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home : opinions : opinions June 30, 2016

2/8/2014 2:00:00 PM
Letter: Would modern Americans tolerate an activist president like Abraham Lincoln?


Many historians acknowledge Abraham Lincoln as the greatest American president and a superb leader. We also remember him as the quintessential American. Abe was born into poverty on Feb. 12, 1809. His mom died when he was 9. Abe's early life consisted of much physical labor and some schooling but he largely taught himself to read and write. Abe broke the bonds of poverty through hard work. He earned his law license at age 26.

At the age of 52 he was elected the 16th president of the United States.

Lincoln's greatest political and humanitarian achievement was leading America through the abolition of legalized human slavery. We revere President Lincoln today but our hindsight is a bit rosy. We should recall the extraordinary actions taken by President Lincoln and his administration. He was America's most activist president. His bold leadership is credited with saving our nation.

Prior to the Lincoln administration, the U.S. had limited government, few federal expenses, no income tax, no estate tax, no excise taxes, not even a whiskey tax. Thomas Jefferson's vision had been fulfilled: "What farmer, what mechanic, what laborer ever sees a tax-gatherer of the United States?"

Upon Mr. Lincoln's inauguration (in January, 1861), opposition to his agenda was so severe that seven states immediately left the Union to form the Confederate States of America, write a separate Constitution and elect a separate president. This was divisive American politics at its worst. Many Americans despised Lincoln, and made no secret about it. On April 12, 1861, the American Civil War began.

Lincoln immediately called out state militias, expanded the army and navy, spent millions of dollars without congressional appropriation and blockaded southern ports. He decreed by executive order that all people who discouraged enlistment in the Union army or otherwise engaged in disloyal practices would be subject to martial law. His executive order suspended the writ of habeas corpus, (which prevents the government from holding citizens without trial). Between 15,000 and 20,000 Americans were arrested on suspicion of disloyalty to the government. It is difficult to imagine a modern president ordering such actions.

The Civil War (1861-1865), was the most devastating event in the history of our nation. Six hundred twenty thousand Americans were killed and 1.2 million were wounded. The war had a direct cost of $6.7 billion in 1860 dollars, equal to about 150 percent of 1860 GDP. By comparison, a war costing one and a half times 2013 GDP would run us $24 trillion!

In response, the Union government required new ways to pay for the expensive war. America's first personal income tax was collected in 1861. The Legal Tender Act (1862), initiated by Lincoln's Treasury Secretary, allowed the government to print paper money known as "greenbacks," which were not backed by gold.

Our Constitution explicitly forbids the states from issuing "bills of credit" (paper or "fiat" money), or making anything but gold and silver coin legal "tender." But the Lincoln administration reasoned that there was no explicit constitutional prohibitions against the federal government issuing paper money, (a tradition which continues today).

Then, on New Years Day 1863, Lincoln delivered the Emancipation Proclamation; two years before Congress amended the Constitution. Many accused Lincoln of presidential overreach. He certainly stands out for his unabashed use of presidential power.

On April 15th, 1865, Lincoln was assassinated by a Confederate terrorist. Later that year our Constitution was amended for the 13th time, finally making human slavery unconstitutional in the United States.

By the end of the war in 1865, the country was devastated and government debt had exploded to $2.7 billion, more than 40 times what it had been only five years earlier. The Union government had created a progressive income tax, an estate tax and excise taxes. Tax gatherers were part of the growing federal bureaucracy.

We remember Abraham Lincoln for his honesty and dedication to the preservation of our nation. Yet, he presided over a dramatic expansion of the federal government and the federal debt. He aggressively expanded his power as president in order to overcome political and military opposition to his agenda.

I wonder, would modern Americans tolerate an activist president like Abraham Lincoln?

Happy birthday, Abe. May you rest in peace.

Peter Nelson

Yavapai County

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Reader Comments

Posted: Monday, February 17, 2014
Article comment by: Sy Ying

I wonder: would the Marx brothers be tolerated today?

Some Hollywood pontificators are now criticizing Groucho as a misogynist, and I doubt he'd favor forcing everyone to pay for women's contraception. So it's not hard to picture today's paragons of political correctness picketing studios and calling for advertiser boycotts in order to stop anyone from seeing acts deemed demeaning to women.

Posted: Saturday, February 15, 2014
Article comment by: @ T. Hearn

You're assuming a civil war was the only way to correct "the string of venal, ineffectual administrations that brought us to the brink of dissolution."

One can easily imagine George Washington brokering an agreement between southern plantation owners and northern shipping interests--one that mollified the abolitionists and assured the Southern States solvency as they extricated themselves from the weight of a slave economy--before he agreed to run for office.

Within their first 10 days in office, both Maddison and Monroe would no doubt have sent the Justice Department after egregious northern violations of constitutional laws and then coaxed the Southern Senators back to congress for a discussion of what their "southern way of life" was costing both their states and the nation.

Even Thomas Jefferson would have paid a personal visit before declaring war on his friends in southern governors' mansions.

Abraham Lincoln had no options because he had no connections, no leverage, no support, and no idea one needs these to govern anything effectively.

