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November 30, 1979


Nonpartisan Politics in Lincoln's Footsteps:

The American System Tradition Behind the Bullock Resolution
by Susan Kokinda

Illinois State Representative Larry Bullock (right) talks with

Illinois Congressman Dan Rostenkowski on Capitol Hill.

Recently I had the pleasure of accompanying Democratic State Representative Larry S. Bullock as he presented the unanimous resolution of the Illinois
state legislature, backed by Republicans and Democrats demanding a reversal of the Carter administration's inflationary tight-credit policies to the
Illinois delegation of the U.S. Congress in Washington, D.C. On the mantle
in the office of one member of Congress stood a small daguerreotype of the
young Abraham Lincoln, inscribed with what appeared to be an authentic
Lincoln signature.
It was fitting that a trace of the living Lincoln should have been present on
this occasion, for no one fought harder to build and protect the American
System than he. By making the demand for a two-tier credit system,
supplying cheap credit for industrial expansion to rebuild our cities at the
expense of unproductive financial speculation, Larry Bullock is acting in the
American System tradition of directed national economic growth which
Lincoln followed.

Just as fitting is it that Illinois should be the first state in the Union to accept
the responsibility for overturning the devastating, "free enterprise" antiindustrial, tight-credit policies of Federal Reserve Chairman Volcker. In
1847, it was Chicago, Illinois which hosted a national nonpartisan convention of 10,000 delegates to protest the anti-industrial expansion policies of
Democratic President James K. Polk. The grassroots political movement
emerging out of that convention decisively shaped the forces which uprooted
slavery, smashed Great Britain's plot to balkanize the United States into a
semi-feudal agrarian society, and won the Civil War. It is no mere historical
coincidence that Abraham Lincoln attended the Chicago Rivers and Harbors
Convention of 1847, the only Whig Party Congressman from Illinois.
Today, we must advance the work of State Rep. Bullock and others to build
the same kind of national nonpartisan movement to rescue our nation from
The Internal Improvements Issue
What brought 10,000 businessmen, artisans, farmers, lawyers and political
figures to Chicago on July 5, 1847 was outwardly a simple issue. In 1846
President Polk had vetoed a Congressional bill appropriating funds for the
improvement of inland rivers and harbors. The Chicago Rivers and Harbors
Convention was called to build political pressure against the veto.
Today's reader of the liberal press, the Washington Post for example, will
note that rivers and harbors bills are always referred to by liberals as "porkbarrel projects," implying that nothing more is involved than lining the
pockets of favorite legislators' construction company patrons, giving the
Army Corps of Engineers something to do, and so forth. This is generally
180 degrees opposite to the truth of the matter; and at the time of the 1847
convention, when inland and coastal shipping was perhaps the cheapest and
most universal mode of transport welding together a growing national
economy, government backing for rivers and harbors projects and other
forms of "internal improvements" was essential.
The battle over internal improvementsthe building of canals, highways,
railroads, harbors, dams and levees, dredging river channels, etc. defined
American politics between 1825 and 1860 in much the same way that the
fight over nuclear energy shapes politics today. Without a national transportation system, cheapening the cost of both industrial and agricultural production, the entire United States economy would have been increasingly pulled

