The editor of the National Review sketches the political character of our 16th president.
Ever since his assassination and swift elevation to the pantheon of our greatest presidents, “getting right with Lincoln,” in the memorable phrase of one historian, has been the business of our mainstream politicians. As they grope to align themselves with Lincoln’s legacy, unembarrassed by any “ideological body snatching,” much mischief ensues. To discover what Lincoln truly believed, Lowry (Legacy: Paying the Price for the Clinton Years, 2009, etc.) confines himself largely to Lincoln's pre-presidential career, explaining how the backwoods boy of little schooling and negligible property early on identified with the Whigs rather than the Jacksonian Democrats who captured so many of his similarly situated peers. The Rail-Splitter, he argues, is best understood not as a man of the axe but of the book, not so much by his origins as by his aspirations. For the deeply ambitious Lincoln, enhancing opportunity was the animating principle of his politics, and he committed himself to a program of uplift and improvement that offered the best chance for his fellow citizens to transcend their upbringings. Personally, Lincoln avoided most vices, and he preached and exemplified the habits of self-control, rationality and industriousness. Politically, he elevated the value of work, held property sacrosanct and looked to the Founding Fathers as a guide for renewing an American spirit gone flabby. Lowry sets out Lincoln’s platform: enthusiastic support for economic growth, internal improvements, new technologies, education and a sound national banking system; a profound respect for our constitutional system and free institutions; and a refusal to engage in class warfare, to sentimentalize agrarianism or to denigrate achievement. Some readers are bound to accuse Lowry of nudging Lincoln into the author’s own preferred categories of belief, but they’ll be hard-pressed to find any violation of the historical record.
A quick, smoothly readable account of Lincoln the political striver, the embodiment of the Declaration’s “central idea…that every man can make himself.”