Four Lincoln Quotes Progressives Always Get Wrong

1. Education is "the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in."
To the People of Sangamo County: Political Announcement. March 9, 1832.

Our first offender is former Democratic New York governor Mario M. Cuomo, who asserted in Why Lincoln Matters: Today More Than Ever that if Lincoln were president today, he would say that Americans require from their federal government, "Enhancement of education (the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in), job training, and health care, to provide workers with the skills needed to compete in an increasingly competitive world economy, and to protect those who have not been able to procure health insurance."

Cuomo very clearly violates the meaning of Lincoln's words, as the surrounding context demonstrates:

"Upon the subject of education, not presuming to dictate any plan or system respecting it, I can only say that I view it as the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in. That every man may receive at least, a moderate education, and thereby be enabled to read the histories of his own and other countries, by which he may duly appreciate the value of our free institutions, appears to be an object of vital importance..."

Lincoln speaks only as a candidate in a state election, not as President of the United States. Education, traditionally a state concern, might arguably be the most important subject at that level of government. But that is not to say that it is a concern of the national government, let alone the most important one.

Lincoln, in addition, does not presume to dictate any plan or system respecting education. He only comments that he personally desires to see everyone receive "a moderate education," a thoroughly uncontroversial political position.

Moreover, he definitely does not say the purpose of education is "to provide workers with the skills needed to compete in an increasingly competitive world economy," but to teach young people how to read so that they may consider the higher things in life.

2. "The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves - in their separate, and individual capacities. In all that the people can individually do as well for themselves, government ought not to interfere."
Fragment on Government. July 1, 1854?

President Obama, in his 2012 State of the Union Address, said: "I believe what Republican Abraham Lincoln believed: That Government should do for people only what they cannot do better by themselves and no more."

In Obama's paraphrasing, we find that the quote has undergone significant change. The part that has dropped away in the Obama retelling reveals itself to be, by virtue of its abandonment, the most vital part of the whole thing -- the word need. Only if the people are in need of some action that they cannot accomplish -- or accomplish so well -- on their own does government act to fulfill that need.

For Lincoln, then, the emphasis is on the need, not government action.

Neglecting to consider or even mention the need, Obama instead goes directly to emphasizing and prescribing government action. In other words, to read Lincoln as Obama does, one must go about it in an intentionally dishonest way, distorting the sixteenth president's meaning by neglecting those portions that don't fit the contrived message. We find, therefore, that this quote, which establishes the fundamental right of self-rule against the encroaching nature of government, is used by Obama to limit individual freedom and expand the powers of government.

3. "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."
First Annual Message to Congress. December 3, 1861.

In 2011, on the sesquicentennial anniversary of the address, Florida Democratic Congressman Alan Grayson wrote:

"I find it startling to read something like this, and realize how timeless these battles are... Capital creates and perpetuates a system where Labor is unemployed, where Labor is in debt up to its eyeballs, where Labor cannot see a doctor when ill, where Labor is pitted against Labor..."

Today's poor man, according to this interpretation, enjoys a condition no better than the slave, unable to improve his condition and escape the wage slavery created by modern business. But this is not at all what Lincoln means. Far from it, as the text makes perfectly clear.

The preceding lines read: "[I]t 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."

The laborer, therefore, is in an infinitely better condition than the slave, because he is free. Slavery is fundamentally unjust because it denies that same freedom to the slave. There can then be no reasonable comparison whatsoever between the two.  

4. "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew."
Second Annual Message to Congress. December 1, 1862.

The denouncement of "dogmas of the quiet past" and the necessity to "think anew and act anew" seem to fit perfectly into the hope and change rhetoric of President Obama, never one to shy away from the chance to compare himself to the Great Emancipator, or prevent a friend from making the comparison for him.  

Rahm Emanuel, the current mayor of Chicago and former Chief of Staff to the president, said shortly after the 2008 election:

"It has been almost 150 years since Americans turned to a proud son of Illinois as their President. [Emanuel now quotes the above Lincoln passage.] Today, once again, our country is piled high with difficulty, and Americans have put their trust in President-elect Barack Obama and Vice-President-elect Joe Biden to think and act anew."

But here Lincoln speaks only in anticipation of the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, exactly one month hence. He is by no means prescribing a general rule for government, or providing a catch-all for any and all attempted reform.

Now, admittedly, Progressives are not going to stop invoking Lincoln's rhetoric any time soon. But perhaps it will cease when they finally begin to understand him. 

