As regular readers know, I sometimes devote a column or two to a book — not to a review, but to assorted jottings about that book. I would now like to spend a little time on Rich Lowry’s Lincoln Unbound: How an Ambitious Young Railsplitter Saved the American Dream — and How We Can Do It Again.
This book is not hot off the presses. (Most of the books I write about aren’t.) It was published last year. But Lincoln Unbound is a book that can be picked up anytime, for its ideas and arguments are lasting, with no expiration date.
‐The first thing I liked about this book — a splendid book — was its title. Much of Lincoln’s life was given over to unbinding, to the throwing off of shackles: the shackles of poverty, isolation, slavery, ignorance, etc. Also, the title is an echo of Shelley (Prometheus Unbound).
‐Speaking of the Greeks: Rich has an epigram from Whitman, about Lincoln: “Why if the old Greeks had this man, what trilogies of plays — what epics would have been made out of him!” A marvelous statement, and true.
‐In his early pages, Rich has Lincoln speaking at the White House to an Ohio regiment. “I almost always feel inclined, when I happen to say anything to soldiers, to impress upon them in a few brief remarks the importance of success in this contest,” said the president.
Later in these remarks, he said, “I happen temporarily to occupy this big White House. I am a living witness that any one of your children may look to come here as my father’s child has.”
What an apt and graceful phrase, as Rich notes: “as my father’s child has.” Better than “as I have.”
Lincoln spoke of our “free government,” giving us “an open field and a fair chance” for our “industry, enterprise, and intelligence.” We should all have “equal privileges in the race of life.” The nation was worth fighting for, he said, “an inestimable jewel.”
‐All Lincoln books do a great deal of quoting of their subject, as well they should. We want to quote Lincoln, and we want to listen to him. Not merely because he is eloquent — because his speech is suffused with the King James Bible and Shakespeare — but because he is right. Bad writing is the result of bad thinking, people have long said. Lincoln’s excellent writing and speaking were the result of excellent thinking. It’s his clarity of thought we admire, I think, as much as the expression. The two are inseparable, really.
‐I have said “we.” There are Lincoln-haters, of course. I often hear from them (when I mention Lincoln). There are Churchill-haters too. And I have noticed something: Lincoln-haters and Churchill-haters are often the same people. I have long thought of doing an essay on that. Maybe somebody has, obviating the need for me to do so. (I always like it when that happens.)
You know the line: Lincoln and Churchill were both war criminals, tyrants, and imperialists. There will always be this strain of thought, and there will always be its antidote. Rich Lowry’s book is such an antidote.
‐Two other things that go together? America-hating and Israel-hating, certainly in Britain (particularly on the British right). It is such a predictable pairing. Logical, too.
‐Back to Lincoln and words (and thinking). Some years ago, I reviewed the two volumes in the Library of America series headed “American Speeches.” They were edited by Ted Widmer, the historian whose most recent gig has been to ghostwrite Hillary Clinton’s new book. He is a very talented guy, no matter his political preferences or associations.
In my piece, I wrote,
Is there a speaker who stands out from the rest? A speaker who may be deemed the best? Are you kidding? In 1962, President Kennedy assembled some fifty Nobelists, remarking, “I think this is the most extraordinary collection of talent and of human knowledge that has ever been gathered together at the White House — with the possible exception of when Thomas Jefferson dined alone.” Mr. Widmer has given us the best collection of American speeches we have, with the possible exception of the collected speeches of Abraham Lincoln (published by the Library of America in 1989).
Lincoln is so far above the rest of us, we can barely see him. In American Speeches, he has seven entries, and they show his moral genius, his rhetorical genius, his political genius . . . They stagger the mind. If you’re looking for a heritage, take Lincoln, as a heritage all by himself.
‐Rich says, “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 adds, “If there is one thing to know about Lincoln, it is this” (meaning the foregoing).
When an author says, “If there is one thing to know about [his subject],” you pay extra-close attention.
‐Lincoln didn’t want to be poor. Is that an unremarkable statement? It is, in a way, but it is also remarkable, in a way. Rich writes,
We might romanticize his background, the log cabins and all the rest of it. Lincoln didn’t. He didn’t want to be poor; he wanted to be respectable. He summarized his early life for a biographer with the dismissive phrase “the short and simple annals of the poor,” in a line he borrowed from a well-known poem of the time. “That’s my life,” Lincoln said, “and that’s all you or anyone else can make of it.”
Reading these lines, I thought of Greenfield Village, which is in Dearborn, Mich., near where I grew up. Most of us southeastern Michiganders took field trips to Greenfield Village. As I recall, it is a place set up by Henry Ford to commemorate and pay tribute to the pre-industrial past: butter-churning and all that. (I may not be doing justice to the place. It has been a long time.)
Of course, Ford, as much as anyone, put paid to the pre-industrial age. With affordable cars, the common man could escape, could go. Maybe Ford felt a little guilty. (This has been the subject of a number of books.)
I also think of this: Once, when in India, I muttered, “Memo to self: Don’t romanticize the Third World.” I have thought that in other countries as well.
One more memory, for now: My great-aunt had a friend whose hand was wrecked when she got it caught in the wringer. It’s a good thing, not to have to use wringers anymore. (A wringer was a device for wringing the water out of clothes you were washing.)
‐Lincoln Unbound performs several services, one of which is to emphasize Lincoln the capitalist. This is a side of Lincoln that is seldom emphasized. Why is that? Because our culture’s emphasizers are not necessarily capitalism-friendly?
From his first stirrings as a politician, Lincoln committed himself to policies to enhance opportunity. He wanted to build canals and railroads to knit together the nation’s markets. He wanted to encourage industry. He wanted to modernize banking. He hated isolation, backwardness, and any obstacles to the development of a cash economy of maximal openness and change. He thrilled to steam power and iron, to invention and technology, to the beneficent upward spiral of a commercial economy.
This is the sort of conservative I am, mainly. I mean, it is my economic thinking (mainly). Am I a conservative? I am open to Wendell Berry and other such conservatives: those who emphasize blood and soil, local ties and communal self-sufficiency. They are conservatives, for sure. And there is much wisdom in what they say. But I am not with them, ultimately.
(I mean, who gives a damn where I am, or with whom? But, in columns such as mine, a lot is personal.)
Lincoln was not just a capitalist, not just capitalism-friendly, he was a go-go capitalist. I think he would have grinned to see Hong Kong or Singapore. He would not have been crazy about the handover, and he would not be crazy about the authoritarian side of go-go Singapore.
‐Rich talks about the troubles that endanger America today: our economic troubles and our moral-social troubles, which are linked. But “America will exist as a great nation for a long time to come. It has a vast store of economic and military capital that it will take time to spend down even in the worst of circumstances and even under the worst policies.”
I thought of something George Shultz, the former secretary of state, told me in an interview. I put it at the end of my piece. This was in 2008. I wrote,
In the present U.S. election, Shultz has a candidate: John McCain. And I ask whether a Democratic victory would badly damage the American position in the world. He says, “I don’t know. I’m not a person who sees catastrophe. Our country’s pretty good and stable.” He then quotes his late friend and “hero,” Milton Friedman, who himself was paraphrasing Adam Smith: “There’s a lot of ruin in the United States.”
Yes, I agree. But there’s only so much ruin, you know?
Oh, I have a lot more to say (as usual). I guess I’ve said enough for one day. I’ll see you tomorrow for Part II. Thanks.