Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln is a hit at the box office, and it is widely anticipated to be a strong contender at this year’s Oscars.
The film focuses mostly on Lincoln’s most famous feat: re-uniting a nation that had been through a civil war and ending the abomination of slavery.
But as moviegoers enjoy this Lincoln biopic, they should remember one other important detail about Lincoln’s career: his struggle to stop big corporations from taking over the American economy and the resulting skyrocketing of economic inequality.
Here’s an except from a letter Lincoln wrote to Col. William F. Elkins November 1st, 1864. In it, Lincoln warns of the dangers of allowing all of the nation’s wealth to be “aggregated in a few hands”:
I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country. . . . corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the money power of the country will endeavor to prolong its reign by working upon the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands and the Republic is destroyed.
Indeed, in his December 3rd, 1861 address to Congress, Lincoln warned of how the growing business class must respect its workers:
Labor is the superior of capital, and deserves much the higher consideration. Capital has its rights, which are as worthy of protection as any other rights. Nor is it denied that there is, and probably always will be, a relation between labor and capital, producing mutual benefits. The error is in assuming that the whole labor of the community exists within that relation.
The former president also was distrustful of the rise of modern capitalism that would subvert workers’ wills to employers. He challenged the notion that Americans should be expected to work for corporations or private employers rather than work independently. He praised “men, with their families — wives, sons, and daughters — [who] work for themselves, on their farms, in their houses, and in their shops, taking the whole product to themselves, and asking no favors of capital on the one hand, nor of hirelings or slaves on the other.”
Keep in mind that Lincoln did serve as a lawyer for many of the big railroad companies at the time, and they did consider him a friend while he served in office. But he frequently challenged corporate wealth in the nation, particularly the banks. In 1838, while serving in the Illinois legislature, he called for an audit of the Second Bank of the United States, the equivalent of the Federal Reserve. He even offered an amendment that would’ve revoked its charter if it did not share its records with the Illinois Assembly.
Lincoln is a giant among American historical figures, and his leadership changed the very trajectory of our nation’s history. Progressives should take the renewed interest in this former president to educate Americans about his beliefs about the necessity of economic justice.