What You Should Think About Abraham Lincoln

June 2, 2011

“Labor is prior to, and independent of, capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration.”

–Abraham Lincoln

Unlike most U.S. Presidents, Abraham Lincoln faced economic hardship as a child.  His father had been a prosperous Kentucky landowner, but young Abraham, at the tender age of 7, watched his family lands taken away due to a legal technicality.  Having resettled in Indiana, he was able to study briefly and sporadically under a series of traveling teachers.  Even so, the bulk of his learning was a function of self-education.  Over time, he grew into a strong laborer.  He did not take every job on offer, but he was often quick to trade his services for the loan of books he had not previously read.

When he was 21, his family relocated once more, to the state he would consider his true home — Illinois.  He soon obtained a loan in order to join a partnership running a mill and general store in New Salem.  Contemporary accounts depict him as an able shopkeeper, but the store did not prosper, and he had to leave the business.  When a battle-hardened Native American known as Black Hawk rallied hundreds of warriors to reclaim his ancestral homeland on the eastern bank of the Mississippi, Abraham Lincoln remedied his unemployment by volunteering for the Illinois militia.  He was particularly honored to have been elected captain of his militia company.

Though young Lincoln did not engage in actual combat, he repeatedly arrived in the aftermath of a clash and undertook the duty of burying the dead.  He would learn much about the costs of war even without experiencing the heat of battle.  He would re-enlist several times, accepting the role of an ordinary private, as his units would be mustered out of service.  He was awarded a land grant for his efforts, though perhaps more valuable were the many new friendships that would prove assets during the start of his political career.  His time in the militia spanned less than four months.  A horse theft on the eve of its conclusion would afford him ample time for reflection as he walked much of the distance from northwest Illinois back to his New Salem home.

Soon after, Abraham Lincoln turned the full force of his energies to politics and the law.  His 1834 bid for a place in the Illinois General Assembly would be his second run for political office and his first campaign victory.  He was the second youngest in a particularly young class of legislators.  Here he kept quiet long enough to live up to his own aphorism, “it is better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak up and remove all doubt.”  By the time he was ready to do more than observe and vote, he had such a command of the process that many others turned to him for help in crafting and promoting their own legislation.  Though his Whig party was a shrinking minority, Lincoln’s efforts at leadership did much to help move their agenda through the bicameral Assembly.

During this same time, he also sought and obtained a license to practice law in the state of Illinois.  In 1837, both the capital of the state and the man himself relocated to Springfield.  There Abraham Lincoln formed a law partnership with an old acquaintance from his time in the militia.  In his time as a prairie lawyer, Lincoln would participate in over 5,100 cases.  Among his most notable was the defense of an accused murderer, acquitted after a witness who claimed to have seen the crime by moonlight was impeached with an almanac entry indicating the Moon was in an unsuitable position to provide illumination on the night in question.  He also successfully defended a railroad against claims that its bridge over the Mississippi was a hazard to navigation.  This established a precedent that advanced the cause of economic development extending westward.

Of course, modernity knows Abraham Lincoln best as a critic of slavery and a wartime President who restored the United States after our nation’s only great schism.  He had already served one term in the U.S. House of Representatives, but he failed to win election to the U.S. Senate.  After a lifetime of promoting obedience to the law and working with traditional political institutions, Lincoln abruptly embraced challenges to the status quo.  He found the infamous decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford to be deeply offensive.  He recognized that many state governments were unlikely to yield to the moral objections against slavery and abandon that institution in his lifetime.  He lent his intellectual force to an increasingly fiery abolitionist movement.

At the same time, Abraham Lincoln became a prominent figure in the emergent Republican Party.  He asserted that the compromises perpetuating slavery were failures of the Founding Fathers and all subsequent American leadership.  With oratorical skills honed before countless juries then popularized by events like the Lincoln-Douglas debates, he developed a reputation as just the sort of man who could catapult this fledgeling party into a strong position on the national stage.  After winning the Republican nomination for President of the United States, he also emerged victorious in an unusual race that saw the Electoral College of 1860 split four ways.