toward the "British system" model of slave labor and raw materials
exporting into which the South was sliding.
The Second Bank of the United States, established under the leadership of
Henry Clay in 1816 on principles previously laid down by Alexander
Hamilton, was created to provide credit for industrial expansion, to increase
the productivity of labor through advanced technology. Under the administrations of Presidents James Monroe (1817-25) and John Quincy Adams
(1825-29), specific internal improvements programs were initiated to that
end. Such projects were planned from the top-down; the federal government, using the commissioned officer-engineers of West Point, mapped out
what rivers would be improved, where canals and railroads would be built.
Where army engineers were not employed in the building of direct government projects, they were often "loaned out" to private concerns to assist in
the construction of internal improvements. The Chesapeake and Ohio Canal
and the Baltimore and Ohio railroad both received their impetus under this
The aim was a national transportation system linking the agricultural
markets of the West and South with the industrial and population centers of
the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic. The plan was highly ambitious; it is not
inconceivable that the United States could have enjoyed a national railroad
system by the late 1830s, instead of waiting until after the Civil War, had not
the traitorous Andrew Jackson been elected in 1828.
Particularly after Jackson's reelection, when he was emboldened to dismantle the Second National Bank, destroy the West Point-private sector
cooperation for development, and dry up Congressional appropriations for
internal improvements, the rate of American progress slowed drastically.
Jackson's giving away control over U.S. credit to London and Manhattan
financial speculators eventually resulted in a savage depression.
The Early Lincoln
It was thus an environment of incipient economic downturn into which
Abraham Lincoln, first elected to the Illinois House of Representatives in
1832, was thrust. Lincoln had already firmly identified himself as a Henry
Clay Whig; in fact, he had won election on a program of internal improvements on the Sangamon River, a law to curb excessive interest rates, and
strong support for education. Lincoln hoped that his support for internal
improvements would make him known as "the DeWitt Clinton Of Illinois,"

Above, the first railroad suspension bridge, built over Niagara Falls in 1855.
Below, the Erie Canal sketched by the artist about 1830.

in honor of the man who ensured the building of the Erie Canal. Of vital
importance to Illinois and the entire country was the construction of the
Illinois and Michigan Canal which would link the Mississippi River to the
Atlantic Ocean, via the Illinois River, the Great Lakes, and the Erie Canal.
Lincoln supported this project wholeheartedly.
As Congressional support for such projects dried up under the boot of
Jackson, Lincoln and the Illinois legislature attempted to keep them going
with a state internal improvements program. When the Panic of 1837 hit as
a result of Jackson's policies, the state was unable to pay even the annual
interest on its debt, and by 1839-40, a movement had developed to scrap
internal improvements altogether. This Lincoln bitterly resisted. The

legislature finally voted to continue at least the existing projects, financing

them out of a general property tax. Lincoln himself had urged a plan by
which the state would purchase and resell federal land to raise the revenue to
expand the improvements program; the legislature passed his program but
the Jackson-dominated U.S. Congress buried it.
Lincoln also stoutly defended Illinois' own state bank, established on the
same principles as the Second Bank of the United States. In fact, Lincoln's
first round of debates with Democrat Stephen Douglas occurred not on the
issue of slavery in 1858, but in 1839-40, on the issue of preserving the state
bank. Slamming Jackson and Douglas, Lincoln cried:
I know that the great volcano at Washington, aroused and
directed by the evil spirit that reigns there, is belching forth the
lava of political corruption in a current broad and deep, which
is sweeping with frightful velocity over the whole length and
breadth of the land.
Building a Nonpartisan Alliance
It was not until 1846 that a national rivers and harbors bill again passed
Congresseight years had gone by since the last such measure had passed.
In part this was because Lincoln's constituency, the farmers, artisans, and
agricultural entrepreneurs of the Midwestern states (the old Northwest
Territory) did not vote in their own self-interest. Rising above subsistence
farming was impossible unless the crop could be transported cheaply to
market via roads, canals, and railroads. The Midwestern farmer and artisan
passionately favored internal improvements. Yet the Midwestern farmer,
bound by the so-called "anti-aristocratic" populist ideology of Jacksonian
democracy, voted for the party of Jackson and Van Buren in every presidential election between 1828 and 1848, and against the Clay Whigs like Lincoln. The only exception was the election of 1840, when Whig William
Henry Harrison was elected but died after two months in office; his successor Tyler quickly abandoned Whig policies.
An obvious comparison can be drawn between the Midwesterner of
Lincoln's day and today's "brass-collar Democrat be he trade unionist,
industrialist, small businessman, farmer or whateverwho continues to vote
Democratic despite the party's miserable record on credit and monetary
policy and nuclear energy.

