22 August 2013

Putting words in Lincoln's mouth: 'You cannot...'

Peter J. Swota of Waterford has had a letter published in the August 22 Troy Record denouncing President Obama's "socialist" agenda. He notes that Obama "is fond of quoting Abraham Lincoln," but finds Abe's "actual creed" to be the antithesis of everything he believes Obama to stand for. Lincoln's creed is conveniently "embodied" in the following litany of "cannots," veritable commandments for reactionary Republicans. I copy them from Wikipedia

  • You cannot bring about prosperity by discouraging thrift.
  • You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong.
  • You cannot help little men by tearing down big men.
  • You cannot lift the wage earner by pulling down the wage payer.
  • You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich.
  • You cannot establish sound security on borrowed money.
  • You cannot further the brotherhood of man by inciting class hatred.
  • You cannot keep out of trouble by spending more than you earn.
  • You cannot build character and courage by destroying men's initiative and independence.
  • And you cannot help men permanently by doing for them what they can and should do for themselves.
At Wikipedia, however, you won't find these bullet points in the article on Abraham Lincoln. You will find them in the entry for William J. H. Boetcker, an early 20th century conservative who composed them in 1916. To be fair to Boetcker, he never claimed that the "Ten Cannots" (Swota only reproduces eight of them) were anything other than his own work. What happened, however, was that a generation later, in 1942, the Committee for Constitutional Government reprinted Boetcker's "Cannots" in a pamphlet but attributed them to Lincoln and illustrated them with a Lincoln portrait. You can see the thing here. Even then, attributing the "Cannots" to Lincoln wasn't a lie but an editorial mistake, since actual Lincoln quotes appeared on the reverse page. Nevertheless, reactionary Republicans have attributed them to Abe ever since, most notably Ronald Reagan in a convention speech.

While I was suspicious immediately -- "class hatred" looked particularly anachronistic -- I also have to question whether Lincoln would repudiate any of Boetcker's "Cannots." As a founding Republican, Lincoln espoused a "free labor" ideology that remains part of Republicanism to the present day. Abe saw himself as a champion of the laboring man and obviously preferred free labor to slave labor. But he was also eager to defend industrial capitalism against the charge that wage labor was a form of wage slavery. It was not that, he argued, because an industrious, thrifty person could start as a wage laborer, rise to self-employment, and eventually become an employer himself. This inevitably exceptional scenario emphasized that the unpleasant aspects of wage labor were temporary and readily transcended by competent people. The implicit corollary was that it was up to each person to elevate himself out of wage labor, and ever since Lincoln's time Republicans have mostly felt that those who don't rise, who form a permanent working class (if not a proletariat) are simply malcontent losers demanding things they don't deserve. I've discussed Lincoln's views and their influence on Republicans in the past. Whether any or all of the "Cannots" follow from Lincoln's views remains open to debate. Someone like Swota might argue that the "Cannots" embody Lincoln's views figuratively rather than literally -- but he'll have to take that up with some of the people on his own side who are bound to object when Swota credits Old Abe with upholding the ideal of limited government. As we know, many of the worst reactionaries think the opposite of Lincoln, seeing him as the malicious inventor of "big government." Like his fellow Republican, the elephant, Abraham Lincoln is a figure who can't be defined by blindly grasping some small part of his life and thought. Without even bringing the liberal Democrat Neo-Lincolnians into it, his legacy is more complex than most Americans can grasp today.


Anonymous said...

I have yet to read any opinion piece by a right-winger where they have actually done the work of research and fact checking before they shoot their mouths off. I have checked out the links you provided and sent a response to the Record with the information garnered. Let's see if they have the courage to publish it.

Samuel Wilson said...

I doubt it'll be much of a test of courage. The Record often prints quite "anti-American" letters compared to which this bit of fact-checking will look mild -- depending on the commentary attached.