Founders’ Son: A Life of Abraham Lincoln
By Richard Brookhiser
Basic Books, 376 pages
What can be written about Abraham Lincoln that has not already been written? For those seeking a comprehensive one-volume biography, Lord Charnwood and David Herbert Donald have done the labors. For a meticulous account of Abraham Lincoln the political philosopher, Harry Jaffa’s work remains unsurpassed. Recent efforts to understand Lincoln at the key trials of his life, and of the country’s—at Peoria, as commander in chief, at Gettysburg—have filled out the moral and political portrait. Richard Brookhiser’s task is none of these. The sequel to his Plutarchian biographies of George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, the Adamses, Gouverneur Morris, and James Madison is a pithy biography of the man who not only ended slavery in America, but also distilled the Founders’ legacy. Astonishingly, Brookhiser has added to the massive Lincoln literature a book that is both distinct and important.
“He brought the founding fathers back to life,” Brookhiser writes of Lincoln. “He labored to have their principles recognized, by political rivals and crowds of listening voters. He enlisted them in the fights of his time, from prairie elections to multi-thousand-man battles.” In Central Illinois or Gettysburg, Lincoln repeatedly invoked the Founders; this made him different. By the 1850s, many politicians had little use for their grandparents’ generation. Abolitionists regarded the Founders as moral failures for having preserved the scourge of slavery. And the pro-slavery South, which had been radicalized by pseudoscientific theories on race, regarded the idea that all men were created equal as a “self-evident lie.” Lincoln also stood out for getting the Founders right. Brookhiser cites the many politicians who didn’t. The Massachusetts congressman Edward Everett spoke on the eve of the Civil War of the Founders’ belief in unity, an ideal Brookhiser describes as “unity over everything, unity without content…It was paltry enough.” Worse was Stephen Douglas, who understood America’s founding principle as majority rule—the rights of black men be damned.
In getting at Lincoln’s interpretation of the Founders’ ideas, Brookhiser starts with a speech “on the perpetuation of our political institutions,” delivered by a 29-year-old Abraham at the Young Man’s Lyceum of Springfield. Lincoln reflects on the danger of mob rule now that the founding generation, “the pillars of the temple of liberty,” had passed. That danger was grotesquely apparent in a nearby lynching of an abolitionist newspaperman. The only antidote to mob justice, Lincoln argued in the speech, was a reconstruction of the pillars, guided by “general intelligence, sound morality, and, in particular, a reverence for the constitution and laws.”
Lincoln’s entire career can be understood as such a reconstruction. Brookhiser therefore interlaces his biography with chapters on Lincoln’s encounters with his “fathers”—the moral models, intellectual forebears, and predecessors with whom he wrestled. The first such father was biological, Thomas Lincoln, the itinerant farmer and illiterate whom Lincoln rarely spoke of and never sought out. Brookhiser spells out the scant bits Lincoln inherited by blood: “Thomas had given Abraham life, and shown him how to tell a story, win a wrestling match, and decline a drink.” Thomas also enlisted his son to do farm work, which Abraham hated. The young Lincoln would go on to identify with the poor souls forced into labor, while he passionately cherished the right to self-improvement.
The life of George Washington, Lincoln’s second “father,” was available to the autodidact Lincoln in the work of the writer Parson Weems. Weems’s mantra was that “private life is always real life,” a principle Brookhiser rebukes. It is Weems who tells the tale of the cherry tree, the made-up, aw-shucks Washington who is a paragon of private virtue with little to teach about human affairs. The young Honest Abe took to this account, Brookhiser surmises, but the older Abe would seek to attach Washington’s more combative nature to the liberty he himself was fighting for.
Thomas Paine makes Brookhiser’s cut as the next of Lincoln’s fathers. From Paine, Lincoln learned to write and to argue. Reason, cogent and geometrical, was Paine’s great cause, and Lincoln took it up. Because of Paine, Lincoln’s voice, once it matured, lacked pretentiousness. His politics was the politics of the plains, and no ornate denouncement could fell an opponent as effectively as a sharp joke or a timeless maxim. Lincoln would forgo Paine’s liberalism and atheism, but Paine had armed Lincoln with the razor in his back pocket.
Lincoln referred to Henry Clay as his “beau-ideal of a statesman.” This father taught him prudence, compromise, and the importance of the constitutional order. He was the central figure of Lincoln’s Whig party and the architect of its platform, the American System. Lincoln’s aggressive support for a dynamic, diversified economy came from Clay. Brookhiser writes that Lincoln found in Clay’s arguments for abolition an “expression of the antagonism between the Founders and slavery.”
In carrying forth the banner of human freedom, Clay led Lincoln—through an 1827 speech from which Lincoln loved to quote—to the Declaration of Independence and Thomas Jefferson. Lincoln cherished the formulation that all men were created equal and saw it as a permanent “stumbling block” to those who sought to be masters over others. But Lincoln “hated” Jefferson’s cowardice and hypocrisy in the campaign for manumission during the Missouri crisis. What Lincoln loved was the Declaration, and when he spoke of this father—declaring, “All honor to Jefferson!”—he was praising its author.
The ideals of the Founding Fathers alone could not sustain a man tasked with changing the course of human freedom. Lincoln needed a heavenly father as well. There is no doubt that Lincoln’s greatest rhetorical resource was the King James Bible, but Brookhiser sees the theological begin to take over the political in Lincoln’s thinking during the last years of the Civil War. And so Lincoln mused on providence and bloodshed in the Second Inaugural Address. In Brookhiser’s telling, Lincoln ultimately found his predecessors lacking and his turn to God provided him with faith and fortitude in a terrifying war.
But when it came to the meaning and purpose of America, Lincoln “would repeat the lessons of the Founding Fathers…until he knew them.” Indeed he breathed new life into them. The America Lincoln left behind looked very different from the country he inherited. The new country had railroads and land-grant colleges, a more powerful national government, industrialization, the imprint of the “self-made man,” and, of course, freedom for black Americans. The country would be very different after Lincoln, but, as Brookhiser shows us, it was more American.