Claim: Abraham Lincoln issued a prophetic warning about the tyranny of capitalism.
Example: [Collected via e-mail, 2005]
Abraham Lincoln said:
As a result of the war, 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 on the prejudices of the people until all wealth is aggregated in a few hands, and the republic is destroyed. I feel at this moment more anxiety for the safety of my country than ever before even in the midst of war. God grant that my suspicions may prove groundless.
Origins: The above quote, attributed to President Abraham Lincoln, has been periodically dusted off and presented to the public as a prophetic warning about the destruction of America through the usurpation of power and concentration of wealth by capitalist tyrants for over a century now, undergoing a renewed burst of popularity whenever wartime exigencies stir public debate over governmental policies.
These words did not originate with Abraham Lincoln, however — they appear in none of his
collected writings or speeches, and they did not surface until more than twenty years after his death (and were immediately denounced as a “bold, unflushing forgery” by John Nicolay, Lincoln’s private secretary). This spurious Lincoln warning gained currency during the 1896 presidential election season (when economic policy, particularly the USA’s adherence to the gold standard, was the major campaign issue), and ever since then it has been cited and quoted by innumerable journalists, clergymen, congressmen, and compilers of encyclopedias.
Pedigree for this quote is often asserted by pointing to the 1950 Lincoln Encyclopedia, compiled by
A Lincoln Encyclopedia, the brainchild of an Ohio newspaperman,
Why have these “money powers” words been put in the mouth of Abraham Lincoln? In a general sense, the reason is because dead people — especially revered leaders — make great commentators on modern-day politics: They can’t be questioned about the legitimacy of their comments, interrogated about what they meant, or asked to elaborate about the subject at hand; they can only be refuted through imprudent suggestions that Our Revered Leader was wrong!
In a specific sense, this quote sounds plausible because Lincoln’s tenure as president occurred during a great war that was indeed the focal point of industrial and economic change in America, and because Lincoln left behind some decidedly
It was easy to understand Lincoln’s appeal to social radicals, said [socialist
Nonetheless, Peterson concluded, even Lincoln’s wartime experience and
Nevertheless, he was no prophet. Imprisoned in the democratic-capitalist ideology of nineteenth-century America, he believed the free laborer toiled up from poverty to become a capitalist in his own right. Individual opportunity, not class struggle, was his message.
Last updated: 12 February 2014
Ghent, W.J. “Lincoln and the Social Problem.” Collier’s v. 35; #23-24 (1905). Peterson, Merrill D. Lincoln in American Memory. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. ISBN 0-19-509645-2
(pp. 160-161, 340).