Vail Daily column: Make America’s freedoms great again
Abraham Lincoln advocated a special brand of freedom. Reflecting biblical wisdom, he “proclaimed this liberty throughout the land” (Leviticus 25:10).
What did Lincoln’s freedom look like? How did he apply this liberty to his political achievements? Throughout his political career, Lincoln rooted liberty in The Declaration of Independence. There, Jefferson described a national ethos in which citizens had opportunity to advance through work and improve quality of life at home.
Lincoln believed government played a vital role in creating a civic seed box where personal liberty sprouted and grew. Unlike current political hacks who diminish government’s role in building a just society, Lincoln encouraged Uncle Sam to make conditions right, functioning as fertile soil in which citizens’ liberties bloomed.
He asserted that the central purpose of effective government was to “clear the path” for working Americans to climb the ladder of economic success. Pioneers frequently used this “clearing the path” metaphor. It did not infer government’s retreat to the sidelines by getting off citizen’s backs. Pioneers cleared forests, turning them into fields for planting crops. Or, once having “cleared the path” of brush, they built log cabins. Their oxen strained, pulling stumps from the ground to “clear a path.”
Working in tandem with personal initiative, government clears paths. Citizens walk on them into a brighter economic future. “The legitimate object of government,” Lincoln noted sometime in 1854, “is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but cannot do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves in their separate and individual capacities.”
Lincoln believed government flexes collective muscle through citizens’ support. What results occur? Citizens build confidence that they can leave their children a brighter future marked by economic gain, affordable housing and education that spurs entrepreneurial drive.
Even though the Civil War raged and Union forces in its early stages suffered horrible defeats, Lincoln expanded government. Eminent Lincoln historian Harold Holzer and economist Norton Garfinkle pinpoint in “A Just and Generous Nation: Abraham Lincoln and the Fight for American Opportunity” (2015) how Lincoln’s policies grew government that protected individual liberties. The president helped win the West through citizens’ initiatives fortified by hard work and government assistance that gave liberty a chance to grow.
Government’s constructive fiscal action shored up the economy. Holzer and Garfinkle write: “Lincoln signed the National Banking Act, which not only revived the national bank that President Jackson had killed in 1833, but also gave the country its first unified currency and created a national system of chartered banks, replacing a system in which state banks created their own money.
“The 1862 Homestead Act provided 160 acres of inexpensive land to settlers willing to migrate west. Lincoln favored high protective tariffs to encourage the development of domestic manufacturing. He chartered the first transcontinental railroad, which would link the country from East to West coasts, the greatest ‘internal improvement’ up to that time. He signed the Morrill Act in 1862 which provided states with grants of land to establish colleges, designed to provide useful education to help ‘clear the path’ for ordinary people to achieve the American economic dream. And these colleges became the basis of the nation’s state university system.”
Lincoln’s liberty grew in soil enriched by nutrients good government supplied. “All these programs were the embodiment of what Lincoln believed to be government’s legitimate and vital role in building an expanding America’s middle-class economy and society,” conclude Holzer and Garfinkle.
To enhance citizens’ liberties, Lincoln pressed forward; he didn’t shrink government.
In contrast, President Ronald Reagan advocated lean government. He moved his 1981 inauguration to the Capitol’s west portico facing the Lincoln Memorial. He uttered a cure for our nation’s economic malady that contradicted Lincoln’s liberty for all. Gazing west down the National Mall to the Lincoln Memorial, Reagan sounded quite un-Lincoln-esque, declaring: “In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problems; government is the problem.”
Speaking at the Republican National Convention in 1992, former president Reagan endorsed George Bush as his successor and them made the ludicrous claim that his economic principles were eloquently stated by Lincoln generations earlier. The 40th president delivered sound bites that he that he mistakenly assumed Lincoln uttered.
“You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong. You cannot help the wage earner by pulling down the wage payer. You cannot help the poor man (sic) by destroying the rich. You cannot help men (sic) permanently by doing for them what they could and should do for themselves.”
These words are not Lincoln’s, even though today’s Republicans swear he spoke these maxims. Lincoln’s confidence in constructive government to extend liberty contradicts them. Reagan lifted this errant folk wisdom from an obscure Brooklyn preacher in 1916 who wrote them 51 years after Lincoln’s assassination.
Liberty and government form a symbiotic relationship. They feed on each other to foster liberty, as Lincoln believed and implemented in public policy.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling.