Ed Driscoll

Interview: Rich Lowry on Lincoln Unbound


Rich Lowry, the editor of the biweekly print version of National Review magazine, dubs our 16th president “the foremost apostle of opportunity in American history” in our 24-minute long interview to discuss his new book, Lincoln Unbound: How an Ambitious Young Railsplitter Saved the American Dream — and How We Can Do It Again, which is now available from Amazon.com and your local bookseller. As Lowry recently wrote at National Review: 

[Lincoln’s] 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.

In Lincoln Unbound, I make the positive case for Lincoln, but here I want to act as a counsel for the defense. The debate over Lincoln on the Right is so important because it can be seen, in part, as a proxy for the larger argument over whether conservatism should read itself out of the American mainstream or — in this hour of its discontent — dedicate itself to a Lincolnian program of opportunity and uplift consistent with its limited-government principles. A conservatism that rejects Lincoln is a conservatism that wants to confine itself to an irritable irrelevance to 21st-century America and neglect what should be the great project of reviving it as a country of aspiration.

During our interview, Rich will discuss:

● How politicians “Get right with Lincoln,” and why in 2008, it was the left that seemed more comfortable with Lincoln than many on the right.

● What did William F. Buckley think of Lincoln?

● In modern terms, what was Lincoln’s political worldview?

● Lincoln and the Civil War.

● What would Lincoln think about today’s Tea Party and Barack Obama’s myriad scandals?

● And what made Howard Dean attack Lowry personally late last month?

And much more. Click here to listen:


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MR. DRISCOLL:  This is Ed Driscoll for PJ Media.com, and we’re talking with Rich Lowry, the editor of the weekly magazine version of National Review, and the author of the new book, Lincoln Unbound: How an Ambitious Young Railsplitter Saved the American Dream–and How We Can Do It Again. It’s published by HarperCollins, and available from Amazon.com and your local bookstore. And Rich, thanks for stopping by today.

MR. LOWRY:  Hi, Ed.  Thanks so much for having me.

MR. DRISCOLL:  Rich, in addition to the Steven Spielberg movie, there have been a lot of authors recently issuing books on our sixteenth President.  What made you decide to join the ranks?

MR. LOWRY:  Well, I’ve always enjoyed and admired Lincoln, and I wanted to write this book, because I really think it gets to the why of Lincoln.  It’s — we know so much of the story, especially during the Civil War and about the assassination.  So we kind of know the what and the how.  But this goes to his why, his fundamental animating purposes.  And I think you don’t really understand Abraham Lincoln unless you understand this stuff.

And in a nutshell, it’s Lincoln as the foremost apostle of opportunity in American history.  How that played out in his own life, personally; how it influenced his politics and his policies, was absolutely fundamental to those things, and what we can learn from it in our circumstances today.

MR. DRISCOLL:  What did you learn about Lincoln while you were researching the book?

MR. LOWRY:  Well, you’re always surprised by a couple things, I think, if you just have the popular image of him in your mind.  One he hated the name Abe, he just hated that nickname.  And this just went to what he really sought his entire life was to be respectable and to be respected.  And he climbed up from literally nothing.

And there was always from almost the very beginning, this ferocious ambition and determination to him.  And he was able to make so much of himself, also, because he was exceptionally intellectually talented.  So anyone who has a view of him as a common man, so called, or as an accidental president or an accidental anything in politics, is absolutely wrong.

And another thing about him — you know, we — this is in the subtitle of my book — you know, we associate him with rail splitting, call him the rail splitting president.  He hated splitting rails.  The last thing he wanted to do in his life was split any more rails.  He’d been forced to do it, in large part, in his younger years, and he never wanted to do it again.  And he wanted to create an America that wasn’t based just on muscle and rote labor anymore.  He wanted to create a new country that was open to people’s diverse talents, who would be able to make the most of themselves, and not just live as subsistence farmers for evermore, which was the Jeffersonian and Jacksonian vision of America.

MR. DRISCOLL:  Rich, very early on in Lincoln Unbound, you used the phrase “getting right with Lincoln.”  And in recent years it’s the left that has gotten right with Lincoln, with Barack Obama in particular doing everything he can to associate himself with Lincoln in 2008 and during his inauguration.

But as you note, a certain percentage of the right – especially paleoconservatives and some libertarians who are uncomfortable with Lincoln’s legacy. Why is that?

MR. LOWRY:  Yeah, and uncomfortable understates it.  I mean, some of them just literally hate him.  And then there’s a lot of just discomfort with Lincoln, on the right.  Well, they associate him, I think unfairly, with big government.  And this goes to big arguments about a couple things.

One is just the roots of the Civil War and the legitimacy of Southern secession.  And I’m just with James Madison on that.  There wasn’t a right to secede.  The Constitution said nothing about it.  The Constitution was not like the EU today, say, a treaty between independent sovereign nations.  So I think Lincoln was right about that and right to take — keep the country together.

