Commentary Magazine


The Extraordinary Lincoln

Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, is the author of a excellent new biography, Lincoln Unbounded: How An Ambitious Young Railsplitter Saved the American Dream–And How We Can Do It Again.

The first thing to note about the book is that it is elegantly written. It also does an excellent job capturing Lincoln’s personality and industriousness, his burning ambition and integrity, and his incomparable mind and rhetoric. We’re told about Lincoln’s devotion to Henry Clay, the role of the Whig Party in 19th century America (and what attracted Lincoln to it), why Stephen Douglas was a formidable opponent and why the Declaration of Independence “became a field of battle in the fight over slavery.” And the book is graced with paragraphs like this:

Lincoln sought to recapture what seemed to be slipping away, to catch the falling flag of our patriotic patrimony. “He endeavored to bring back things to the old land marks,” Joseph Gillespie wrote [William] Herndon, “but he never would have attempted to invent and compose new systems. He had boldness enough when he found the building racked and going to decay to restore it to its original design but not to contrive a new & distinct edifice.” Lincoln wanted to “re-adopt,” as he said at Peoria, the Declaration. The road to salvation ran through 1776, he argued in a gorgeous passage: “Our republican robe is soiled, and trailed in the dust. Let us re-purify it. Let us turn and wash it white, in the spirit, if not the blood, of the Revolution.” 

Lincoln believed that this renewal is exactly the purpose for which the Declaration had been intended. He had complicated feelings about Thomas Jefferson. …. Lincoln had no use for Jefferson the aristocrat, the hypocritical slaveholder and celebrant — like Andrew Jackson — of yeoman agriculture. It was Jefferson’s Declaration he adored.

But what Lowry’s book does that sets it apart from many others is to remind us of Lincoln’s belief that America is, by birthright and through its free institutions, a nation of aspiration; that America exists to give all people the chance to rise; and that his “animating purpose” was to enhance individual opportunity. “Lincoln’s critique of the Slave South is inseparable from his view of the free economy as the field for self-improvement,” according to Lowry. Lincoln was a great champion of upward mobility and modernization, of individual initiative and enjoying the fruit of one’s own labor. It is astonishing how relevant Lincoln is to the here and now.

Abraham Lincoln is not only the most consequential and impressive figure in American history; he is the most nearly impossible-to-comprehend one as well. He was a man of so many different parts which somehow all fit together. Generation after generation of Americans seem to know intuitively that to understand Lincoln is, in some deep way, to understand ourselves, or at least our better selves. Rich Lowry’s book is the most recent and welcome link in a wonderful chain.

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