Richard White: Americans Didn’t Always Yearn for Riches

tags: Abraham Lincoln, Stanford, capitalism, Richard White, American capitalism, Boston Review



Richard White, Margaret Byrne Professor of American History at Stanford University, is author, most recently, of Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America.

Speaking in New Haven in 1860, Abraham Lincoln told an audience, “I am not ashamed to confess that 25 years ago I was a hired laborer, mauling rails, at work on a flat-boat—just what might happen to any poor man’s son.” After his death, Lincoln’s personal trajectory from log cabin to White House emerged as the ideal American symbol. Anything was possible for those who strived.

But the goal of this striving was not great wealth. Perhaps the most revealing memorial to Lincoln and his world is found in one of the most mundane of American documents: the census. There he is in the Springfield, Illinois, listing of 1860: Abraham Lincoln, 51 years old, lawyer, owner of a home worth $5,000, with $12,000 in personal property. His neighbor Lotus Niles, a 40-year-old secretary—equivalent to a manager today—had accumulated $7,000 in real estate and $2,500 in personal property. Nearby was Edward Brigg, a 48-year-old teamster from England, with $4,000 in real estate and $300 in personal property. Down the block lived Richard Ives, a bricklayer with $4,000 in real estate and $4,500 in personal property. The highest net worth in the neighborhood belonged to a 50-year-old livery stable owner, Henry Corrigan, with $30,000 in real estate but only $300 in personal property. This was a town and a country where bricklayers, lawyers, stable owners, and managers lived in the same areas and were not much separated by wealth. Lincoln was one of the richer men in Springfield, but he was not very rich.

Not only was great wealth an aberration in Lincoln’s time, but even the idea that the accumulation of great riches was the point of a working life seemed foreign. Whereas today the most well-off frequently argue that riches are the reward of hard work, in the Civil War era, the reward was a “competency,” what the late historian Alan Dawley described as the ability to support a family and have enough in reserve to sustain it through hard times at an accustomed level of prosperity. When, through effort or luck, a person amassed not only a competency but enough to support himself and his family for his lifetime, he very often retired. Philip Scranton, an industrial historian, writes of one representative case: Charles Schofield, a successful textile manufacturer in Philadelphia who, in 1863, sold his interest in his firm for $40,000 and “retired with a competency.” Schofield, who was all of 29 years old, considered himself “opulent enough.” The idea of having enough frequently trumped the ambition for endless accumulation....



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