We are, happily, not finished with Abraham Lin­coln, nor shall we ever be. Lincoln’s singular combination of principle, passion, and cunning makes him a continuing reference point for our democratic future. Because he was exceedingly cagey on the execution of the Civil War, deliberately ambiguous about policy, and capable of continuing growth, it is not easy to determine his political intention at every turn. His war policy at the outset was designed not to “free the slaves,” but to “preserve and maintain the union.” Harold Holzer and Norton Garfinkle propose that Lincoln’s fundamental cause was for “free labor.”

Lincoln had in purview both his own hard scrabble life in his early days and the life of his unsuccessful father. Lincoln meant by “free labor” that every American should be free to advance to the “middle class” and to enjoy the fruit of his own labor. Labor’s produce should not be siphoned off to support non-laborers (the ownership class) in a way that denies prosperity to those who do labor.

Lincoln’s political aim was to assure that states added to the Union in the west remained free from slavery. His reasoning was twofold: slave labor competes unfairly with free labor, and slave labor denies the slaves prosperity from their own labor. The task, to prevent any more slave states, tacitly recognized that slavery could not continue in a Union with a growing and disproportionate number of states assuring free labor.