Magazine | July 1, 2013, Issue

Lincoln’s Path, Still

Lincoln Unbound: How an Ambitious Young Railsplitter Saved the American Dream -- And How We Can Do It Again, by Rich Lowry (Broadside, 288 pp., $26.99)

Rich Lowry is nothing if not prolific. He was named editor of National Review, America’s leading journal of conservatism, at the stunningly young age of 29. As if being heir to William F. Buckley Jr.’s august legacy weren’t impressive enough, 15 years later he is a regular commentator for the Fox News network; he writes a syndicated column on all matters political; and he contributes to other journals across the political spectrum, including Politico and Time. And he has even written a bestseller about the Clinton presidency, a polemic unapologetically titled Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years. Now, Lowry has taken on perhaps his most ambitious project yet, a book about Abraham Lincoln.

One almost wonders what there is left to say about Lincoln. Generation after generation, this has been well-trod territory, and by some of the nation’s finest historians. We have many pictures of Lincoln, each of them rich in its own way. There is James McPherson’s Lincoln, the wartime leader, weathering death after death and incompetent general after incompetent general until he finds Ulysses S. Grant and somehow brings the Union to victory. There is Eric Foner’s Lincoln, the emancipator, swept up by his sense of purpose and imbuing the great struggle of the Civil War with a morality higher than blood, sweat, and treasure. There is David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln, the master politician, protean in his own right, navigating the shoals of the nation’s intricate politics. There is Stephen Oates’s poignant Lincoln, his head bowed, morosely wandering the halls of the White House, crying out for relief from the terrible anxiety of the war. There is the Lincoln of the Gettysburg Address (Garry Wills), the Lincoln of the second inaugural (Ronald White Jr.), and Lincoln the healer (my April 1865). And the list goes on.

Deciphering Lincoln, almost certainly our most beloved president, is no easy task. He was always a riddle of quirks and eccentricities, and his self-derogation was real: “my poor, lean, lank face.” So was his simplicity: His clothes were invariably out of season; he referred to himself as “A” and greeted visitors with “Howdy”; and he stuffed notes in his pockets and stuck bills in a drawer. And his two most memorable speeches — the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural — total less than 1,000 words. Moreover, few men could have been so ill-prepared for the office and its nearly impossible task of stitching a divided nation back together, let alone for a titanic civil war that would consume 620,000 lives. But somehow, at the hour of fate, Lincoln would find himself and save a nation.

What, then, is there left to say? As it turns out, in Lowry’s Lincoln Unbound, plenty. In his elegantly rendered thematic portrait, Lowry contends that there is a Lincoln who is too often forgotten but must be found anew: the Lincoln of the Wisconsin State Agricultural Fair who believed in hard work, restless ambition, and a dynamic capitalism that shed the old ways of life and pointed the way to a vibrant future for the country. Indeed, Lowry is persuasive that this was Lincoln’s vision long before the guns fired on Fort Sumter — and that it is worth examining almost irrespective of the Civil War.

As Lowry shows, Lincoln was uncommonly driven from an early age. He had much to overcome. His mother, who died when he was nine, was so illiterate that she signed her name as an X; his father, barely able to scratch out a living, hired out his own son for wages until Abe was finally able to work for himself. By Lincoln’s own admission, the family fell into a “sad if not pitiful condition.” No wonder Lincoln often became brooding, withdrawn, beset by the specter of death.

But against the odds, Lincoln was determined to make good. He was largely self-taught; he had one year of formal schooling — in a “tiny schoolhouse.” He learned a myriad of trades: rafting, carpentry, boating, forestry, plowing, storekeeping, and butchering. He read voraciously. And he had a genius for storytelling. More often than not, a simple quip or revealing tale was his broadsword; satire his rapier. And it always had a point.

Early on, he had his run of bad luck. He set up a store, which failed. He tried his hand at being a postmaster and a surveyor, but was unable to make a go of it. The circuit court issued a judgment against him for overdue notes; the sheriff attached his personal possessions, including his surveying equipment and even his horse. And he lost his first bid for office at the age of 23.

#page#But as Lowry masterfully points out, while Lincoln may have been born into “the old world,” he could “feel the new one arising.” Shaped by an ethic of self-improvement, and an increasingly successful political career, he gazed out upon a changing world, one being revolutionized by emerging canals, improved transportation, bustling steamboats, manufacturing and the market, railroads and the telegraph. As it happened, he fervently wanted financial advancement not just for himself, but for the American people at large.

We see this in his political life. Though he grew up among Jacksonian Democrats — they were his neighbors and his family — Lincoln gravitated first to the Whig program of economic development and upward mobility, which he democratized (in what Lowry calls “a momentous shift”), and then to Republicanism. Here again, a restless ambition that shaped his own personality became the underpinning for the inchoate Republican vision. As Lowry demonstrates, Lincoln wanted to spread the system of enterprise, free men, and free labor across the continent, benefiting all regardless of class or station. Among other things, even as the war was raging, Lincoln and Republicans created the transcontinental railroad, which would knit East and West together in a growing web of commerce. He signed a land-grant-college bill, protective tariffs, and the Homestead Act — this last, in part because he sought to break up land monopolies and boost the country’s agricultural potential (albeit with minimal government intrusion).

Lowry raises the fascinating question as to where Lincoln would fit into the political spectrum today. It is a question well worth pondering for the future of the Republican party. The author says, correctly, that Lincoln would not fit neatly into today’s ideologies — firmly rejecting, in particular, the notion that Lincoln belongs in the liberal pantheon, as FDR once suggested when he asserted that Lincoln was the posthumous father of the New Deal, and as progressives such as Barack Obama and Mario Cuomo so brashly contend today. Lincoln was “desperate for industrial development,” Lowry writes: He “exulted in new technologies,” sought a powerful national banking system, and “never attacked” wealth. And throughout his political career, he saw his role as a champion of the budding middle class. “Republicans,” as he memorably put it, “are both for the man and the dollar.”

But beyond his fascinating portrait of Lincoln, Lowry has a deeper goal, which is to tease out lessons from Lincoln about how to revitalize American society today — lessons he believes can constitute a blueprint for the Republican party in years to come. With passion, Lowry warns of the crisis now afflicting the American dream: the middle class struggling, the lower class left behind, dependency on government dangerously growing, a welfare state out of control. He warns that a great nation “is flabby” and “declining from its former glories.” He even quotes Lincoln himself bitterly lamenting a backsliding nation: “We are not what we have been,” Lincoln wrote. “We have grown fat.” The answer? Lincoln once insisted that “work, work, work, is the main thing.” Lowry writes that the solution Lincoln would propose today is as stark as it is straightforward: “economic growth.”

Lowry does not want to overstate his case, and points out that we are as far away in time from Lincoln as he was from the America of the early 1700s, necessitating caution in divining what Lincoln’s intentions would be in 2013. Nor does he want to be accused of “ideological body snatching.” That said, he posits that Lincoln would resist dependency, emphasize education, and embrace what is new. He would also welcome immigrants, pay attention to the interests of the common worker, and look to the Founders.

Would Lincoln, as Obama implies, support all of today’s government programs? A resounding no, says Lowry, writing that “the liberal fallacy is to believe Lincoln would have favored almost every iteration of government and expansion of it, just as they do.”

Perhaps Lowry’s most trenchant observation is that it’s absolutely essential for the Republican party to develop a Lincolnesque agenda within its limited-government framework: The GOP has no future “unless it is a party of aspiration.”

This is a superb book, one that eloquently recaptures a too-often-overshadowed side of Lincoln. It is, arguably, a Lincoln for our time. If you are a Lincoln buff, you will want to read this. If you are a political strategist, Republican or Democrat, you will want to study it. One can savor, debate, or discuss this book without agreeing with everything in it. Lincoln would have it no other way.

– Mr. Winik is the author of the New York Times bestseller April 1865.

In This Issue

Articles

Politics & Policy

Federalism.com

The debate over Internet sales taxes, when all distractions are stripped away, isn’t about the Internet or taxes. It is about federalism. Confusion over what federalism means explains the conservative ...
Politics & Policy

The Cincinnati Myth

When news broke that the Internal Revenue Service had, over the course of nearly two years, actively discriminated against conservative groups applying for tax exemption, subjecting them to intrusive questions ...
Politics & Policy

One-Party Taxmen

What if I were to tell you that the IRS tea-party-targeting scandal all started with the great 19th-century railroads? Or with the conscience of a largely inconsequential, ornately mustachioed Gilded ...
Politics & Policy

Bureaucratic Rot

‘The fish rots from the head down” is a popular saying these days, mostly among people who do not fish and who, apparently, have never met a fish. “The fish rots ...

Features

Politics & Policy

Men’s Rising Earnings

Assessing the severity of economic problems often requires choosing between different sets of analyses that reach disparate conclusions. While much lip service is paid to “evidence-based policymaking,” all too often ...

Books, Arts & Manners

Politics & Policy

No Green Light

The Bling Ring, the latest film from Sofia Coppola, marks something of a departure for its director. After several movies that have looked at the celebrity lifestyle from the inside ...
Politics & Policy

Epic of a Nation

From Boethius to Bonhoeffer, many authors have written their most famous books in prison. In rare individuals down the ages, the predicament of incarceration seems to have unleashed great creativity. ...
Politics & Policy

Genius for Friendship

Someone should tell the story of this odd couple, because many today would find it hard to believe. Politics often feels like an ideological blood-sport, with pundits mercilessly bludgeoning one ...

Sections

Politics & Policy

Poetry

HEELS UPON THE TILE When I consider your devoted eyes, devoid of any vice I could reject, alive with avid interest, subtly flecked, and focused on my face with slight surprise, it seems as though ...
Politics & Policy

Letters

The Thousand Years’ Twilight Victor Davis Hanson has added intriguing and refreshing historical references to the pages of NR for a number of years. As Michael Knox Beran implies at the ...
Politics & Policy

The Week

‐ The good news: The NSA doesn’t know you’re reading this. The bad news: The IRS does. ‐ The latest Republican fashion on immigration is to declare broad support for the ...
The Long View

G-Mail Inbox

GMAIL INBOX TO:melanie123987@gmail.com FROM:tyler@nsa.intercepts.contractor.gov Hi! Totally weird coincidence! You and I were in the same homeroom sophomore year! I was the quiet kid in the back? Tyler? Do you remember? Probably not. You were ...

Most Popular

Politics & Policy

Students’ Anti-Gun Views

Are children innocents or are they leaders? Are teenagers fully autonomous decision-makers, or are they lumps of mental clay, still being molded by unfolding brain development? The Left seems to have a particularly hard time deciding these days. Take, for example, the high-school students from Parkland, ... Read More
PC Culture

Kill Chic

We live in a society in which gratuitous violence is the trademark of video games, movies, and popular music. Kill this, shoot that in repugnant detail becomes a race to the visual and spoken bottom. We have gone from Sam Peckinpah’s realistic portrayal of violent death to a gory ritual of metal ripping ... Read More
Elections

Romney Is a Misfit for America

Mitt’s back. The former governor of Massachusetts and occasional native son of Michigan has a new persona: Mr. Utah. He’s going to bring Utah conservatism to the whole Republican party and to the country at large. Wholesome, efficient, industrious, faithful. “Utah has a lot to teach the politicians in ... Read More
Law & the Courts

What the Second Amendment Means Today

The horrifying school massacre in Parkland, Fla., has prompted another national debate about guns. Unfortunately, it seems that these conversations are never terribly constructive — they are too often dominated by screeching extremists on both sides of the aisle and armchair pundits who offer sweeping opinions ... Read More
U.S.

Fire the FBI Chief

American government is supposed to look and sound like George Washington. What it actually looks and sounds like is Henry Hill from Goodfellas: bad suit, hand out, intoning the eternal mantra: “F*** you, pay me.” American government mostly works by interposition, standing between us, the free people at ... Read More
Film & TV

Black Panther’s Circle of Hype

The Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) first infantilizes its audience, then banalizes it, and, finally, controls it through marketing. This commercial strategy, geared toward adolescents of all ages, resembles the Democratic party’s political manipulation of black Americans, targeting that audience through its ... Read More