In his book Lincoln the Man Edgar Lee Masters gave a perfect description of the Hamilton/Clay/Lincoln “American System”:
Clay was the champion of that political system which doles favors to the strong in order to win and to keep their adherence to the government. His system offered shelter to devious schemes and corrupt enterprises … . He was the beloved son of Alexander Hamilton with his corrupt funding schemes, his superstitions concerning the advantage of a public debt, and a people taxed to make profits for enterprises that cannot stand alone. His example and his doctrines led to the creation of a party that had no platform to announce, because its principles were plunder and nothing else.
This was neo-mercantilism, the very system that genuine “greats” in the field of political economy, such as Adam Smith, have always condemned, contrary to Allen Guelzo’s silly and uninformed opinion. Lincoln’s ruminations on political economy ranged from wrongheaded to ludicrous. He claimed that protectionist tariffs would cause lower prices, the exact opposite of the truth; he advocated autarky, or the complete prohibition of all imports of anything that could be grown or produced in the U.S., thereby depriving consumers of the benefits of international competition and the division of labor; and he compared the sound-money critics of a central bank run by politicians to Judas in one of his zanier speeches.
Guelzo informs the World Socialist Web Site that Lincoln never had a political thought that did not flow from the Declaration of Independence. What Lincoln actually said, however, is that all of his political thoughts flowed from the politics of Henry Clay, not the Declaration of Independence. He once said that his career aspiration was to be “the DeWitt Clinton of Illinois.” DeWitt Clinton was the early nineteenth-century governor of New York who perfected the spoils system during the building of the Erie Canal.
Guelzo also repeats the mantra of Lincoln’s supposedly great “love” for the Declaration of Independence. But the Declaration of Independence was a declaration of secession from the British empire. In it the states are described as “free and independent” in the same sense that Great Britain, France, or Spain were “free and independent” states. Lincoln most certainly could not have “loved” the document that proves that America was created by an act of secession, the very principle of the American Revolution.
And of course there is the blather about how Lincoln “did keep the union together.” Of course, in reality Lincoln’s war destroyed the voluntary union of the founders and replaced it with a coerced, Soviet-style “union” held together literally at gunpoint. Had he not done this, says Guelzo, “This would take the United States off the table as a major world player, and then what would you do with the history of the 20th century?”
Let me take a crack at answering this question. Without U.S. entry into World War I, financed in part by the new national bank of the sort that Lincoln longed for his entire adult life, the European powers would have eventually settled their disputes, as they always had done in the past. There would have been no Versailles Treaty that pushed Germany into the hands of Hitler, and the Russian communists would have been much weaker. Consequently, there would not likely have been a World War II and a 45-year long Cold War that followed.
As a decentralized, federal system that had long ago abolished slavery peacefully, as all the rest of the world did in the nineteenth century (including New England, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, etc.) America would have been a counter-example to all the world compared to the centralized, socialistic bureaucracies that dominated the 20th century (especially Russia and China and all the other socialist countries).
America may well have not been transformed from a constitutional republic to an empire with military bases in more than 150 countries. Presidents and their propagandists would not have repeated the Lincolnian mantra that “all men everywhere are created equal” to “justify” foreign military intervention in hundreds of places in the name of “spreading democracy and freedom” (but in reality for the purpose of confiscating resources or imposing mercantilism on foreign lands by military force for the benefit of American corporations).
This is not “capitalism” but corporatism or neo-mercantilism. Real capitalism is a system of mutually-advantageous, voluntary trade and does not require imposition at the barrel of a gun. Allen Guelzo is of course oblivious to all of this and relies instead with such silly rhetoric as when he tells the World Socialist Web Site that sleazy, corrupt, politically-connected lawyer/lobbyists like Lincoln were “the shock troops of capitalism.”
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