Opinion: Columnists

Why Lincoln will always matter

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Noemie Emery,Columnists,President,Analysis,Constitutionality

About 15,000 books have been written about Abraham Lincoln -- only Jesus outranks him, and He has the Bible -- but if you can read only one, it should be Rich Lowry's "Lincoln Unbound."

In a mere 240 pages, the National Review editor tells you why Lincoln would have been a great man had the Civil War never happened, and it why it is that America matters, and what this should mean to us all.

The clue to it all is the word "opportunity," which was his creed and his touchstone, and the great driving force of his life. It was opportunity that took him from a primitive life of brute labor to a political future at age 23.

It was opportunity that he tried to bring to his world through his life's two great causes: to break the slave culture, which withheld it from thousands of blacks because of their color; and the isolation and poverty of the backcountry he came from, which held thousands of whites in its thrall.

"We might romanticize his background," Lowry tells us, but Lincoln did not. He hated it, dreamed of escape, and finally did at the first opportunity, leaving a life of mind-numbing hard labor for what passed in those days for a city, and then for political life.

As he rose step by step to the prosperity and prestige that he longed for, he tried to make it easier for others also to do so, opening the channels of trade and communication that led in their turn that led in their turn to travel and commerce, to goods made, sold, and traded, to inventions and progress; to professions, and middle-class life.

He was a friend to the new and a friend to the city, a friend, as Emerson said, of the mine, telegraph, mill, and the map. Democrats like Andrew Jackson and Thomas Jefferson thought commerce a threat; but, like Alexander Hamilton and Henry Clay, Lincoln thought it the engine of social mobility.

"He thrilled to steam power and iron, to invention and technology, to the beneficent upward spiral of a commercial economy," as Lowry tells us. "He wanted to encourage industry. He wanted to modernize banking. He hated isolation, backwardness, and any obstacles to the development of a cash economy of maximal openness and change."

Fuelling this all was his own calibration of the moral dimension of wealth. From his unhappy youth, he remembered two incidents -- his resentment when his father hired him out and then took his wages, and the joy that he felt when he earned his first dollar - two silver coins tossed in his flatboat from men he had ferried out to a steamer mid-stream.

"By honest work, I had earned a dollar," as he would say later. "The world seemed wider and fairer before me. I was a more hopeful and confident being from that time."

It was this in the end that fueled his revulsion from slavery. Blacks were never allowed to own and enjoy the results of their labor, and they were barred from the hope of a normal advancement.

The poorest white laborer could hope to rise to become an employer, but a slave was forever a slave. In its isolation, the backwoods thwarted human advancement; in its pretentions, the plantation betrayed the American promise.

"He made it his project in life to dissolve the isolation of the backwoods of his upbringing and to unravel slavery," as Lowry tells us. And in the end he did both.

The plantation is gone, and so is the frontier, but threats to the promise keep arising.

Lincoln's conditions cannot be copied. But adopting his values would be a good start toward achieving similar results.

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