BTRIPP (btripp) wrote,

Complicated Abe ...

This was one of those fortuitous dollar store finds from a few months back. I almost didn't pick it up, because, as amenable to reading history books as I am, I am not one of those with a particular interest in the Civil War, or Mr. Lincoln. However, when I noted that Lincoln Unbound: How an Ambitious Young Railsplitter Saved the American Dream--and How We Can Do It Again was penned by Rich Lowry (editor of the late, great William F. Buckley's National Review), I figured that I'd at least get some rah-rahs out of it. This just came out in 2013, so I wasn't greatly surprised to see that it's still in print, and was just lucking out from one of those Walmart shelf dumps that (thankfully) feed the dollar store channel.

Towards the end of the book, Lowry notes: “Lincoln himself is so revered that nearly everyone wants to make a claim on him. And his tradition is capacious enough that nearly everybody can.” This, to a certain extent, points to the raison d'être of the book … something of a reclaiming, or re-centering, Lincoln into the mainstream of the Republican Party. On one hand, the Statists hold Lincoln up as a justification of their incessant power grabs and extra-Constitutional pen-and-phone dictates, while on the other front (and I've read a good deal of this online), hard-core Libertarians hold Lincoln up as an example of how easily “tyranny” can establish itself here (decrying the very things the Left lauds him for). A lot of books are out there that drag Mr. Lincoln left, right, and even into zombie hunting … in his book, Rich Lowry seems to be trying to return this great President to his legitimate historical setting.

While I generally enjoyed reading this, I was somewhat disappointed to find that I had dropped in only a couple of my little bookmarks pointing me to the “good stuff” to put in this review, and both of those come in the last chapter. This, of course, means that you're going to be seeing more “broad strokes” here than otherwise. One of these, though, I felt was quite good at summing up the over-all theme of the book, so forgive the multiple-paragraph quote:
      It is altogether proper that we celebrate Lincoln the war leader and the emancipator. He transfixes us, and always will. The events stretching from Secession Winter in 1860-61 to the assassination at Ford's Theater constitute the greatest drama in American history this side of the Revolution. But they aren't all there is to Lincoln. Long before any shots were fired, he was committed to a vision that would create the predicate for modern America.
      Lincoln believed in a dynamic capitalism that dissolved old ways of life. He thought all men were created equal and deserved the opportunity to make the most of themselves. He urged them to make the effort to do so. He found in America's constitutional system and its free institutions the best possible platform for the realization of this vision. This is the Lincoln that is too often lost – and must be found – to truly understand him and, really, to understand who we are as a people.
While nominally structured as a biography, with a narrative arc tracking through his history, much of the descriptive material (of which there quite a lot that I'd not previously encountered, some of which was fascinating) serves as a jumping-off point for discussions of what could be called Lincoln's philosophy, or as Lowry puts it at one point, not the “how” or “what”, but the “why”.

In the opening pages of Lincoln Unbound, the author introduces a theme that works its way throughout the book … that Lincoln was no fan of his modest origins, and constantly strove to create conditions where his fellow citizens wouldn't be chained to rural subsistence for their survival:
We might romanticize his background, the log cabins and all the rest of it. Lincoln didn't. He didn't want to be poor; he wanted to be respectable. … From his first stirrings as a politician, Lincoln committed himself to policies to enhance opportunity. He wanted to build canals and railroads to knit together the nation's markets. 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. He thrilled to steam power and iron, to invention and technology, to the beneficent upward spiral of a commercial economy.
Of course, much of the flow of the book is quite familiar to anybody paying attention in school … the many jobs the young Lincoln held, his work with the Whig Party, his early attempts at public service and political office, and these are certainly all here, albeit in a lot more detail than the basic grade school (or high school) text – which on occasion floated into that TMI zone where I found myself not really caring about the details of so-and-so and his store, or such-and-such campaign, etc. … although I suppose their inclusion adds to the richness of the tale. I was interested in reading of the books that the young Lincoln felt to be fundamental to his learning, and to the relation of instances where he expressed a nearly Jain-like (certainly very extreme for the time and culture) consideration for animals. Everybody knows of Lincoln's penchant for reading, but it is amusing to see all the quotes strewn through here of employers, associates, and relatives accusing him of being lazy for the large amounts of time he spent “reading & thinking” … evidently also not generally approved of in his early environment.

As one might expect, a great deal of the book traces Lincoln's political career … but here this is presented in a level of detail which digs deep into the structures of political parties at the time (and how the Whigs more-or-less transmuted into the Republican Party), how various parts of government operated (banking is a recurring issue in relation to this), and, as things moved forward to the advent of the Civil War, how the North and South differed (one factoid presented stood out to me: “if the South were a country in 1860 … it would have been the fourth richest in the world”). A lot of space is dedicated to the on-going Lincoln-Douglass debates (Lincoln essentially following along behind the well-funded and “deluxe” Douglas campaign and making his speeches following – having “traveled coach” on standard commercial rail transport. In regards to Lincoln's rhetoric Lowry notes:
His truest blow against his opponents in the 1850s and 1860s were those he struck while wielding the Declaration of Independence. The purposes he identified in the Founders and their handiwork are continually relevant. … He believed that they drew us back into the deepest principles of our republic in the Declaration. And they gave us, of course, our foundational law in the Constitution.
Somewhat oddly, the war is only peripheral to the story arc here … while it and Lincoln's assassination “hang over” the history, they are largely only referenced in relation to other, more philosophical elements. Again, the focus here is on Lincoln's “whys” throughout his life, which led up to the Civil War, and he was dead within a week of the Confederacy's surrender – not leaving much room for any “summing up” of his thoughts on the subject.

I rather enjoyed Lincoln Unbound, but I do need to make a note that I am politically rather in sync with its author … and I noticed that among the generally quite positive Amazon reviews/ratings (82% 4-5 stars), the ones which were not positive tended to feature Statists/Leftists throwing hissy fits about the underlying framing involved here. So, if you're the type who has ever worn a Che t-shirt, you'll probably not like this nearly as much as I did … although I suspect if those types could side-step their indoctrination, the charms of this telling might still engage them.

As I noted up top, this is still available at retail (despite copies floating off to the dollar stores), with the online big boys offering it for a considerable discount (41% off of cover as of this writing) … so there is a decent chance of it being on the shelf at your local brick-and-mortar book vendor. However, no doubt due to it having hit the dollar stores, “very good” copies can be had online for a penny plus shipping … making it pretty reasonable should you think this would be something you'd like to venture into!

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Tags: book review
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