A Just And Generous Nation: Abraham Lincoln And The Fight For American Opportunity, by Harold Holzer and Norton Garfinkle
This book is a reminder to those who have read a great many books about Abraham Lincoln  that the speeches and writings of Abraham Lincoln serve a role not dissimilar to that of scripture. Just as those of us who are interested in questions of doctrine and religious legitimacy pour over the texts of the Bible as well as extrabiblical writings of interest in order to defend our own positions in light of what has been written and is accepted by our audience as an authority, so too writers use the writings and speeches of Abraham Lincoln, which are nearly uniformly agreed to as being legitimate guides to political belief and practice, as a way of supporting the legitimacy of their own views. Books like this are not written in order to better understand Lincoln’s political thought and practice, but to use it as a buttress for the thoughts and beliefs of the author. In this case, the author seeks to present Abraham Lincoln, through a biased and skewed reading, as someone who would have welcomed the rise and the increased power of the welfare state.
As is generally the case, the authors mix truth with error in order to come up with their mistaken conclusion. In terms of its contents, the book amounts to a historical analysis that is as close to reality as that by Marxist historians like Howard Zinn or by hostile revisionists like DiLorenzo. Seemingly inevitably, strident and extreme political approaches and a mistaken factual and historical foundation go hand in hand. This book, a bit over 250 pages, is divided into two sections. The first section looks at the life of Abraham Lincoln as providing an argument for the need for equality of opportunity. The author forms an inventive and not inaccurate case for Lincoln’s hostility to slavery arising from its denial of the possibility for advancement to the level of one’s God-given gifts and abilities, an economic form of injustice. The second part of the book looks at the varied arguments and achievement of this equality of opportunity in the aftermath of Lincoln’s assassination, and it is here that the book is at its most troubling, tying Lincoln’s essentially middle-class desire for education and increased economic and social prestige and political office to a socialist call for increased taxation for a bloated welfare state. That the author can look at the taxation rates of the contemporary United States and view our government expenditures as “starved” because they only make up 30% of our GDP shows a willful hostility to the facts that beggars belief. The first half of the book is a pretty decent biography of Lincoln in terms of his views on economic justice. The second half of the book is an unmitigated disaster.
In that disaster, though, we see much that is worthy of notice for our times. This book is a demonstration of the moral blindness that exists among the American left, in the way that economic opportunity for contemporary Americans is tied directly to government action. Lincoln’s desire for a government role in internal improvements, which itself was controversial in his time, is expanded beyond all recognition as a justification for a paternalistic government that in many cases prevents the sort of rise that Lincoln himself achieved over the course of his life. This book entirely fails to take into account Lincoln’s well-earned reputation for being a self-made man, with an intense drive for self-education and self-improvement, and in seeking to open the path to improvement to all Americans, regardless of their gender or ethnicity or social class, looking at Lincoln’s own rise as a way to justify the sort of intrusive and activist government that would have punished Lincoln and others like him through progressive taxation, statist education, and burdensome bureaucratic regulation. The fact that the authors cannot see that Lincoln’s own rise was inimical to their own political agenda suggests the level of blindness on the part of the left and their intense need to claim warrant for their misguided views through misinterpretation and misappropriation of Lincoln’s thought and behavior.
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