Lincoln Was the Founders’ Heir Apparent

A new biography of Abraham Lincoln shows that he spent his life asking himself what the Founding Fathers would do and then enlarging his vision accordingly.

Reading Richard Brookhiser’s Founders’ Son: A Life of Lincoln, reminded me of a visit I made 12 or so years ago to the National Mall with friend and fellow historian Michael Kazin. It was a typically hot and humid summer’s evening in the capital, and after we had spent some time perusing the shelves at the Politics and Prose bookstore, Michael asked if I had ever been to the Lincoln Memorial at night—to which I replied that although I never miss a chance to walk the Mall when in Washington, I had never gone to the memorials after dark.

Arriving at the Memorial, Kazin was especially eager for us to attend to the 16th president’s Second Inaugural, the words of which are etched up high on the interior wall to the right of the statue. In particular, he pointed to “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in…” We then turned to the short-but-oh-so-American Gettysburg Address inscribed on the wall to the statue’s left with the line I so love: “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Seeing the monument all lit up, entering its temple-like interior, reciting Lincoln’s words, and conversing about his life, labors, and speeches on the steps out front, with the Washington Monument and Capitol directly in view in the distance—all that moved me powerfully. I had always admired Lincoln. Who does not? But that visit made me want to talk even more directly with the man who, as much as he despised slavery and what it was doing to the nation, had subordinated the question of ending it to that of sustaining the Union, until he came to see, in the course of leading the United States through the Civil War, that sustaining the Union and securing the promise of the Declaration of Independence required him to take radical action and issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

Like that visit to the Memorial, Brookhiser’s Founders’ Son has made me want to talk all the more with Lincoln. Indeed, Brookhiser’s splendidly-written chapters—on Lincoln’s engagements with the Founders, especially George Washington, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson; on his efforts to harness their labors and arguments to sustain their memory and legacy and limit the advance of slavery (no easy task when his antagonists too were laying claim to them, most notably Stephen Douglas); and on his turn to God when, during our bloodiest of wars, the Founders’ words would no longer suffice—continually inspired me to reach for my copies of the two-volume Lincoln: Speeches and Writings in order to post notes by the texts I was sure I needed to read anew in full.

Brookhiser is one of America’s finest writers and Founders’ Son may be his finest book. As he has before in Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington; Alexander Hamilton, American; America's First Dynasty: The Adamses, 1735-1918; Gentleman Revolutionary: Gouverneur Morris, the Rake Who Wrote the Constitution; and James Madison, he clearly demonstrates—in decided contrast to so many of his comrades on the right—that he takes history seriously. And here, providing us with a close historical reading of Lincoln’s speeches, notes, and correspondence, he enables us to not only better understand, but also (and even more effectively than he did in his previous biographical studies) to actually “feel” his subject’s battles both with his antagonists and with history itself.

I know, I know. A progressive is not supposed to praise the work of a conservative. Especially not the work of one whose career was launched and advanced by the founding father of modern conservatism, William F. Buckley Jr., in the pages of The National Review, the magazine he founded in the mid ’50s to cultivate a new rightwing politics. Plus, as Brookhiser himself has recounted in his memoir Right Time, Right Place: Coming of Age with William F. Buckley, Jr., Buckley not only gave him his start in conservative journalism in 1970 (when Brookhiser was only 15 years old), but also—convinced that his protégé was better suited to writing than to editorial leadership—essentially compelled Brookhiser to turn himself into a biographer of the Founders by reneging on his promise to the young man to name him the editor-in-chief of the magazine when Buckley himself stepped down.

Nevertheless, as much as I relish the thought of Brookhiser running The National Review into the ground, I must say “Thank you, Bill” for pushing him towards his truer calling. For even where I seriously disagree with Brookhiser, I love to read his prose and arguments. In fact, I well recall shocking friends on the left when I told them that in preparing to write Thomas Paine and the Promise of America, I had re-read Brookhiser’s George Washington in hopes of emulating his confident, clean, and clear, indeed, handsome literary style. Moreover, based on readings of his books and conversations with him, I would say that for all of our differences Brookhiser and I actually share in an historical project. He too believes both that Americans continue to carry ideas and sensibilities about what it means to be an American that are rooted in the Revolutionary Era and that our efforts to redeem the Founders’ lives and labors are not merely for the sake of remembering them, but all the more—he conservatively, I progressively—to engage those persistent thoughts and feelings for the sake of contemporary public life and political debate. As he writes at the outset of Founders’ Son, “This book, finally, is training—in thinking, feeling, and acting. The founding fathers were world-historical figures; so was Lincoln. If we study how Lincoln engaged them, we can learn how to engage with them, and him, ourselves.”

