Posted: February 7, 2014
t his first inauguration Ronald Reagan looked out from the Capitol to the national monuments before him, acknowledged the temple almost two miles distant, and declared, "Whoever would understand in his heart the meaning of America will find it in the life of Abraham Lincoln." Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, moves his readers' hearts to love the meaning of Lincoln's life and rekindle their love of America. Without such a recovery, he writes, "We are on the path to a class society inimical to our ideals and our history. We are not what we have been."
This renewal requires revitalizing the Republican Party and erasing the Monopoly game rich man caricature it has become in too many eyes. "Most important for Republicans now is to commit themselves to that larger purpose, a society of equality of opportunity where all can rise. Limiting government...can't just be an end in itself. It must be joined to a larger vision of a dynamic, fluid society." This means presenting Lincoln not only as our greatest rhetorician and statesman, but as a man who understood and encouraged abundant economic opportunity.
Lowry draws on the best Lincoln scholarship to understand his subject's mind and his actions. But unlike most scholars, Lowry exhibits a Promethean political aim, Lincolnian in its zeal. Thus, he follows implicitly the lead of Harry V. Jaffa's revolutionary Crisis of the House Divided (1959). It was Jaffa who took seriously the question of the truth of Lincoln's principles, and hence their continuing importance for our own politics.
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Whether the 16th president can still be our teacher depends on whether we can rescue him from what Lowry calls his "body snatchers." Opportunists left and right, such as Mario Cuomo and Thomas DiLorenzo, have manufactured faux Lincolns, either to praise or condemn demagogically. DiLorenzo's efforts are especially transparent, as the many critics of his supposedly libertarian critique of Lincoln have shown. (See Thomas Krannawitter's "Dishonest About Abe," CRB, Spring 2002; with DiLorenzo's reply, Correspondence, Fall 2002. See also my "The Unreal Lincoln," in National Review, October 11, 2002.) As if secession—on behalf of slavery!—could possibly be a limited government principle. Lowry cites the figures proving that Lincoln's war policies did not bring about the governmental centralization that the later Progressives did. And he demolishes the Lincoln-as-racist slander hawked by DiLorenzo and others.
But it is the Progressives' Lincoln who dominates our understanding. Although Theodore Roosevelt, historian Albert Beveridge, and others created this myth, the chief fabulist remains Franklin Roosevelt. Besides his First Inaugural and his Commonwealth Club Address, the key speech for understanding the New Deal is FDR's July 3, 1938, short speech at Gettysburg, celebrating the battle's 75th anniversary. Especially during the current sesquicentennial commemoration of Gettysburg, we should revisit Roosevelt's reinterpretation. The Civil War, he asserted, was about "whether each generation facing its own circumstances can summon the practical devotion to attain and retain that greatest good for the greatest number which this government of the people was created to ensure." This utilitarianism in turn means that for a democracy, "Never can it have as much ability and purpose as it needs in that striving; the end of battle does not end the infinity of those needs." For FDR, Gettysburg was fought for unlimited government—on behalf of the majority's unending "needs," not for free government on behalf of a free and self-governing people.
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Lowry begins his revival of the real, anti-Progressive Lincoln by bringing up some of the statesman's lesser-known speeches, which go to the heart of America's political principles. In a brief welcome to the 166th Ohio Regiment (August 22, 1864), Lincoln succinctly states the war's purpose:
I beg you to remember this, not merely for my sake, but for yours. 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. It is in order that each one of you may have, through this free government which we have enjoyed, an open field, and a fair chance for your industry, enterprise, and intelligence; that you may all have equal privileges in the race of life with all its desirable human aspirations—it is for this that the struggle should be maintained, that we may not lose our birthrights—not only for one, but for two or three years, if necessary. The nation is worth fighting for, to secure such an inestimable jewel.
"I am a living witness that any one of your children may look to come here as my father's child has." How did Lincoln do it? His insight, Lowry argues, is as good today as it was then: "We are by birthright and through our free institutions, a nation of aspiration."
