American 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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