Posted: Saturday, February 15, 2014
Article comment by: Peter, Yavapai County

You are a very creative individual with a lot of free time. You are so lucky. Have a nice day.

Posted: Friday, February 14, 2014
Article comment by: M J

Petie just can't admit when he is wrong...
liberal arrogance and self righteousness...
that's some burden to carry around

liberals: thin skinned stupid arrogant and blinded by their ideology

Question - What is the difference between a liberal and a puppy?
Answer - A puppy stops whining after it grows up.

America 1984
you break law
America 2014
law break you

Posted: Friday, February 14, 2014
Article comment by: Gray Grammarian

To Peter, Yavapai County:

That it has. Often to very ill effect. I'm glad you often ignore it.

To Mary Heartman:

Thank you for the link. It's very instructive.

Posted: Friday, February 14, 2014
Article comment by: Peter, Yavapai County

There is a biblical proverb that expresses a similar idea, namely Proverbs 17:28. Here is the New International Version followed by the King James Version of this verse: 1

Even a fool is thought wise if he keeps silent, and discerning if he holds his tongue.

Even a fool, when he holdeth his peace, is counted wise: and he that shutteth his lips is esteemed a man of understanding.

This idea has been around awhile.

Posted: Friday, February 14, 2014
Article comment by: dale RUFF

Freedom is not free. Compare the cost of the Civil War to the cost of slavery of millions.

Jefferson's quote is taken out of context: he advocated no taxes on ordinary people but taxing only the rich. “Another means of silently lessening the inequality of property is to
exempt all from taxation below a certain point, and to tax the higher
portions of property in geometric progression as they rise."

Instead today, the rich pay a lower rate than the middle class. 14 of the Forbes 400 paid no taxes, the average was 17%, and recall that Romey released only one tax year and he paid less than 14%. Jefferson would have been horrified.

Instead of blaming the debt on Lincoln, how about focusing on who caused the Civil War, the Southern slave owners, who profited from human misery.

Posted: Thursday, February 13, 2014
Article comment by: Mary Heartman

Hey Peter, Yavapai County:

Lincoln didn't coin that. Maurice Switzer did, c. 1906.
c.f.: http://quoteinvestigator.com/2010/05/17/remain-silent/

Posted: Thursday, February 13, 2014
Article comment by: Carlos Danger

In obama's America- toilet paper comes in two layers.
One copy has to go to the NSA.
Now THAT was funny

Posted: Thursday, February 13, 2014
Article comment by: Real Libertarian?

I thought the theory of Libertarianism was all about freedom for all?

Guess its just about freedom for some, and don't we already have that?

Freedom for the rich to do as they like and the poor go to jail, cause they can't afford justice.

The more I hear from you Libertarians, the more I see it is just a cover for the fascists and corporations to do as they like without impunity.


Posted: Thursday, February 13, 2014
Article comment by: Peter, Yavapai County

Hey MJ,

"Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt."

A. Lincoln

Posted: Thursday, February 13, 2014
Article comment by: M J

Glorious Liberal Comrades!
Carriers of the torch of HOPE and CHANGE!!!
Drones of Change We Can Believe in!!

To arms! To arms in this year of action!!
Lies and more lies are being spread about our glorious leader...
Comrade Party Chairman President Barrackovitch Obamski!!

An Evil "news" Korporation is spreading lies that there is no Gorebull warming!
Gorebull warming is now Gorebull man made climate change!! Always has been!!
Comrade Party Chairman President Barrackovitch Obamski is the direct reason
"the rise of the oceans began to slow and our planet began to heal."

An Evil "news" Korporation is spreading lies that 74% of Americans disapprove of Comrade Party Chairman President Barrackovitch Obamski using executive orders.
It's the other way around Comrades!!!

An Evil "news" Korporation is spreading lies that the 3 Occupy Wall Street Comrades in Chicago were convicted of two counts of mob action, and one count each of possessing an incendiary device to commit arson.
They were not convicted of terrorism!!! They were not convicted of jaywalking!! This is a win Comrades!!

America 1984
you type on computer
America 2014
computer type on you

In obama's America- toilet paper comes in two layers.
One copy has to go to the NSA.

Posted: Thursday, February 13, 2014
Article comment by: Real Libertarian

Uh oh! You can always tell when MJ gets mad, he starts copying and pasting like a madman!

Relax, you're politicos will surely have a shot at the White House in '24. That's when Barney Frank is projected to run with his boyfriend as first lady. Not sure how that will work with both of them vying for the position of First Lady!!

Posted: Wednesday, February 12, 2014
Article comment by: Factual Correction

Abraham Lincoln was first elected on November 6, 1860.

Lincoln took office just months after seven southern states had seceded from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America. His first inauguration was on March 4, 1861.

The Confederacy opposed his policy against the expansion of slavery to new states. They exercised what they viewed as their right to secede.

His second inauguration was on March 4, 1865.

Posted: Wednesday, February 12, 2014
Article comment by: YO Peter

(a) No President was inaugurated in January until well into the 20th Century (FDR 1937), History 101.

(b) Contrary to the myths, Lincoln was a mediocre President at best, particularly lacking foresight, History 201.

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