A review of Why Lincoln Matters: Today More Than Ever, by Mario M. Cuomo

Abraham Lincoln affirmed that there are abstract truths applicable to all men and all times, including, famously, the truth "that all men are created equal." But most scholars today view Lincoln himself as a child of his age. The trend in recent Lincoln scholarship, accordingly, has been to identify as many facts as possible regarding Lincoln's day-to-day life, including the fabric of his clothing, the weather conditions on the days he spoke publicly, and other such mundane details. Lincoln is thought to be interesting only to those who are interested: there is nothing intrinsically important about him or anything he said or did. Trapped in the 19th century, he is irrelevant to us, the living. This is not to deny that occasionally some fine political histories are produced, but these books are the exception, not the rule. 

Then there is Mario Cuomo's Why Lincoln Matters. In the vast sea of Lincoln books—an estimated 17,000 have been published—Cuomo's sinks straight to the bottom, weighted with repetition, contradiction, and insipidity. The only saving grace for Cuomo is that he surrounds himself with smart students of Lincoln like Harold Holzer, identified on the title page as "historical consultant," who presumably verified the Lincoln quotations dropped in occasionally.

A politician rather than an academic, Cuomo claims to think it important that we recover the lessons of Lincoln—Today More Than Ever, as his subtitle indicates. But no sooner is the Great Emancipator introduced to American politics today than his words are twisted beyond recognition in order to coincide with the author's own liberal policy positions. For Cuomo, Lincoln is important insofar as he agrees with…Cuomo. 

This comes despite his acknowledging that Lincoln "was too large, complex, and grand to be captured by [the] shopworn rhetorical labels" of liberal and conservative, and despite warning us that "[c]onservatives and liberals alike should always resist the impulse to make Lincoln over in their own image." Cuomo started reading Lincoln long ago, when his sister gave him as a gift Roy Basler's Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln. Reading Lincoln, Cuomo believes, helped turn him into a liberal Democrat. Therefore, he reasons, Lincoln must have been a liberal Democrat, in his heart of hearts, at least. After all, great minds think alike, don't they?

Cuomo's modus operandi is to invoke an inspirational line from Lincoln and then equate it with a shibboleth of modern liberalism. For example, when Lincoln describes the Civil War as "essentially a People's contest…[presenting] to the whole family of man, the question, whether a constitutional republic, or a democracy—a government of the people, by the same people—can, or cannot, maintain its territorial integrity against its own domestic foes," Cuomo draws the conclusion that the Bush Administration was wrong to liberate Iraq without permission from the United Nations. "Today, when we need global cooperation the most, our credibility is at a low point because of our perceived arrogance, unilateralism, and bellicosity." 

In a chapter titled "Today's America: An Unfinished Work," which takes its name from Lincoln's dedication to the "unfinished work" advanced by Union soldiers who had given their lives at Gettysburg, Lincoln is the subject of only two sentences. "Lincoln would have been gratified at how far we have come," Cuomo claims to know, but "disappointed that we have not come far enough." That's code for: Lincoln was a collectivist and he would be disappointed that the American people are still backward enough to elect conservative Republicans. The remainder of the chapter is a compilation of more liberal soundbites, decrying Bush's "tax cuts for the rich" and supposed "unilateralism," while heaping praise on Bill Clinton. 

The book's argument, if it can be called that, hangs on one quotation from Lincoln that is repeated throughout: "The legitimate object of government is to do for the people what needs to be done, but which they can not, by individual effort, do at all, or do so well, for themselves." Cuomo delights in this passage, because it lends itself so easily to New Deal-style liberalism. By supporting "internal improvements" such as railroads and canals, writes Cuomo, Lincoln "offered the poor more than freedom and the encouragement of his own good example." From there it is a short skip and a jump to the nanny-state Cuomo champions.

Of course, when Lincoln, along with many other Whigs, Democrats, and Republicans, supported what Henry Clay termed the "American System" of internal improvements and protective tariffs, he understood that all economics is political economics, that economics always serves political ends. Lincoln knew that the economics of a small, weak republic in a world dominated by aggressive, powerful monarchies would be different from the economics of a republic that has become the largest economic and military power in the world.