And two, it goes with a big argument about Lincoln’s economics.  And he was, in the context of his day, he was an activist.  You know, he wanted to provide government support to canals and railroads.  He favored a protective tariff to foster industry.  And he favored what some people pejoratively called government banking.

But all this went to the ultimate end of creating a market cash economy and a diverse economy in this country.  Because when Linc was growing up, and you’re a farmer in the middle of nowhere, that was it.  You couldn’t sell your goods.  You couldn’t get them anywhere.  So he was so eager to support canals and railroads that needed government support, oftentimes, to get off the ground, because we had a very infantile financial system then, and there just wasn’t the free floating capital to support big projects like that.

So it was all towards the end of creating a market economy, and I would argue, had nothing to do with what we associate with the welfare state today.  There were no transfer payments to individuals.  There was no red tape and bureaucracy.  There was no regulation getting in the way of development.  His vision ultimately was for a more developed and competitive economy.

So I think he’s — on the two big counts that critics on the right would lodge against him, he is innocent.  He was right to resist secession, and his economics, although we can argue about them and the record, you know, was legitimately mixed, it was more — was nothing like a Barack Obama big government economics of today.

MR. DRISCOLL:  Well, given where you practice your day job, I have to ask, what did William F. Buckley think of Lincoln?

MR. LOWRY:  He was a huge admirer.  Largely, as you’d expect, because of the words.  He just loved the Gettysburg Address and the other famous addresses.  And some of the earlier writers at National Review, Willmoore Kendall, and Frank Meyer, were Lincoln critics for some of the reasons we were just talking about.  And one of them, his friend Frank Meyer, Bill Buckley wrote a letter to the editor of the magazine dissenting from one of his critiques of Lincoln saying he regretted it so much.  And Meyer had called Lincoln an anti-humanitarian, and just Buckley recoiled from this line of attack and said it was a blasphemy.

MR. DRISCOLL:  On the flip-side, self-described Progressives such Barack Obama and his supporters in the media love to claim Lincoln as their own, but progressivism as a worldview, as an ideology, wasn’t quite yet established when Lincoln was actually in office, was it?

MR. LOWRY:  Not at all.  I mean, it was — we don’t really see the rise of progressivism in America until Teddy Roosevelt.  Now, that does not mean that some of the associated arguments with progressivism weren’t available to Lincoln.  There were people then who hated corporations, who hated banks, who argued, you know, that we were creating an economy that was fostering inequality and wasn’t this horrible.  And he just rejected all those arguments.

And where Lincoln is different from the progressives is:  1) you know, a much more realistic appreciation of human nature; 2) much greater tolerance for inequality and letting people make their own way in the country; and 3) for the way he revered the founders and believed their principles were enduring forever, and weren’t infinitely malleable and could just be suited to whatever government end is being pursued in a given moment.

MR. DRISCOLL:  So in modern terms, how would you describe Lincoln’s political worldview?

MR. LOWRY:  I would say he — you know, I try to be cautious about this, Ed, because you know, obviously it’s 150 years ago, and you don’t know how he would have changed and how he’d view all the developments since his life.  But if you just take him as you find him and take his statements and his basic point of view as they were then, and assume no major points of view, he’s much more one of us than he is one of them.

And you just look at how, again, everything to him came down to opportunity.  And he thought our free institutions were the best guarantor of prosperity.  He believed in fundamental natural rights that couldn’t be violated by anyone.  And he believed in what I basically called bourgeois moral norms.  You know, his Whigs and then his Republicans were allied with the evangelicals of the time.  And Lincoln was never, you know, a Bible thumper or a moral crusader.  But he was someone who believed very strongly in the basic virtues of responsibility and work and self-improvement.

And when I, at the end of the book, try to draw some lessons for today, I latch onto that as being very important.  Because I think we have a crisis of opportunity in this country.  And it’s not driven by inequality; it’s driven by limited mobility, especially from the bottom of the income scale.  And a lot of that has to do with culture and social breakdown.

MR. DRISCOLL:  Rich, if we’re talking about Lincoln, obviously, we have to discuss the Civil War. Could you talk briefly about how Lincoln was drawn into the Civil War and what he thought the consequences of it would be?

MR. LOWRY:  Well, he — you know, he thought he had taken an oath, as he had, to uphold faithfully and execute the laws of the country.  And he just viewed secession as an inherently lawless act.  And he, you know, was confronted with an unbelievable crisis, right?  I mean, you have seven states leaving the union before he’s even inaugurated.

And to me, as we discussed earlier, Ed, I don’t there’s a right to secession in the U.S. Constitution.  I do think anyone, though, has a right to revolution.  And you know, there are defenders of the Confederacy who will say, you know, in 1776 we seceded from Britain, and you know, our founding fathers were secessionists.  No they weren’t.  They were revolutionaries.

