Listen to Lincoln
A voice from the past articulates the future.
Jul 29, 2013, Vol. 18, No. 43 • By HERBERT LONDON
There is a discredited biological theory—“ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny”—which suggests that the stages that occur in one’s personal life follow the path of species evolution. Although there isn’t a valid scientific basis for the theory, it does have application to the basic thesis in Rich Lowry’s well-researched and artfully crafted new book. Abraham Lincoln’s personal life evolved from a hardscrabble existence with dim prospects for the future into the presidency. In Lincoln’s youth, the nation was recovering from a humiliating defeat in the War of 1812 that left the capital in ruins and the nation deeply in debt. But a vision of a capitalist empire was about to emerge, a vision that would transport a poor nation of farmers into an industrial behemoth.
Lincoln didn’t romanticize his background, as many historians have done. He didn’t want to be poor; he wanted respectability, and he had a plan to achieve that goal based on work, self-improvement, and character. To the chagrin of employers, and even his father, he read whenever he had a free moment, teaching himself geometry and trigonometry, grammar, and, ultimately, law. Lincoln was the embodiment of ambition, often arguing that a healthy person should either take advantage of the opportunities available to him or create those opportunities. This was Horatio Alger before Alger wrote his first novel. Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon, described Lincoln’s ambition as “a little engine that knew no rest.”
Historical bodysnatchers like Mario Cuomo have converted Lincoln into a Big Government redistributionist. But this is far from the real Lincoln. He was a Whig who believed there was a place for government in mobilizing national energies to inspire prosperity. He admired Henry Clay, who championed the “American system”—banks, tariffs, and infrastructure—in order to protect infant industries, provide sound credit for investors, and energize the potential strength of the economy. But more than anything else, Lincoln believed in personal willpower to improve one’s self. Free-market purists might reject some of his achievements, such as the Homestead Act and the creation of land-grant colleges, but for Lincoln these were ideas designed to unleash personal steadfastness. Without realizing it, Lincoln was a follower of Edmund Burke, seeking order through individual liberty. He had an undeviating faith in the generative capacities of mankind.
Lincoln’s destiny was inextricably tied to the nation’s. In helping to make free men prosperous, he would, in turn, make the nation prosperous. He made this argument in his brief against slavery: The “peculiar institution” would resist the heroic extension of human potential that was America’s destiny. And his “House Divided” speech (“A house divided against itself cannot stand”) recognized the irrepressible conflict between two visions: the South, traditional and agrarian, and the North, industrial and expansive.
For Lincoln, the Declaration of Independence laid the foundation for liberal capitalism. It made the case for human dignity and, more important, for a system that would encourage human potential. He was deeply moral, believing that there was a clear distinction between right and wrong, but he wasn’t a moralist. He was as critical of Thaddeus Stevens and the radical Republicans who insisted on immediate abolition as he was of Jefferson Davis, who fought to retain institutionalized slavery. Above all, Lincoln considered himself a Constitutionalist—notwithstanding his suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War.
Rich Lowry asks, “What would Lincoln do today?” Crossing the divide of a century-and-a-half isn’t simple mathematics; this is pure speculation, and you have to admire Lowry’s standing up to the challenge. Surely there is much that Lincoln couldn’t have imagined. Yet it is also true that his vision for mankind set the stage for the most prosperous epoch in human history. Lowry notes that Lincoln would probably disapprove of “taking money from some people and giving it to others,” since the idea of an able-bodied adult living off the labor of others was anathema to him. Similarly, Lincoln would reject class conflict since he believed that “property is desirable.” Lowry doesn’t mention it, but Lincoln undoubtedly would have been appalled by President Obama’s famous rebuke to business owners: “You didn’t build that.”
“The [Republican] party would be well served to heed the lessons of Lincoln’s tone and of his statesmanship,” writes Lowry. In 1861, Lincoln told Congress, “The struggle of today is not altogether for today—it is for a vast future also.” Can the American Dream be salvaged? Rich Lowry gives us evidence that, despite our seeming decline, Abraham Lincoln’s example offers a road to redemption and revitalization.
Herbert London, president of the London Center for Policy Research, is the author, most recently, of Decline and Revival