Lincoln Unbound

by Yuval Levin

I hope you’ve read Rich Lowry’s new book, Lincoln Unbound. If you haven’t, you should. It’s superb.

It’s no simple matter to take on the task of writing about Abraham Lincoln, given how very much is out there about him. But what Rich has done, as I see it, is really to write a book about America as understood through (and by) the most American of our presidents—the one who rose from the bottom and sought to raise others along with him, who understood our country through its creed and made it more true to that creed, who saw what the modern world would be and worked to better suit America to it, and who ultimately showed himself capable of simply astounding feats of leadership and statesmanship. It’s a book about a side of Lincoln that we tend to undervalue.

Lincoln is very hard to understand—or at least I find him so. And we today are especially prone to a kind of transitive error when thinking about him: Lincoln made the best public arguments against slavery, and he ended slavery, and so (although we really know better) we speak about him as though his public arguments ended slavery. But of course, there was a horrible war, nearly 700,000 Americans died at one another’s hands, and slavery was ended by force. In fact, Lincoln’s greatest arguments were marshaled in an effort to avert that war—an effort that failed. And he showed his greatness as a leader in the wake of that failure. To understand Lincoln first and foremost through the most syllogistic of his (true but ultimately ineffective) arguments, as those of us disposed to political philosophy and its affiliated vices are inclined to do, is surely to understand him only very partially, and not quite correctly.

Rich’s book puts those arguments into the context of Lincoln’s larger worldview, and grounds that worldview in Lincoln’s life story. He was a striver who saw the promise of upward mobility and the right to enjoy the fruit of one’s own labor as the essence of America, and his famous public arguments were rooted in that view, and not just in abstract ideals.

Rich also argues that this view of America should be our view, and should shape how we think about today’s problems. Reviving the promise of mobility, vindicating the meaning of our national creed, and making America better suited to the challenges of the modern world are after all pressing priorities—perhaps the pressing priorities—of our own time. That doesn’t mean we should take Lincoln’s advice in every respect, and Rich is very clear that there are places where he would not do so. But it means we should take Lincoln’s disposition as a guide, and learn from  his example.

Lincoln is always peculiarly relevant, and in different ways at different times. Lincoln Unbound makes a powerful case for how we ought to think about his legacy now, and how we ought to build on it. It’s an awfully good read too.

The Corner

The one and only.