A Lincolnian Economic Primer for Obama

President Obama chose to deliver his State of the Union address this year on the 204th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln. It was a good selection of a significant date. As Steven Spielberg makes clear in his epic film "Lincoln," Americans of all backgrounds and political persuasions can learn much from the character and presidency of the 16th president.

With regard to human rights and economic liberty, Lincoln adhered to two fundamental principles. First, that every person was entitled to the fruits of his or her labors, and no one had an unrequited claim (i.e., slavery) to the fruits of the labors of others. What so troubled Lincoln about slavery was that it was theft—pure and simple. Lincoln ran for president on a platform to stop slavery's spread. As president and commander in chief, he struck against slavery in the rebellious states through the Emancipation Proclamation. Then he pressed for slavery's permanent abolition by constitutional amendment—in both rebellious and loyal border states—because no man may steal the fruits of the labor of others.

The second principle that guided the Republican president was that every person, regardless of the circumstances of his birth, should be able to climb as far up the economic ladder as his talents may take him. Historian Richard Hofstadter called Lincoln the "greatest dramatist" for upward mobility the nation ever produced, and for good reason.

Under Lincoln's watchful eye and skillful leadership, the 37th Congress enacted more economically significant legislation than had any of its predecessors. The underlying theme of Lincoln's economic initiatives was that by providing ordinary people with incentives to use their own skills and labor, the entire nation would prosper. Very little of what Lincoln signed into law could be declared, in the present-day idiom, "entitlements" or "redistribution."

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