As Presidents’ Day Week winds down, it seems logical to pay a little attention to Presidents Washington and Lincoln, especially their wisdom and the positions they held on a number of the issues they faced in their time.
I have long been a fan of both for their genius at leadership during the military engagements that characterized their careers. But how, I wondered, would either react to calls for lowering taxes, cutting through regulatory burdens, and shrinking government?
There’s no simple answer. Washington seems to be given credit for being more restrained, while Lincoln has been said to be something of a tax-and-spend liberal. Of course, we’re several hundred years down the road from the first Washington administration, and a century and a half from Lincoln’s. Things change. And the circumstances each faced, with little or no precedent to follow, were vastly different from what we see today.
As a successful planter and small-to-larger size businessman (he started small, but ended up relatively large) Washington no doubt had been exposed to tariffs and taxes, and the regulatory framework faced by his fellow colonists.
He grew the estate at Mount Vernon that he inherited from his older half-brother, eventually building both a grist mill and a distillery in addition to the thousands of acres under cultivation. The mill ground nearly 300,000 pounds of wheat and corn meal annually, which Washington branded under his own name and sold throughout the colonies and even into Europe. The distillery, built after his service as President, produced over 10,000 gallons of whiskey and was one of the largest distilleries in America.
Nevertheless, the first military action Washington undertook as President concerned both whiskey and taxes—the Whiskey Rebellion. At first, it seems a lot like the Boston Tea Party, in that the protests revolved around taxation by a distant authority over local issues. Farmers in western Pennsylvania were perturbed that the whiskey they made from surplus grain and used as a form of barter was subject to tax, depending on the size of the still. And Washington personally led the militia, news of which dispersed the protests.
In his closing remarks on the national debt, Washington reminded his fellow citizens that they should remember that “towards the payment of debt [of the national government] there must be revenue; that to have revenue there must be taxes; that no taxes can be devised which are not more or less inconvenient and unpleasant.”
Despite this acknowledgement of the necessity of tax, it was more than a half century later before Abraham Lincoln imposed the first federal income tax. Of course, it was mainly a tax on the “wealthy,” meaning those whose annual incomes exceeded $800.
In his defense, Lincoln required an enormous amount of revenue to prosecute the war against the South. Moreover, he was cut off from sources of tariff revenue generated by cotton exports. When it was suggested that he consider closing the custom house at Fort Sumter, Lincoln responded, “If I do that, what would become of my revenue? I might as well shut up housekeeping at once!”
And in a letter to Edward Wallace before he assumed the presidency, he confessed, “I was an old Henry Clay-Tariff Whig. In old times I made more speeches on that subject than any other. I have not since changed my views.”
Of course, tariffs can be just as stifling as income tax, but whatever the driving need, government will find sources of revenue. And for Washington and Lincoln, not only background but events shaped their ideology and actions.