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Spring 2014
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Books and Culture

Jeremy Rozansky
Honest Abe’s Advice to Conservatives
From economics to social values, the Great Emancipator remains an indispensable guide.
26 July 2013

Lincoln Unbound: How an Ambitious Young Railsplitter Saved the American Dream—and How We Can Do It Again, by Rich Lowry (Broadside Books, 288 pp., $26.99)

Republicans have spent much time since last year’s election discussing what went wrong and what must change for the party to prevail in 2016. Some have focused on unlocking the critical Latino vote, others on de-emphasizing social issues to attract younger voters. Perhaps the most persuasive argument among conservative intellectuals is that the Republican Party must adjust its message and its policies to appeal to the working class. But political parties shouldn’t be just compounds of interest groups, forever trying to get to 51 percent. They are—or should be—vehicles that reflect an array of sentiments about what is good for our society. And so the party of conservative sentiments must see its pitch to the working class (or the young, or Latinos) as emanating from its conservatism. One must begin from conservatism’s meaning and build outward toward an agenda that conservatives can support. In this effort, much can be learned from the example of America’s greatest conservative: Abraham Lincoln.

Lincoln described himself as a conservative in his famous 1860 speech at Cooper Union, which so impressed Republican graybeards that they made him their presidential nominee. He asked: “What is conservatism? Is it not adherence to the old and tried, against the new and untried?” Lincoln was referring to his dual intellectual inheritance: the natural-rights syllogisms of the Founders and the frontier ethic of his Midwest boyhood. In Lincoln Unbound, Rich Lowry, the editor of National Review, describes how Lincoln melded the two into a coherent idea of America. It’s an ambitious book, seeking to bring Lincoln’s ideas to bear on twenty-first-century policymaking.

We romanticize the young rail-splitter and Sangamon County lawyer who kept his “office” in his stovepipe hat. And we tend to know Lincoln primarily as a wartime president and as the Great Emancipator. Lowry shows the links between these two images, one homely and the other heroic. The ethic of the Ohio River Valley frontier as it grew into a full-fledged commercial economy—an ethic that praised labor as the path to improve one’s station—became incompatible with a system in which one group of men “wrings their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces.” As Lowry shows, “equality” for Lincoln meant the equal right to make something out of one’s life. Thus, Lincoln’s first major wartime address describes the Union’s leading object as “lifting artificial weights from all shoulders”—a directive that seems as applicable to the eradication of slavery as to the elimination of economic barriers. Lincoln wanted men to be strivers, and he thought we were all equal in our right to strive.

A Whig among Jacksonians, Lincoln championed the commercial economy in the untamed West. He did not share Jefferson’s romance for small farmers. He loved new technologies and gadgets, and he remains the only president to hold a patent. He supported tariffs, land-grant colleges, the transcontinental railroad, the Homestead Act, and other public policies aimed at economic growth. Self-control, order, rationality, and industriousness were Lincoln’s cardinal virtues, and he sought institutions that would instill them—or, at least, not corrode them.

If this sounds like the main current of American conservatism, it’s no accident, and not because Lowry is selectively reading. Conservatism’s task is to use what is best in our society to improve it. We still live in Lincoln’s America. The striving, the bustling commerce, the constant competitive challenge that even the largest industries and companies face, the great national feats, the power the word “equality” still carries—all of these are characteristic of our Lincolnian republic. Lowry fears, though, that Lincoln’s America is slowly dissipating.

Broad forces, from the post-industrial economy to the breakdown of the family, have threatened to make economic status a matter of inheritance, not effort. A huge welfare state has eroded the impulse to strive. An ethos of self-expression has displaced Whiggish virtues of self-control. Conservatives, Lowry maintains, need to recapture a Lincolnian agenda of economic modernization with an eye toward growth, combined with a defense of bourgeois virtues. And this means getting beyond the inefficient social model of the past half-century, in which government increasingly crowds out the more dynamic private sector. We can improve our human capital with more choice in education and more high-skill immigration, and we can upgrade our physical capital with discerning investments in infrastructure and research. Regulation should be eased where possible and crafted with moderation. America should tap its considerable natural resources.

What about those social issues? Lowry cites Lincoln’s little-known Temperance Address of 1842, in which the 33-year-old advocated “kind, unassuming persuasion” as the best way to influence personal conduct. The speech showed how politicians can be moralistic without judging and demeaning others. It’s an example Republicans can learn from.

Too often, Republicans have talked and acted as if the essence of conservatism is making budgets balance. It isn’t. American conservatism holds fast to a constellation of virtues: liberty, industriousness, and temperance, among others. Conservatives must emphasize these, and Lincoln provides unmatched instruction in how and why to do so. We should be wary of overemphasizing the pursuit of economic growth, or, as Lowry calls it, the ethic of “work, work, work.” Growth is unsettling for many. The challenge is to formulate an economic agenda that balances innovation with social cohesion. If conservatives talk only about “opportunity,” they will overlook Americans’ other vital concerns about stability and everyday satisfaction. A conservatism that fails to speak to these sentiments won’t win—and won’t deserve to. Perhaps Lincoln can be of instruction here, too.

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