Before the year was out, secession had begun.  The newborn Confederacy had the benefit of a more skilled body of officers, but its largely agrarian economy would prove an enormous liability.  The great cities of the north, with their industrial capacity, higher standards of education, and technological sophistication would provide a power base that the south could not hope to equal.  The Union Navy acted quickly to inhibit trade, doing much to strangle the Confederate economy that was so dependent on cotton exports.  Quelling the fighting spirit of the rebels was another matter.  President Lincoln went through one senior commander after another, frequently unsatisfied with his generals’ ability and/or willingness to undertake offensive actions.

Ultimately, harsh action was required to restore the nation.  Generals Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman performed the heavy lifting that brought the Confederacy to the point of surrender.  After years of bloody give and take, Grant’s masterful offensives dealt his enemies a string of painful defeats.  Dealing out pain was also a hallmark of Sherman’s actions.  Most remarkably, after securing the city of Atlanta under his control, his forces set fire to all government buildings.  The resulting conflagration was the one of several he would ignite in order to devastate the cities of the south.

Abraham Lincoln himself became no stranger to harsh measures.  His government suspended basic Constitutional rights in order to suppress disloyalty within the Union.  He imprisoned Confederate sympathizers and even some opposition politicians without due process.  He authorized military spending without Congressional approval.  He fully supported the bloody and brutal tactics his most successful generals employed to end the conflict.  Yet he was no barbarian.  As forceful as he was in putting down the rebellion, his intentions were gentle for dealing with the south in the aftermath of the war.

John Wilkes Booth saw to it that history would never learn firsthand of Lincoln’s intentions for the defeated Confederacy.  Formal surrender had occurred just days before the actor-turned-assassin put a bullet in the head of Abraham Lincoln.  Yet Lincoln’s spirit would help to guide his successor in the restoration of the United States as a single coherent nation.  Penalties for war crimes were only imposed on Confederate officers guilty of horrific abuses, like the deliberate starvation of Union captives in the Andersonville prison.  Even the President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, was a free man no longer facing treason charges within four years of his initial arrest.  Both Abraham Lincoln and his successor, Andrew Johnson, understood that healing the nation required viewing even the most ardent rebels as U.S. citizens, entitled to the same levels of fairness and respect due any Yankee.

The consensus among historians is that Abraham Lincoln was one of our greatest Presidents.  Though his time in that office was dominated by the Civil War, his success at restoring the Union was an incredible feat achieved in the face of growing public unrest about the costs of war.  Subsequent leaders have made pretense of facing “an existential threat” to the United States of America, but Lincoln confronted an actual threat that grave.  His willingness to do what had to be done, knowing full well what it was like to arrive on a battlefield littered with corpses, holding in his heart a passionate commitment to due process and the rule of law, is what made him a truly exceptional leader.  A far cry from twenty men with boxcutters, he had to deal with the loss of nearly half of the nation, and deal with it he surely did.

What You Should Think About Theodore Roosevelt

June 1, 2011

“This country will not be a permanently good place for any of us to live in unless we make it a reasonably good place for all of us to live in.”

–Theodore Roosevelt

Imagine a former President, currently campaigning for a return to the White House, is shot in the chest.  Horrified aides prepare to transport him to the hospital.  An adviser begins to compose an apology for the candidate’s absence at a nearby rally.  The wounded man will have none of it.  An experienced hunter and soldier, he reasons that he would be coughing up blood if the bullet had penetrated his lungs.  Each of the fifty pages of his prepared remarks now sports a prominent bullet hole.  With blood seeping into his clothing, he goes on to address the crowd for a full hour and a half.

There is much more to Theodore Roosevelt than pure grit.  Yet this quality must be understood to make a start of understanding the man.  Almost all of his adult life was dedicated to identifying serious problems and charging headlong into the struggle to solve them.  Considered a frail child and subject to home schooling, he embraced the opportunity of Harvard life to reinvent himself.  So began a lifelong love of boxing as well as a deep interest in military history.  By graduation, he had established himself as physically formidable.  At the same time, he made a solid start on The Naval War of 1812, a historical book of uncommon detail and rigor for the times.

