Abraham Lincoln on the “Legitimate Object of Government”

In honor of Abraham Lincoln’s 210th birthday, here is a fragment he produced on the proper role of government:

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

In all that the people can individually do as well for themselves, government ought not to interfere.

government role

Fragment on the “Legitimate Object of Government” (Library of Congress)

The desirable things which the individuals of a people can not do, or can not well do, for themselves, fall into two classes: those which have relation to wrongs, and those which have not. Each of these branch off into an infinite variety of subdivisions.

The first—that in relation to wrongs—embraces all crimes, misdemeanors, and non-performance of contracts. The other embraces all which, in its nature, and without wrong, requires combined action, as public roads and highways, public schools, charities, pauperism, orphanage, estates of the deceased, and the machinery of government itself.

From this it appears that if all men were just, there still would be some, though not so much, need of government.

Lincoln’s birthday is, for me, always a time for reflection. This year I can’t help but reflect on the staggering differences between our 16th president and the man currently occupying the White House.

-P. Sicher

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