Lowry singles out other speeches dealing with self-advancement. These include the ingenious speeches on inventions during and after Lincoln's unsuccessful Senate campaign (April 6, 1858, and February 11, 1859). At the beginning of the first speech Lincoln identifies "every man" as a "miner." He proceeds to describe the transformation of the earth through human effort—at every point supported by Biblical quotation, mostly from Genesis. In the second, he contrasts inventive Young America with Old (Testament) Fogey, Adam. Lincoln raises today's question: will Americans continue to advance in a globalized economy or will we cease to prosper?
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With Lincoln's words in mind, Lowry makes a deft sketch of this indefatigable spirit. We see the railsplitter who rose in life, the striver who came literally out of the woods to enjoy personal prosperity and prestige, and who wanted that chance for all Americans. The self-taught lawyer who joined the Whig Party and adhered to its economic goals ("the party of the rich") but who gave them a deeper moral basis, to create a "republic of striving."
Another man might have saved the Union; only Lincoln could have grasped and defined so precisely and profoundly what made it worthy of the saving. He felt it. He understood it. He had lived it.
Lincoln's life and subsequent political project "opened the way for the upward march of those behind him and left a legacy to be honored by ensuring that, in America, the way always stays open." Lowry's Lincoln is both an example and a policy guide. He is a political man in the best sense of the term, a conniver for equality under hostile circumstances, a "frustrated engineer," and still the only president to own a patent (for a machine to lift stuck boats). Thus, the railroad for Lincoln was "the heroic extension of human potential"—against Russell Kirk's condemnation of the automobile as a "mechanical Jacobin."
This is a Lincoln for a middle-class nation beset by anxieties about its future—a simmering crisis. As the U.S. drifts further from its founding principles, those with the strongest spirits flail in irrational desperation, often mistaking means for ends. Given his emphasis on striving to bring about advancement and wealth-creation, we might assume Lowry is preaching libertarianism. But he is not. Lincoln would unite two disparate factions of conservatism, characterized by libertarian Ron Paul and paleo-conservative Patrick Buchanan, both Lincoln-haters. By mistaking the New Deal zombie Lincoln for the real man, they show the same contempt for America that the Left does. Lowry would respond, "In the spirit of Lincoln, our project should be equal parts modernization (opening the vistas of the economic future) and recovery (of the American character and of bourgeois virtues)." Though one can quarrel with the author's various policy prescriptions—is there too much emphasis on increased immigration?—his suggestions amount to a new look at government, education, employment, infrastructure, and culture, all led by the ethic of striving.
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In seeking advancement for all, "Lincoln favored an active government, not a blunderbuss government." He "democratized Whiggish economics.... In Lincoln, the banks and the log cabin met." This recalls James Madison's insistence on the centrality of property, properly understood: "In a word, as a man is said to have a right to his property, he may be equally said to have a property in his rights." And conscience is the most sacred of those rights. We see this Lincolnian perspective as well in the recent Chevrolet television ad that describes "the car for the richest guys on earth"—who prefer being a partner to making partner, who await not the opening bell but the school bell. This is a pitch for middling folks. It celebrates the work ethic and family, and rejects workaholism. Such a unified understanding of rights for all would teach a Republican never to squeal the self-destructive slogan "class warfare" when it's everyone's rights that are being assaulted.
From another quarter, some thoughtful, religiously inclined conservatives hear praise for capitalism and fear the cloven hoof of Ayn Rand. To such critics, property rights threaten the denigration of religion, art, and philosophy, as though John Locke were John Galt. Yet Americans continue to regard themselves as children of God, while believing each of us owns himself. That's the way Americans live—not using God to justify ruling others; but ruling oneself and seeing a fellow human being (an image of God) in one's neighbor.
The editor of National Review is himself a model of how the conservative movement might become one of Lincoln men and women. We have to remember where NR came from. In his compelling memoir, Right Time, Right Place (2009), NR senior editor Richard Brookhiser describes William F. Buckley, Jr., as "[o]ne of [Harry] Jaffa's few converts" on an editorial staff hostile to him. Buckley's Lincoln conversion left a legacy in Brookhiser and now Lowry.
Following the 2008 elections the chastened House Republicans devoured Amity Shlaes's The Forgotten Man (2007), finding hope in its critique of the New Deal. The Republican Party and the conservative movement—the Tea Party most of all—would benefit even more from absorbing Rich Lowry's Lincoln Unbound. To a movement and a party that often seem to have a death wish, this book might inspire a new birth of freedom.