13 February 2010

Disrespecting "Honest Abe"

During this anniversary week of President Lincoln's birthday, many bloggers have offered hat tips to our sixteenth president.  I'll depart a bit from the norm to offer an excerpt with a different viewpoint:
By the time Lincoln ran for president, writes David Donald, he had become the master string puller in Illinois politics. He was what would today be called a "lobbyist" for the railroad corporations. In the late 1830s he led the effort to get the Illinois legislature to spend more than $10 million on "internal improvements" of roads and canals, none of which were ever finished; much of the money was stolen; and the taxpayers of Illinois were put deep into debt for many years...

As president, one of Lincoln’s very first acts was to call Congress into a special session in June of 1861 to begin work on the Pacific Railroad Bill, which would eventually result in the greatest spectacle of graft and corruption in American history up to that point (the Credit Mobilier scandal). Lincoln benefitted personally from this legislation which gave him, the president, the right to choose the eastern starting point of the government-subsidized transcontinental railroad. He chose Council Bluffs, Iowa, where he had recently purchased a large parcel of real estate that is known to this day as "Lincoln’s hill." Many of Lincoln’s Republican Party luminaries, from Thaddeus Stevens to Justin Morrill and Oakes Ames, and even General Sherman, accumulated fortunes through graft and patronage that was created by Lincoln’s Pacific Railroad Bill...
I found the essay at a libertarian website; it was written by Thomas J. DiLorenzo, who has authored a book about "dishonest Abe." I'm not in any way a Lincoln scholar, and don't know whether any biases have worked their way into the cited essay/book.  Perhaps Lincoln's behavior can be condoned as the "standard practice" of the times.  If someone out there can rebut the facts or cast the behavior in a more pleasing light, please do so.

If not, it's an interesting historical event that gives us a broader understanding of a famous man.


  1. Similar corruption happens today fairly often but we don't condoned as the standard practice of these times. I know very little about USA history but I suspect that misusing public money was considered unethical in Lincoln's time just as it is in ours - the times are not so widely separated that we could expect people then to have a dramatically different morality.

  2. The deification of Lincoln has obscured for many people the fact that he was a master politician. Had he not been, the fate of the Union would have been very different, indeed. Only a deft manipulator of his fellow man could possible have brought together such a wrangling bunch of special interests and got them working for a common goal.

  3. This was a very interesting post. It has caused me to spend hours researching the events leading up to the Transcontinental Railroad, and it is fascinating to say the least. It was such a large project, with such lucrative results for the railroads, there was guaranteed to be a lot of scandal.

    PBS's "The American Experience" apparently has a show on the Transcontinental Railroad, but I haven't found it on their site yet (where they have other intriguing shows I will be sure to watch over the next few weeks). In case you are interested, the site is: http://video.pbs.org/program/979359091

  4. Mike, thank you so much for your comment. I created TYWKIWDBI primarily as a place to store things, but I'm a retired teacher and it's gratifying when I hear that it has taught something or stimulated some investigation.

    btw, I think "The American Experience" is an outstanding series. I've only seen a few of the programs, but each has been fascinating.

  5. He was a great politician, though I'm skeptical he was as corrupt as the innuendo there. He may have decided enriching his Republican allies was sometimes required.

    In his early years he was mostly depressed and wanted to be a lawyer after he couldn't win a second term in the House of Representatives. I am skeptical he was a 'master string puller' in Illinois politics based on the stories I've read, if only because he practically abandoned politics for a few years. He was a great politician but his private letters reveal a more idealistic man than Donald implies. He was not very rich means before the presidency.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...