Rich Lowry: Lincoln Defendedtags: conservatism, Civil War, Abraham Lincoln, National Review, Rich Lowry
Rich Lowry is editor of National Review. Parts of this essay are drawn from his new book Lincoln Unbound: How an Ambitious Young Railsplitter Saved the American Dream — and How We Can Do It Again, coming out this month from Broadside Books.
Decades ago, the distinguished Lincoln biographer David Herbert Donald coined the phrase “getting right with Lincoln” to describe the impulse people feel to appropriate Lincoln for their own political agendas. Anyone who has watched Barack Obama, who as a senator wrote an essay for Time magazine entitled “What I See in Lincoln’s Eyes” and swore the oath of office as president on Lincoln’s Bible, will be familiar with the phenomenon. Democrats like to claim Lincoln as, in effect, the first Big Government liberal, while Republicans tout him as the founder of their party.
But the reflex identified by Donald isn’t universally felt. A portion of the Right has always hated Old Abe. It blames him for wielding dictatorial powers in an unnecessary war against the Confederacy and creating the predicate for the modern welfare state, among sundry other offenses against the constitutional order and liberty.
The anti-Lincoln critique is mostly, but not entirely, limited to a fringe. Yet it speaks to a longstanding ambivalence among conservatives about Lincoln. A few founding figures of this magazine were firmly in the anti-Lincoln camp. Libertarianism is rife with critics of Lincoln, among them Ron Paul and the denizens of the fever-swamp at LewRockwell.com. The Loyola University Maryland professor Thomas DiLorenzo has made a cottage industry of publishing unhinged Lincoln-hating polemics. The list of detractors includes left-over agrarians, southern romantics, and a species of libertarians — “people-owning libertarians,” as one of my colleagues archly calls them — who apparently hate federal power more than they abhor slavery. They are all united in their conviction that both in resisting secession and in the way he did it, Lincoln took American history on one of its great Wrong Turns.
The conservative case against Lincoln is not only tendentious and wrong, it puts the Right crosswise with a friend. As I argue in my new book, Lincoln Unbound, Abraham Lincoln was perhaps the foremost proponent of opportunity in all of American history. His economics of dynamism and change and his gospel of discipline and self-improvement are particularly important to a country that has been stagnating economically and suffering from a social breakdown that is limiting economic mobility. No 19th-century figure can be an exact match for either of our contemporary competing political ideologies, but Lincoln the paladin of individual initiative, the worshiper of the Founding Fathers, and the advocate of self-control is more naturally a fellow traveler with today’s conservatives than with progressives....
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