The legacy of Abraham Lincoln is currently popular. New books have been written and movies made calling attention to the events of his life. This year marks his 204th birthday and opinions of his life continue to grow, both negative and positive. Negatively, he is characterized as a tyrant, one who did not care about slavery, promoter of big government and one who had no respect for the Constitution. On the other hand, no matter which political party one identifies with, Abraham Lincoln becomes their mentor. Conservatives want to remember him in terms of saving the Union and abolishing slavery while liberals wish to make him as one who expanded the reach of the federal government. Many presidents want to be considered in the fashion of Abraham Lincoln in the way they govern.
Lincoln was not a tyrant. The accusation comes from his suspension of habeas corpus at the beginning of the Civil War. The Constitution states this can be done, “in cases of rebellion or invasion.” The Congress was not in session when he did it but when they reconvened, Lincoln requested retroactive approval of all measures in regard to the war. In addition, while he was president and the war was fully engaged in 1864, free and competitive elections took place with Lincoln winning again and the Democrats badly defeated on issues of ceasing the war and dropping the slavery issue.
Lincoln believed slavery was evil and contradicted the equality of all mankind. However the Constitution of the United States did not give him the authority to abolish slavery except in the territories which was accomplished through the Emancipation Proclamation. Only through a new amendment was he able to rid the nation of slavery officially.
Lincoln once stated he, “he never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.” He went on to vindicate the Constitution concerning secession and nullification and affirm the Union principles of divided sovereignty and equal citizenship because of the rights of individuals.
One of the greatest fallacies proposed is Lincoln as the great government expansionist. He is not the model nor was his administration of today’s great welfare state. He had a strong commitment to the natural rights of the Constitution and a framework of limited government even as the defense of the Union increased during the Civil War. This is confirmed by a speech he made in 1858 at Chicago, “No man believes more than I in the principle of self-government; that it lies at the bottom of all my ideas of just government, from beginning to end. Each individual is naturally entitled to do as he pleases with himself and the fruit of his labor, so far as it interferes not with another man’s rights so that each community, as a State has a right to do as it pleases with all the concerns within that State that interfere with the rights of no other State. The general government has no right to interfere with anything other than the general class of things that does concern the whole.”
Lincoln is remembered by 220 statues across America and one overlooking Parliament Square in London. Over 1500 books have been written about him, two symphonies and he is included at Mount Rushmore. Many have strained to include Lincoln in their ideology and attempt to feed off his reputation. Ergo wants to make Lincoln a forerunner of Roosevelt and even Otto Von Bismarck who in 1871 offered national health insurance, old age pension, and unemployment compensation while seeking a powerful centralized state in Germany.
Big government that Lincoln is accused of can be characterized in three ways; numerically in terms of government employees, budget-wise in terms of revenue and spending, or the reach of government determined by its number of agencies. Big government is not always the result of executive action. Due to the United States framework, Congress and the judicial system also can contribute to the size of government.
In 1848 the Federal budget expenses were $58.2 million and reduced to $57.6 million in 1849. Administrative costs of the three branches in 1848 were $2.8 million and rose to $2.9 million in 1849. Of this $1.3 million was spent at the post office. The War and Navy Department costs were $38.5 million in 1848 which was the final year of the Mexican War and dropped to $27.1 million in 1849. Revenue was $58.4 million in 1848 and $59.8 million in 1849, so even as it was paying off a debt of $16.5 million from previous administrations, a surplus was present. If all of this were translated into current terms, it would be a $1.5 billion budget at less than 1% of gross domestic product (GDP).
In 1860 the Federal budget was $76.8 million or $1.8 billion currently. This was .93% of GDP. The Civil War began and in its final year, 1864-1865 the Federal budget jumped to $1.3 billion (1864) and $1.9 billion (1865). These were war years and they are costly plus inflation was at 14.4%. With inflation factored in, currently would be $26 billion and GDP stood at 1.8%.
From the war years the budget dwindled again from $1.9 billion to $424 million in 1871. This is a big increase over the $85.3 million in 1861 but 44% went to war-time debt and 9.6% to wounded soldier pensions. In 1880 the budget was 16.7% of 1865 figures, 36% of it went to war debt but the soldier pensions were up to 21% as they were aging.
The Executive branch of the Federal payroll included 26,300 employees in 1851 which increased to 36,600 in 1861 with the beginning of the Civil War. Add to that another 4,000 legislative and judicial employees. Only 2,588 lived in Washington D.C. as the rest were postmasters, clerks, Indian agents, public land agents, and customs house staff. In 1865 the paid civilian employees of the federal government swelled to 194,997 or .8% of the Union population. Only 14,826 lived in Washington D.C. and 10,000 of them were War Department employees.
