Dan Winslow on Abraham Lincoln

Winslow-Daniel-1687-Web-195x230LincolnI recommend Rep. Dan Winslow’s video Be Part of the Solution, especially because in just over two minutes he weaved in two separate references to Abraham Lincoln. I was jumping up and down with excitement when I heard that. Rep. Winslow wants to reclaim Lincoln as the proper symbol of the Massachusetts Republican Party (national Republicans overwhelmingly prefer Ronald Reagan), and good for him.

Rep. Winslow finds it ironic that here in Massachusetts we seem to hate (too strong a word, Rep.) Republicans but we love the movie Lincoln. That seems odd since Lincoln was the founder of Republican core philosophies of freedom, the individual, responsibility, and opportunity. The representative says the values of the movie Lincoln can translate to life here in Massachusetts.

Of course it is always a challenge to appropriate a historical figure into our modern political debates but Rep. Winslow raises a good point. The historian Gabor S. Boritt wrote an important book about how Lincoln’s philosophy of labor and upward mobility came to inform his views on slavery and freedom, Lincoln and the Economics of the American Dream.

In some respects we understand our economic system in the way Lincoln explained it to us. In a speech to the Wisconsin State Agricultural Society in 1859, Lincoln said “The prudent, penniless beginner in the world, labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land, for himself; then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him. This, say its advocates, is free labor – the just and generous, and prosperous system, which opens the way for all – gives hope to all, and energy, and progress, and improvement of condition to all.”

When Lincoln first ran for state representative he issued “To the People of Sangamo County: Political Announcement” on March 9, 1832 in which he addressed the need for expanded economic opportunity. As a Whig he favored a system of internal improvements, but as someone with his eye on efficient expenditure he recommended not an expensive railroad but the improvement of the Sangamo River.

Lincoln chose law as his profession to help him rise from the status of poor, penniless beginner. The law was a critical profession for the development of a commercial republic.

Many believe that as president Lincoln greatly enhanced the power of the federal government versus the sovereignty of the states. As the movie shows he did more than anyone in our history to improve the work conditions and prospects of a large portion of our work force.

Here is something else Lincoln said at the Wisconsin Agricultural Society:

They (a class of thinkers with whom Lincoln agrees) hold that labor is prior to, and independent of, capital; that, in fact, capital is the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed—that labor can exist without capital, but that capital could never have existed without labor. Hence they hold that labor is the superior—greatly the superior—of capital.

I suspect it is that line of thinking that has caused Reagan to slip ahead of Lincoln as the preferred president among national Republicans. But Rep. Winslow’s reminder that it was Lincoln who was the wellspring of Republican values is thoughtful and welcome.

About Maurice T. Cunningham

Maurice T. Cunningham is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He teaches courses in American government including Massachusetts Politics, The American Presidency, Catholics in Political Life, The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln, American Political Thought, and Public Policy. His book Maximization, Whatever the Cost: Race, Redistricting and the Department of Justice examines the role of the DOJ in requiring states to maximize minority voting districts in the Nineties. He has published articles dealing with the role of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts politics and on party politics in the state. His research interests focus upon the changing political culture of Massachusetts.
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