Lincoln Unbound

Daniel Greenfield, a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the Freedom Center, is a New York writer focusing on radical Islam. He is completing a book on the international challenges America faces in the 21st century.


Lincoln Unbound June 21American history can be defined by two pivotal presidents; George Washington, who ushered in the birth of the nation, and Abraham Lincoln, who oversaw its rebirth. It is even possible to see the history of the nation embodied in these two Americas; Washington’s former colonies struggling to assert themselves on a continent and settle the debate over their existence, and Lincoln’s expanding empire of technology and progress leading with idealism on the world stage.

That is Rich Lowry’s thesis in his book Lincoln Unbound: How an Ambitious Young Railsplitter Saved the American Dream–and How We Can Do It Again. Lincoln Unbound is less of a Lincoln biography — there are plenty of those out there already — than an inspirational book based on the life of Lincoln. Unlike the usual sort of inspirational presidential books, Lowry’s range isn’t the individual, but the nation.

After two disastrous elections, as conservatives struggle with self-definition, Lowry reaches back to a national crisis of self-definition that was fought out in a bloody civil war. Lincoln Unbound attempts to reclaim Lincoln from liberal revisionists and the iconic overfamiliarity that any great leader suffers from in order to reinvent him as the father of the modern age and the guiding light of genuine conservatism.

If Washington is often associated with determination, a refusal to give up or to allow any of the men under him to give up, Lowry associates Lincoln with aspiration. Lowry would like us to see not only the familiar Lincoln of the battlefield, but the conductor of the great industrial works that came afterward. Lincoln Unbound’s Lincoln is not only a man of his time, but of our time as well, extending through history from Gettysburg to Silicon Valley.

But more so, Lowry’s Lincoln represents a perfect balance, a golden mean in a tumultuous time, finding the right path between aspiration and labor, between freedom and progress and between individuality and order. Looking back to Lincoln, Lowry argues is vital. His American Dream is the American Dream that we ought to have. An American Dream that finds the balance between the extremes, building a new age out of the virtues of character and the opportunities of freedom.

The theme of Lincoln Unbound is that the answers to the modern social and economic conflicts can be found in the struggles of Lincoln’s day and in the virtues that allowed him to overcome them. Lincoln’s character as a believer in opportunity and industry, as an aspirational man of the book not the axe, who could nevertheless still wield the ax, promises to reinvigorate the modern American Dream by meshing opportunity with hard work.

Vital to the current conflict between the Democrats and the Republicans, both of whom have made a habit of claiming Lincoln for their own, Lowry emphasizes Lincoln’s Whig beliefs over the politics of the Jacksonian Democrat that he might have been expected to put on. Rather than romanticizing a class or engaging in class warfare, Lincoln understood that poverty was misery and that teaching men to rise out of it was more useful than waging an endless political and economic war on their behalf.

Lincoln did not believe that enduring opportunity could come about without the personal virtue of an industrious character. Lincoln had labored hard with both books and axes, and the setbacks documented in Lincoln Unbound make for a startling contrast with another Illinois politician whose political career was handed to him on a silver platter.

A believer in progress, Lincoln did not fear change. As a man who began by transforming himself and ended by transforming a nation, Lincoln was an eager acolyte of change, of industry and road building, of connecting people and linking together a scattered nation in a single web. But he believed that these could only come about from the virtues of labor rather than government mandated idleness.

A Free Labor man, Lincoln saw the freedom of opportunity coming about through hard work. The individual freedom of the farmer made his work meaningful and the work made the freedom that he possessed meaningful.

It is where Lincoln would have clearly and cleanly broken with the food stamp politics of the Illinois of the present, with the overburdened public school systems run by teachers who don’t want to teach and a new generation of students who no longer see any point in learning, possessed by the social justice idea that opportunity can only come through redistribution rather than hard work.

The connection between freedom and labor used to be the underlying factor of the American Dream. Now there is neither freedom nor labor, but there is always the lure of the “free.” Lincoln embodied, in both his life and his ideas, the firm notion that aspirational upward mobility was the manifest destiny of both individuals and nations, but that such mobility could only come through good character and the virtues of industry in both individuals and nations.