The 1847 Chicago Rivers and Harbors Convention marked the beginning of
the end of this blind, rigid adherence to the "two-party system" of Democrat
versus Whig. The delegates recognized that political program must become
the touchstone for the voters' decisions, regardless of party. The fifteenth
and final resolution adopted by the convention read:
That we disavow all and every attempt to connect the cause of
internal trade and "commerce among the States" with the
fortunes of any political party, but that we mean to place that
cause upon such immutable principles of truth, justice, and
constitutional duty as shall command the respect of all parties,
and the deference of all candidates for public favor.
It is important to understand what such a commitment to nonpartisan
political program meant, then and now. It did not mean primarily
institutionalizing a cozy arrangement of "you scratch my back and I'll
scratch yours" cross-party deals, although of course cross-party deals were
vital. What it did mean was looking behind the labels and rhetoric of
"normal" partisan political warfare to see that at bottom, two fundamentally
opposed views of human nature, economic progress, and the political
process represent the substance of politics.
One could call these "humanist" versus "bestial," "capital-intensive" versus
"labor-intensive," "oligarchist" versus "republican," "Neoplatonic" versus
"Aristotelian," "American System" versus "British System," but however
one refers to the distinction, these are the only two "parties" that count.
The Moral Issue
Abraham Lincoln certainly understood this when he attended the Chicago
Rivers and Harbors Convention. A quote from later in Lincoln's career, in
1859, a year prior to his election to the presidency, shows what he fought
against his entire political life. Lincoln called it the mud-sill theory of labor
the mud-sill was the earthworks foundation of a farmhouse, and came to
be synonymous with an illiterate, backward person without ambition. Said
By the "mud-sill" theory it is assumed that labor and education
are incompatible, and that any practical combination of them
impossible. According to that theory, a blind horse upon a
tread-mill is a perfect illustration of what a laborer should be
all the better for being blind, that he could not kick understand-

ingly. According to that theory, the education of laborers is not

only useless but pernicious and dangerous. In fact, it is, in
some sort, deemed a misfortune that laborers should have heads
at all. Those same heads are regarded as explosive materials,
only to be safely kept in damp places, as far as possible from
that particular sort of fire which ignites them. A Yankee who
could invent a strong-handed man without a head would receive
the everlasting gratitude of the "mudsill" advocates.
The mudsill system is, of course, the very thing the American System and its
devotion to internal improvements despised. The immediate goal of the
American System, increasing the productivity of labor, and the wealth of a
nation, was and is not an end in itself, but only the means allowing the full
moral and intellectual development of the individual so that he may make
greater, more lasting contributions to the future of the human race.
This point was so well understood at the Chicago Rivers and Harbors
Convention, and eloquently reported on by the famous journalist Horace
Greeley in his July 7, 1847 dispatch to the New York Tribune:
The Convention was now adjourned pro forma, but instantly
reorganized as a Committee of the Whole on the state of the
Union, when Gov. William Bebb of Ohio, was constrained to
come forward. In a brief speech, he forcibly set forth the just
subordination of all physical and material to mental and moral
improvementto the diffusion of Intelligence, the purification
of Morals, and the Melioration of the Social condition of Man.
Vain, said he, will be all your Canals and Railroads, your Riverand-Harbor Improvements, if the condition of the Toiling
Millions be not thereby or therewith sensibly melioratedif
they shall still be constrained to delve twelve to fourteen hours
per day for the bare necessaries of physical life. I hold, said he,
that this need not and ought not to continuethat Society may
be so revised that ten or eight hours' faithful labor daily will
secure to every industrious man or family a full supply of the
necessaries and comforts of life, so that each may have ample
leisure to devote to the cultivation and perfection of his Moral,
Social and Intellectual powers. Let us never forget that this is
the great end of all physical improvement, and that such works
as we are met to urge upon the attention of our rulers and
fellow-citizens are essential only as conducive thereto.

