Land-as-Growth (6): Lincoln as “Pro-Growth”

Books  about the Civil War rarely focus on economics, taxes and finances, even though paying for the war while maintaining the Union’s economic stability was one of Abraham Lincoln’s greatest accomplishments.  Lincoln’s view, as shown here in his first State of the Union message to Congress, was what we would now call “trickle up” and opposed to “trickle down.”  He also saw “growth” as land settled and overall population:

In my present position I could scarcely be justified were I to omit raising a warning voice against this approach of returning despotism.

It is not needed nor fitting here that a general argument should be made in favor of popular institutions, but there is one point, with its connections, not so hackneyed as most others, to which I ask a brief attention. It is the effort to place capital on an equal footing with, if not above, labor in the structure of government. It is assumed that labor is available only in connection with capital; that nobody labors unless somebody else, owning capital, somehow by the use of it induces him to labor. This assumed, it is next considered whether it is best that capital shall hire laborers, and thus induce them to work by their own consent, or buy them and drive them to it without their consent. Having proceeded so far, it is naturally concluded that all laborers are either hired laborers or what we call slaves. And further, it is assumed that whoever is once a hired laborer is fixed in that condition for life.

Now there is no such relation between capital and labor as assumed, nor is there any such thing as a free man being fixed for life in the condition of a hired laborer. Both these assumptions are false, and all inferences from them are groundless.

Labor is prior to and independent of capital. Capital is only the fruit of labor, and could never have existed if labor had not first existed. Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration. Capital has its rights, which are as worthy of protection as any other rights. Nor is it denied that there is, and probably always will be, a relation between labor and capital producing mutual benefits. The error is in assuming that the whole labor of community exists within that relation. A few men own capital, and that few avoid labor themselves, and with their capital hire or buy another few to labor for them. A large majority belong to neither class–neither work for others nor have others working for them. In most of the Southern States a majority of the whole people of all colors are neither slaves nor masters, while in the Northern a large majority are neither hirers nor hired. Men, with their families–wives, sons, and daughters–work for themselves on their farms, in their houses, and in their shops, taking the whole product to themselves, and asking no favors of capital on the one hand nor of hired laborers or slaves on the other. It is not forgotten that a considerable number of persons mingle their own labor with capital; that is, they labor with their own hands and also buy or hire others to labor for them; but this is only a mixed and not a distinct class. No principle stated is disturbed by the existence of this mixed class.

Again, as has already been said, there is not of necessity any such thing as the free hired laborer being fixed to that condition for life. Many independent men everywhere in these States a few years back in their lives were hired laborers. The prudent, penniless beginner in the world labors for wages awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land for himself, then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him. This is the just and generous and prosperous system which opens the way to all, gives hope to all, and consequent energy and progress and improvement of condition to all. No men living are more worthy to be trusted than those who toil up from poverty; none less inclined to take or touch aught which they have not honestly earned. Let them beware of surrendering a political power which they already possess, and which if surrendered will surely be used to close the door of advancement against such as they and to fix new disabilities and burdens upon them till all of liberty shall be lost.

From the first taking of our national census to the last are seventy years, and we find our population at the end of the period eight times as great as it was at the beginning. The increase of those other things which men deem desirable has been even greater. We thus have at one view what the popular principle, applied to Government through the machinery, of the States and the Union, has produced in a given time, and also what if firmly maintained it promises for the future. There are already among us those who if the Union be preserved will live to see it contain 250,000,000. The struggle of to-day is not altogether for to-day; it is for a vast future also. With a reliance on Providence all the more firm and earnest, let us proceed in the great task which events have devolved upon us.

Nor do most books mention Lincoln’s fixation on the size of the nation’s population.  It totaled 31,443,790 in 1860, when Lincoln was first elected, and in his 1863 State of the Union message,Lincoln explained:

This shows an average decennial increase of 34.60 per cent in population through the seventy years from our first to our last census vet taken.  It is seen that the ratio of increase at no one of these seven periods is either 2 per cent below or 2 per cent above the average, thus showing how inflexible, and consequently how reliable, the law of increase in our case is. Assuming that it will continue, it gives the following results:


















These figures show that our country may be as populous as Europe now is at some point between 1920 and 1930—say about 1925—our territory, at 73 1/3 persons to the square mile, being of capacity to contain 217,186,000.

And we will reach this, too, if we do not ourselves relinquish the chance by the folly and evils of disunion or by long and exhausting war springing from the only great element of national discord among us.  While it can not be foreseen exactly how much one huge example of secession, breeding lesser ones indefinitely, would retard population, civilization, and prosperity, no one can doubt that the extent of it would be very great and injurious.


Using today’s terms, Lincoln was a “pro-growth” politician, who probably would not have understood why the term “pro-growth” existed.  “Of course, I’m pro-growth,” he would have said.  “That’s a large part of what defines the United States.” Lincoln’s four State of the Union messages reveal a leader eager for his nation to become an Atlantic-to-Pacific power: December 6, 1864, for example, Lincoln told Congress:

The Territories of the Union are generally in a condition of prosperity and rapid growth.  Idaho and Montana, by reason of their great distance and the interruption of communication with them by Indian hostilities, have been only partially organized; but it is understood that these difficulties are about to disappear, which will permit their governments, like those of the others, to go into speedy and full operation.  As intimately connected with and promotive of this material growth of the nation, I ask the attention of Congress to the valuable information and important recommendations relating to the public lands, Indian affairs, the Pacific Railroad, and mineral discoveries contained in the report of the Secretary of the Interior which is herewith transmitted, and which report also embraces the subjects of patents, pensions, and other topics of public interest pertaining to his Department.

The quantity of public land disposed of during the five quarters ending on the 30th of September last was 4,221,342 acres, of which 1,538,614 acres were entered under the homestead law.  The remainder was located with military land warrants, agricultural scrip certified to States for railroads, and sold for cash. The cash received from sales and location fees was $1,019,446.

Lincoln never spoke of the nation’s overall “economy.” Nor did he ever refer to variables such as unemployment rate or number of jobs whose importance we take for granted today. Interestingly,Lincoln’s population predictions turn out to have been much too optimistic:

Population from                    Projected                                Actual population

1870 to 1930                            by Lincoln                             from Census

1870                                        42,323,341                         38,558,371

1880                                        56,967,216                              50,189,209

1890                                        76,677,872                              62,979,766

1900                                        103,208,415                            76,212,168

1910                                        138,918,526                            92,228,496

1920                                        186,984,335                            106,021,537

1930                                        251,680,914                            123,202,624



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