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The Lincoln Blueprint

Rich Lowry answers the question all Republicans should be asking: What would Lincoln do today?

By From the September 2013 issue

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Lincoln Unbound: How an Ambitious Young Railsplitter Saved the American Dream—and How We Can Do It Again
by Rich Lowry
(Broadside Books, 288 pages, $27)

RICHARD LOWRY, editor-in chief of National Review, has written a Lincoln book to inspire a great awakening of the classical American dream. Lowry’s Lincoln Unbound brings America’s 16th president to life in ways that few biographies have attempted. His is a book intended to rejuvenate conservatism and the Republican Party, placing it squarely on the foundation of Lincoln’s public philosophy—though the Democrats, if they want to bypass the neo-socialism and statism of their present leadership, would do well to pay attention too. Lowry makes it clear that until the modern Republican Party embraces most (but not all) of Lincoln’s comprehensive vision of the American opportunity society, political victory will be elusive. 

Lincoln Unbound envisions a future Republican Party finally set free—like Prometheus—from ancient antagonisms, namely the intraparty disputes that prevent conservatives from embracing the Lincoln legacy. Lincoln’s vision of economic growth based on a rising, growing, middle class empowered by an entrepreneurial culture is Lowry’s formula for a new majority party. Like the original party of Lincoln, it might govern an ever-advancing, increasingly prosperous nation for several generations into the future. 

Lowry spells out this Republican-conservative doctrine: “Lincoln believed in a dynamic capitalism that dissolved old ways of life,” that “all men were created equal,” and that all persons “deserved the opportunity to make the most of themselves.” America, Lincoln believed, would be at its best as a diversified commercial and industrial republic grounded in free soil and free men. With every fiber of his being, Lincoln worked to make America a nation open to all talents—in peace, even in war. For example, his economic program during the war was an extraordinary design for growth and nation-building, employing capital and labor cooperatively in order to defeat the Confederacy and stitch together a prosperous continental country for the future. The land-grant colleges, the transcontinental railroad, the Homestead Act—which privatized the vast public lands of the Plains states—the National Banking Act, the Freedmen’s Bureau, and so much more were launched during the Civil War. These measures were guided by the optimistic and enterprising effort of a Republican administration determined to create vocational opportunities for all the talents, but not to commandeer by government bureaucracy the great American experiment of individual liberty, family advancement, and economic prosperity. Every American should participate in the culture of self-improvement—much as the humblest farmer once made his way on his own quarter-section, or as the clever scientist gained opportunity at the land-grant college. 

For Lincoln, such a plan was not original. As Lowry writes, “He found in America’s constitutional system, and its free institutions, the best possible platform for realization of this vision. This is the Lincoln that is too often lost—and must be found…” But found by whom? The party of Lincoln today, the authentic party of the American dream, Lowry believes, is the GOP. Republicans are the ones most likely to fulfill the aspirations of all lower- and middle-income families: a chance to improve their children’s station, focused education, vocational excellence, income growth—while at the same time rejecting welfare for the able-bodied.

Lowry isn’t shy about asking—and answering—the question, “What would Lincoln do today?”

His essential formula wouldn’t have to change much: economic growth; policies to enhance the market and ensure that it is as fluid and flexible as possible; education; an ethic of self-reliance, free of control or dependence on others; and a commitment to order and self-regulating conduct. We should be a strenuous society that demands individual exertion and rewards it, and that is open to all, without favor or prejudice. We should be a country where you can make your way and you have to make your way.

The Republican Party must lead the American people, from top to bottom, to strive for achievement and the self-esteem that follows in its wake. “Striving is desirable in and of itself, regardless of the impact it has on the country’s growth,” Lowry writes. “It is good for us, and it is written into the country’s DNA.” And it should be the responsibility of every family, every common school, and leaders from all walks of life to inculcate all American men and women, not merely the college-educated, with Lincoln’s gospel of self-improvement. The government at all levels can help by establishing the conditions, such as market-enhancing schools and public works, to enable the workforce to become more educated, more mobile, and ever-advancing with American economic growth. 

The Lincolnian party, as Lincoln himself said, must embrace basic security for widows, orphans, the disabled, the aged, and the infirm. But it must refuse to compromise with malingerers or take part in corporate corruption and malfeasance, subsidies without limit to the able-bodied and the well-connected. Today, the party of Lincoln must reject the insider privileges now given to the vast financial class through Federal Reserve bailouts and cheap Fed credit reserved only for privileged financial institutions.

BORN POOR, ABRAHAM Lincoln was truly a self-made man, believing, as he said, that “work, work, work is the main thing.” His economic policy was designed not only to clear the way for every American, but also to spell out incentives to encourage entrepreneurs to create new jobs, new products, new wealth. The inalienable rights to liberty and equal opportunity would lead to social mobility. Intelligence, hard work, and free labor would lead to savings and innovation. Government’s role was to carefully foster the conditions of growth.

He rejected the idea of any necessary conflict between labor and capital, believing them to be cooperative in nature. Cooperation as well as competition could, he believed, lead to economic growth and increasing opportunity for all. He believed in what historian Gabor Boritt has called “the right to rise.” Lincoln’s America was, in principle, a color-blind America. “I want every man to have the chance,” Lincoln announced in New Haven in March 1860, “and I believe a black man is entitled to it…when he may look forward and hope to be a hired laborer this year and the next, work for himself afterward, and finally to hire men to work for him! That is the true system.” Such a color-blind economic system was the counterpart of the color-blind equality principle of the Declaration of Independence. The great black abolitionist, Frederick Douglass, saw this clearly, pronouncing the fitting tribute when he said of President Lincoln that he was “the first great man that I talked with in the United States freely, who in no single instance reminded me of the difference of color.” He attributed Lincoln’s attitude to the fact that he and Lincoln were self-made men: “both starting at the lowest rung of the ladder.”

President Lincoln transformed American history. He had accepted war to preserve the Union, and with war, freedom for the slaves. Without his leadership and resolve, separate slave and free countries might have competed as neighbors on the same continent. Thus, there might have been no integrated, continental American economy, and without a united industrial power, the means would not have existed to contain imperial Germany as it reached for European hegemony in 1914. Neither would there have been a national power strong enough to destroy Hitler’s Nazi Reich, nor to crush the aggressions of imperial Japan. And in the end, there would have been no unified, continental American power to oppose and overcome the communist empire of the second half of the 20th century. Nations based upon the invidious distinctions of race and class, the defining characteristics of the malignant world powers of our era, were preempted by the force and leadership of the United States of America. In Lincoln’s words, “We made the experiment; and the fruit is before us. Look at it—think of it. Look at it, in its aggregate grandeur, of extent of country, and numbers of population…”

What might be the final judgment on Lowry’s Lincoln? It is short, honest, and true, a well-researched, comprehensive picture of Lincoln in his own time and for our time. In a word, Lowry’s book is the way forward. It is a peerless example of edification through outstanding biography—the author having chosen a great American leader whose public philosophy is timeless. In getting right with Lincoln, an aspiring Republican Party today will get right with the new American majority. So I say, look deeply, my fellow conservatives. In Lincoln Unbound you may find deliverance. 

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About the Author

Lewis E. Lehrman is a senior partner at L. E. Lehrman & Co. and chairman of the Lehrman Institute.