Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Internal Improvements and Abraham Lincoln: More than an economic system?

A topic I've thought about recently and want to do some more research on involves the comparison of Abraham Lincoln's belief in Henry Clay's "American System," specifically the concept of internal improvements and his own personal development and growth.

The belief in internal improvements claimed that government should exist to help people's lives be better. One example was in helping farmers get their products to market more easily, making it easier for them to succeed economically. This system made government responsible for making transportation more convenient and efficient, specifically in the building of better roads, canals, bridges, and, eventually, railroad facilities. If government made transportation that much easier, more of the small farmers that dominated America, particularly in the west during Lincoln's lifetime, would be able to participate in the marketplace, swapping, trading and selling produce and acquiring other items in return.

Lincoln, and most Whigs, believed strongly in this system and used it as the basis of their political beliefs. As Lincoln was developing his political skills and gaining experience in the 1830s and 1840s, internal improvements, not slavery, formed the most important piece of the political pie to him.

What I am starting to believe, though, is that as Lincoln's life continued and his experiences grew and his beliefs developed, the theory of "internal improvements" was as applicable to his own personal growth as it was to the economic growth to which he applied it.

Religiously, he appeared to be a "fatalist" in his youth, yet as he grew older, he never formally joined a church, yet his writings continually reflected his knowledge of the Bible and made evident his beliefs in a God who controlled all events. The "Meditation on the Divine Will" and his Second Inaugural are the prime examples of this, but by no means the only ones.

One question to be answered about this process of religious growth was whether it was an intentional one on his part. Did he try to develop more religious faith or did it happen more naturally? Either way, this growth was an example of "internal improvement" that happened to Lincoln, though clearly more analysis is needed.

"Internal Improvement" can also be applied to his views on race relations. He always opposed slavery, yet through much of his life, he also favored colonization of blacks, believing that blacks and whites could not live together peacefully. This continued into the early years of the war, before he finally left this wish in the past.

As late as August of 1862, he invited several African-Americans to the White House and tried to convince them that colonization was the best idea for both races.

Shortly thereafter, however, he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, showing his willingness to use any powers he thought he had to strike at slavery. At the start of the war, his goal was simply to preserve the Union, but after this proclamation, the abolition of slavery was now one of the government's priorities. This change may not have happened had Lincoln's own views of the war not grown into including the ending of slavery along with preserving the Union.

Even as emancipation became official, though, Lincoln's thoughts on the use of African-Americans tended to leave them as laborers, drivers and other behind-the-scenes workers. This idea, too, also changed after the final Emancipation Proclamation was issued January 1, 1863.

In March of that year, he wrote to Andrew Johnson that "The bare sight of fifty thousand armed, and drilled black soldiers on the banks of the Mississippi, would end the rebellion at once. And who doubts that we can present that sight, if we but take hold in earnest." He followed that up in a July letter to Edwin Stanton "I desire that a renewed and vigorous effort be made to raise colored forces along the shores of the Mississippi." (Note: I found both of these quotes on pages 542-3 in A. Lincoln: A Biography by Ronald C. White Jr, copyright 2009, Random House)

Clearly, his attitude towards African-American soldiers had "improved" since the start of the war, and his feelings about the rights of African-Americans continued to develop as well. In his last public speech, on April 11, 1865, he even suggested letting some African-Americans have the right to vote, a very radical idea at that time. His thoughts did not go as far as many of the "Radical Republicans" but was still much more liberal and forward-thinking than many of his own earlier thoughts about the place of African-Americans in American society. This was certainly more radical than what most white people felt about race relations at the time. In less than three years, he had grown from the idea of colonization to now offering the franchise to at least some African-Americans. This idea - that African-Americans could vote - was so radical that one witness to the speech vowed "This means nigger citizenship. Now, by God, I'll put him through."

That witness, of course, was John Wilkes Booth.

Had President Lincoln lived, it is fair to ask how much further his views on African-American rights would have developed. Would he have offered the right to vote to all African-American men? Would he have supported an amendment to the Constitution giving citizenship to all African-Americans? How much more radical would his thoughts, ideas and policies have grown in the time after April 14, 1865? Unfortunately, we can never know those answers, but given the development of his thoughts into a more liberal or radical direction as time passed, it may be fair to say that he would have continued to become more friendly and helpful to those whose rights had been denied for so long.

Internal improvements - perhaps more than an economic and political philosophy.

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