A sharp reader will by now have picked up on the fact that the true subject of
the Chicago Rivers and Harbors Conventionthe basic conflict over the
Polk vetowas not over whether the United States was going to build a
number of useful projects, but whether, as Lincoln put it years later, the
nation could endure half-slave and half-free. More than fourteen years
before the first shots were fired on Fort Sumter, on August 19, 1846, a year
before the Rivers and Harbors convention, the Chicago Daily Journal
identified the true purpose of Polk's veto:
His real hostility to the bill cannot be concealed by such
shallow subterfuge. The objects of improvement lie north of
Mason and Dixon's line, and would benefit the North and West,
whose growing prosperity is hateful to the slave-owners of the
South. . . . The lives of an hundred or two hundred hardy
mariners and a few millions of property are of no consequence
in the eye of James K. Polk, when weighed against a Virginia
abstraction, or that idol of the South, negro slavery. Three
times already has the whole policy of this Government been
changed at the command of the South, all its business broken
up and deranged, because the slave-owner was jealous of the
prosperity of the free States. They were rising in prosperity,
growing rich in commerce, agriculture, manufactures, and great
in intelligence whilst the South, with the curse of slavery upon
her, are standing still or going backward. And shutting their
eyes to the real cause which produced such results, they
attributed it all to what they were pleased to call partial
legislation, and they have demanded a change, and every
change has brought the same results, and ever will, until slavery
be at an end, and the energy of free hands and minds shall raise
this country to that position which Nature intended her.
All other pretense of objects to the Harbor Bill are idle and
vain. The North can and will be no longer hoodwinked. If no
measures for protection and improvement of anything North or
West are to be suffered by our Southern masters, if we are to be
downtrodden, and all our cherished interests crushed by them, a
signal revolution will inevitably ensue. The same spirit and
energy that forced emancipation for the whole country from
Great Britain will throw off the Southern yoke.

The Results of the Convention

The 1848 elections, in the immediate wake of the Rivers and Harbors
convention, saw a turn away from partisan "politics as usual" in the
Midwestern states. Democrats who voted for internal improvements were
returned to office. Those who did not were defeated, replaced by Whigs,
Free-Soilers, Liberty Party men, and independents with no party label.
Internal improvements were properly seen by the electorate as a keystone of
the American System, the utilization of the national surplus to scientifically
foster enhanced economic wealth and moral development.
It was not a simple linear process which governed the politics of the next
twelve years; the election of pusillanimous Democrats Pierce and Buchanan
to the Presidency in 1852 and 1856 can hardly be counted as triumph for the
American "nation-building faction." It was, however, the question of the
course of economic and political development of U.S. territories which
provided the impetus behind the next great forward political movement; it
was the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 and its threat to expand slavery into
the territories which provoked the organizing leading to the formation of the
Republican Party.
In Abraham Lincoln's successful campaign for the Presidency in 1860, he
ran on a platform committing his party to sponsor the enactment of
legislation to get a transcontinental railroad built. In office, Lincoln quickly
asserted the dirigist national banking and economic development principles
of Hamilton and Washington as the only way to win the war and save the
Union. Taking the advice of American System economist Henry Carey,
Lincoln put forward a program including a protective tariff, a national
banking system to put credit under federal control and out of the hands of
the British-dominated New York and New England banks, and a peacewinning strategy for industrializing the South.
And as the ultimate peace-winning measure, Lincoln at last abolished
slavery in the United States through the Emancipation Proclamation, and
issued edicts and submitted bills to ensure that no subsequent administration
could reverse his action. Lincoln's words on that occasion deserve to be
heard again today:
The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy
present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must
rise to the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew

and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall

save our country. Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history.
We of this Congress and this administration will be
remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance or
insignificance can spare one or another of us. This fiery trial
through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or
dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union.
The world knows we do know how to save it. Weeven we
herehold the power, and bear the responsibility. In giving
freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the freehonorable
alike in what we give and what we preserve. We shall nobly
save, or meanly lose, the last best, hope of earth.
Larry Bullock and his colleagues can be proud of acting in that tradition.