Lincoln's political economics was a means toward limited government, the end of which was the protection of individual natural rights and political liberty, the principles upon which America was founded. If Cuomo could understand the roots of his own liberalism, he would see that Lincoln's liberalism and his own are diametrically opposed.

The liberalism that forms Cuomo's political faith is a modern version of Progressivism, which was and remains a wholesale rejection of the principles of the American Founding. Progressivism replaced nature with history by embracing the idea that moral and political principles are evolutionary. While asserting that Lincoln "spoke to the ages" by employing "timeless words," Cuomo's own liberalism denies that the meaning of words can be timeless.

In the Progressive view, the ends of government cannot be limited to protecting natural rights, because nature supplies no rights, and positive rights created by government change over time. Thus limited government is replaced with government of unlimited power and scope, what some political scientists call the administrative state. Rejecting natural justice, the liberal mind concerns itself with "social justice," which at a minimum requires vast redistributions of wealth from the few to the many. As the administrative state itself is the arbiter of what "social justice" on any day might entail, there can be no restraints on its power; the bigger government becomes, the more "rights" will be bestowed on the people.

* * *

Unlike Lincoln, Cuomo cannot embrace the principles of the Declaration of Independence unless he redefines them—according to Cuomo, the Declaration promises "the inalienable right to equality" —or denies them any standing whatsoever. Cuomo writes that the Declaration "is not a law and therefore not subjected to rigorous interpretation and enforcement." It might surprise the lawyer Cuomo to learn that the Declaration of Independence is the first of the organic laws listed in the United States Code; it might also surprise him to learn that the pivotal event leading to the Civil War, the Dred Scott case, turned on the interpretation of the Declaration.

To Cuomo's mind, the problem for America today is that government is not big enough, that not enough wealth is redistributed. Our top concern should be "that our nation does not become a society of sharply disparate economic classes." In support of his position, Cuomo cites Lincoln's message to Congress in special session, July 4, 1861, in which Lincoln argued that the "leading object" of the government is "to lift artificial weights from all shoulders." Of course, Lincoln was referring primarily to the artificial weight imposed by slavery. Lincoln repeatedly affirmed the right of every man to an equal opportunity, not an equality of outcome. Indeed, Lincoln thought the freedom America offered was good precisely because the son of a poor man could become rich, and the son of a rich man could become poor. 

Believing that a man's rights depended in no way on the color of his skin, Lincoln worked tirelessly so that our nation would not become a society of disparate racial classes. When interpreting Lincoln's views on race, Cuomo cites, on the one hand, those historians who believe that Lincoln favored colorblind law and, on the other, those who condemn Lincoln as an irredeemable racist. Who is correct? Cuomo cannot decide. Regardless, he is sure that Lincoln would favor affirmative action, bigger welfare programs, subsidized housing, and socialized health care. 

Abortion is also important for Cuomo. In an astounding passage, Cuomo denounces conservatives who, after failing to reverse Roe v. Wade in the political arena, want to use the courts to curtail abortion rights. Liberals would never stoop to using courts to advance policies they cannot win through elections! Cuomo is indignant because he is sure that Lincoln would be pro-choice today. The opposition to abortion, Cuomo assures us, is strictly grounded in religious dogma, and inasmuch as Lincoln never offered a confession of sectarian religious faith, he clearly would not be a pro-lifer. Rather, Lincoln would affirm the pro-choice position under which, in Cuomo's words, "no one would ever be compelled to have an abortion in violation of their [sic] religious beliefs." 

No more succinct statement could be made, mutatis mutandis, of Stephen Douglas's "popular sovereignty" doctrine regarding slavery: Those who want slavery should be free to have it, and those who do not want it should be free to leave it alone. In Cuomo's confusion, Lincoln stands firmly aligned with his greatest antagonist. Maybe the third volume of Basler's Collected Works, which contains the seven Lincoln-Douglas debates, was missing from Cuomo's set? 

In the end, it is unclear why Cuomo respects Lincoln, or why he expects us to. Yet despite the book's comic failures, the real Lincoln still matters. In fact, perhaps that's the subtitle's ironic meaning: after reaching this nadir, we need Lincoln's example today more than ever.