We have Lincoln wrong: Our greatest Lincoln historian explains his real Civil War motivations

Too often, we settle for the idea that Lincoln fought to save a mythical union. He really fought for opportunity

Published December 26, 2015 7:00PM (EST)

Abraham Lincoln (AP/Alexander Gardner)
Abraham Lincoln (AP/Alexander Gardner)

Excerpted from "A Just and Generous Nation: Abraham Lincoln and the Fight for American Opportunity"

The United States has just concluded a five-year observance of the sesquicentennial of the Civil War. As in the past, most new books about the period have focused principally on matters military, reexamining the familiar major battles or offering new biographies of generals of the war. A few have explored new aspects of Lincoln’s life and presidency and the political conflicts immediately preceding and during the war.

For all the merits of these recent volumes, too few have provided satisfying answers to an essential question: why was the Civil War really fought? This subject still cries out for serious and informed exploration and analysis. The prevailing arguments—that the war occurred to preserve the American Union for its own sake, to defend or destroy slavery, or to expand or restrict federal authority—fall short because they do not embrace the full vision for the future held by those engaged in the conflict. The most illuminating way to begin this essential conversation is to focus on the commander in chief who chose war rather than cede the democracy to those who would divide it rather than recognize its legitimacy. That ever-compelling figure, of course, is Abraham Lincoln.

True, Lincoln has already inspired thousands of books. Yet while scores of new Lincoln volumes rolled off the presses during the period leading up to the bicentennial of his birth in 2009, and dozens more have appeared to coincide with the sesquicentennial of the years 1860–1865, only a few have actually dealt with the causes of the conflict—the conflagration that consumed nearly every day of his presidency and cost 750,000 American lives. Few have explored Lincoln’s motivations for fighting the war and maintaining the Union when the conflict expanded exponentially from a small struggle to an enormous war unprecedented in world history. The unanswered question remains more crucial to our own present and future than ever. Why would a basically peaceful man who might as easily have allowed the United States to divide in two, with no resulting loss of life or treasure, choose instead to lead a devastating American-versus-American war to maintain a fragile, still-experimental Union? This book offers a direct answer to that unresolved question with a new focus and a new emphasis.

For too long, historians have accepted without challenge the notion that Lincoln determined to preserve the Union primarily because nationhood held a powerfully symbolic, almost “mystical” importance to him from childhood on. Fueled by Weems’s Life of Washington and similarly hagiographic stories of the American Revolution, the young Lincoln is said to have developed early a stubborn passion to cement the foundations of the Republic for all time. Another theory holds that Lincoln entered the presidency—and allowed the country to go to war with itself—to remove the stain of slavery that for more than fourscore years had blighted the original American commitment to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

Elements of truth support both arguments, to be sure, but ignore the overwhelming evidence that Lincoln focused his entire political career, in peace and war alike, in pursuit of economic opportunity for the widest possible circle of hardworking Americans. To achieve this ambition he was willing to fight a war to maintain the perpetual existence of the one nation in the world that held the highest promise for people dedicated to this cause.

Lincoln’s decision to resist Southern secession and fight a war to maintain the American Union was motivated primarily by his belief that the nation was founded on the idea that this country “proposed to give all a chance” and allow “the weak to grow stronger.” The toxic combination of secession together with an unending commitment to unpaid human bondage by a new and separate Confederate nation, he calculated, would be fatal to the American Dream. It posed a direct threat to a self-sustaining middle-class society and to the promise of America leading the way to spreading the idea of opportunity and upward mobility throughout the world.

“I hold the value of life is to improve one’s condition,” Lincoln declared just three weeks before assuming the presidency, reiterating a lifetime of similarly expressed commitment to what historian Gabor Boritt brilliantly calls the uniquely American “right to rise.” Seven slaveholding Southern states had already declared by their independence the converse: the right to establish a nation of their own based on the denial of opportunity. Lincoln believed that the American nation based on the credo of opportunity for all was worth fighting for. “Whatever is calculated to advance the condition of the honest, struggling laboring man, so far as my judgment will enable me to judge of a correct thing, I am for that thing,” he said in 1861. In the face of unimaginable casualties and devastation, he remained for “that thing” for the rest of his life.

