(Week 24 - Wednesday, Jan. 21 / 2009)
It takes the events, sacrifices and spent lives of many years to make a day like today. How many years? It depends on how one reckons.
One could say that it took forty years since the murder of Dr. Martin Luther King to finally see a black man rise to America's highest civil office, an Exodus-length time of wandering in a political wilderness towards a civil-rights promised land.
One could say that it has been a century-and-a-half from Lincoln, the "Great Emancipator", to Obama, the "Great Emancipation".
One could say that it was well over two centuries from the penning in our founding document of the words "All men are created equal", to the day when they could resound with an undampened ring.
We could go on with this exercise (get carried away with it, some might say) of casting the net of history ever wider to gather it in as the prologue to what culminated today in the inauguration of our new President. None of this is to say that what transpired in Washington was in a mundane sense anything more than the ensconcing in office of yet another administration, that it might not succeed or fail in the manner of all such political tenures, or even that the right guy won the election (clearly not everyone agrees that that was the case).
Whatever the truth, all that, it seems, was set aside as the feeling of momentousness of this day was allowed to play out. I experienced it in a crowd of approximately three-hundred people who came together to share in the experience in a neighborhood community center, and this sort of event was reportedly repeated in many thousands of gatherings across the nation, and around the world.
I was born and raised in Illinois, the home state of both Lincoln and Obama. I can imagine that there was a sense of historic euphoria that attended Lincoln's day of ascension to the office also, but the nation then, as now, was in a state of deepening crisis, and there were daunting realities to be faced when the festivities were over.
My purpose here is not to in any way make a personal comparison between Abraham Lincoln and Barack Obama, as to do so would be to commit an injustice to both men. Each is his own person in his own unique time, and the achievements and failures of the first say nothing about what might be achieved or failed by the second. Lincoln's record as President has been written; Obama's has yet hardly a mark.
Yet, I find that the feeling of a providential connection between the two men cannot be avoided. Lincoln took office at the leading edge of a crisis that was unprecedented in intensity and scope, and indeed threatened the very existence of the nation. Obama is faced (arguably) with problems every bit as dire and intractable, and this time on a worldwide scale. The outward manifestations of the irrespective challenges are very different, but a common thread runs through them; that is, at their core is the fundamental question of how we as a nation create and issue our money. This indeed has been the quintessentially American question since early Colonial times.
The outbreak of the Civil War demanded that some way of financing it be found. Though under great pressure to borrow the funds from the private banking system, Abraham Lincoln instead had the Treasury issue $450 million dollars in "United States Notes", popularly known as "Greenbacks". The monetary policies of Lincoln are a generally overlooked, but pivotal part of our history. Indeed, they may have been, as much as his better-known proclamations, a crucial factor that allowed the Union to prevail. Reportedly, Lincoln had much to say regarding the public-vs.-private issuance of money which we would do well to contemplate today:
"Money is the creature of law and the creation of the original issue of money should be maintained as an exclusive monopoly of National Government."
"Government possessing the power to create and issue currency . . . need not and should not borrow capital at interest as the means of financing governmental work and public enterprise. The Government should create, issue and circulate all the currency and credit needed to satisfy the spending power of the Government and the buying power of consumers. The privilege of creating and issuing money is not only the supreme prerogative of Government, but it is the Government's greatest creative opportunity."
"The taxpayers will be saved immense sums in interest . . . Money will cease to be master and become the servant of humanity. Democracy will rise superior to the money power."
Congressman Wright Patman, former chairman of the House Committee on Banking and Currency, commented a century later:
"If instead of issuing 'greenbacks,' the Lincoln administration had issued the interest-bearing bonds, as urged, naturally, these bonds would still be a part of the Federal debt today."
At compounded "interest", the amount would be many times greater. The significance of Lincoln's monetary policy did not escape notice in certain European quarters, although from an entirely different perspective. There appeared in The London Times during the Civil War the following from Otto Von Bismarck:
"If that mischievous financial policy, which had its origin in the North American Republic (the public issue of usury-free currency) should become indurated down to a fixture, then that Government will furnish its own money without cost. It will pay off debts and without a debt. It will have all the money necessary to carry on its commerce. It will become prosperous beyond precedent in the history of the civilized governments of the world. The brains and wealth of all countries will go to North America. That government must be destroyed or it will destroy every monarchy on the globe."
In 1876, Bismarck explained further:
"The division of the United States into federations of equal force was decided long before the Civil War by the high financial powers of Europe. These bankers were afraid that the United States, if they remained in one block and as one nation, would attain economic and financial independence which would upset their financial dominance over the world. The voice of the Rothschilds prevailed. They saw tremendous booty if they could substitute two feeble democracies, indebted to the financiers, for the vigorous Republic which was practically self-providing. Therefore, they started their emissaries in order to exploit the question of slavery . . . Lincoln's personality surprised them. His being a candidate had not troubled them; they thought to easily dupe a woodcutter. But Lincoln read their plots and understood that the South was not the worst foe, but the financiers."
"I have two great enemies, the southern army in front of me and the financial institutions in the rear. Of the two, the one in the rear is the greatest enemy."
There is, I believe, a lesson from Lincoln's experience for our new President. It concerns the necessity of returning the function of creating and issuing of our nation's money to the public sector. This is the essential key (as I have touched upon repeatedly) to redeeming the financial crisis the nation currently faces. I am disheartened in the sense that I see few signs of the awareness of any need for this in our new President, but then Lincoln was not an early supporter of the idea either. It grew in him as he became more conscious of the real nature of the monetary problem due to input from others. Surely President Obama has the ability to grow in this way also.
I would add that, in my view, Obama needs not only to finish the monetary revolution that Lincoln started, but to take it to a higher level. That is, he must resolve the fundamental monetary question that has plagued this nation in a way that does not lead to an outward conflict that rends it. I would suggest that this is where We the People can help him, by picking up on the essential conversation that this nation needs to have about money.
Ultimately, the enemy "in the rear" is not the banks and bankers, but a pernicious idea that has been internalized at all levels of our society and culture (the idea that "money is debt"). What is needed is to open up a good-faith, truth-seeking dialogue about money between all segments of society; people of finance included. Only then will we resolve the monetary problem that festers unresolved below consciousness at the heart of our social order. That dialogue is what this New View On Money series of columns seeks to precipitate.
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The complete set of columns from this series is posted at the following websites.