Lincoln’s Fathers

Review: Richard Brookhiser’s ‘Founders’ Son’

Abraham Lincoln
Abraham Lincoln / AP
October 19, 2014

One afternoon on their way to court, Abraham Lincoln made a startling confession to his law partner and future biographer William Herndon. As they made their way along a rutted, bumpy Illinois road, Lincoln said that his mother, Nancy Hanks, was illegitimate. Her father was a "well-bred Virginia farmer or planter…"

To the ambitious and intellectual Lincoln, this alleged trace of Virginian blood was evidence that he stood apart from any other western farmer’s son. It also established a connection between the future 16th president and the men whose ideas and actions founded America—a number of whom were, of course, well-bred Virginians.

This anecdote, related by Herndon, is retold in Founders’ Son, a new life of Lincoln with a focus on the link between its subject and America’s first crop of statesmen. Its author, Richard Brookhiser, a senior editor at National Review and a historian with a wonderfully idiosyncratic approach to his material, reliably finds thought- provoking ways to reinterpret the lives of those who have already been the subject of countless biographies.

Founders’ Son is no exception. This is a concise read, as are all of Brookhiser’s books. In its 300 pages, Brookhiser does not simply restate Lincoln’s greatness, but pores through his public proclamations and private correspondence to better understand an essential ingredient of that greatness: the influence of America’s founders.

Because of incongruent lifespans and distant geography, Lincoln’s access to these men was solely through words—their own, and those of their early biographers. As a boy in the wilderness of southern Indiana he borrowed a copy of Parson Weems’ The Life of George Washington from a neighbor. Today the book is mocked for its fanciful treatment of America’s father, but it was the most popular biography of Washington in the 19th Century.

According to Brookhiser, Lincoln overlooked its moralistic tall tales about the first president’s youth, but was compelled by the bits where Weems was on more solid ground. Weems’ narrative of Washington’s professional trajectory offered proof that through determination and effort, a man could go far in the world, and his dramatic account of the Battle of Trenton convinced Lincoln that America’s struggle for its independence had been about more than beginning a new nation. It had been about creating an ideal, or as Lincoln articulated during a speech in Trenton, "something that held out a great promise to all the people of the world to all time to come."

Lincoln’s acerbity in debate and oratory was influenced by Thomas Paine.  As a twenty-something in Illinois, he encountered The Age of Reason, the revolutionary pamphleteer’s attack on religion. Its author’s journalistic style and use of cutting humor influenced Lincoln’s own style, and, in Brookhiser’s words, "showed him how to make and win arguments."

Then there was Thomas Jefferson. Lincoln’s relationship with the Sage of Monticello was complex. In the Declaration of Independence Jefferson had carved out one of history’s most compelling and eloquent arguments for human liberty. But the words did not carry over into his personal life: Jefferson was a slave owner, though he privately recognized the evil of bondage and the damage it would inflict on the country. He, however, happily left the task of emancipation to future generations, and principally to Lincoln, who turned the ethos of the Declaration against the westward expansion of slavery and then used it to transform the Civil War into a moral struggle against the institution of slavery itself.

There is, perhaps, some ambiguity in the title Founders’ Son because some of the men discussed here were not, by definition, part of that generation. For example, DeWitt Clinton, the Renaissance man who governed New York in the early 19th Century, was born too late to qualify as a Founder, but he was the father of the Erie Canal. This project, which greatly lifted New York City’s fortunes, convinced the maturing Lincoln of the value of infrastructure in the young nation—so much so that he even once boasted he would be the "DeWitt Clinton of Illinois."

Like Clinton, Henry Clay—the Whig stalwart whose political skills helped to postpone the Civil War and made him Lincoln’s "beau ideal" of a statesman—was not a founder, though his legal studies with George Wythe, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and Jefferson's mentor, provided a link. Clay did, however, eulogize the Founders constantly. From him Lincoln learned the value of compromise. As Brookhiser writes, "If you keep your main point, why not surrender subsidiary ones?" More importantly, Clay led Lincoln back to America’s first principles. As Lincoln himself said, in a eulogy for Clay in 1846, the Kentuckian loved his home "mostly because it was a free country."

Brookhiser also writes about Lincoln’s chilly relationship with his own father, Thomas, and his brooding and evolving relationship with the Almighty Father, but the beauty of this book is that it illustrates how in the Founding Fathers Lincoln discovered timeless defenders of human freedom, the value of union, and the importance of opportunity—in Brookhiser’s words, the "perfect expression of America’s Essence."

The book also provides an opportunity for readers to learn from the Founders.  That it does this in the context of a satisfying biography is doubly impressive and a reminder of what an exceptionally graceful writer Brookhiser is. It should also be noted that though this is a short book, it by no means makes for a simplistic read. It packs as much if not more punch than biographies twice its size.

One thing unsaid by the author that might cross readers’ minds is the concept of political idolatry. In an era when leaders, immodest or just desperate, evoke Lincoln and try to convince the public they are his reincarnation, Founders’ Son reminds us that Lincoln too had idols. That he too, as he told Herndon, thought their blood was his own, and his cause theirs. But there was a crucial difference. He borrowed, he evoked, he found inspiration, but this was not merely an exercise in vanity, but rather the summoning of the intellectual and rhetorical ammunition Lincoln relied on to meet the challenges of his era, and earn his own space in posterity.

In 1810, a youthful Henry Clay took note of the aging generation of Founding Fathers. "We shall want the presence and living example of a new race of heroes to supply their places," he lamented. Founders’ Son movingly demonstrates how Lincoln did just that.

Published under: Book reviews