Growing up poor, Lincoln would have understood the unemployed American better than Obama ever could and he would have wondered at a nation whose great industrial systems and mighty government had stagnated into a convoluted maze of dams and canals, trapping and confining economic activity and opportunity, rather than opening the way for it and liberating the flow of its turbulent waters.

Lincoln had envisioned government as a liberating force, capable of unleashing the initiative of the ennobled individual. Today he would find a lack of both, with nobility and initiative held captive in the regulatory chains of an overzealous state.

In Lincoln Unbound, National Review editor Rich Lowry argues that there is much in our modern society that Lincoln would be impressed by and approve of. But there is also much that would sadden and shock him. The new America that Lincoln helped unleash is not all one thing. Its aptitudes remain impressive, but its horizons have diminished. It is still a place of great dreams, but a look back at Lincoln can remind us how many of the truly great dreams of the past have become lost in the chains of the present.

Lincoln Unbound suggests that by rediscovering Lincoln as a visionary of opportunity and labor, rather than the iconic wartime leader, the dreams of the past can inform the possibilities of the present.

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  • Michael Copeland

    Welfare demotivates initiative and counteracts aspiration. Its cost drains the enterprise sector. It begets dependency, and fosters a compliant voting block. Lincoln would have seen through it.

  • The Dead Critic

    It’s too late. The liberal mafia wants a “repeat” show of history. The “Dumbing Down of America” continues…

  • DebRollin

    Isn’t too bad we don’t have real honorable men to lead the Republic as Lincoln did. What a leader and a President…no one comes close to him in today’s world of Corruption, deception, and fatalism.

    • bluffcreek1967

      Oh, I wouldn’t quite say that. Read Thomas Dilorenzo’s ‘Lincoln Unmasked’ and you might think differently.

      • DebRollin

        Lincoln was man with values and honor, he fought for freedom and against tyranny, especially freeing the slaves, he was shot by a liberal, John Wilkes Booth who got what was coming to him..I don’t have to read a liberals view of Lincoln..I know true history, we were taught correct history in our schools, not like this dumbing down the Socialist Progressive movement is trying to do to our children and we will not stand for it either!

        • Everett Vulgamore

          you must be old, because all ive ever heard from most high school city teachers is that the left is THE answer to everything. it makes me sad.

          • DebRollin

            Remember, Most teachers are liberals, they don’t even teach the Constitution of the United States or correct history, thats how they have dumbed down our youth and tried to dumb down America. Yes, its very pathetic to elect leaders who really don’t care about the people they
            serve. Its a Banana Republic…kickbacks, buy and sell votes, say what they must to get elected, and then break their word.

        • bluffcreek1967

          I don’t doubt that there were some honorable things about Lincoln the man. But in spite of what you were told in school, Lincoln did some very un-American and unconstitutional things. He also said things racially that I would happen to agree with, but which would go over in today’s political climate like a fart in an elevator! You need to read a little wider than perhaps you have. And if my memory serves me correct, Thomas Dilorenzo is not a liberal, and his works have not been intellectually or historically refuted by the other American historians.

          • DebRollin

            Thanks but no thanks, I am not the least bit interested in Socialist Progressive propaganda. Pick on someone else.

          • bluffcreek1967

            The books I referred to are NOT socialist-progressive propaganda. You say this because it’s convenient as a defense and because it doesn’t require you to actually think through the issues in a more thoughtful manner.

            If you think I’m a Leftist trying to push a progressive agenda, then you’ve completely pegged me wrong. What you’ve said is indicative of a knee-jerk reaction.

            Also, I’m not ‘picking’ on you. I was simply posting a comment in response to yours. This is what routinely happens on the internet where people exchange ideas and even debate them in a civil manner.

      • gray_man

        meh … you chose to believe one book over another.

        • bluffcreek1967

          Nonsense! I try as best as I can to follow where the evidence leads – and I would urge you to do the same. It’s simplistic to say that I’ve only chosen to believe one book over another when you probably haven’t read the same books yourselves.