The origin, depth, and durability of Lincoln’s commitment cry out for new exploration and interpretation, particularly now, as the ability to rise is being challenged in the United States by economic, social, and political conditions producing ever-increasing inequality.

We Americans believe we so fully understand Abraham Lincoln’s contribution to our nation’s beliefs about slavery and freedom that his role in shaping our uniquely American vision of a just and generous economic society has been largely neglected. In fact, Lincoln was unwavering in his commitment to preserve the American Dream of economic opportunity for future generations, a dream he lived by escaping the poverty of his childhood and one he advocated throughout his political life. It was this commitment that lay behind his determination to ensure that a government dedicated to providing economic opportunity for its citizens “shall not perish from the earth.” Lincoln largely fought the Civil War over this principle, establishing a role for government in securing and guaranteeing economic opportunity for its citizens, a guarantee that has remained at the center of political debate and discord ever since, seldom so acrimoniously as today.

Lincoln was the first president to use the federal government as an agent to support Americans in their effort to achieve and sustain a middle-class life. Even as the Civil War commenced, Lincoln supported a program of direct government action to support his vision of America’s middle-class society.

More than is often realized, the Civil War was fought not over the morality of slavery or the abstract sanctity of the American Union, but over what kind of economy the nation should have. It is difficult to grasp the degree to which the United States, on the eve of the Civil War, had truly evolved into what Lincoln called, quoting scripture, a “house divided”: virtually two separate nations based on very different economic structures. More than anything else, the secession crisis and the Civil War became a clash over expanding the economic and social system of either section. The question became: which economy and society would define the future of America as it migrated westward, that of the North or that of the South?

The American economy in the North before the Civil War supported a largely middle-class society. With almost unlimited natural resources, most Americans in the Northern states and northwestern territories had the opportunity to secure a middle-class life. Unlike most European countries and the American economy of the South, there was no aristocratic economic tradition in the North. Farmers owned their own land, craftsmen operated independent businesses, and doctors, lawyers, and other professionals maintained their own practices. Wealth was not concentrated in a few hands, and economic opportunity for adult white men was widespread.

What Lincoln feared most was the spread of the Southern economic system. The fear was that the Southern slave-labor system would drive out free labor, first in the West, then later in the country as a whole. The fear was that the American Dream of unlimited economic opportunity—“a fair chance, in the race of life”—would no longer be available to future generations of Americans.

Lincoln believed the unique purpose of the United States was to clear the path for the individual to labor for himself and get ahead economically. He called it the “laudable pursuit” of economic advancement. Lincoln understood that this purpose was challenged by the slave-based, aristocratic economic and social system of the Southern states. It was this dichotomy that created a house divided: two separate societies based on very different economic and social structures. Lincoln saw saving the Union not simply as a political objective but as a moral imperative to secure for the America of the future the democratic society of the Northern states, what we have come to call the American “middle-class” society. This was the moral imperative that made him willing to fight the Civil War.

Lincoln was one of the first American leaders to fully grasp that economic opportunity to rise to the middle class was, in truth, the defining feature of America. More than any other president, Lincoln is the father of the American Dream that all Americans should have the opportunity through hard work to build a comfortable middle-class life. For Lincoln, liberty meant, above all, the right of individuals to enjoy the fruits of their own labor, which he saw as the best path to prosperity. Lincoln believed that the greatest evil of the Southern slave system—aside from the denial of liberty itself—was that it effectively blocked this economic pathway forever for white workers, who could not compete with slave labor, and for the slaves themselves, who could never hope to escape their bondage and eventually work for wages.

