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  • A Just and Generous Nation: Abraham Lincoln and the Fight for American Opportunity by Harold Holzer and Norton Garfinkle
  • Matthew E. Stanley
A Just and Generous Nation: Abraham Lincoln and the Fight for American Opportunity. Harold Holzer and Norton Garfinkle. New York: Basic Books, 2015. ISBN 978-0-465-02830-6, 320 pp., cloth, $20.00.

Legions of scholars have sought Abraham Lincoln’s raison d’être, highlighting his hatred of slavery or his mystical devotion to the Union. In A Just and Generous Nation: Abraham Lincoln and the Fight for American Opportunity, Harold Holzer and economist Norton Garfinkle maintain that Lincoln’s animating idea was his egalitarian economic vision—“that economic opportunity required a level playing field and an equal chance in the race of life” (54). Insofar as Lincoln’s vision reflected the northern free labor vision and conflicted with the South’s countervailing hierarchy and slave labor, the pursuit of this “American Dream” was also the reason for the war.

This thesis—that Lincoln was concerned above all with equality of opportunity and creating a self-sustaining middle-class society—is a timely one. Confirmed [End Page 442] by devastating data on wage stagnation and declining socioeconomic mobility and mainstreamed by grassroots political movements such as Occupy Wall Street, popular discourse on wealth inequality abounds. Our bookshelves and Cineplexes are inundated with rich/poor dystopias; leading economists have forecasted instability as a result of rising inequity; politicians such as Bernie Sanders have risen to prominence by confronting such issues; and President Obama has even called income inequality the “defining challenge of our time.”

A Just and Generous Nation consists of two sections, the first of which provides a standard (if somewhat redundant) Lincoln biography emphasizing the man’s social vision of upward mobility. An apostle of Hamiltonianism and Henry Clay’s American System economics since his early days in the Illinois legislature, Lincoln understood not only the practical limitations of local economic development, but also how privatization and material exclusivism bred social inequality and stunted democracy. He had many phrases for the concept of equality of opportunity—“give all a chance,” allow “the weak [to] grow strong,” “toil up from poverty,” the “greatest good to the greatest number”—all of which involved increased public investment and development or an “activist” federal government. Lincoln’s positive liberty (Republican “free labor”) was part moral idea, part economic platform, and part social program. His opposition to slavery, devotion to the Union, and economic views were (rather than separate and competing principles) part of the same interlocking vision—one component could not function without the other two.

This small producer philosophy informed Lincoln’s thinking on critical issues and fueled his most lasting policy decisions. Citizen Lincoln opposed slavery on economic rather than moral grounds, in that it stifled economic equality and supported the rights and value of labor above capital. But he never attacked wealth, emphasizing equality of opportunity rather than of condition and believing that labor and capital might not only coexist but act in concord. As president, Lincoln articulated his vision before Congress in July 1861: The “leading object [of government],” he explained, “is to elevate the condition of men—to lift artificial weights from all shoulders—to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all—to afford all an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life” (71). The policy results were manifold: the 1862 Homestead Act, the National Banking Act, the Morrill Act, a Department of Agriculture, a transcontinental railroad charter, and the first graduated income tax (and growing federal expenditures coincided with a rise in gross national product). Meritocracy also influenced Lincoln’s wartime strategy. As Holzer and Garfinkle tell it, emancipation symbolized both a political and economic liberation for all Americans. [End Page 443]

The book’s second section addresses the revivals and betrayals of Lincoln’s ideals, beginning with the breakdown of Reconstruction. Labor’s negotiating power declined as “free market” economics fused with Social Darwinism and the idea that Americans rich and poor deserved their respective fates. Property rights superseded the common welfare (a longstanding tension within the Republican Party, which Heather Cox Richardson has also recently...


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