What Would Lincoln Do?

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February marks the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth. Bookstore shelves are sagging under the weight of new Lincoln tomes. Museums, galleries and lecture halls across the country and around the world have scheduled Lincoln programs. New pennies are being minted, old controversies revisited. And this already keen interest has been further stoked by what Lincoln Bicentennial Commission executive director Eileen Mackevich calls an "Obama wind." The new President, another slender fellow from Illinois, has been busy reading about Lincoln, quoting Lincoln, evoking Lincoln. The Lincoln Memorial was among Barack Obama's first stops in Washington, and when Obama was sworn in last month it was, for many, the culmination of a long march that began with Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation.

Inevitably, the main focus of all this attention is Lincoln's views on race and equality, and his leadership during the cataclysmic Civil War. Yet given the fix we're in, Lincoln's economic ideas deserve some attention too. Long before he gave his first speeches about Union or slavery, Lincoln was a crusader on questions of economic development and banking. He cut his political teeth on conditions painfully topical for us today: an economic crash that left the young legislator struggling to shore up a failing bank while arguing for government spending on public works.

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