As Brookhiser recounts, Lincoln’s engagement with the Founders, due in good part to his boyhood search for more inspiring figures than his own father Thomas Lincoln, began early. But Brookhiser does not reduce history to psychology. He has written of his own interest in the question of “fathers and sons”—linking it to some extent to his admiration and affection for the conservative “father” Buckley who so disappointed him. But more critically, Brookhiser recognizes what we often forget in these cynical times: That young people do look for meaning and inspiration, indeed, for purpose in their elders, living and dead. And as he well shows, Lincoln, who aspired to more than farming and detested the prospect of working for others, found his finest purpose as a boy in Parson Weems’s classic Life of Washington. Not, as Brookhiser makes clear, in the cherry tree story, but rather, in the lesson that Lincoln himself recalled in a speech to the New Jersey Senate in 1861, “that there must have been something more than common that those men struggled for… something even more [important] than National Independence… something that held out a great promise to all the people of the world to all time to come.”

Brookhiser considers Lincoln’s “encounters” with all of the major Founders, but he treats those with Paine and Jefferson at length. Most conservative intellectuals disdain the radical-democrat Paine, but Brookhiser, to his credit, has always had a certain admiration for him, which enables Brookhiser to see how Paine’s revolutionary political and religious arguments fundamentally shaped Lincoln’s early development as a thinker and politician. Brookhiser fails to fully appreciate how Paine’s arguments in his pamphlets Common Sense and The Crisis informed Lincoln’s vision of America’s historic promise, but he does a very good job of showing both how Paine’s assault on organized religion in The Age of Reason encouraged Lincoln’s freethinking views (yes, just like Washington, Franklin, Jefferson, and others among the Founders, Lincoln was not exactly a Christian), and how Paine’s down-to-earth but forceful literary style taught Lincoln how to argue publicly and make his case. At the same time, he makes it quite clear that Lincoln’s thinking, in contrast to that of the progressively optimistic Paine, was forever marked by a tragic sensibility, a sensibility that becomes all the more overwhelming in the face of the death and destruction of the Civil War.

Lincoln embraced Washington as a boy, Paine as a young man, and Jefferson as a career politician and aspiring American leader. He had good reason not to. But for all of his reservations about Jefferson the slaveholder, Lincoln drew the author of the Declaration as close to himself as he could. Washington had given Lincoln a sense of America’s world-historic purpose and promise. Jefferson defined that promise: “all men are created equal, endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” And however much Lincoln remained a racialist in attitude, he made that truth his own.

As Brookhiser fully appreciates—he does not equivocate or run from the truth—Lincoln was no radical, no abolitionist. For all of their influence upon him, Washington, Paine, and Jefferson did not inspire the young Lincoln to become a radical. His commitment to their creation and its persistent possibilities for liberty, equality, and democracy demanded that he place the Union above all else, even the scourge of slavery. Lincoln’s political champion was Senator Henry Clay of Kentucky, who was known as “the Great Pacificator” for his having held the Union together by brokering the Missouri Compromise between slave and free states.

Still, as Brookhiser effectively argues, Lincoln was the Founders’ son. Thus, he fought—as his reading of the Founders’ Declaration, Constitution and Bill of Rights, and other documents compelled him to fight—to limit slavery’s spread; to weaken its hold on the nation; and to find ways to bring about its end. In that spirit, he originally favored colonization, that is, sending blacks back to Africa. However, guided by Washington, Paine, and Jefferson, Lincoln had the makings of not just a smart politician, but also a great president. He was capable of recognizing—as Washington had and Franklin Roosevelt would—that in the face of a mortal crisis Americans must act like Americans and make the nation truly freer, more equal, and more democratic. And in 1862, Lincoln the president recognized that emancipation was imperative: “Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass, will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We—even we here—hold the power, and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth.”

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Furthermore, though Brookhiser does not detail how African-Americans themselves moved Lincoln to act, to become himself a radical, he smartly transcends his conservative instincts and points to how they did so. As Brookhiser notes, black Americans taught Lincoln important truths. They taught him that they too were Americans and, therefore, they had no intention of going anywhere but on to freedom. And by the tens of thousands they taught him that they were ready to fight for their freedom, indeed, for “a new birth of freedom” (and 200,000 of them did).

Finally, Brookhiser takes us back to the words inscribed on the right wall of the Lincoln Memorial, to the closing line of the Second Inaugural and asks us to see how Lincoln, compelled by the horrors and tragedies of war and the imperative “to bind up the nation’s wounds,” looked beyond the Founders to “God the Father” to “the Father who stood above all others.” And he asks us to see how Lincoln “wrestled” with the divine. On reflection, it may be his best chapter.

In conclusion, Brookhiser writes, “Lincoln wanted to know what America was, what men were, what God wanted. As he did when he was a boy, he would repeat the lessons of the founding fathers and God the Father until he knew them. What he learned was that all men are created free and equal, and that all men (the people) must understand and defend those truths. Then, because he was a politician, ambitious to lead, he did what he could to clear the mist.”

We should, too.

Harvey J. Kaye is Professor of Democracy and Justice Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay. He is the author of Thomas Paine and the Promise of America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2005) and The Fight for the Four Freedoms: What Made FDR and the Greatest Generation Truly Great (Simon & Schuster, 2014). Follow him on Twitter