Saturday, February 7, 2009
Enough of Lincoln - He was a Railroad Lawyer!
They have a temple to him in Washington DC - out sixteenth president. He is a demi-god in the grand Roman tradition. The temple, the Lincoln Memorial, is of a scale fit for Jupiter and or Zeus. We in this secular culture have as close to a secular saint or god (small “g”) as you can get in Old Abe. Hey we are a democracy of sorts. There are no ground rules. We have, in some ways, evolved like the old Roman Empire.
Getting back to Old Abe. I was surprised to read that President Zachary Taylor had offered Lincoln the post of Territorial Governor of Oregon around 1850. Think about how history would have changed if he had taken that job.
The truth of the matter was that Lincoln was a railroad lawyer. He got paid the big bucks and when he went to Washington, his estimated wealth I once read was about $100,000. I think the statistic then was that there were only something like six millionaires in America before the Civil War.
I do not want to downgrade President Lincoln’s place in history or how his CEO abilities were taxed in trying to find the right generals to mop up the Southern Mess. While on a tangent, just remember that Robert E. Lee was married to Martha Washington’s great granddaughter and step-great granddaughter of George Washington. The landed gentry of Virginia were living in a aristocratic bubble supported by an obsolete inefficient cruel system of slavery. There was no easy way to convert old wealth, land and slaves, to the new wealth, factories and railroads.
There was class warfare going on between the progressive states that banned slavery and the old dying economic culture of the South. There was one blip on the radar however. In 1860, 51% of all foreign capital coming into the US was from cotton. The south in many ways could have converted that wealth in a few number of years into a modern economy that could have rivaled the north’s factory wealth. More likely, the aristocracy would have just bought more oriental rugs for their ante-bellum mansions.
The prize in those days for the northern states or the confederate states was the untapped wealth of the western United States in the form of territories waiting to be settled and admitted to the political structure of the United States Congress.
The wealth of southern landowners, slave owners, could not compete with the western movement. Slavery and the landed aristocracy were doomed in a matter of years, not decades.
Nobody in the south thought Lincoln a fool. Lincoln was a wealthy man with an eye on the future. That future was railroads and the west. The other guy who had his eye on the west was Jefferson Davis, one time son in law to General Zachary Taylor and Secretary of War under President Zachary Taylor. One of Jeff’s pet projects was several feasibility studies for the positioning of the proposed, envisioned, needed Transcontinental Railroad. What to tell Congress? That the best route of the taxpayer subsidized railway was the southern route and not the northern route???
The history books paint Abe as a saint, martyr, visionary, emancipator etc. They rarely mention his railroading job skills. Can you imagine if Booth had not shot him. Can you imagine Lincoln as head of one of the New York based railroad empires stretching from NYC to San Francisco? Picture Lincoln’s mansion on Fifth Avenue, 120 rooms, and fifty servants. Picture the probate of his twenty million dollar estate etc.
It is all right and good for a republic to have its iconic figures but put them back into human scale sometimes.
All in all Lincoln was a giant among the pygmies of his timeline group peers.
Happy Two Hundredth Birthday Mr. President Lincoln!