The State Department was run by 33 people in 1863. The Interior Department had 33 also but add to that 28 in the Census Bureau, 27 at St. Elizabeth’s hospital caring for the insane and land office agents, Indian agents, and those in the Patent office. Department of Agriculture, not of Cabinet rank yet, had 29 employees in 1863. The Attorney General had 9 employees. The Post Office and Treasury Department had the most employees. There were 33,000 postmasters and clerks or the whole nation plus 4500 mail agents and contractors. The office of the Treasury Department had 79 employees, 2800 customs agents and 150 in the Internal Revenue Office. Compare that to today’s Post Office of 2 million employees with computers, automobiles and telephones as opposed to the 1865 copyists, hostlers, drivers and messengers.
In 1871 51,000 were employed by the Federal government and 5824 lived in Washington D.C. and this was while Reconstruction was still active in the South following the War. At the end of the Civil War 1.3 million men were in Union uniform. In 1875 that number was reduced to 1540 officers and 24,031 enlisted men with expenditures including the Corps of Engineers of only $42 million.
In the 1850’s only 15 agencies or bureaus made up the federal government including Patent office, Pension office, Lighthouse Board, Bureau of Weights and Measures, and the Mexican Boundary Commission. At the end of the Civil War the number had been raised to 22 of which the several already existed like the Coast Survey, National Observatory, and the National Currency Bureau were elevated to Bureau status. One new bureau was added, the Freedman’s Bureau was organized in 1865 to supervise management of abandoned lands in the South and assignment of them to freedmen of 40 acres as well as food relief. This bureau included 6 officers and 10 staff who were re-authorized each year.
President Lincoln established five significant legislative initiatives during the Civil War which were beneficial to the Union.
• The Transcontinental Railroad. The Union and Central Pacific Railroads came about through bonds backed by land from the Louisiana Purchase and Mexican War. The government under the Pacific Railroad Act provided bonds but no operating funding, no management oversight, and no regulatory boards.
• Homestead Acts. This was the land grant college legislation. Each loyal state was granted 30,000 acres of federal land for the establishment of colleges dedicated to agriculture and mechanic arts. This act actually removed power from the Federal government and gave it to the States.
It also offered land to homesteaders in parcels of 160 acres for five years and a filing fee. This was a great privatization move by the government as it encouraged entrepreneurship and ownership and did not create its own bureaucracy.
• Tariffs. These were taxes on certain imported goods at the point of import when they entered the United States. This increased the cost to importers whether merchants or consumers. Their purpose was to create an incentive for the importer to stop importing and purchase domestic goods which benefited domestic markets. This increased revenue to the government through internal taxes.
• Federal income tax. Beginning in 1862 the United States Treasury was running low due to the Civil War expenses. The Lincoln administration used three approaches to generate income; a) substitution of a paper currency, b) invention of small denomination bonds, c) direct tax on incomes. The Internal Revenue Act of 1862 created 185 collection districts and the Bureau of Internal Revenue. Taxation included taxes on occupations, banks, corporations, financial transactions and inheritances. Their purpose was to fund the war and government operations. The original form was one page for the taxpayer out of 500 pages of regulations. It was a flat tax of 3% of incomes over $600 up to $10,000 then 5% on the rest. In 1865 $32 million was taken in which was 8% of total revenue.
The Confederacy tax its people much more harshly beginning with 5% on income $500-1500, 10% on $1500-5,000, 12.5% on $5,000-10,000 and 15% on anything over $10,000. The Union income tax was repealed in 1872 and did not reappear until 1913 in the Woodrow Wilson Administration. For Lincoln, income tax was to pay bills, for Wilson it became it became necessary to achieve a social vision.
• National banking Act. The purpose of this act was to eliminate confusion created by states issuing bank charters to in-state banks which issued their own paper currencies. When banks closed or suffered losses, their own currencies still circulated even if they had no value. The National Banking Act purpose was to standardize paper “greenbacks” as national currency through the Federal Treasury. The result was national bank charters created with at least 5 members and $50,000. This created a uniform currency for the war needs of food, clothing and arms which without it would have been disaster.
Size of government following the war dropped back to pre-war numbers no matter how it is described. Soon that would change as from 1871 to 1903 executive branch employees alone increased from 5,800 to 25,675. Total employees increased to 157,400 under the Cleveland and Harrison Administrations. By the turn of the century a new professional class of white collar workers would appear.
Lincoln was characterized by cautious constitutional conservatism which piloted his career. May this final quote be our emphasis this President’s Day 2013, quoted from Lincoln in 1858, “Be ever true to Liberty, the Union, and the Constitution-true to Liberty, not selfishly, but upon principle-not for special classes of men, but for all men, true to the Union and the Constitution, as the best means to advance that Liberty.”