Book Review: Lincoln Unbound

Lincoln Unbound:  How An Ambitious Young Railsplitter Saved The American Dream–And How We Can Do It Again, by Rich Lowry

This book was a pleasure to read, and a bit surprisingly so.  As someone who reads a distressingly large amount of Lincoln books, I find quite often that people write about Lincoln with a distinct political agenda in mind [1].  The author himself, interestingly, points this out.  To be sure, this book has an agenda, and the author has an agenda, but the author is so refreshingly honest about where his interpretation comes from and where he believes he would disagree with Lincoln that there is no reason to view this book with any sort of hostility.  He is open about his biases and his perspective, and they happen to be biases I share myself and so the hermeneutic of charity is easy to apply to this particular book.  Ultimately, the author is looking at Abraham Lincoln and his devotion to sober virtue and discipline as a model for contemporary society which has forgotten about the need for virtue and sobriety as an essential foundation for success, along with relentless self-education and personal improvement, all of which were characteristics of Lincoln’s approach as he rose from rural poverty in his childhood to urban professional respectability and eventually the highest office in the land.

This book is about 240 pages or so and is divided into six chapters that show a facet of Lincoln’s approach and worldview when it came to economics and the role of government, an area of considerable contemporary debate.  The book opens with a look at Lincoln’s America during the time of his youth, when the West was still wild and sparsely inhabited.  After that the author turns his attention to Lincoln’s restless and immense ambition that drove him to self-education despite the fact that it was viewed by others as laziness.  The author then turns to Lincoln’s political worldview as a sober, industrious, thriving Whig, and what that meant in the times as well as by implication for us.  The author then looks at the genius of American capitalism and Lincoln’s enthusiastic support of industrialization and development.  After this he turns his attention to the Lincoln-Douglas debates and what it meant as far as race.  The last two chapters of the book extend the author’s view of Lincoln, which is certainly a sensible one, to the period after his death.  First, he looks at the realization of Lincoln’s optimism about America’s growth in the decades after his assassination, and then the author looks at what would be necessary for Americans to recover Lincoln’s intense work and self-improvement ethic.

Overall, this book succeeds because instead of using selected Lincoln quotes as a way of trying to bolster a political worldview, as if often the case with contemporary Progressives, the author actually takes Lincoln’s political worldview seriously and comes up with a reasonable extrapolation of that worldview for the present.  The author admits the distance between himself and the way he views Lincoln to be, which is not something all writers are as good about in this subject, but he also views Lincoln as a standard for others to aim at rather than simply someone to appropriate.  Lincoln’s sober and somewhat cold-blooded approach, his awkwardness, and the intensity of his efforts to improve and educate himself and escape the rural poverty of his youth are definitely models to the behavior of some people, myself included.  Whether or not he serves as a model and an example for others to escape the trap of poverty through the cultivation of virtue and self-discipline remains to be seen, though.  In a crowded field of books about Lincoln this is a worthy one that has a lot to say about our cultural malaise.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American Civil War, American History, Book Reviews, History and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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