1. Education is "the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in."
To the People of Sangamo County: Political Announcement. March 9, 1832.

Our first offender is former Democratic New York governor Mario M. Cuomo, who asserted in Why Lincoln Matters: Today More Than Ever that if Lincoln were president today, he would say that Americans require from their federal government, "Enhancement of education (the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in), job training, and health care, to provide workers with the skills needed to compete in an increasingly competitive world economy, and to protect those who have not been able to procure health insurance."

Cuomo very clearly violates the meaning of Lincoln's words, as the surrounding context demonstrates:

"Upon the subject of education, not presuming to dictate any plan or system respecting it, I can only say that I view it as the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in. That every man may receive at least, a moderate education, and thereby be enabled to read the histories of his own and other countries, by which he may duly appreciate the value of our free institutions, appears to be an object of vital importance..."

Lincoln speaks only as a candidate in a state election, not as President of the United States. Education, traditionally a state concern, might arguably be the most important subject at that level of government. But that is not to say that it is a concern of the national government, let alone the most important one.

Lincoln, in addition, does not presume to dictate any plan or system respecting education. He only comments that he personally desires to see everyone receive "a moderate education," a thoroughly uncontroversial political position.

Moreover, he definitely does not say the purpose of education is "to provide workers with the skills needed to compete in an increasingly competitive world economy," but to teach young people how to read so that they may consider the higher things in life.

2. "The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves - in their separate, and individual capacities. In all that the people can individually do as well for themselves, government ought not to interfere."
Fragment on Government. July 1, 1854?

President Obama, in his 2012 State of the Union Address, said: "I believe what Republican Abraham Lincoln believed: That Government should do for people only what they cannot do better by themselves and no more."

In Obama's paraphrasing, we find that the quote has undergone significant change. The part that has dropped away in the Obama retelling reveals itself to be, by virtue of its abandonment, the most vital part of the whole thing -- the word need. Only if the people are in need of some action that they cannot accomplish -- or accomplish so well -- on their own does government act to fulfill that need.

For Lincoln, then, the emphasis is on the need, not government action.

Neglecting to consider or even mention the need, Obama instead goes directly to emphasizing and prescribing government action. In other words, to read Lincoln as Obama does, one must go about it in an intentionally dishonest way, distorting the sixteenth president's meaning by neglecting those portions that don't fit the contrived message. We find, therefore, that this quote, which establishes the fundamental right of self-rule against the encroaching nature of government, is used by Obama to limit individual freedom and expand the powers of government.

3. "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."
First Annual Message to Congress. December 3, 1861.

In 2011, on the sesquicentennial anniversary of the address, Florida Democratic Congressman Alan Grayson wrote:

"I find it startling to read something like this, and realize how timeless these battles are... Capital creates and perpetuates a system where Labor is unemployed, where Labor is in debt up to its eyeballs, where Labor cannot see a doctor when ill, where Labor is pitted against Labor..."

Today's poor man, according to this interpretation, enjoys a condition no better than the slave, unable to improve his condition and escape the wage slavery created by modern business. But this is not at all what Lincoln means. Far from it, as the text makes perfectly clear.

The preceding lines read: "[I]t 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."

The laborer, therefore, is in an infinitely better condition than the slave, because he is free. Slavery is fundamentally unjust because it denies that same freedom to the slave. There can then be no reasonable comparison whatsoever between the two.  

4. "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew and act anew."
Second Annual Message to Congress. December 1, 1862.

The denouncement of "dogmas of the quiet past" and the necessity to "think anew and act anew" seem to fit perfectly into the hope and change rhetoric of President Obama, never one to shy away from the chance to compare himself to the Great Emancipator, or prevent a friend from making the comparison for him.  

Rahm Emanuel, the current mayor of Chicago and former Chief of Staff to the president, said shortly after the 2008 election:

"It has been almost 150 years since Americans turned to a proud son of Illinois as their President. [Emanuel now quotes the above Lincoln passage.] Today, once again, our country is piled high with difficulty, and Americans have put their trust in President-elect Barack Obama and Vice-President-elect Joe Biden to think and act anew."

But here Lincoln speaks only in anticipation of the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation, exactly one month hence. He is by no means prescribing a general rule for government, or providing a catch-all for any and all attempted reform.

Now, admittedly, Progressives are not going to stop invoking Lincoln's rhetoric any time soon. But perhaps it will cease when they finally begin to understand him. 

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