Lincoln and the American Dream, Still a Struggle

A book review by Walter Brueggemann in the Christian Century lead me to “A Just and Generous Nation”, by Harold Holzer and Norton Garfinkle, a historian and an economist, respectively. The overall theme is Abraham Lincoln’s fight for the American Dream and how that struggle continues through today. In the introduction, the authors state, “For Lincoln, liberty meant, above all, the right of individuals to enjoy the fruits of their own labor, which he saw as the best path to prosperity.” The American Dream is fading for the middle class. They took a big hit in the Credit Crisis of 2008–2009. The recovery has been slow and most of it has gone to the top 10%, especially the top 1% [1][2][3].

Europe at the time of the founding of the US was dominated by a hereditary aristocracy[4]. The American Dream promotes a meritocracy, economic and social advancement is the result of hard work. It has been a continuing struggle to realize this vision[5]. There is less economic mobility in the US today than in most developed countries[6]. Before the Civil War Lincoln found:

On the one side was a Northern middle-class society honoring labor and offering multiple opportunities for economic advancement by ordinary people, where government was assuming an increasing constructive role in “clearing the path” for economic success. On the other side was a Southern aristocratic society rigidly divided between rich and poor, ensuring through law and oppression that labor—white and black—remained fixed in place, devalued and cheap, dedicated to an unfettered market, neglectful of the public sector, and offering few opportunities for ordinary people and none at all for a whole race of human beings.

For Lincoln, the choice, painful as it became, was never a hard one.

Until his dying day, the fulfillment of the American Dream remained what Lincoln called at Gettysburg his “unfinished work”—and America’s.

Lincoln and the North won that war, but the aristocratic system persists and has spread well beyond the borders of the South. It dominates the national economy from Wall Street to Madison Avenue. As Correta Scott King observed:

Struggle is a never ending process. Freedom is never really won. You earn it and win it in every generation. That is what we have not taught young people, or older ones for that matter. You do not finally win a state of freedom that is protected forever. It doesn’t work that way.

The Middle Class is waking up to the fact that the government has ceased “‘clearing the path’ for economic success” and is greasing the rails for the free market instead of the Free Labor that Lincoln envisioned. Capital can band together in public and private corporations, but increasingly, Labor is barred from doing the same, e.g., through unions.

The struggle between the privileged few and the American Dream of “with liberty and justice for all” is heating up again. Rage and violence is very tempting, though rarely successful[7]. I hope, pray, and work for a less violent outcome.

[1] How the 1% Won the Recovery in One Table

[2] Some 95% of 2009-2012 Income Gains Went to Wealthiest 1%

[3] How The 1934 Recovery Benefited The 99 Percent, While 2010’s Benefited The Rich

[4] Meritocracy in America—Ever higher society, ever harder to ascend

[5] Social Mobility

[6] Intergenerational Social Mobility

[7] Brexit’s message: It feels good to tell them all to bugger off

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One Response to Lincoln and the American Dream, Still a Struggle

  1. AC says:

    I drastically changed the last paragraph in the final edit. My wife says I should have left it in. Here it is:

    Martin Luther King, Jr. used non-violent methods to overturn laws that only benefited an entrenched aristocracy. We need a similar movement to do the same for the middle class, regardless of color. The various Occupy movements were a good start, though their energy and visibility is waning. The decline of the middle class is far advanced. Rage and violence are very tempting though rarely successful[7].

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