What Lincoln embodied — and what he ought to represent for modern Republicans who want to invoke his legacy — is the idea of progress.
The only president to hold a patent, for a device to help steamboats pass over shallow water, he lived in a time of revolutionary changes in transportation and communication, and he reveled in the possibilities.
For Lincoln, technological progress in the form of the telegraph or faster trains was the physical manifestation of his idea of the American dream, and it informed his vision of America as a beacon for the rest of the world, “the last best hope” of mankind.
The other reason Lowry succeeds where Cuomo and others have failed is that his Lincoln is not a marble man.
So often portrayed as the log-cabin president, the railsplitter, the man of humble origins who stumbled into the presidency, the ambitious, striving Lincoln of reality has often been lost to the popular imagination.
Lincoln’s ambition, in his law partner William Herndon’s phrase, “was a little engine that knew no rest,” and Lowry wisely adopts the description as a chapter title.
For it is Lincoln’s desire to improve himself, to rise from his humble beginnings, to use fully the opportunity America presents, that is the essence of the man and why, in Lowry’s telling, he is an example for today.
Lowry does give in to the policy prescription temptation, especially in the concluding chapter. But not all of his Lincoln-based prescriptions square with his own, and he is conscious of not wanting “to be guilty of Cuomo-style ideological body snatching.”
He goes “broad brush” on the Lincoln principles, such as “embrace what is new,” and chooses to “fill in some of the details with my own policy preferences, without presuming that Lincoln would have necessarily endorsed any of them.”
Writers who wish to use Lincoln (or the Founders or Theodore Roosevelt or William McKinley, for that matter) to justify their own inclinations, too often choose “getting right with Lincoln” over getting Lincoln right.
Lowry gets Lincoln right, and in the process gets himself right with Lincoln. Whether today’s Republicans will follow his lead remains to be seen.
John Bicknell is a former editor at CQ Roll Call and is writing a book on the 1844 presidential election. He can be found on Twitter: @johnbick1960.