reminds us Lincoln’s great unfinished work remains undone, and that with income inequality at its historic worst, saving and re-growing a middle-class society will be hard. In November, we Americans can choose to keep faith with Lincoln’s vision and do the hard thing.
    If we fall for the flim-flam again, Lincoln’s “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” – will be history.

Notes | Sources | Resources

Abraham Lincoln Online: Speeches and Writings;

Who Rules America: Wealth, Income, and Power;

The Rich and Poor: Demographics of Wealth Distribution, John C. Weicher, 1997; – A project of the Institute for Policy Studies;

Lincoln & Morrill: Passing the 1862 Morrill Act; Virginia Tech;

Money Pulse survey;