Any writer who presumes to make a political case that the Founders — or any other icons of American history — are on his side has a considerable burden of proof to meet. Few are up to the task.
Trying to figure out What Would [fill in the blank] Do in current circumstances almost always ends in the writer amazingly enough discovering that [fill in the blank] would do exactly as the writer would.
So Rich Lowry’s “Lincoln Unbound: How an Ambitious Young Railsplitter Saved the American Dream — And How We Can Do It Again,” comes as a welcome surprise in a genre not exactly filled with edifying examples.
Lowry, editor of the conservative National Review, succeeds where others failed because he rests his case on two sturdy pillars. Most importantly, his reach does not exceed his grasp. His goal is not so much to use Lincoln to justify current Republican policy proposals as it is to mold those proposals around Lincoln’s core principles.
In doing this, he avoids the mistakes of those such as Mario M. Cuomo — an example Lowry cites — whose “Why Lincoln Matters” miraculously found a modern liberal lurking under that stovepipe hat. Cuomo’s Lincoln “is all in favor of sharing, inclusion, diversity, and whatever else Cuomo deems valuable and important.”
Lincoln — who fought the Southern rebels with every fiber of his being, risked re-election to do so and ultimately gave his life to the cause of union and freedom — would have argued that “attacking terrorists creates more terrorism,” in Cuomo’s telling.
Lowry, on the other hand, looks under the hat and sees a Whig.
The nanny-staters of the 19th century, the Whig Party, favored government action in support of economic growth (through helping business) and federally funded infrastructure projects such as telegraph lines, railroads and canals. At the core of the Whig philosophy, though, was an understanding that the success of the American experiment depended on the goodness of the people, and the Whigs were determined to make people better. The middle of the 19th century was a time of great religious ferment, and the social reform movements that grew out of that ferment were natural allies of the Whigs.
Lincoln, a Whig for the entire existence of the party, was a big believer in self-improvement because he was himself a primary example of the breed. “Lincoln felt drawn to the kind of people who tended to be Whigs, the ‘better sort,’ people who were firmly embedded within the commercial economy and welcomed its ethos,” Lowry writes.
Lincoln was no small-government conservative. In those days, that was the role of the Democratic Party (except when it came to protecting slavery). But he was devoted to free enterprise, property rights and the ability of Americans to aspire to better things by virtue of their own hard work.
This was, in fact, the essence of his argument against slavery: the injustice of seeing another enjoy the fruits of your own labor.
Hard to imagine a man making that argument backing big tax increases or ever-increasing social welfare transfers. Lowry alludes to this, but he fortunately doesn’t dwell on it. The point he makes is larger.
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.