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.

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