Rich Lowry’s new book on Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln Unbound, offers itself as an argument via biography, using Lincoln’s life to explore the meaning of his ideas. Lowry presents Lincoln as a model of what Republican governance could mean and an exemplar of what the free market can accomplish.
One of the key arguments of Lincoln Unbound is that Lincoln fought for an industrialized, market-oriented United States as a way of extending the project of liberation. Lowry casts Lincoln as a descendent of Henry Clay, who sought to nurture nascent American industry and thereby increase US economic might. For Lincoln and others, Lowry suggests, the seeds of political liberty within the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution should be complemented by the project of economic and industrial modernization. Canals, roads, and railways knit the nation together, allowing individuals in formerly remote areas to participate in a broader market. This participation helped break the cycle of subsistence farming, and in turn extended the reach of opportunity.
Lowry casts Lincoln as a paradigmatic figure for this transformation; the transition from the son of a poor farmer to prairie lawyer to US president recapitulates the broader hopes of Lincoln for American modernization. Just as Lincoln was able to rise in the world through participating in the opportunities of the market, so too could any number of Americans. And Lincoln sought to increase this number of Americans to make it as large as possible. For Lincoln, opportunity was not meant to be limited to the lucky elect; rather, opportunity should be a feast for all.
Lowry argues that, for Lincoln and his allies, the plantation economy was both politically and economically backward-looking. Along with its other grievous moral wrongs, the slave system denied both political and economic agency to slaves. This lack of agency contaminated the whole of the plantation economy. This plantation system avoided technological progress and instead celebrated an agrarian model with colossal and fixed differences between the super-elite and the masses of laboring poor.
The argument that Lowry advances in this book is one well worth making and one that comes at an opportune time. The past decade or so has witnessed a tremendous slow-down in economic growth and the hollowing out of opportunity for the middle class. Many have estimated that economic mobility has declined in the United States. This economic decline has increased human misery and also opened the door for larger centralized government intervention, which can itself be used to benefit the powerful at the expense of the average worker (or aspiring worker). Detroit’s bankruptcy provides a stark contemporary context for Lincoln Unbound: the city of industry and a formerly middle-class metropolis (a city that in many ways realized the aspirations of Lincoln) now---due to a variety of social, economic, and political factors---teeters on the brink.
The final chapter of Lincoln Unbound recounts some of the opportunity shortfalls of the present and offers some possible Lincolnian policy responses. In addition to including economic suggestions (such as making better use of natural resources and investing in infrastructure), this list also focuses on questions of civic and social temperament (such as interest in the average worker, support for education, and an elevation of the culture). Some of these suggestions are not simply matters of government policy but also demand broader social reform. For example, enterprises that would elevate the culture would go far beyond focusing on specific pieces of legislation; instead, they would participate in a broader social conversation.
Lowry aims this book at everyone, but it particularly speaks to the electoral difficulties currently facing Republicans. Lincoln Unbound suggests some ways in which the Republican party and conservatism can reenergize themselves not by selling out principles but instead by turning to face some of the pressing issues of the moment with a renewed political imagination.
Lincoln Unbound helps recover an alterative way of talking about politics and the organization of political principles into a governing philosophy. Lincoln offers a political approach that combines market capitalism with moral uplift and civic freedom with a defense of republican legitimacy. For Lincoln and many of his fellow Republicans, personal virtue and moral probity were important components of self-governance; morality itself, they found, was a vehicle for achieving true liberty. At a time when the nation-state is viewed with some skepticism by transnational progressives and various globalists, Lincoln’s vision offers a defense of a national republic as a way of extending the enjoyment of civil liberty and the recognition of human dignity. Lincoln at his best does not defend a caricature of capitalism in which “maker” wars against “taker” but instead celebrates the aspiration and worth of all men and women. This book makes a case for the notion that free markets and technological advancements can work for the good of humanity. Those who defended the Union during the Civil War recognized that a balanced budget alone was not enough to ensure freedom: the maintenance of liberty required a republic vigorous in self-defense and strong in moral vision (but not drunk on self-righteousness), and also demanded the nurturing of a civic culture capable of sustaining a free republic.
Clearly written and often subtly argued, Lincoln Unbound performs one of the important roles of historical narratives: it sifts through past traditions in order to cast light on the present and to suggest the value of some enduring principles.
(Disclosure: I occasionally contribute to National Review Online, which Lowry edits.)