Slavery itself, Lincoln believed, was morally repugnant and a stain on the founders’ vision that all men were created equal. But his commitment to economic opportunity was what spurred him on the path toward emancipation. It is crucial to remember that long before he was willing to entertain political or social rights for African Americans, including citizenship, voting rights, or racial equality, Lincoln insisted that African Americans were entitled to the same economic rights as all other Americans.

This book explores Abraham Lincoln’s struggle to preserve, and ultimately redefine, the exceptionalism of the American experiment. Lincoln’s vision evolved from his personal experiences. His perspective was that of a man born into abject poverty who worked his way up the social and economic ladders through sheer discipline, persistence, and force of will. It was a perspective he never lost. It shaped his core values. As he put it, “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 is the just, and generous, and prosperous system, which opens the way to all—gives hope to all, and consequent energy, and progress, and improvement of condition to all.” This was, for Lincoln, the raison d’être of America and what made America a model to nations throughout the world.

This subject could not be presented at a more opportune time as we confront anew—often at a decibel level that seems only a single notch lower than another civil war—the basic question of what defines our American nation.

Americans today continue to pay lip service to the idea of a middle-class society. But there is no way to avoid the data that confirm the rising tide of income inequality in the United States as well as the rest of the world. Are we condemned to a new society with an ever-declining middle class? Or can we find our way back to public policies that nurture a reinvigorated middle-class society, a society that restores Lincoln’s commitment to a nation that is not only “of the people” and “by the people” but also “for the people”? Understanding Lincoln’s lifework challenges us to confront the ever-growing fragility of our present condition and the challenge of a new century to complete what Lincoln called, at Gettysburg, America’s “unfinished work.”

This book recalculates the foundations of Lincoln’s political faith, examines the philosophical commitments that undergirded his actions in the secession crisis of 1860 and 1861, underscores the development of Lincoln’s rhetoric into American nationalistic gospel, and describes the wildly varying efforts by his White House successors to align with, interpret, ignore, or co-opt his message. We seek to unravel the complete legacy of politics from Lincoln’s time to ours to define its influence and assess the importance of Lincoln’s enduring and ever-challenging call to action.

We have self-consciously let Lincoln speak for himself on the issues he was most concerned about. Rather than offering short phrases from Lincoln’s speeches and writings, we present long quotations to provide our readers with the contextual framework that was critical to Lincoln’s thoughts and arguments.

In writing this book, we have learned much from the many excellent scholarly studies of the role played by Lincoln in his lifetime. We were both fortunate to work over the years with David Herbert Donald, whose outstanding biography provides the frame of reference for any serious scholarly work on Lincoln. We have also brought to bear the work we have individually done in our previous studies of Lincoln’s life and legacy. In this book, we have utilized some of the thoughts and some of the language of our previous individual works about specific aspects of Lincoln’s life and legacy. We hope our readers will benefit from the way in which we have put Lincoln’s actual words and our own earlier writings in the context of our new understanding of Lincoln’s continuing role in the future life of our nation.

The question on the eve of the Civil War was whether the democratic system envisioned by the nation’s founders would survive. Lincoln had long endured in a “house divided” between two ways of life. On the one side was a Northern middle-class society honoring labor and offering multiple opportunities for economic advancement by ordinary people, where government was assuming an increasingly constructive role in “clearing the path” for economic success. On the other side was a Southern aristocratic society rigidly divided between rich and poor, ensuring through law and oppression that labor—white and black—remained fixed in place, devalued and cheap, dedicated to an unfettered market, neglectful of the public sector, and offering few opportunities for ordinary people and none at all for a whole race of human beings.

For Lincoln, the choice, painful as it became, was never a hard one.

Until his dying day, fulfillment of the American Dream remained what Lincoln called at Gettysburg his “unfinished work”—and America’s.

Excerpted from "A Just and Generous Nation: Abraham Lincoln and the Fight for American Opportunity" by Harold Holzer and Norton Garfinkle. Published by Basic Books. Copyright 2015 by Harold Holzer and Norton Garfinkle. Reprinted with permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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