Rich Lowry: Lincoln Unbound

Rich Lowry is the editor of National Review and the author, most recently, of Lincoln Unbound: How an Ambitious Young Railsplitter Saved the American Dream–and How We Can Do It Again, published today. I asked Rich if he would write about the book for Power Line readers on the book’s publication date. Rich has graciously responded as follows:

Scott, thanks so much for the invitation to tell your readers a little bit about my new book, Lincoln Unbound. As someone who has read and profited from Power Line for a long time, I am grateful.

In the book, I trace the rise of Lincoln from rural poverty and argue that aspiration was fundamental to his politics. This focus allows me to relate parts of Lincoln’s story that are affecting and amusing, not so well known, and incredibly important to his animating purpose.

He had two large goals, both of which had to do with making America more thoroughly a nation of opportunity. One was to end the backwoods isolation in which he grew up. This drew him to the Whigs. The party had an economic program geared toward developing a diverse, market economy where people had options besides being farmers. And it put great stock in “self-improvement,” i.e., the education, discipline, and orderliness that tended to be in short supply on the frontier.

Even though he grew up surrounded by Jacksonian Democrats–who romanticized rural life–Lincoln became a thoroughgoing and committed Whig, and turned his back on his family and its way of life as soon as he could escape.

The second goal was to end slavery, a system that obviously denied an entire class of people any opportunity and also blighted the chances of non-slaveholding whites unable to compete with the plantations.

Slavery offended Lincoln’s basic sense of justice. He believed “each individual is naturally entitled to do as he pleases with himself and the fruit of his labor.” And he believed that each of us should have an equal chance in the “race of life.” Slavery–or “unrequited toil,” as he famously called it in the Second Inaugural–took away the slave’s “right of ever striving to be a man.”

Although Lincoln is not an exact fit for either our contemporary political ideologies, I argue that he is much more one of us than one of them. He loved liberty; he welcomed the market; he sought economic growth and change; he revered property; he rejected class warfare; he celebrated individual initiative; he defended the Founders and their principles; and he insisted on adherence to basic cultural norms.

I think this Lincoln, the true Lincoln, is so important for us to recover because the country is experiencing a crisis of opportunity. He is especially important to the Republican Party if it hopes to address this crisis. It has to be the party of aspiration and develop a program in a Lincolnian key that promotes economic dynamism, education, and the basic bourgeois virtues of work, responsibility, and family.

I love the little speech that Lincoln gave to the troops of the 166th Ohio regiment during the war when he called opportunity in America– “equal privileges in the race of life, with all its desirable human aspiration”–”an inestimable jewel.” So it is. He devoted himself to securing it and so should we.

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