          Moreover, Thomas Dilorenzo’s works have been criticized here and there, but they have never been intellectually and historically refuted. Many historians, in fact, have sheepishly admitted that he’s right. It’s embarrassing, however, in light of how Lincoln has been glorified throughout our nation to publicly admit such things.

          I urge you to read his books and make up your own mind. But as the old adage goes, ‘A man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still.’

          • gray_man

            To give your argument back. Nonsense!
            More books about Lincoln have been written then any other President.
            To assume Dilorenzo’s work is the only truth is again, Nonsense.

          • bluffcreek1967

            The quantity of books written on any subject doesn’t make anything true or valid. Truth has never been settled by majority opinion either. It comes about as a result of the debate process, the exchange of ideas. But this requires that people hear what others have to say and fairly weigh them in the light of the evidence. Hint?

            Moreover, what Dilorenzo has argued quite successfully has been maintained by other historians as well. But you wouldn’t know this because you’ve closed your mind to differing opinions. In other words, don’t confuse me with the facts, my mind’s already made up!

          • gray_man

            Nonsense. I have not close my mind at all. Your comment:
            ‘Moreover, what Dilorenzo has argued quite successfully has been maintained by other historians as well.” In fact shows that you are the one with the closed mind. You assume that it was “argued quite successfully”. By who’s standard? Yes, some historians may agree with some of Dilorenzo’s arguments. However, what you refuse to accept is that equally qualified historians disagree with
            some of his arguments.
            I’m not the one confusing quantity with quality, however I also know, that just because someone dissents from the norm, does not make him correct either. No matter how much someone my agree, or in fact ,no matter how much his ideas, may seem to make sense.
            In fact my entire argument is the same argument about “man made” global warning.

  • Lee Poteet

    Lincoln was neither a great president nor a great man. He was responsible for the deaths of over 600,000 Americans in his campaign for crony capitalism, his support of Wall Street Bankers and the Railroad barons at the expense of all others. Thomas diLorenzo’s books on Lincoln are irrefutable and stand as does that of Edgar Lee Master’s as an indictment of his perfidy and the stupidity of those Americans who continue to idolize the president who made possible the enslavement of all of us.

    • DebRollin

      We will never see the likes of such a leader again in our history as long as evil rears its ugly head on the Left. Lincoln had the right stuff, and so did the Union army when they put Grant in Command….It wasn’t a Democrat Progressive who won the rights of many slaves, it was a Republican. The South still has those values and the Progressives are not going to wash it out of them!

    • gray_man

      Nonsense, Lincoln is no more responsible for the deaths of 600,000 people then the people who thought it was OK to enslave their fellow man. If there was no slavery, the civil war would not have happened.

      • bluffcreek1967

        Slavery was only one reason for the Civil War (and not even a major one as many historians admit). It mostly had to do with states’ rights issues and the increasing reach and power of the federal government. I won’t attempt to justify slavery, but there were a host of concerns greater than that of slavery which led to the war between the states. I would get a hold of Thomas E. Woods’ book, ‘The Politically Incorrect Gide to American History’ as a good start.

        • gray_man

          I’ve read the book a long time ago, and the one on the Civil War. Good reads. However, they both beat around the bush. The bottom line is that if slavery had not been a practice in the United States the Civil war would not have happened. You can talk about the economics of the south / north. You can talk about trade with other countries of the north / south. You can talk about voting and the 3/5th’s rule. You can talk about secession of the south. You can talk about what a “tyrant” Lincoln was. The central issue of all that revolves around slavery. Ergo: no slavery no war.

          • bluffcreek1967

            I understand where you’re coming from. However, I wouldn’t allege that Thomas E. Woods, Jr. ‘beats around the bush’ in any sense of the term. Incidentally, his treatment of the subject is quite brief. If you haven’t done so, I would also urge you to check out such authors as James R. Kennedy, H.W. Crocker, and Lochlainn Seabrook who are much more thorough. You may not end up agreeing with them, but it’s hard to ignore their historical and primary source arguments.