He went on to law school, though soon he gave up that pursuit to run for and win a seat in the New York State Assembly.  He was a prolific legislator, but it would not be long before he would face a challenge not at all of his choosing.  On February 14, 1884, both his mother and his first wife died, the latter unexpectedly.  Writing in his diary, “the light has gone out of my life;” even his spirit was not impervious to such a loss.  Unable to find further satisfaction in political wrangling, a few weeks later he sought a change of scenery by heading for the Badlands of the Dakotas.

Embarking on a new course, he became a cattle rancher, frontier lawman, and magazine correspondent.  His tales of life in what was then the “Wild West” proved popular among readers in New England.  His keen sense of ethics and relentless determination made him a threat to any outlaw in the region.  Though he befriended the legendary gunfighter Seth Bullock, Theodore Roosevelt remained a firm believer in the rule of law.  In an instance when no one would have faulted him for the exercise of vigilante justice, he instead transported a trio of thieves to a distant venue where a proper trial could be conducted.  Only after a severe winter wiped out his cattle herd did life in the Badlands no longer seem suited to this future President.

With his return to political life he embodied the spirit of a new progressive movement.  After an unsuccessful run for mayor of New York City, he took work as a federal bureaucrat determined to stamp out corruption and patronage at all levels of government.  His unyielding and sometimes downright pugnacious pursuit of fairness earned him a favorable public reputation.  He was later able to build on this reputation as president of the Board of New York City Police Commissioners.  There he faced tasks that anyone with less determination and force of personality could not hope to have accomplished.  Yet he left the department transformed in a myriad of constructive ways.

He would next return to federal service as Assistant Secretary of the Navy, using a brief absence of his superior (in conjunction with battleship Maine sinking) to prepare the nation for the pending Spanish-American War.  Yet planning and management were not enough for a man of action like Theodore Roosevelt.  He soon resigned his post, recruited over a thousand volunteers, and set out for Cuba as leader of a regiment that would become known as the Rough Riders.  His boldness and perseverance in that conflict was recognized with a nomination for the Congressional Medal of Honor, though an initial rejection meant that the award would not actually be bestowed until a posthumous ceremony held in 2001.

Now a bona fide war hero, his return to politics involved a quick rise to the very top.  As governor of New York, he continued to fight corruption while taking measures to address the problems of the poor and downtrodden.  William McKinley ran with Theodore Roosevelt as his Vice Presidential nominee in 1900.  At that time, the red-blue polarity of almost every state was inverted from what we see in the 21st century.  Republicans truly were the party of Lincoln.  Democrats continued to openly support candidates sympathetic to the de facto apartheid in place throughout many of the southern states.  The McKinley-Roosevelt ticket earned a solid victory against William Jennings Bryan’s appeals to archaic traditions and unscientific beliefs.

Still in his first year as President, William McKinley was assassinated.  At 42 years of age, Theodore Roosevelt was sworn in as the youngest President in the history of the United States.  Yet this youth did not prevent him from achieving greatness.  He immediately spoke out to promote more aggressive regulation of large corporations and to condemn corrupt dealings between government and business.  He answered John Muir’s call to conserve and protect many of America’s greatest natural treasures.  President Roosevelt even used federal power to resolve strikes by demanding fair treatment for the exploited working class.

After winning an easy landslide in the 1904 election, he continued to champion populist causes and govern in the public interest.  He pushed for regulations that dramatically improved the safety of the American food supply.  He opened the White House to reporters and provided regular briefings so as to better inform the public about the inner workings of government.  Theodore Roosevelt was the first American to win a Nobel Prize — a Peace Prize for his role in negotiating an end to the Russo-Japanese War.  He was also the first President to call for universal health care to become the policy of the United States federal government.

Though he did not run for reelection in 1908, he found the policies and practices of his successor intolerable.  William Howard Taft talked a good game when it came to promoting free and fair trade while regulating the excesses of big business.  Yet he was a new force in Republican politics — a dissembler closely allied with the tycoons of his time.  Even as he spoke of championing the causes of consumers and laborers, his actions served the interests of industrialists and speculators.  Initially supportive of Taft, Roosevelt belatedly came to understand that the sitting President embodied everything the progressive movement was dedicated to purging from political life.

