Lincoln, America, and Opportunity
What the “rail-splitter” can teach us about the American dream.


National Review editor Rich Lowry’s new book, Lincoln Unbound: How an Ambitious Young Railsplitter Saved the American Dream — And How We Can Do It Again, is about the “why” of Lincoln. “A commitment to the fulfillment of individual potential — his own and that of others — was Lincoln’s true north, the bright thread running from his first statement as a novice political candidate in his early twenties to his utterances as one of the world’s greatest statesmen,” Rich writes. Lincoln hated “isolation, backwardness, and any obstacles to the development of a cash economy and maximal openness and change,” he observes. Lincoln’s standard “advice to aspiring lawyers, to discouraged friends, and to penurious relatives came down to exhortations to work, and then to work some more.”

Rich talks more about Lincoln Unbound with National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez.

KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: Should “Lincoln” be synonymous with “opportunity”?

RICH LOWRY: Yes. In Lincoln’s telling, America exists to give all people the chance to rise. We are, by birthright and through our free institutions, a nation of aspiration. He believed this in the marrow of the bones with which he had labored all during his youth. It suffused his determination, as a boy and into his early adulthood, to read and to learn, so he could do something besides chop and plow all his life. It was the touchstone of his politics as a Whig and then as a Republican.

If there is one thing to know about Lincoln, it is this belief. His war leadership and his martyrdom get so much attention, understandably. But Lincoln’s vision for the country goes deeper than either of those things.

LOPEZ: Should we associate a half-dollar with Lincoln more than the axe?

LOWRY: This is a major irony of Lincoln’s image (and my subtitle). In the normal course of things, he never would have wanted to be known as a rail-splitter. He got that moniker when Illinois Republicans made him their favorite son for president in 1860, and hauled out some rails he had supposedly cut decades ago. This was genius marketing. But he wasn’t an ax (or maul) person. He was more a half-dollar person.

He told a story in the White House that captured this. When he was a teenager, Lincoln had built a little boat that idled at an Ohio River landing. Two men approached in carriages. They wanted to meet a steamboat coming down river. Seeing Lincoln’s boat, they asked if he’d take them and their trunks out to meet the steamboat. Lincoln obliged and, when they were about to steam off, yelled out that they had forgotten to pay him. They each tossed a silver half-dollar onto the bottom of his little boat. Lincoln had, as he put it, “earned my first dollar.”

“In these days it seems to me a trifle,” he recalled, “but it was a most important incident in my life. I could scarcely credit that I, a poor boy, had earned a dollar in less than a day — that by honest work I had earned a dollar. The world seemed wider and fairer before me. I was a more hopeful and confident being from that time.”

The story captures so much about Lincoln: Here he is on a commercial throughway, the Ohio River. Here he is rejoicing in earnings from his labor. Here he is fired with ambition by the sight of those half-dollars — belonging to him, a token of services rendered and rewarded in a free and fair exchange.

LOPEZ: How was Lincoln’s “exalted” view of work influenced by his understanding of Scripture?

LOWRY: He liked to quote Genesis as warrant for the necessity, and the essential righteousness, of work. As far back as the late 1840s, he wrote in jottings for himself about trade policy, “In the early days of the world, the Almighty said to the first of our race ‘In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.’” Therefore, all good things come from labor and “such things belong to those whose labour has produced them.”

In the much more important debate over slavery, he came back again and again to the Biblical injunction to live from your own sweat. He excoriated “the same old serpent that says you work and I eat, you toil and I will enjoy the fruits of it.” In contrast, Lincoln defended the idea that “each individual is naturally entitled to do as he pleases with himself and the fruit of his labor.” Or in more colloquial terms, “I always thought that the man who made the corn should eat the corn.”

LOPEZ: You use the word harsh to describe Lincoln’s attitude to his father. Was this a character flaw?

LOWRY: He had a kind of contempt for his father, there’s no doubt about it. I don’t know that it was a character flaw per se, but it certainly tells us something important about his character. His father was, by most accounts (although there are different takes on this), a good man. But he was a limited man. According to Lincoln, his father could barely sign his name. His father resented all of his son’s reading, or at least considered it secondary to hard labor. His father hired him out to toil for other people and took the proceeds, as was his right until his son reached age 21. Lincoln resented this terribly. For him it violated the aforementioned principle, and he even said that he had been used as a slave.

The root of the conflict was that Thomas Lincoln was a pre-market man with all the attitudes that came with that. According to a neighbor, he “was happy — lived Easy — & contented.” Another observer said, “Well, you see, he was like the other people in that country. None of them worked to get ahead. There wasn’t no market for nothing unless you took it across two or three states. The people raised just what they needed.”

For his son, this was a contentment of stultification and wasted potential, of mindless work and equally mindless leisure. In this difference of perspective yawned a vast, unbridgeable gap in worldview. Lincoln left home as soon as he could, and never looked back.