And you have a right to revolution, if your cause is just, if your fundamental natural rights are being violated.  And James Madison said that.  Abraham Lincoln said that.  That’s firmly within the American tradition.

But what rights were being violated in the South?  Absolutely none.  You know, some people point to the tariff.  Well, the tariff, when secession started, was at its lowest level since, I think, like 1816 or something.  Now subsequently, it went way up.  But partly because Southern senators who might have been able to block it left.

So it was all about slavery. So it was about violating the natural rights of others.  So it was a lawless act.  And Lincoln wanted to hold together the union, because he thought the union was the best vehicle in human history for the protection and the advancement of liberty.  And he ended up being right.

MR. DRISCOLL:  So Lincoln assumed that the Founding Fathers would have taken a rather dim view of the South’s efforts to secede the Union.

MR. LOWRY:  Absolutely.  And he — you know, Lincoln’s view was robustly nationalistic.  Right?  He said that the union existed prior to the states.  Without the union we never would have had any states, because the states didn’t come to exist — into existence until after the Declaration of Independence.  Prior to that, they were colonies with a higher sovereign above them in the form of Britain.

But he — you don’t need to go where he — you don’t have to be as robustly nationalistic as he was to reject secession.  And I would go, again, to James Madison, who said, you know, our Constitution is neither entirely federal nor entirely national.  It’s a little bit of both.  Part of its genius is it spread sovereignty in many ways.  But the Constitution was not just a — when you signed onto it, it just wasn’t a temporary measure.

As he said in a letter to Alexander Hamilton, you know, you’re signing into all of it in perpetuity.  And I think that’s the correct view.  It’s the view that Lincoln’s kind of partisan adversary, in some ways, Andrew Jackson, took of the matter as well.

And so I think he was right to resist secession.  And if the South had gone, you would have had a big part of a chunk of North America in a government devoted to the defense of slavery, as a positive good, as an absolutely positive good, and determined to spread that system and to take more territory in Latin America and to our southern border, to create more slave territory.  And that’s a vision that no America should want to defend.

MR. DRISCOLL:  Well in addition to settling the issue of slavery, the Civil War also decided if America would be an agrarian economy or a technological one. You spend quite a bit in Lincoln Unbound discussing how he was definitely in favor of modernizing America and its infrastructure.

MR. LOWRY:  Yeah.  He — as one historian says, he didn’t have a rustic bone in his body.  His father was a very typical subsistence farmer.  And it was an inherently limited way of life that Lincoln wanted to escape almost immediately.

And one of his bedrock principles in life is that you earn your own bread through your own toil.  And then you get the right to eat that bread.  You know, you get the proceeds of your labor.

And before he was age twenty-one, his father hired him out, made him go and do backbreaking labor, and took all the proceeds, as was his right.  And Lincoln subsequently would say, in kind of a self-pitying exaggeration — but it gives you an idea of what he thought about this — I used to be a slave.  And you know, there’s a very — you know the famous phrase from the second inaugural, where he talks about slavery as “unrequited toil”.  I mean, that’s why he thought it was wrong.  It was the theft of labor.

Anyway, he wanted to — as soon as he could leave home, he turned his back on this way of life.  He became friends with merchants.  He opened his own store in New Salem, Illinois.  He tried his hand at surveying.  He was a postmaster for a while.  But almost immediately he ran for office.  He was age twenty-three when he first ran for the Illinois legislature.  He lost that race.  But he won two years later.  And when he won, he 1) made more money than he ever had in his life, through — in his life, through the salary he got in the legislature; and also, he was around, you know, frankly kind of a better class of people, although they’re a motley crew.

But it was then that he first, it seems, got the idea of becoming a lawyer.  And he borrowed and bought books.  He read day and night.  And he became a lawyer and he would make his living through his mind and through his tongue and through his ability to argue and reason.  And he wanted to create an economy where not everyone was stuck on the farm, if they didn’t want to be.  You know, some people wanted that way of life, which is fine.  But he wanted to create other avenues of advancement in America, like he had forged for himself.

MR. DRISCOLL:  Rich, we should probably start wrapping the interview up, by placing Lincoln into a modern context. As we mentioned at the start of the interview, Barack Obama in 2008 seemed obsessed with Lincoln, and Newsweek produced a cover story that year making the comparison explicit. Given the myriad scandals that are currently engulfing the Obama administration, what would Abraham Lincoln think about the arc of Barack Obama’s presidency and how it currently stands?

