One of the curiosities of American politics is the extent to which we look to our history explicitly in search of guidance from great statesmen of the past as we think through the problems of the present. It is hard to imagine an Englishman addressing himself to a contemporary issue by asking what Edmund Burke or Winston Churchill would do; or a Frenchman seeking guidance from the papers of de Gaulle, or a German communing with the shade of Bismarck or Adenauer.
But in the United States we not only look back to Ronald Reagan and Franklin Roosevelt, but to Abraham Lincoln and to the greatest of the founders (Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, Madison, Hamilton, and Adams), whose lives and political actions are the subjects of endless books, articles, and arguments, and whose departed spirits we readily enlist in our current debates. Why do we do this? Do they really have something of value to contribute to our present wrangles?
We do this because Americans are “people of the text,” formed into a nation and a people not by our having inhabited our land from time immemorial, not by having been all descended from the same ancestors, and not by all belonging to the same religious faith—instead, by the power of a shared commitment to certain ideas captured in words scratched out on parchment with quill pens in the last quarter of the eighteenth century. America is truly constituted by its Constitution, which begins “We the People,” and which in turn draws all its vitality from the Declaration of Independence, the credo or “I believe” that states its principles with the words, “We hold these truths to be self-evident . . . .”
Owing to our shared consciousness that these documents and the ideas they express truly make us one united people in a republican experiment, Americans never tire of invoking the revolutionary founders who created those documents and brought the nation into being, through blood and treasure as well as ink and paper. We still live under their Constitution, trying to fulfill the promise of their Declaration, and so as facile as it may sometimes seem, it can make a good deal of sense to ask WWTFD—what would the founders do?
The same goes for WWLD—what would Lincoln do? Lincoln was himself a WWTFD man, devoted to the founders and their principles, and dedicated to the preservation of the constitutional order that they had made. As Rich Lowry shows in his new book Lincoln Unbound: How an Ambitious Young Railsplitter Saved the American Dream—And How We Can Do It Again, our sixteenth president was in many respects the very embodiment, in his own life, of the potentialities of freedom that the founders sought to unleash. It was the immense, wide-open promise of the country in which he was born, I take Lowry to mean, that “unbound” Abraham Lincoln and enabled him to rise from the humblest origins to the highest magistracy in the land.
This compact and lively book is a labor of love. Lowry has absorbed great quantities of the seemingly bottomless Lincoln literature; he knows the primary sources extremely well; and he has a fine ability to set Lincoln in historical context, helping readers understand his subject as he responded to the circumstances and issues of his own time. The resulting narrative tells us a lot about how Lowry views his country, as we see what he particularly admires about Lincoln’s life and legacy.
Lowry’s Lincoln is a thoroughgoing Whig, a man born into decidedly Jeffersonian agrarian circumstances who could not wait to escape them and get himself into Alexander Hamilton and Henry Clay’s America. An “ambitious young railsplitter,” to be sure—ambitious to quit splitting rails, to study law, to rise in the world, and to foster the rise of other ambitious young types like himself. Lincoln loved freedom, commerce, progress—the dynamism of creative energies unleashed in an open civil society.
That meant he favored a limited but strong government, one that took positive steps to foster such dynamism by creating favorable conditions for it. In practice this meant a sophisticated banking system, internal improvements in transportation infrastructure, a protective tariff for the benefit of American industries in their infancy, and a political culture grounded in the rule of law, individual rights, and an equal chance for all to get ahead. For Lowry, the America that came after Lincoln was a much better place than the one he came from—richer, freer, more socially mobile. He knows that the credit for this progress does not all belong to Lincoln—but some of it does, and Lincoln is the statesman whose vision pointed the way.
But Lincoln was no “Progressive” in the sense that word took on in later years, when used by Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, and their ideological heirs. The energetic government of Whig-Republican policy was all about getting behind individual enterprise, not getting in its way; about fostering success, not increasing the paternalistic authority of government. Yet from TR to Wilson to FDR to Obama, the American left’s “body snatchers” have tried to abduct Lincoln and dress him up in their ideological garb. Since progressives are invariably explicit or implicit critics of the founding, this particular abduction is never successful—although there is a peculiar sect of Lincoln-hating conservatives who incongruously credit the association as genuine. Lowry ably rebuts these Lincoln-as-Progressive accounts, from both left and right.
