Lincoln’s economics are hardly invulnerable to criticism. He was indeed a government activist, though at a time when government was different from what it is today — vastly less extensive and obstructive, with the wealth transfers of the modern welfare state nowhere in sight. Throughout his career he supported internal improvements (i.e., transportation projects), a protective tariff, and sound, duly regulated banking. These policies were associated with their share of waste and corruption. On the other hand, wherever canals and railroads touched, they brought the competitive pressure of the market with them; the tariff was a support to the growth of industry; the banks produced a reliable paper currency necessary for a cash economy. They all tended to create a vibrant, diverse economy open to men of various talents. Here is where Lincoln is guilty as charged: The agrarians are right that he sought to end the simpler, agricultural America in favor of a modern commercial and industrial economy.
There is one final indictment against Lincoln. It is said that he elevated the Declaration and the principle of equality that it enshrines over the Constitution. NR’s venerable senior editor Frank Meyer worried that he had loosed a free-floating, abstract commitment to equality throughout the land that supported the leveling tendencies of modern liberalism. But Lincoln’s equality was the equality of natural rights, not results. “I take it,” he said in 1860, “that it is best for all to leave each man free to acquire property as fast as he can. Some will get wealthy. I don’t believe in a law to prevent a man from getting rich; it would do more harm than good.” He warned a delegation of workingmen during the war of the peril of a “war on property, or the owners of property”: “Let not him who is houseless pull down the house of another; but let him labor diligently and build one for himself.”
Lincoln thought the purpose of the Constitution was to protect the inalienable rights enunciated in the Declaration; but this did not downgrade the Constitution. Despite his opposition to slavery, he honored the Constitution’s protections for it, even as his abolitionist allies bridled at them. In his final speech of the 1858 Senate campaign against Stephen Douglas, he said, “I have neither assailed, nor wrestled with any part of the Constitution. The legal right of the Southern people to reclaim their fugitives I have constantly admitted. The legal right of Congress to interfere with the institution in the states, I have constantly denied.” When Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, he did it as an inherently limited war measure. Allen Guelzo notes how he never lost sight of its prospective legal vulnerability once the war ended. He finally looked to the 13th Amendment — a completely constitutional measure — as the “King’s cure for all the evils.”
I think it is important to clear away the anti-Lincoln flotsam so that conservatives can appreciate what Lincoln has to teach them, especially in this moment when opportunity in America is under threat from stultifying and wrongheaded policies and from an ongoing cultural breakdown. Notwithstanding the Right’s ambivalence about Lincoln, he has always had friends in unexpected places. The great traditionalist Russell Kirk, despite devoting a chapter to Calhoun in his classic The Conservative Mind, admired Lincoln. “In his great conservative end, the preservation of the Union, he succeeded,” Kirk wrote, noting “the charity and fortitude of this uncouth, homely, melancholy, lovable man.” The formidable agrarian Richard Weaver also has a brilliant chapter on Lincoln in his book The Ethics of Rhetoric. He argues, “With his full career in view, there seems no reason to differ with [Lincoln law partner William] Herndon’s judgment that Lincoln displayed a high order of ‘conservative statesmanship.’”
Then there is William F. Buckley Jr., who didn’t always agree with his friend Frank Meyer. Buckley wrote a letter to the editor dissenting from one of Meyer’s anti-Lincoln blasts in the 1960s. “Some conservatives have a Thing on Lincoln, including, unfortunately, my esteemed colleague Mr. Frank Meyer.” Buckley especially regretted the charge that Lincoln was “anti-humanitarian”: “It seems to me that this is worse than mere tendentious ideological revisionism. It comes close to blasphemy.” So many decades later, tendentious revisionism and blasphemy are still favorite tools of the anti-Lincoln Right.
We should reject them now, as Buckley did then, and re-discover the Lincoln who told the 166th Ohio regiment during the war that it was “through this free government” that they had “an open field and fair chance for [their] industry, enterprise, and intelligence,” and “equal privileges in the race of life, with all its desirable human aspirations.” He concluded, “The nation is worth fighting for, to secure such an inestimable jewel.” That jewel still needs to be secured, and it is still worth fighting for.
– Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. Parts of this essay are drawn from his new book Lincoln Unbound: How an Ambitious Young Railsplitter Saved the American Dream — and How We Can Do It Again, coming out this month from Broadside Books.