            As I had pointed out, slavery was one issue that lead up to the war, but not the only one. Fighting to end slavery emerged at a later point during the protracted war, but it was not the sole or even the primary cause of it. As Union General, Ulysses S. Grant, himself stated: “If I thought this was was to abolish slavery, I would resign my commission and offer my sword to the other side.” The facts support this time and time again. Thus, to ignore the other and more central reasons for the Civil War is myopic at best.

            As usual, however, the victors of any war get to write the history books – and Americans, for the most part, have only been given one side of the story.

          • gray_man

            “As I had pointed out, slavery was one issue that lead up to the war, but not the only one.”
            I didn’t say slavery was the only issue. What I said was that without slavery, there wouldn’t have been a war. Most of the issues revolved around slavery, or slavery had an impact. If Slavery was out of the picture, the rest could have been solved without all the bloodshed.

    • Everett Vulgamore

      i personally think that Lincoln is awesome for ONE thing: he kept the Union together. isnt that reason enough?

      on the flipside though, i think that if revolution were to break out to rid America of our current government people and liberal “progressives”, and replace them with the ones that have brains, it would be a good thing. if the liberals all move to California to save themselves, and form their own country after that, i say go right ahead and nuke it.

      maybe im just too brutal

      • bluffcreek1967

        Looking at things now, it would have been better had the South won and secession occurred. I won’t defend the practice of slavery, but it would have eventually died of its own just as it did in all civilized Western nations.

        Yes, Lincoln preserved the Union. But because of things he implemented and set in motion, we’re now stuck with this massive, bloated federal bureaucracy that always finds new ways to intrude within our lives.

        Ironically, what you’ve said in your post about a revolution was very similar to how Southerners felt during the war between the states. The South, likewise, had felt the sting of tyranny that had come repeatedly from Washington, and they too wanted it ‘nuked.’

  • Lysander Spooner

    So Lincoln is kind of like Horatio Alger, with only like, um 600,000 corpses. Lowry is silly.

    • gray_man

      So the slave holders were like, um the muslims who have been doing it for centuries and continue to this day.

  • bluffcreek1967

    Rich Lowry? Isn’t this the same editor at National Review who had John Derbyshire fired because he dared to caution whites around the presence of ghetto blacks?

    To each his own, but personally I wouldn’t waste my time reading Lowry’s idealistic treatise on Lincoln. You’ll gain a much more accurate picture of the real Lincoln by reading two books by Thomas Dilorenzo – ‘Lincoln Unmasked: What You’re Not Supposed to Know About Dishonest Abe,’ and ‘The Real Lincoln.’

  • DebRollin

    Please note that instead of Occupying a park or city, Occupy Wallstreet is on the websites hacking and attacking anyone with a brain left. The only thing we don’t see is the rape, syringes, and excrement.

  • Lady Val

    All the Marxist/socialist/fascist tyranny we have today is a direct consequence of the policies of Abraham Lincoln. You don’t like intrusive government? Then you cannot “like” Lincoln! You don’t approve of your God-given (supposedly) constitutionally protected liberties infringed? Then you cannot “approve” of Lincoln. You reject warfare that murders civilian non-combatants? Then you must reject Lincoln. You condemn the hostile “race relations” in the nation? Then you must condemn Lincoln for it was his administration that pitted black against white as a strategy of war. You bemoan the fact that the Constitution is a worthless relic of a long-dead past? Then you must blame Lincoln for he totally discarded it so as to provide for the triumph of the State over the Founding Principles of the nation.

    On the other hand, if you believe – as does Antonin Scalia – that force of arms
    de-legitimized the constitutional right of succession, then you believe – as did Lincoln – that “might makes right.” And if you believe – as does John Bolton – that covering a government policy or action, however wicked, with “The Flag” makes it moral and legal, then you believe – as did Lincoln – that “the ends justify the means.” Far too many conservatives worship a man whose system of government was more Marx than Jefferson and whose use of power was more Hitler than Washington.