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Commissioner Steve Novick

Official Website for Commissioner Steve Novick

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Lincoln on Government

by Steve Novick-- The following is adapted from a piece of mine that the Register-Guard was kind enough to print a few years ago:

Abraham Lincoln is, of course, best known as the first Presidential candidate to win Oregon. (As you know, we became a state in 1859 – and we made the right choice.) Then of course there was that whole business of freeing the slaves and winning the Civil War. But Abraham Lincoln should also be remembered as one of America’s most eloquent explainers and defenders of the role of government.

In a July 1854 essay, Lincoln wrote:

“Why … should we have government? Why not each individual take to himself the whole fruit of his labor, without having any of it taxed away?” He answered his own question: “The legitimate object of government, is to do for the people whatever they need to have done, but which they can not do, at all, or can not do, so well, for themselves – in their separate and individual capacities … There are many such things … roads, bridges and the like; providing for the helpless young and afflicted; common schools … the criminal and civil [justice] departments.”
In the same essay, Lincoln made this observation: “The best framed and best administered governments are necessarily expensive.” In other words: in government, as in life, you get what you pay for. That seemed obvious to Lincoln – but today, most supporters of government services would probably be too scared to be that blunt.

Lincoln’s views on taxation were somewhat out of sync with modern Republicanism; he thought that the wealthier members of society should pay a good deal of the cost of government. As President he enacted a progressive income tax. As an Illinois state legislator in 1839, he defended a proposed tax increase this way: “I believe it can be sustained, as it does not increase the tax upon the ‘many poor,’ but upon the ‘wealthy few.’”

He added, with a touch of mischief:

“The wealthy can not justly complain, because the change is equitable … If, however, the wealthy should, regardless of the justness of the complaint, as men often are, when interest is involved, complain of the change, it is still to be remembered, that they are not sufficiently numerous to carry the elections.”
Smart guy, that Lincoln.

Originally posted on blueoregon.com on Feb. 12, 2009

Photo credit: Smithsonian