Lincoln’s Commitment to Progress

A Report on David Kent’s speech at a Lincoln Birthday Celebration

By Nancy Spannaus

Feb. 15, 2022—President Abraham Lincoln’s unwavering commitment to putting our nation on the path to technological progress was the subject of the keynote speech at this year’s Lincoln birthday celebrations in Washington, D.C. The annual banquet is sponsored by the D.C. Commandery of the Military Order of the Loyal Legion of the United States (MOLLUS), an organization founded by Union officers in the immediate aftermath of the President’s assassination, and dedicated to preserving his memory and principles, especially the Union itself.

Lincoln's Commitment to Progress

Addressing Lincoln’s record on promoting science was David J. Kent, president of the Lincoln Group in Washington, D.C., and the author of the 2022 book entitled Lincoln: The Fire of Genius. The book’s lengthy subtitle elaborates Kent’s thesis: “How Abraham Lincoln’s Commitment to Science and Technology Helped Modernize America.” Kent’s presentation was terse, but appears to have hit the highlights of his 300- page book.

Kent’s elaboration of Lincoln’s record in funding internal improvements, advancing education, and securing federal support for scientific research paralleled my own approach to the 16th President, to whom I dedicated a chapter in my book Hamilton Versus Wall Street entitled “Lincoln, Hamiltonian.” Glancing through his book, I note one very significant divergence on the matter of slavery, to which Kent only briefly alluded in his speech.[1] But a discussion of this issue is more appropriate to my book review, which will appear in the near future.

Here are some, but certainly not all, of the main elements of Kent’s presentation, amplified by my own recent study of Lincoln’s speeches and career.

On Discoveries and Inventions

Kent began his talk with a discussion of Lincoln’s 1858 stump speech entitled On Discoveries and Inventions, the source of Kent’s book title phrase “Fire of Genius.” That formulation appears at the very end of that speech when Lincoln spoke of patent laws (called for in the Constitution) as adding “the fuel of interest to the fire of genius, in the discovery and production of new and useful things.” (emphasis in original) Kent noted that Lincoln not only used that provision to become the only President to obtain a patent, but also had a substantial career as a patent lawyer (in addition to his other areas of specialization).

Lincoln's Commitment to Progress
A model of Lincoln’s patented device for moving boats over shoals.

I see that Kent devoted a substantial section of his book to this speech, which in my view is a touchstone for Lincoln’s profound understanding of the nature of man. From the beginning, this “practical politician” tackles the question of the difference between a man and an animal!  That difference is not located in man’s activity as a worker, but as a thinker and a discoverer: “Man is not the only animal who labors; but he is the only one who improves his workmanship. This improvement, he effects by Discoveries, and Inventions.”

There’s much more to Lincoln’s argument, especially as it relates to another major element of his promotion of technological progress: education.

Education

Kent put an appropriately strong emphasis on Lincoln’s commitment to universal education.  That began, as he noted, with Lincoln’s first campaign announcement in 1832, when he said: “Upon the subject of education, I can only say that I view it as the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in.”

That emphasis continued in his Discoveries and Inventions speech, where Lincoln lauded printing as an effective way of challenging the false notion that the great mass of men were not capable of mental improvement. He directly attacks the idea of “slavery of the mind,” which had to be broken by the spread of knowledge through the printed word.

Frederick Douglass’s view that education was the first step out of slavery was similar to Lincoln’s.

Even stronger was Lincoln’s insistence on “universal education” in his 1859 speech at the Wisconsin State Fair, which Kent also mentioned in his brief talk. In a direct challenge to South Carolina Senator James Hammond’s claim that the Negro race was destined to be a permanent underclass (think worker-bees), Lincoln insisted that “In one word Free Labor insists on universal education.”

Kent came back to the question of education later on when discussing Lincoln’s institutionalization of the pursuit of science and technology through Internal Improvements.

Internal Improvements

Internal Improvements were, of course, one of the three major principles of the Whig Party, which in many respects followed the American System  principles established by Alexander Hamilton. Kent discussed many aspects of Lincoln’s promotion of government-supported projects of improvement, which today we call infrastructure.

 Lincoln's Commitment to Progress
Lincoln sought to build a canal that would make him the “DeWitt Clinton of Illinois.” Here, Clinton’s Erie Canal.

One major area of Lincoln’s emphasis was transportation, especially railroads. Lincoln’s legal career had a heavy emphasis on supporting rail expansion, a project which, of course, was capped by his pushing through the Transcontinental Railroad project.

Another area was canals, including the Illinois/Michigan Canal. According to his close friend Joshua Speed, Lincoln said it was his “highest ambition to be the DeWitt Clinton of Illinois,” a reference to the transformative impact of the Erie Canal which Clinton had pushed through the New York State legislature.

Institutions of Learning

President Lincoln worked closely with the scientists of his day, Kent emphasized, especially but not only on matters relevant to the demands of the war. But he also succeeded in creating a number of significant institutions which have perpetuated government support for science and technology down to the present day.

Of huge significance was the Land-Grant College Act of 1862, which used government resources to establish institutions of learning in all the states.

Lincoln's Commitment to Progress
A map showing the original land grant colleges.

Then during the war there was the National Academy of Sciences, which put 50 scientists on call for the Federal government, and played a significant role in solving technological problems in the war.

The Department of Agriculture was also a Lincoln project, one that he considered essential for spreading the latest scientific knowledge to farmers, including promotion of technological improvements like the steam plow.

Kent concluded by crediting Lincoln with establishing the seedling for the National Park Service, when in 1864 he signed into law the Yosemite Grant Act, which set aside the Yosemite Valley as a place for “public use, resort, and recreation.” That original act put the state of California in charge of carrying out this mandate, but that responsibility was turned over to the Federal government in 1890.

The Official Commemoration

The yearly MOLLUS banquet always occurs on February 11, to be followed by a commemoration of the martyred President Lincoln at the Lincoln Memorial on his birthday, February 12. This ceremony proceeded on schedule last weekend, and was attended by a host of representatives of legacy organizations and some members of the general public.

The traditional reading of the Gettysburg address was done this year by Frank J. Scaturro, president of the Grant Monument Association. Scaturro has devoted significant energy to challenging the often-disparaging treatment of President Grant’s legacy. One of his assertions is that it was Grant’s strong advocacy for the rights of the emancipated African-Americans that led his reputation to be trashed.

Lincoln's Commitment to Progress
Re-enactors of the U.S. Colored Troops place a wreath at the Lincoln Memorial Feb. 12, 2023.

Also of note was the participation, for the first time in recent years, of two representatives of the U.S. Colored Troops, Ed Gantt, president of the 23rd Regiment, located in Spotsylvania, Va., and Bryan Cheeseboro, who represented the famed 54th Massachusetts Regiment.

The ceremony always concludes with the playing of taps for the deceased President, who gave his life to uplift and preserve our Union and inspire the “better angels of our Nature.” Would that more Americans would join in not only the commemoration, but the study of Abraham Lincoln.

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[1] Kent asserts that “slavery rapidly became a growth industry because of the cotton gin.” I disagree that the invention of the machine dictated the expansion of slavery. The decision to expand slavery was a complex political and economic one.