Lincoln, America, and Opportunity

An NRO Interview
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.

LOPEZ: There’s a lot of talk about the Constitution today. Would Lincoln want to remind us more of the Declaration of Independence, which, you write, “he considered the acid test for the American dream”?

LOWRY: He loved the Declaration and considered the Constitution the means by which we achieved its truths. As he put it, in another line from the Bible, in this case Proverbs, the Declaration was the golden apple and the Constitution the silver frame.

Lincoln referred to the Declaration as containing “the definitions and axioms of free society.” They obviously weren’t consistent with slavery. Lincoln cited a Virginia clergyman who had noted dismissively that the Declaration’s statement of universal equality comes, not from the Bible, but “from Saint Voltaire, and was baptized by Thomas Jefferson.” The man of the cloth went on to say that he had never seen two men who were actually equal, although he admitted — in what he must have considered high wit — that “he never saw the Siamese twins.” Lincoln observed, “This sounds strangely in republican America,” and insisted that “the like was not heard in the fresher days of the Republic.”

Throughout the 1850s his advocacy was suffused with a sense of loss. We had lost touch with the truths of the Founders — those “old-time men,” as he fondly called them — and we could get on the path to renewal only by returning to them.


LOPEZ: What’s your personal Lincoln-Douglas debate highlight?

LOWRY: I love the pageantry, the dueling bands, the competing signs, the crowds — and the intimacy. At Freeport, a kid got up on the platform and sat on Douglas’s lap, then on Lincoln’s.

The rhetorical highlight might be the final debate at Alton, when Lincoln cast the choice over slavery as another battle in “the eternal struggle between these two principles — right and wrong — throughout the world. They are the two principles that have stood face to face from the beginning of time; and will ever continue to struggle. The one is the common right of humanity and the other the divine right of kings. It is the same principle in whatever shape it develops itself. It is the same spirit that says, ‘You work and toil and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.’ No matter in what shape it comes, whether from the mouth of a king who seeks to bestride the people of his own nation and live by the fruit of their labor, or from one race of men as an apology for enslaving another race, it is the same tyrannical principle.”


LOPEZ: “If he were writing today, Horatio Alger might set his stories in Finland,” you write. That ought to be a warning siren for Americans, shouldn’t it?

LOWRY: Yes, indeed. The Left, as we know, focuses on inequality. But the fact of inequality isn’t itself a problem, so long as everyone has a good chance of moving up. We like to pride ourselves on our economic mobility, but we aren’t quite as fluid as we think. We are less mobile than many Western European countries and other major English-speaking countries. Our income distribution is “sticky” at the bottom, meaning that people starting out at the bottom are more likely to stay there than would be suggested by random chance. And it is sticky at the top.

A conservative opportunity program has to be geared to ensuring that we are as fluid and mobile a society as possible, that we are preserving ourselves as a Lincolnian republic where all have “equal privileges in the race of life.” Or as I put it in the book, we should be a country where you can make your way and you where you have to make your way.

Kathryn Jean Lopez is editor-at-large of National Review Online.