One episode in Lincoln’s career that progressives rarely highlight, perhaps because it reveals him so clearly to be a WWTFD man, is the moment when he went from being a bit player in Illinois politics to being a leading man with a political future on the larger American stage. That moment was the Lincoln-Douglas debates of 1858, when Lincoln was tapped by the Illinois Republicans to attempt unseating one of the Democratic Party’s greatest leaders, Senator Stephen Douglas. Though Lincoln lost this race, the effort justly enlarged his reputation, and paved the way for his presidential nomination two years later.
The seven three-hour debates with Douglas plumbed the depths of what American political principles truly mean. Can a democratic majority choose to do anything just because it is a majority? Must public officials and citizens surrender their own constitutional judgments and accept whatever a majority of the Supreme Court says our fundamental charter means? Are there some issues in which compromise and accommodation simply come to their outer limit, and principles must either be obeyed or lost? Is this country founded on rational truths accessible to all men and women, or on prescriptive customs that are nothing more than a gussied-up modus vivendi for a union of states?
Lowry devotes a substantial chapter to these pivotal debates, and thoroughly understands what was at stake. For Lincoln, the injustice of slavery in America represented a festering wound on the body politic. The increasing demands of the South for slavery’s protection and expansion, met by the feckless relativism of northern accommodationists like Douglas, promised the ultimate consumption of the country by the resulting disease. The country would, Lincoln correctly believed, sooner or later “become all one thing, or all the other,” and the question was, which one, and how fast? Douglas’s policy of “popular sovereignty” in the territories promised acceleration in the wrong direction, and required abandoning “the first precept of our ancient faith” in the equality, and equal rights, of all men.
All this and more, Lowry understands very well about Lincoln, and he delivers the real Lincoln convincingly. Not being a constitutional historian, he does not delve in depth into all the legal issues regarding the Dred Scott case and the Supreme Court’s power, or habeas corpus, war powers, or the Emancipation Proclamation. Nor is he a military historian, intent on providing another history of the Civil War from a strategic or battlefield perspective. Instead, as the editor of National Review—someone whose stock in trade is contemporary politics—Lowry devotes his final chapter to the “how we can do it again” of his subtitle. On the issues that confront Americans today, what if anything can we learn from Abraham Lincoln?
Quite refreshingly, Lowry sees in Lincoln a real hero and a thinker of enduring quality, someone we can learn from and not just about. From the embrace of new technology and the remaking of failing old institutions in education and government, to a critique of our welfare state’s encouragement of dependency, to the rejection of class politics and the uplifting of all who desire to work, Lowry sketches a Lincolnian vision for modern conservatism that is very appealing, and should be required reading for aspiring statesmen in the Republican Party.
There is a risk, of which Lowry is aware, that he will enlist Lincoln on the side of causes he might have rejected or resisted; I am not sure, for instance, that “secure the border” would have been part of Lincoln’s immigration agenda. But for the most part, this final chapter of the book works rather better than one might expect, because Lincoln was so very good at articulating enduring principles—a talent that goes a long way toward explaining his enduring status as the equal of the founders themselves in the minds and hearts of most Americans.
In fact, I would only fault Lowry for one or two signal omissions from his catalogue of “WWLD” considerations. Though he reminds us to “look to the founders” as Lincoln did, Lowry does not adumbrate the ominous parallels between Lincoln’s time and ours regarding the deadliest threats to the free society and the constitutional republicanism the founders bequeathed us.
In Lincoln’s day, the defenders of slavery, and their relativistic enablers such as Stephen Douglas, made a mockery of the founding principle that all men are created equal. Today, the defenders of abortion and the enablers of a “right to choose” make a mockery of the unalienable right to life, while the redefiners of marriage make a mockery of the self-evident truth, grounded in “the laws of Nature and of Nature’s God,” that marriage is the union of a man and a woman to make a family and be father and mother to any children they generate.
As in Lincoln’s day, so in ours, those who would replace the truth about human dignity and human goods with falsehoods about them will also not hesitate to corrupt our institutions, to tear at the fabric of our constitutional order and the rule of law, and to invade the genuine liberties of our citizens in the name of false freedoms. Carson Holloway argued recently here at Public Discourse that we would do well to remember the comprehensive character of Lincoln’s response to the Dred Scott ruling. When the Supreme Court treats wrongs as rights and tramples on the people’s constitutional right of self-government, the appropriate response is something more than the expression of a resigned “disappointment.” Lincoln knew this, and he can help us to recall it.
From Rich Lowry’s other writings, I believe he understands these threats to the principles of our founding, and how eerily similar our own situation is to Lincoln’s with respect to them. Had he included a discussion of these vital issues in this very fine book, it would have been still finer.
Matthew J. Franck is Director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute.