A Brief Review of George McGovern’s Abraham Lincoln
George McGovern – former Democratic senator from South Dakota and losing presidential candidate in the 1972 election – has written a short, solid, workmanlike biography of Abraham Lincoln as part of Henry Holt and Company’s The American Presidents Series (see previous reviews of volumes in the series on Grover Cleveland, Ulysses S. Grant, Rutherford B. Hayes, James Buchanan and Thomas Jefferson). A mere 155 pages in length and compiled from a careful and thorough reading of the secondary sources, McGovern’s biography is not so stunningly incisive as James McPherson’s very brief Abraham Lincoln, nor so voluminous as many of the new biographies appearing in this bicentennial year of Lincoln’s birth, but is nevertheless a good introductory work for those with limited time seeking to learn more about America’s greatest president.
If McGovern’s biography has a conspicuous weakness it is the short shrift which he gives to Lincoln’s role as commander-in-chief and the course of the war — his discussion of battlefield developments is somewhat confused and discontinuous – but this is a relatively minor flaw in a book which must necessarily sacrifice some detail for the sake of brevity. If the book has a strength, it is McGovern’s emphasis upon some aspects of Lincoln’s life and presidency which receive little attention in other compressed biographies. For instance, as in this excerpt, Lincoln’s other legislative achievements beyond the imperatives of the war:
“As he prepared to deliver his annual message to Congress in December, Lincoln reflected on the legislative achievements of his first term, which had been all but overlooked because of the country’s preoccupation with the war. Many new laws, passed by the Republican-controlled Congress, would prove to have long-lasting consequences as the nation pushed relentlessly westward, settling new lands and expanding its borders.
“A series of financial measures had been enacted to fund the war, which was costing $2 million daily. Under the direction of the Treasury Department, and with the administrative guidance of the Philadelphia banker Jay Cooke, the government had issued war bonds (which, over the course of the war, would raise about $3 billion for the Union, or 65 percent of its revenue). Needing an unrestricted currency supply to fuel the bond program, Congress passed the Legal Tender Act in 1862, which authorized the production and distribution of paper money, known popularly as greenbacks.
“More significantly, the Internal Revenue Act of 1861, the first federal income tax in American history, assured the financial community that the government would have a reliable source of income to pay the interest on war bonds. Subsequent Revenue Acts of 1862 and 1864 created moderately progressive tax brackets and set rates at 5, 7.5, and 10 percent. By the end of the war nearly one in ten American households (mostly in the affluent states in the industrial Northeast, the section of the country that held most of the wealth) paid an income tax.
“Also enacted was an excise tax system that imposed taxes on almost everything: liquor, professional licenses, carriages, yachts, medicines, corporations, stamps, and the like. The Morrill Tariff Acts of 1860 and 1861 doubled the amounts of taxes collected on dutiable items brought into the United States, while at the same time protecting the steel, iron, mineral, beef, and fishing industries, among many others. Congress also enacted the National Banking Acts of 1863 and 1864, which established a system of national charters for banks and encouraged the implementation of a national currency. They also mandated that one-third of a new bank’s notes had to be backed by federal bonds, thus assisting the war effort. When state banks balked at the new regulation, a provision of the 1864 Act imposed a 10 percent tax on state bank notes; state banks then had to choose to comply or go out of business. Overall, the tax system quickly grew so large that the Bureau of Internal Revenue was created to administer it. These finance measures reversed the downward trends instituted by Democratic Congresses of the 1840s and 1850s, and fulfilled Republican promises from the campaign of 1860.
“During Lincoln’s first term, the Republican Congress also passed the Homestead Act of 1862, which made public lands in the West available for small farmers. For decades the distribution of these lands had been the subject of great debate and controversy, in Washington and among the American population. Under the new Homestead Act, any adult citizen who headed a household could win title to 160 acres of frontier land simply by living on it for five years. By the end of the war more than fifteen thousand homestead claims had been filed, with more to come. While some portion of the land ended up in the control of speculators and railroads, many settlers stuck it out, raised their families, and harvested crops, thereby establishing a framework for the large-scale development of vast Western territories over the course of the next forty years. The 160-acre tracts created the model of the American family farm for the next century.
“Also in 1862 Lincoln signed into law the Morrill Land Grant College Act, named for Senator Justin Morrill of Vermont. The statute transferred federal lands to states to be sold for the establishment and support of agricultural and mechanical arts colleges, which paved the way for the establishment of state university systems throughout the Midwest and West. The program was set up proportionately, dependent upon the number of congressional representatives, and eventually involved the transfer of nearly seventeen million acres of land. That same year, Congress and Lincoln established the Department of Agriculture to look after the interests of farmers (although the department would not gain cabinet-level status for some twenty years.).
“These three landmark acts – the Homestead Act, the Land Grant College Act, and the creation of the US Department of Agriculture, all enacted in the middle of the Civil War – formed a tripod on which much of America’s great agricultural success has rested from that day until the present.
“also of great importance was the passage of the Pacific Railway Acts of 1862 and 1864. These laws provided for the construction of a railroad and telegraph line from Omaha to Sacramento for the movement of passengers and freight as well as government use for postal, military, and other purposes. All told, the Union Pacific and Central Pacific railroads received more than 175 million acres from the government for use as right-of-way, and began construction. Utilizing thousands of immigrant laborers from Ireland, Germany, Italy, and China, and with the Union Pacific pushing west and the Central Pacific pushing east, the two lines met and merged near Ogden, Utah, in 1869, finally and forever linking the two coasts. Lincoln’s support for all these laws was a reflection of the Whig principles that had nurtured him: the belief that the federal government could and should play an important role in the public welfare.”