Abraham Lincoln

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Abraham Lincoln : biography

February 12, 1809 – April 15, 1865

Redefining the republic and republicanism

The successful reunification of the states had consequences for the name of the country. The term "the United States" has historically been used, sometimes in the plural ("these United States"), and other times in the singular, without any particular grammatical consistency. The Civil War was a significant force in the eventual dominance of the singular usage by the end of the 19th century.

In recent years, historians such as Harry Jaffa, Herman Belz, John Diggins, Vernon Burton and Eric Foner have stressed Lincoln’s redefinition of republican values. As early as the 1850s, a time when most political rhetoric focused on the sanctity of the Constitution, Lincoln redirected emphasis to the Declaration of Independence as the foundation of American political values—what he called the "sheet anchor" of republicanism.Jaffa, p. 399. The Declaration’s emphasis on freedom and equality for all, in contrast to the Constitution’s tolerance of slavery, shifted the debate. As Diggins concludes regarding the highly influential Cooper Union speech of early 1860, "Lincoln presented Americans a theory of history that offers a profound contribution to the theory and destiny of republicanism itself."Diggins, p. 307. His position gained strength because he highlighted the moral basis of republicanism, rather than its legalisms.Foner (2010), p. 215. Nevertheless, in 1861, Lincoln justified the war in terms of legalisms (the Constitution was a contract, and for one party to get out of a contract all the other parties had to agree), and then in terms of the national duty to guarantee a republican form of government in every state.Jaffa, p. 263. Burton (2008) argues that Lincoln’s republicanism was taken up by the Freedmen as they were emancipated.Orville Vernon Burton, The Age of Lincoln (2008) p 243

In March 1861, in his First Inaugural Address, Lincoln explored the nature of democracy. He denounced secession as anarchy, and explained that majority rule had to be balanced by constitutional restraints in the American system. He said "A majority held in restraint by constitutional checks and limitations, and always changing easily with deliberate changes of popular opinions and sentiments, is the only true sovereign of a free people."Belz (1998), p. 86.

Other enactments

Lincoln adhered to the Whig theory of the presidency, which gave Congress primary responsibility for writing the laws while the Executive enforced them. Lincoln only vetoed four bills passed by Congress; the only important one was the Wade-Davis Bill with its harsh program of Reconstruction.Donald (2001), p. 137. He signed the Homestead Act in 1862, making millions of acres of government-held land in the West available for purchase at very low cost. The Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act, also signed in 1862, provided government grants for agricultural colleges in each state. The Pacific Railway Acts of 1862 and 1864 granted federal support for the construction of the United States’ First Transcontinental Railroad, which was completed in 1869.Paludan, p. 116. The passage of the Homestead Act and the Pacific Railway Acts was made possible by the absence of Southern congressmen and senators who had opposed the measures in the 1850s.McPherson (1993), pp. 450–452.

Other important legislation involved two measures to raise revenues for the Federal government: tariffs (a policy with long precedent), and a new Federal income tax. In 1861, Lincoln signed the second and third Morrill Tariff, the first having become law under James Buchanan. Also in 1861, Lincoln signed the Revenue Act of 1861, creating the first U.S. income tax.Donald (1996), p. 424. This created a flat tax of 3 percent on incomes above $800 ($ in current dollar terms), which was later changed by the Revenue Act of 1862 to a progressive rate structure.Paludan, p. 111.

Lincoln also presided over the expansion of the federal government’s economic influence in several other areas. The creation of the system of national banks by the National Banking Act provided a strong financial network in the country. It also established a national currency. In 1862, Congress created, with Lincoln’s approval, the Department of Agriculture.Donald (2001), p. 424. In 1862, Lincoln sent a senior general, John Pope, to put down the "Sioux Uprising" in Minnesota. Presented with 303 execution warrants for convicted Santee Dakota who were accused of killing innocent farmers, Lincoln conducted his own personal review of each of these warrants, eventually approving 39 for execution (one was later reprieved).Cox, p. 182. President Lincoln had planned to reform federal Indian policy.Nichols, pp. 210–232.