When Barack Obama announced his presidential campaign back in February 2007, he did it in front of the old Springfield, Ill., Statehouse in a speech full of references to Abraham Lincoln.
He has clothed himself in the mantle of our 16th president in ways large and small throughout his presidency. This is nothing new. Progressives have been after Lincoln since the days of Theodore Roosevelt. By capturing the legacy of Lincoln, they know they can use one of the most beloved figures in American history to bless an endlessly expansive government and deprecate their opponents.
"The official leaders of the Republican Party today," as Roosevelt put it in 1913, "are the spiritual heirs of the men who warred against Lincoln." If Obama hasn't stated it so starkly, his point is essentially the same. This is shrewd politics but poor history. It distorts Lincoln or entirely misses his point in a brazen act of historical body-snatching.
As I recount in my new book, Lincoln Unbound, he was a proponent of markets, individual achievement and personal responsibility. He embraced economic dynamism and development. He rejected populist demagoguery directed at corporations and banks. He warned against class warfare and made working for your own living and not off the work of others one of his bedrock principles. He considered property rights sacrosanct and called patent law one of the greatest inventions of all time. He revered the Founders.
All of these elements of his politics were at play in his struggle to end the rural backwardness in which he had grown up and more importantly to end slavery, which as "unrequited toil" offended his sense of basic justice and natural rights.
Of course, Lincoln had a positive view of government, believing that policies supporting transportation, industry and a sound currency would create a vibrant, open economy. But none of this involved the massive, redistributive transfer payments of the modern welfare state, not to mention the regulation or the bureaucracy.
The left's Lincoln kidnappers cite a draft note for a lecture he wrote circa 1854: "The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves."
Lincoln was referring to thoroughly uncontroversial functions of government, including policing and public roads. In the same document, he writes, "In all that the people can individually do as well for themselves, government ought not to interfere."
He would have recoiled from Obama's Osawatomie, Kan., economic-inequality speech in 2011 portraying the rich as a clear and present danger to the middle class and our democracy. Lincoln admonished a delegation of workingmen during the Civil War: "Let not him who is houseless pull down the house of another; but let him labor diligently and build one for himself."
Obama often boils Lincoln down to his support for infrastructure projects. Lincoln's beloved railroads, though, genuinely represented the economic future rather than a fashionable lark like green energy and high-speed rail. Wherever they arrived, they ended the inherently limited world of substance agriculture and brought the advent of the commercial economy.
Obama can tout the transcontinental railroad all he likes, but if such a project were in the offing today, it would suffer from extravagant environmental review, lawsuits and the same political forces that are stopping the Keystone pipeline.
Our endlessly obstructive government would presumably have been mystifying to Lincoln, as would its support of nonworking able-bodied adults and its effective subsidy for social breakdown. All his efforts were geared toward independence and opportunity. "So while we do not propose any war upon capital," he explained in New Haven, Conn., in 1860, "we do wish to allow the humblest man an equal chance to get rich with everybody else."
If President Obama spent time communing with the true Lincoln, he might learn a thing or two about the errors of his ways.