Monday, July 6, 2009

Would I have supported Abraham Lincoln in 1860 & 64?

One thing I occasionally wonder about is would I have voted for Abraham Lincoln if I had been an eligible voter in 1860 and 1864? As much as I admire him, buy and read books about him and purchase other Lincolniana (what a word, that is, J ) I'm not sure his political theory would have meshed with mine, at least his Whiggish beliefs.

He believed in governmental aid to help the economy and to make it easier for people to move and to participate in the economy. He felt the government should build roads, canals and railroads, or at least help private industries to accomplish such ventures. "Internal improvements" was the name for such activities, part of the "American System" that Lincoln's political idol Henry Clay supported. This system also included protective tariffs and a national bank. Lincoln had a very strong belief in internal improvements, from the start of his political career in Illinois, though his efforts there ultimately failed thanks to national economic troubles in 1837 that left the state with what Ronald C. White Jr. described as a "$10 million millstone" around its neck.1

As his political life evolved and issues like slavery, territorial rights and party affiliations took up more of his time and attention, Lincoln continued to carry this belief in governmental aid to the economy. As President, the best examples of this are his support for the Morrill Land Grant Act of 1862, which would provide public money to fund one college in each state, to focus on agriculture, engineering and military teach, the Pacific Railway Act, which authorized the sale of federal lands to help create the first transcontinental railroad in the United States and of the Homestead Act, which would give 60 acres of public land to settlers for little payment.

Now, I'll admit I'm not much into politics, and I'm not going to turn this into a discussion of current situations, but I've always favored less governmental intervention and the thought of having so much help from "big brother" to create economic development is not something I'm sure I can support. In fact, my gut instinct is to oppose it, though as I read more about Lincoln, I start understanding his beliefs and reasons for them better. Still, I have this nagging feeling that supporting such a plan would be hard for me to do. It goes against my basic instincts, though, of course, maybe my instincts would have been different had I lived 170 – 200 or so years ago when Clay, Lincoln and other Whigs were advocating such a plan.

As Lincoln's life went on, of course, he became more closely associated with the debate over slavery and the territories and, generally, what, if any, relationship should exist between governmental power and this "peculiar institution." Now, this is one subject where, 150+ years later, I can say I agree with Lincoln's view. The Northwest Ordinance and then the Missouri Compromise had put a limit on the extension of slavery and to revoke such limits was a mistake. The Federal government did (as it should have had) have authority to regulate slavery in the federal territories.

Of course, this position leads me to two other questions. 1. If I oppose government intervention in the economy via "internal improvements" how can I justify turning around and accepting such intervention in an institution like slavery (which some could argue was just as tied to economics as was the concept internal improvements)? 2. If I acknowledge that living in that era may have given me a different view of the question of internal improvements, might the same be said for my view of the slavery issue?

I really don't know if I can answer those questions, and, if I can, if I can do so quickly. For question one, I think I would focus more on the human and moral issues than on the economy. The concept of "owning" other human beings is just so foreign to my mindset that I can see no way I would ever support that. I cannot imagine ever being able to accept or support the concept of being able to own, buy and sell another person. It is just absurd.

That, though, just brings me to question number two. One of the difficulties of answering this question is the question of where I lived and who I lived with. For instance, in the mid-1800s, one of my g-g-g-g grandfathers, on my mother's side of the family, lived in the mountains of Eastern Kentucky and did own slaves, usually around 12-15 according to census records I found. If I lived with them, and slavery was a part of my culture, and perhaps had been a part of my daily life for my whole existence, would I have had the same moral outrage about such an institution?

On the other hand, one of my g-g-g- grandfathers on my dad's side had been born in Pennsylvania, a non-slave state, and had moved to Kentucky, a slave state, around 1840. Kentucky was a slave state, but it was at the very northern edge of slave territory, and though slaves were held in this region, the number was not very high, so the geographical culture was rather mixed regarding slavery. Census records show this ancestor as owning no slaves and no other record I've found contradicts that. Like with the question about my maternal ancestor, if I had been born in this environment, even in a slave state like Kentucky, how would my feelings toward the institution have developed?

All this, of course, is based on the assumption that my feelings and morals would have been largely influenced, perhaps totally so, by my environment. Perhaps another idea would be that I could grow up surrounded by certain feelings towards slavery, but change them as I matured based on my own life experiences. This idea simply means the possible answers to my question # 2 are infinite in nature.

I like to tell myself that I would have always been opposed to slavery due to the moral issues I perceive from my current viewpoint, but, if I am to be honest with myself, I just do not know. How much would my thoughts and feelings been formed by my surroundings? That is simply a matter for speculation.

I did not intend to make this entry so long, but could not stop. I kind of like how it has developed and shown me more questions to ponder and to ask myself. I am an admirer of Abraham Lincoln and how he led his life and the nation. How I would have felt had I been born in a different era is, in all likelihood, unanswerable, but I do feel it is worth thinking about and may be something I further explore in future entries.


1 White, Jr., Ronald C. A. Lincoln: A Biography. New York: Random House, 2009

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