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Abraham Lincoln's Lost Lesson

Image: Abraham Lincoln's Lost Lesson

Tuesday, 18 Jun 2013 04:07 PM

By Rich Lowry

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Rich Lowry, editor of the National Review and Fox News contributor, has authored the new bestseller “Lincoln Unbound: How an Ambitious Young Railsplitter Saved the American Dream -- and How We Can Do It Again.” Charles Krauthammer says “Lincoln Unbound” makes “an impassioned case for a contemporary Republican renewal on truly Lincolnian lines.” Get Lincoln Unbound from Amazon – Click Here Now.

Abraham Lincoln was born in 1809 into a country little different from that of the Founding Fathers. It was overwhelmingly agricultural. Most people lived in Atlantic Coast states. Transportation and communications were limited. It was a country of prodigious, but unrealized promise.

In the coming decades, epochal changes unlocked its potential. A tide of migration headed out beyond the Alleghenies. A transportation and communications revolution transformed its economy. Manufacturing began to take hold.

What had been a youthful, predominantly rural country became, soon enough, a rising world power.

It was toward this new world of runaway economic advancement that Lincoln bent all his effort, both personal and — eventually — political.

He wanted to expand its ambit so more people could enter it together with him.
First, though, he had to get there himself. He did it through perseverance and cultural uplift, through a relentless ethic of self-improvement central to his worldview all his life.

Lincoln’s political character wasn’t formed by where he came from so much as by where he went and how he got there.

The son of a subsistence farmer and carpenter, he grew up in the backwoods of Kentucky and Indiana, where he got about a year of formal schooling and, in his later words, “there was absolutely nothing to excite ambition for education.”

A friend of the Lincoln family said, accurately enough, “To all human appearance, the early life of Abraham Lincoln was as unpromising for becoming a great man as you could imagine.”

A personal program of reading constituted his first step beyond his early constraints. “Abe read all the books he could lay his hands on,” his stepmother said, “and when he came across a passage that Struck him he would write it down on boards if he had no paper & keep it there till he did get paper — then he would re-write it — look at it repeat it.”

Some neighbors thought that he “was awful lazy” — “always reading & thinking.” But his reading wasn’t a leisure pursuit, it was a discipline.

When Lincoln left home and settled in New Salem, Illinois, he immediately ran for the state legislature and explained his hope “to see the time when education, and by its means, morality, sobriety, enterprise and industry, shall become much more general than at present.”

Even though he grew up surrounded by Jacksonian Democrats, Lincoln became a committed Whig.

The Democrats romanticized rural life and celebrated the natural man. The Whigs wanted to create a new commercial order and scorned “the passions.” Lincoln was drawn to the party’s emphasis on education, orderliness and self-improvement.

Life on the frontier, in contrast to these Whig values, could be nasty, brutish, and extraordinarily drunken. A kind of countercultural figure, Lincoln stood aloof from all that was degrading or prone to check his advancement.

He didn’t drink. He didn’t chew or smoke tobacco. He didn’t gamble, or swear. In a culture where fighting was central to male honor, he became a peacemaker.

He affirmed law, reason, and individual effort. “Let reverence for the laws,” Lincoln said in his famous Lyceum address in the 1830s, “be breathed by every American mother, to the lisping babe, that prattles on her lap.” In short, he urged, “let it become the political religion of the nation.” A few years later in another speech he hailed “all conquering mind.”

When aspiring lawyers asked him for advice, he commended to them the wonders of will power. “Always bear in mind,” he wrote to one, “that your own resolution to succeed, is more important than any other one thing.” And to another: “Work, work, work, is the main thing.”

When his stepbrother, back on the farm with his father, asked for loans, he rebuked him for being an “idler”: “This habit of uselessly wasting time, is the whole difficulty; and it is vastly important to you, and still more so to your children that you should break this habit.”

Get Rich Lowry’s ‘Lincoln Unbound’ from Amazon – Click Here Now

The story of Lincoln’s rise and the values that undergirded it isn’t just of historical interest; it is highly relevant to our circumstances today, when we are experiencing an ongoing crisis of opportunity.

Few things are more fundamentally American as an up-from-the-bootstraps success story. But it doesn’t happen here as often as we think. We are less mobile than many Western European countries and than other English-speaking countries.

People starting out at the bottom are more likely to stay there than suggested by random chance; the same is true of people starting at the top.

The lack of mobility at the bottom is a function of the economic struggles of lower-skilled men, but also of culture. The rise of out of wedlock childrearing, the decline of work, and the erosion of an ethic of delayed gratification all worsen stagnation at the bottom. Those at the top largely avoid these cultural pitfalls, and reap the benefits.

A gross and steadily increasing inequality in cultural capital is more telling than any economic statistics.

We need a revival of what the great historian of the Whigs, Daniel Walker Howe, called Lincoln’s “preoccupations with self-control, order, rationality, industriousness.” But no one supports such a revival, really.

Democrats are too concerned with being non-judgmental, whereas Republicans focus on economic freedom while neglecting cultural orderliness. As long as this is so, we won’t be the America of boundless opportunity that exists in our national imagination.

Lincoln’s example will continue to inspire and fascinate, but more as a testament to what we once were than what we are today.

Get Rich Lowry’s ‘Lincoln Unbound’ from Amazon – Click Here Now

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