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Two Versions of America

By Heather Cox Richardson from Letters from an American

November 21, 2020 (Saturday)

The image of a political leader insisting he deserves a crucial leadership role he has little interest in filling echoes South Carolina Senator James Henry Hammond in 1858. Hammond stood up on the floor of the Senate in the midst of the sectional crisis and told his colleagues he had not studied the issue that was tearing the nation apart, but felt able to vote on it anyway. He would simply vote as his southern friends did, he said, because they were leaders and he trusted them to have done the work he hadn’t. In any case, it didn’t matter much what anyone said, according to Hammond, because the Constitution had limited the government so it could do nothing but protect property. Even if an overwhelming majority of Americans wanted the government to do something more expansive, it could not.

Hammond went on to explain that men like him and the other white slave holders who directed the Democratic Party in his era belonged at the top of society. They were naturally supported by the masses, whom he called “mudsills” after the timbers driven into the ground to support the plantation homes above. “In all social systems there must be a class to do the menial duties, to perform the drudgery of life,” he explained. Those people were dumb and unskilled, but they were strong and loyal. So long as their betters directed them, the mudsills would labor effectively, producing capital which moved upward and permitted “that other class which leads progress, civilization, and refinement,” to move the country forward.

Elsewhere, Hammond made his principles clear: “I repudiate, as ridiculously absurd, that much-lauded but nowhere accredited dogma of Mr. Jefferson, that “all men are born equal.” In his mind, Hammond belonged in the Senate because he was a member of the ruling class.

The following year, aspiring politician Abraham Lincoln answered Hammond with the vision that would become the intellectual underpinning of the newly formed Republican Party. Lincoln rejected the idea that society moved forward thanks to the efforts of a few rich men. He denied that most people belonged to a lower, menial class into which they were, as he said, “fatally fixed” for life.

Instead, Lincoln argued that, if properly organized, society progressed thanks to the hard work and innovation of ordinary men. While rich men had no incentive to think up new ideas, he said, ordinary Americans worked and innovated so they could provide for themselves. As they did, they made more money than they and their families needed, so they would use the surplus to buy goods that would support merchants, shoemakers, and so on. In turn, those people would work hard and accumulate capital, which in turn would support a few financiers and industrialists, who would use their own accumulated capital to hire men just starting out, and the cycle would begin again. The heart of the system was not wealthy men, but hardworking ordinary ones.

Central to this system was government’s guarantee that all men were equal before the law and that all men had equal access to resources. This meant that the government must not protect the very wealthy. It would require a government that did more than protect property; it must keep the economic playing field between wealthy men and ordinary men level.

These two versions of America appear, once again, to be on the table.


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