President Barack Obama will be making a major speech on the economy at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, a site with deep historical significance.
Knox College was the location of the fifth of seven debates between Democrat Stephen A. Douglas, often known as the “Little Giant” for his small size but large influence in American politics, and Republican Abraham Lincoln.
At Knox, Lincoln and Douglas debated about the institution of slavery, whether it should be restricted in the territories, and its ongoing role in the Republic. Was slavery to remain a traditional, decaying institution left to choke and die under the original Constitution, or was it to be a permanent part of the American social fabric, possibly given new life in the Western territories?
The Lincoln-Douglas debates put Lincoln on the map politically, and even though he lost the 1858 Senate race to Douglas, he triumphed in the 1860 presidential election.
Obama also has a deep connection to Knox College, as it was the site of his 2005 speech on economics when he was a freshman senator. In that speech, he defended the power of government to boost the economy and increase economic opportunity.
Though many American statesmen, including Abraham Lincoln, have believed in government playing a role in building the American economy, Obama’s speeches have turned their philosophy on its head.
In his 2005 speech, Obama attacked the “ownership society” and made an argument for the collective good of government action. This philosophy is opposed to the individual liberty philosophy of the Founding Fathers and of Abraham Lincoln.
Obama said that Americans must have a “sense of mutual regard for each other, the idea that everybody has a stake in the country, that we’re all in it together and everybody’s got a shot at opportunity.
Obama was building up to the “you didn’t build that,” creed that became a key issue during the 2012 presidential campaign. This economic philosophy is fundamentally based on the principle that since individual success relies on the work of others, one owes the rest of society in the form of high taxes.
If you were successful, somebody along the line gave you some help. There was a great teacher somewhere in your life. Somebody helped to create this unbelievable American system that we have that allowed you to thrive. Somebody invested in roads and bridges. If you’ve got a business–you didn’t build that. Somebody else made that happen.
In essence, Obama has twisted the government “of the people, by the people, for the people” into a government that owns you.
But this set of principles contradicts the idea of individual rights and the “self-made man” that Lincoln supported.
Lincoln’s “beau ideal of a statesman” was Henry Clay of Kentucky, a Whig of the previous generation that helped craft the “American System” of economics. This system was in large part based on funding national infrastructure projects through tariffs, along with a national bank that would give the United States a sound system of money.
But Clay did not believe that individuals owed society anything, and he was famous for making the term “self-made man” popular. Clay, after defending corporations as a positive way for individuals to achieve success and get ahead in the world, said in a speech, “In Kentucky, almost every manufactory known to me, is in the hands of enterprising and self-made men, who have acquired whatever wealth they possess by patient and diligent labor.”
This philosophy of both economic development and an acknowledgement that the individual owns his own labor is based on a Lockean natural rights philosophy that permeated the American founding and has been at the cornerstone of nearly every major American political party. It would certainly be in line with Brietbart News’ own “Hamilton,” who very much represents the philosophy of Alexander Hamilton’s Federalists, Henry Clay’s Whigs, and Abraham Lincoln’s Republicans.
Given Obama’s previous speeches on economics, the philosophy that made America the greatest opportunity society in the world and ended the institution of slavery is unlikely to be heard at Knox College.