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BOOK REVIEW: ‘Lincoln Unbound’

- - Monday, July 15, 2013

LINCOLN UNBOUND: HOW AN AMBITIOUS YOUNG RAILSPLITTER SAVED THE AMERICAN DREAM — AND HOW WE CAN DO IT AGAIN
By Rich Lowry
Broadside Books, $26.99, 288 pages

In a country that has produced great leadership for more than two centuries, Abraham Lincoln stands tall as perhaps the greatest of them all.

Lincoln's incredible life story had been told and retold to countless generations. He was born in a log cabin, became a country lawyer, served briefly in the Illinois General Assembly and became the 16th U.S. president. He also engaged in a brilliant series of political debates with Stephen Douglas, led the nation during the bloody Civil War and played an integral role in abolishing slavery.

Alas, these important historical events traced by Lincoln's imposing footsteps have no remaining eyewitnesses or chroniclers. His many talented biographers, including Doris Kearns Goodwin, James M. McPherson and Harold Holzer, therefore, treat him as an important American president to discover, study and treasure.

In that light, are there lessons Lincoln could teach modern Americans — and more specifically, modern Republicans?

Rich Lowry, the talented editor of National Review, certainly thinks so. He makes a strong case in his important new book, "Lincoln Unbound: How An Ambitious Young Railsplitter Saved the American Dream — And How We Can Do It Again." The "miracle of Lincoln ... is that he 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." In an era in which the American Dream struggles to maintain a regular pulse, it's important the United States returns to the status of, in Mr. Lowry's words, a "Lincolnian republic."

To understand Lincoln's legacy as a political leader, you also need to understand his development as a political thinker.

Much has been written about Lincoln as a "railsplitter," or a laborer who cut logs for rails in the wild frontier. While the author acknowledges it's "one of the greatest mythogenic acts of political image making of all time," the ax's symbolic meaning "missed the point of the man entirely." Rather, Mr. Lowry thinks the ax "represented what Lincoln wanted to leave behind" and the half-dollars he earned for his difficult early life was "what he wanted to create." More to the point, the "ax represented the frontier; the half-dollars the commercial economy. The ax the past; the half-dollars the future."

Since the Democrats were more supportive of capitalism in Lincoln's time, why did he become a Whig — and later a Republican?

Although Lincoln "grew up among Democrats" who idolized former President Andrew Jackson, it was clear that he "didn't look kindly on the agrarian romanticism of the Jacksonians." Although the Whigs "can't be pinned down cleanly in terms of contemporary political taxonomy," the party "opposed executive power ... supported government action in furtherance with economic development" and "encouraged both individual efforts at improvement, through self-discipline and work." Hence, "Lincoln's Whiggery was a statement of distinctiveness from his surroundings, and the assumptions and behaviors that came from them."

Mr. Lowry correctly points out Lincoln "is not an exact fit with either of our two competing political ideologies." Although he saw the government's role in society as a more positive virtue, he also wanted to "create more robust markets, with more people better equipped to pursue their own advancement, without government interference or guarantees." In other words, Lincoln had "more faith in the market and an up-by-the-bootstraps individualism" than any modern liberal or Democrat could ever dream of supporting. In modern terms, he would be closer to a modern conservative or Republican.

The strongest sections of "Lincoln Unbound" focus on Honest Abe's strong support of capitalism. It's a topic few of his biographers have tackled — and one in which Mr. Lowry, a conservative intellectual and free-market champion, is eminently qualified to discuss. Lincoln's belief was that if the United States "acted on sound economic principles, and stayed true to the philosophical foundations of America, the prospects for the country's growth were boundless." In the author's view, Lincoln "took his economic principles into the public square fearlessly and unyieldingly" and "leavened them with his own personal experience and his zeal for economic mobility — matching capitalist rigor with bottom-up populism." This helped define the fledging Republican Party's policies and principles for many decades.

Mr. Lowry wisely believes today's GOP should support "a Lincoln-inflected agenda within its limited-government framework," and "needs to become the Party of Lincoln in a sense more meaningful than a long-standing nickname." As the Republicans continue the painstaking process of rebuilding and reforming their party, a tip of the top hat to the old railsplitter would certainly be a nice touch.

Michael Taube, a former speechwriter for Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, is a contributor to The Washington Times.