So it was that Theodore Roosevelt set out to win a third term as President of the United States.  With primary elections a relatively new phenomenon, the contest for the Republican nomination was a complex and messy business.  Aware of imminent defeat at the 1912 Republican National Convention, Roosevelt pulled his supporters away from that gathering and formed the Progressive Party.  Declaring intent to oppose the “unholy alliance” between government and big business, Roosevelt generated enormous popular support.  After the failed assassination attempt, his movement became known as the Bull Moose Party in reference to his quip, “it takes more than that to kill a bull moose.”  Though he was ultimately defeated, Theodore Roosevelt earned the distinction of being the only third party candidate ever to finish second in a U.S. Presidential race.

Looking back at these events roughly a century ago, it is hard to imagine how much brighter history would have been if the Republican Party remained true to the principles of Theodore Roosevelt instead of allowing itself to be bought by the fortunes of the corporate elite.  While the Democratic Party became more and more principled, eventually supporting causes like social justice and civil rights, the Republican Party embraced those constituencies that no honorable public figure should ever service.  There is no legitimate place for corruption, sexism, racism, or homophobia in the political life of an enlightened people.  With prevarication supported by the deepest of pockets and the shallowest of scruples, they have provided a political platform on which voters driven by those motivations can continue to make a stand.

So the next time you hear someone refer to the Republican Party as “the party of Lincoln,” keep in mind that this assessment was not always wrong.  Once upon a time, they were champions of what Theodore Roosevelt referred to as the “square deal.”  Once upon a time, they believed in the value of scientific thought, the importance of environmental conservation, and the Constitutional directive to promote the general welfare.  Could such a transformation occur again?  Could the party of Palin and Gingrich ever hope to recover integrity and usefulness?  Stranger things have transpired in the history of American politics.

What You Should Think About Ron Paul

October 26, 2007

“Once we roared like lions for liberty; now we bleat like sheep for security!”

–Norman Vincent Peale

If anyone doubts my assertions about a growing disconnect between the halls of power and the voice of the people, the Ron Paul campaign provides ample illustration of my point. Day by day, the list of media organizations and polling institutions that have implemented special provisions to cope with Ron Paul’s activist base of support grows longer. Though the Internet serves as a lens to focus this support, its raw intensity is about something much bigger than any blogging network or discussion group.

Libertarian thinking provides a valid, often insightful, perspective on governance. Honest and orthodox libertarians are at heart economic conservatives and social liberals. Yet many find themselves caught in an uncomfortable quandary. The media offers few voices that dignify libertarian narratives entirely. Wholly conservative media does address a portion of libertarian economic thought while also spinning social liberalism as hostile to “smaller government.” Faced with the choice between having no popular media validation or dealing with unprincipled purveyors of political hate, some have made the latter compromise.

Yet this does not sit squarely on the shoulders of a thoughtful libertarian. Economically, the Fox News/Rush Limbaugh set never met a high tech weapons system they didn’t like. Declaring an end to an arms race no other nation presently runs may not be top of every libertarian’s agenda, but in terms of real fiscal conservatism it is a bountiful field. There are good arguments for maintaining or even improving the funding for pay, benefits, and training of military personnel. However, the arguments for a whole new generation of high tech gizmos rest on outdated Cold War thinking. Radically reducing spending, the only approach that has any real prospect of enabling a sustained radical reduction in taxation, demands a new spending paradigm at the Pentagon.

The elders of the Republican Party, not to mention their house organs in conservative media, are deeply committed to continuity of defense planning as established with an eye toward a thriving 21st century Soviet menace. Some libertarians understand that America’s economic competitiveness is undermined by every additional expenditure on military hardware that is only trivially more effective in a modern context. Others simply despise government waste on such an epic scale.

Be it because of better relations or better historical perspective among leaders, China’s approach to prosperity has involved spending restraint on the kinds of hardware emergent from the science fiction fantasies of Cold War military planners. It is one of many nations that has been able to change with the times. Between much hype and some actual policy to improve counterterrorism and peacekeeping capabilities, there have been no voices on the political right (and few enough on the left) calling to put the non-functional missile defense project back in R&D or to slash spending on replacements for already unbeatable air superiority warplanes.