MR. LOWRY:  That’s a very good question.  You know, the innocent explanation of the IRS stuff, which is that just this is a government that the President can’t control and he doesn’t know what’s going on with it; Lincoln might have some sympathy to that — with that, because in his suspensions of habeas corpus, which were obviously highly controversial, and we can get into that a little bit if you want — but a lot of the most controversial arrests that have really resounded down through history and are ongoing embarrassments for Abraham Lincoln, were undertaken by generals or local officials on the ground, without Lincoln’s knowledge.  And then he had to kind of come and clean it up afterwards.

So if we believe Obama’s defense, Lincoln might have some sympathy for it.  I think, though, the IRS matter, we are going
to — we’ve already learned increasingly that it was coming out of Washington from the lawyers at the IRS in Washington, and now it’s just a question of how much higher it went.

MR. DRISCOLL:  Barack Obama famously said early on in his administration that “I believe in American exceptionalism, just as I suspect that the Brits believe in British exceptionalism and the Greeks believe in Greek exceptionalism.” What do you think Lincoln would have made of such postmodern sophistry?

MR. LOWRY:  Well it would be utterly inexplicable to him.  And you know, he just believed in the very marrows of his bones that this was a totally unique experiment in liberty and self government, and it had to be protected at all costs.

You know, and a lot of our more “sophisticated” friends roll their eyes at the likes of Ted Cruz, because he seems to take the Constitution and the founders so seriously.  If you just look back at what Lincoln said about the founders, it’s the most grandiose and fulsome praise you can imagine.

You know, George Washington and his memory should live on in naked deathless splendor, you know, for all time.  And he meant these sort of things.  And particularly the Declaration of Independence was meaningful to him and a key element of his argument against the slave system.

And he basically said, you know, the Declaration — it could have just been merely a revolutionary document that listed all the sins of George III.  Instead it had this philosophical statement about the meaning of life and the purpose of government, you know, to protect life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

And he said the founders put that there to stick a stake in the ground and to hold us to it as a constant reminder of those truths.  And again, this is another difference between him and the progressives; he believed in natural rights that were enduring for all time.  And he would, I believe, if he were here now, today, he’d be pointing us right back to the Declaration and to the truths and holding up everything that we did to that standard and making it the test.


MR. DRISCOLL:  So it sounds like Lincoln might have been a fan of the Tea Party?

MR. LOWRY:  He certainly would have loved the Constitutionalism of the Tea Party and how the Tea Party hearkens back so fondly and so intensely to the founders.  He would love the vision of individual responsibility.  I believe that he would just be appalled that we actually have government programs supporting able-bodied people who aren’t working.

If you look back at Lincoln’s letters, he had a stepbrother who was back on the farm, was constantly short on cash and constantly hitting up Lincoln for loans.  And if you just look at some of these letters, they’re absolutely excoriating, where he just says, basically, get off your rear end and work.  Get a job for cash.  I’ll do anything to help you do that.  But your problem right now is you’re an idler.  You know?  And this is just — this is a relative asking for a loan, right.  It’s not someone sitting idle all day and taking a government payment, which would have been, again, just utterly unimaginable to him.

So again, I want to be cautious about reading — making sweeping and definitive statements about where he’d be exactly, politically, but he’d certainly find a lot to admire in the Tea Party.

MR. DRISCOLL:  And Rich, last question; because I have you on the line, I have to ask you about this. You were singled out for attack by Howard Dean of all people on MSNBC. Could you talk a bit about what brought that on, and how it played out?

MR. LOWRY:  Yeah.  It was very strange.  Howard Dean was asked on a morning show about a column I had written about Eric Holder, basically making fun of the Attorney General, as he claimed in his daily piece that he really hadn’t realized the full import of what he had done in approving the investigation into James Rosen, until he read about it in the Washington Post.  And then it dawned on him what a terrible problem this was.

And Dean was asked about this column, and he said, oh, I don’t even want to talk about that, because the National Review and Richard Lowry, they’re right-wing nutcases.  And it turned out he was very angry because we had quoted something he had said on TV a week or two earlier where he had said the whole Benghazi scandal was a laughable joke.  And Dean claimed we misquoted him, which we didn’t.  But he was obviously very, very angry.

And as we’ve learned about Howard Dean, he doesn’t keep his emotions under check very easily.  There was no screaming, but there was an outburst.

MR. DRISCOLL:  Well from Abe Lincoln to  Howard Dean – [Dean Scream sound effect inserted] – that’s really the apogee and the perigee of American politics. This has been Ed Driscoll for PJ Media.com, and we’ve been talking with Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, and the author of the new book, Lincoln Unbound: How an Ambitious Young Railsplitter Saved the American Dream–and How We Can Do It Again. It’s published by HarperCollins, and available from Amazon.com and your local bookstore. And Rich, thank you once again for stopping by today.

MR. LOWRY:  Thanks so much, Ed.  I enjoyed it.

(End of recording.)

Transcribed by eScribers.net, with minor revisions (including hyperlinks) by Ed Driscoll. Thumbnail image on PJM homepage by Shutterstock.com.