Happy birthday, Mr. Lincoln

Essay at Heritage:

On February 12, America will celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s 202nd birthday, but will conservatives celebrate his legacy? Lincoln is a pivotal figure in American history, yet some conservatives are wary of him. Lincoln, the Left proclaims and the Right fears, is the father of big government.

Conservatives shouldn’t be fooled. If big government means a permanently large and growing federal budget and a vast civil service (see William Voegeli’s Never Enough: America’s Limitless Welfare State), then Lincoln may deny paternity for both. As Allen Guelzo explains, while the federal budget indeed ballooned to meet the cost of the Civil War (from $63.2 million in 1860 to $1.29 billion in 1865), it shrank once the war ended (back to $293 million by 1870). “If Lincoln had plans to create ‘big government,’” Guelzo concludes, “none of his successors seems to have known what they were.”  Similarly, while the federal government employed more people during the war, the number shrank once the war ended.

In reality, big government is a Progressive invention, designed by Progressive thinkers such as Herbert Croly and John Dewey and perpetrated by Progressive presidents such as Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. These men embraced big government, because they held certain principles opposed to the limited government framework set forth in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution.

By contrast, Lincoln held a different set of premises. He defended the Constitution and “never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.” To understand Lincoln, therefore, we must turn to the documents he held so dear....

Read the whole thing.


Having read Morris' biography of TR, I think it is inappropriate to lump TR in with FDR and Wilson merely because they used the term "progressive." TR was not advocating expansion of government, he was advocating some of the things we take for granted today in terms of basic social safety nets such as unemployment insurance and some forms of limiting corporate abuses that were more prevalent then. Of course his ideas would have required some government growth, but to lump TR in with FDR seems to me questionable. Indeed, had TR been elected in 1912, his moderate reforms might well have prevented the New Deal's excessive growth of government. TR was a very complex man but nowhere do I see him as someone who believed in the type or size of government supported by today's so called "progressives."