Exclusive: Noted Lincoln Scholar Says Obama Misquotes Lincoln

Barack Obama is no Lincoln

Barack Obama is no Lincoln

“[Barack Obama] didn’t get it right,” says Harry V. Jaffa, professor emeritus of Claremont McKenna College, senior fellow at the Claremont Institute, and author of two influential books on Lincoln.

Jaffa was referring to this quotation from President Obama.

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“I’m a Democrat. But I believe what Republican Abraham Lincoln believed: That Government should do for people only what they cannot do better by themselves, and no more.”

Professor Jaffa noted that this quotation leaves out a great deal. The 93-year-old Jaffa recited the full statement from Lincoln’s speech, “The Nature and Objects of Government, with Special Reference to Slavery” (July 1, 1854) by memory:

“The legitimate object of government is to do for a community of people whatever they need to have done, but cannot do at all, or cannot so well do, for themselves in their separate and individual capacities.”

Notice the difference? The emphasis is on the need to have done, not on government doing the action. “That distinction was missing from his quotation,” Jaffa explains. Yet Obama has repeatedly invoked this misleading Lincoln quotation on both the campaign trail and during his presidency.

It is for the public to ask about those infrastructure projects: do we need green jobs that cost too much and reward political cronies?

Or a $787 billion stimulus in which only 5% goes to infrastructure projects, according to the Boston Globe?

In trying to make himself sound moderate, it is obvious that Obama doesn’t even believe his own version of Lincoln’s quotation. If he did, why is he creating health insurance exchanges in every state that will make it harder for individuals to buy insurance, and affect the in-state insurance rates? Why is he regulating our light bulbs? Our mortgages? Our banks?

Now, to be fair, Jaffa stresses that the founders’ vision isn’t for a small government, but a limited one necessary to protect its powers. Part of Lincoln’s genius, he said, was combining Jeffersonian ideals with Hamiltonian policy. Like the good Whig he once was, Lincoln favored infrastructure projects as a means of promoting the “American system” to increase trade.

Thomas L. Krannawiter, another Lincoln scholar and professor at Hillsdale College, explains it thusly in a 2004 book review for the Claremont Review of Books criticizing Mario Cuomo’s similar interpretation of Lincoln:

Of course, when Lincoln, along with many other Whigs, Democrats, and Republicans, supported what Henry Clay termed the “American System” of internal improvements and protective tariffs, he understood that all economics is political economics, that economics always serves political ends. … Lincoln’s political economics was a means toward limited government, the end of which was the protection of individual natural rights and political liberty, the principles upon which America was founded.

Krannawitter explains the end point of such thinking articulated by Cuomo and Barack Obama alike:

In the Progressive view, the ends of government cannot be limited to protecting natural rights, because nature supplies no rights, and positive rights created by government change over time. Thus limited government is replaced with government of unlimited power and scope, what some political scientists call the administrative state. Rejecting natural justice, the liberal mind concerns itself with “social justice,” which at a minimum requires vast redistributions of wealth from the few to the many. As the administrative state itself is the arbiter of what “social justice” on any day might entail, there can be no restraints on its power; the bigger government becomes, the more “rights” will be bestowed on the people.

That’s almost exactly what happened tonight. President Obama promised to use his executive authority to bestow rights and goods on the rest of America.

But conservatives, especially libertarians, have it wrong when they call for smaller government, Jaffa argues, because while the Founders believed in limited government, they often also favored measures such as levying tariffs, allowing the federal government to assume the debt of the states, and creating the National Bank. “If Ron Paul were president, then, we wouldn’t have purchased Louisiana. Thomas Jefferson did,” Jaffa said.

In spite of the fact that Obama misquotes Lincoln repeatedly, expect Obama to continue to do so for his political ends. In trying to paint the Republicans as more extreme than the visionary who led their party, he hopes to run against Congress and win reelection. But it is he, not they, that misunderstands Lincoln as he tries to enslave us all to bigger and bigger government.