Commentary Magazine

The Lincoln Link

Lincoln Unbound:
How an Ambitious Young Railsplitter Saved the American Dream—and How We Can Do It Again

By Rich Lowry
Broadside Books, 288 pages

In politics, not even the dead get to rest. The great statesmen of the past are constantly being resurrected and enlisted in pursuit of some modern cause. In 1923, Arthur Vandenberg, not yet a historically important United States Senator but already a power in Michigan Republican politics as a newspaper editor, wrote an entire book called If Hamilton Were Alive Today. Being a conservative Republican, he thought Hamilton would come down on the conservative side of all the issues—against, for instance, joining the League of Nations and in favor of restricting immigration. He even thought Hamilton would have been in favor of enforcing Prohibition (but thought he’d have been against passing it in the first place.)

But Hamilton, who died in 1804, lived in an utterly different economic and political universe from what existed in the 1920s. One suspects that, told about Prohibition, Hamilton’s first reaction would have been to wonder how the federal government would replace the revenues from the hefty excise tax on distilled spirits that had been a major component of federal revenues in his day but was trivial by the eve of Prohibition.

Enlisting the Founding Fathers and others in some modern-day crusade is, at best, silly, but that does not mean their works and lives have no relevance to our present-day dilemmas. In Lincoln Unbound, Rich Lowry looks at the man many regard as our greatest president and asks what wisdom he might have that we could apply toward today’s problems. It is a worthy enterprise, and Lowry, who has been editor of National Review since 1997, has done a terrific job of it.

Lincoln is such an overwhelming historic figure and held so deeply in the hearts of the American people, that it is difficult to separate the human Lincoln from the marble Lincoln. The latter is enshrined at the western end of the Mall in Washington, immortalized in
Daniel Chester French’s magnificent statue, flanked by the words of the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural—two of the greatest pieces of English prose ever composed on American soil. The New York Public Library has well over 4,000 books under the subject heading “Lincoln, Abraham,” and he features prominently in tens of thousands more.

But there was, of course, a real Lincoln, a human Lincoln. Lowry often brings him to vivid life with seemingly inconsequential anecdotes. For instance, Lincoln was fond of cats and indulged them freely:

At dinner once in the White House, using official flatware, Lincoln fed one of the family cats, which was sitting on a chair next to him. Mrs. Lincoln asked a guest, “Don’t you think it is shameful for Mr. Lincoln to feed tabby with a gold fork?” The president replied, “If a gold fork was good enough for [President] Buchanan, I think it is good enough for Tabby.”

After Lincoln’s death, his former law partner, William Herndon, tracked down everyone he could find who had known the man in his early years, and Lowry makes much—and very good—use of this oral history.

In an age when the per capita consumption of alcohol and tobacco was far higher than it is today, Lincoln neither smoke nor drank. He was a man born into deep poverty and ignorance (his father was, at best, marginally literate; his mother could neither read nor write). But Lincoln was a voracious autodidact seldom found without a book in his hand when he was not actively engaged in something else. He read everything from the Bible to poetry to geometry to law to economics. William Herndon wrote that when Lincoln read The Elements of Political Economy, by Francis Wayland, the president of Brown University, he “ate up, digested and assimilated” it.

It was entirely through his own efforts that Lincoln rose from agricultural laborer to prosperous and highly respected lawyer. This instilled in him a deep conviction that success in life was a matter of will and that the government’s job was to provide the legal and infrastructural framework within which men would have the best chance to succeed on their own. He wrote to one young man, “I know not how to aid you, save in the assurance of one of mature age, and much severe experience, that you can not fail, if you resolutely determine that you will not.”

Certainly he applied this attitude toward his own political career. For if he was a man of quiet political ambition, that ambition was no less boundless for being quiet. Unlike, say, Thomas Jefferson, who preferred political theory to political fact, Lincoln was perfectly willing to play the game of politics as it was (and still is) played. He once jumped out a window of the Illinois State House to avoid a quorum call.

The two great political parties of Lincoln’s time were the Democrats and the Whigs. The former was founded by Thomas Jefferson and molded into its modern configuration by Andrew Jackson. Its core constituency was the small, often debt-ridden farmers of the South and West, with urban workers and immigrants becoming increasingly important as the 19th century progressed. It favored a small federal government and was profoundly adverse to the fast emerging market economy and to commerce in general. Thomas Jefferson’s almost neurotic dislike of large banks pervaded the politics of the Democrats. But it was also the party of American expansionism and “manifest destiny.”

The Whigs, who arose after the collapse of the Federalist Party and the “era of good feeling” that ended—with a bang—in the presidential campaign of 1824, were the party of commerce and the rising man. The Whigs favored “internal improvements,” as infrastructure was then called, and opposed territorial expansion.

When the Whig party collapsed over slavery in the 1850s, Lincoln and many other Whigs joined the newly formed and explicitly anti-slavery Republican Party.

Because Lincoln had to face the greatest existential crisis this country ever faced even before he took office as president (five states seceded in December, 1860, precisely because Lincoln had been elected), all his efforts were devoted to saving the Union. Thus, his economic and political philosophy played only minor roles in his term in office. As he explained, “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.”

Yet he still pushed for the Homestead Act that would do so much to settle the West with independent farmers; the Morill Act, which established land-grant colleges to teach agricultural and technical subjects; and the transcontinental railroad.

Lowry sums up Lincoln’s philosophy in a single paragraph:

Lincoln believed in dynamic capitalism that dissolved old ways of life. He embraced the latest technologies. He thought all men were created equal and deserved the opportunity to make the most of themselves. He urged them to make the effort to do so. He found in the American constitutional system and its free institutions the best possible platform for the realization of this vision. This is the Lincoln that is too often lost, and must be found—to truly understand him and, really, to understand who we are as a people.

And it is the wisdom and insight of this man that Lowry wants to apply to our times and problems—such as slower economic growth and an increasing gap between the very rich and the rest of the population. He doesn’t make the mistake of Mario Cuomo, who wrote a remarkably ahistorical book on Lincoln that turned him into a modern-day liberal. As Lowry puts it, he “doesn’t want to be guilty of Cuomo-style ideological body snatching.”

He argues that Lincoln’s approach to economic and therefore political success wouldn’t have changed much, regardless of the overwhelming changes in technology that have transformed the world since Lincoln’s death in 1865. For while technology has revolutionized the world, it hasn’t changed human nature one bit. Lincoln’s essential formula would still be:

Economic growth. Policies to enhance the market and ensure that it is as fluid and flexible as possible. Education. An ethic of self-reliance, free of control by or dependence on others. And a commitment to order and self-regulating conduct. We should be a strenuous society that demands individual exertion and rewards it, and that is open to all, without favor or prejudice. We should be a country where you can make your way and you have to make your way.

Lowry looks, one by one, at Lincoln’s essential principles of political economy and how they can be applied to today’s challenges. The lessons are numerous and powerful. Lincoln Unbound is a short book, but it compresses a great deal of enlightenment regarding the American past, present, and future, courtesy of perhaps the greatest American who ever lived.

About the Author

John Steele Gordon writes regularly for Commentary’s blog. He is the author of seven books, including Hamilton’s Blessing, a history of the national debt, and An Empire of Wealth, a history of the American economy.

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