Abe Lincoln, Emancipator and Economist

“I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world and enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites.” – Abraham Lincoln on slavery

Abraham Lincoln, born this week (Feb. 12) in 1809, also hated slavery because it was bad business, which, to Lincoln, might well have been slavery’s greatest sin.  Yes, slavery was a moral outrage, but Lincoln also thought slave labor was tantamount to being the victim of economic theft.

“The most dumb and stupid slave ever to toil for a master does constantly know that he is wronged,” Lincoln said, not only because that slave can’t enjoy the fruits of his labor, but also because he has no opportunity to become a part of the true American dream — upward mobility.

To Lincoln, every man, including the black man, should be able to “look forward and hope to be a hired laborer this year and the next, work for himself afterwards, and finally to hire men to work for him. That is the true system.”

But it was not the system in the South, which Lincoln believed was one reason the South was so economically backwards compared with the North.  In the North, men with ambition and talent were motivated by the prospect of advancement, while the southern slaves had no incentive to do any more than they were beaten or prodded to do.  Small wonder the North was becoming an industrial and manufacturing stronghold, while the South lived off an agrarian economy that had not changed appreciably since Colonial times.

This economic disparity actually worked to Lincoln’s advantage during the Civil War.  The North won the war in great part because its economic system was so much more efficient at moving men and material from one place to another.  But Lincoln worried about the post-war world.  Would the South join its neighboring North in a unified drive toward modernity, or would the South fall farther behind, creating an economic and social disparity that might once again result in political frictions similar to those that caused the Civil War in the first place?

It was for this reason, as much as any moral consideration or legal intention, that Lincoln, and later the northern-dominated Congress, worked to pass the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments.  They wanted to put the black man, and by extension the South, on the road to economic and social equality.

Or as Lincoln once told an audience of black soldiers, the Civil War was fought to create “a fair chance for your industry, enterprise and intelligence, that you may all have equal privileges in life.”