Enter Ron Paul. When he speaks of a radical rethinking of government expenditures, he isn’t just talking about the kind that actually do some good for real working Americans. He speaks credibly when claiming he is as hostile to corporate welfare as poverty relief. His agenda cuts foreign aid to support corrupt plutocrats just as much as it cuts foreign aid to support humanitarian efforts. If you really believe in hardcore fiscal conservatism, in Ron Paul you find a principled advocate making promises in earnest. Elsewhere, as history has shown again and again and again, mainstream Republicans exploit demand for fiscal conservatism only to later use their Presidencies as a means to bloat the least useful components of the public sector.

Yet the long string of disappointing economic stewardship from Republican leaders is only half the story. Real libertarians don’t much care if gay couples have access to the same body of family law that clarifies troubled situations for heterosexual couples. Real libertarians do care if the government mines databases containing information on every book you’ve ever borrowed from a library or bought with a credit card. Real libertarians don’t want to see the U.S. Senate convening to perpetuate life support for one Floridian locked into a persistent vegetative state. Real libertarians do care if new policies authorize a secret police force to conduct warrantless surveillance then extract information from criminal suspects by means resembling torture.

The false narrative of social conservatism as a call for smaller government has worn thin. Libertarians understand that institutionalized school prayer is not essential to the free practice of Christianity. Libertarians understand that a daily loyalty oath, with or without any reference to God, is not an instrument of liberation. Censorship of music and television . . . well, that’s not exactly libertarian thinking either. The louder conservative pundits become about these issues, the more uncomfortable the always-uneasy alliance between libertarians and conservatives becomes.

Again, Ron Paul serves to address a problem. At present he works from inside the proverbial system, contending for the Republican party’s Presidential nomination. Yet he does not compromise by supporting the advance of the police state or the financial sinkholes of outmoded Pentagon procurement policies. By standing in nationally televised debates, he gives voice to a group of earnest thoughtful Americans who have never previously seen their ideas resonate beyond third party efforts.

Yet the Ron Paul phenomenon is a small part of a much bigger thing. For a full generation now, Democrats and Republicans have engaged in no significant national discussion regarding a number of issues that merit much more consideration. Environmentalists, socialists, isolationists, even theocrats — there are many perspectives in this nation that are denied a voice beyond the fringe. Personally I believe an isolationist theocracy would be a truly horrible direction for the United States. Yet that does not mean I believe isolationists and theocrats should be prevented from making the best possible case for their beliefs.

If any single factor had to be cited as the foremost cause of our nation’s greatness, I would focus on political diversity. Our revolution launched a new era in human governance — an era in which new ways of thinking would rise up from the people rather than trickling down from aristocrats. The process that gives us this strength functions at its best when ideas are allowed to rise or fall based on their intrinsic merits. A bipartisan oligarchy, distilling everything down into political narratives that focus clash on a few highly divisive issues, shuts out a wealth of great political ideas.

By authentically clashing with the dominant narratives while remaining affiliated with a dominant party, Ron Paul shines a light on the general failure of the system to acknowledge real wisdom that is not also conventional wisdom. Both in terms of the growing lockout of Ron Paul’s supporters from online activities and in terms of the pundits’ “of course he can’t win” mantra, tension is building between believers in a coherent ideology of principled libertarians and believers in the contrived ideology of Bush-style political conservatism.

Personally I have no interest in closing the Departments of Health and Human Services, Education, Housing and Urban Development, etc. In fact, I advocate new initiatives in areas like that. However, I also advocate an open civic process in which ideas about new social services must overcome opposition from believers in social service cutbacks or even pure anarcho-capitalism. One of the most sound applications of free market thinking is in the context of “a marketplace of ideas.”

John Milton’s Areopagitica contains the text, “though all the winds of doctrine were let loose to play upon the earth, so Truth be in the field, we do injuriously by licensing and prohibiting to misdoubt her strength. Let her and Falsehood grapple; who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?” It takes more than basic freedom of speech to preserve a political process in which these free and open encounters are commonplace. That passionate support Ron Paul’s candidacy enjoys is at least as much a longing for such openness as it is a craving for tax cuts. Whether or not you agree much with the man, he gives us cause to respect the process and any principled public figure who should happen to somehow find prominence within it.