Since our families never give us everything we want or need, we look for sufficiency in surrogates — adopted families of friends, mentors, or figures of history and myth. For a boy in early-19th-century America the handiest surrogates, great enough to be awe-inspiring, near enough to be familiar, were the Founding Fathers.
“Father of his country” — pater patriae — was an honorific bestowed by the Roman Senate on Camillus, a general of the fourth century b.c., who earned it by refounding the city after driving out an invasion of Gauls. Americans revived and pluralized the terms “father” and “founder” to honor the heroes of the Revolution.
Abraham Lincoln — born in 1809, raised on what was then the frontier — never laid eyes on an actual Founding Father. If he wanted to meet a Founding Father it had to be in books. The book that made the greatest impression on him was about the greatest of the Founders, George Washington.
When Americans used the term “father of his country” in the singular it always, and only, meant Washington. He earned it by his long and spectacular career — eight and a half years as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army during the Revolution, eight years as first president — and even more by the personal qualities that wove an aura of confident masculinity around him.
The most popular early biography of Washington was The Life of George Washington, by Mason Locke Weems, better known as Parson Weems. Lincoln first read it when he was a boy, and it shaped his view of Washington. We know this because there came a time when Lincoln explained what his view of Washington was, and where he had learned it.
In February 1861, President-elect Lincoln took a train from his Illinois home to Washington, D.C., where he would give his first inaugural address. The trip was a political tour, showing the flag as the country fell apart, with stops in six states.
On February 21 he spoke in Trenton, to each house of the New Jersey legislature in turn. He began his address to the state senate by recalling New Jersey’s role in the Revolution. Few states, he said, had witnessed so many battles, which was true: New Jersey saw three major ones (Trenton, Princeton, Monmouth) plus a blizzard of small engagements.
“Away back in my childhood,” Lincoln went on, “. . . I got hold of a small book, such a one as few of the younger members have ever seen, Weems’s Life of Washington.” He proceeded to tell the senate about an episode in Chapter Nine. Of all the battles Weems described, “none fixed themselves upon my imagination so deeply as the struggle here at Trenton. . . . The crossing of the river; the contest with the Hessians; the great hardships endured at that time, all fixed themselves on my memory.”
What else would we expect Lincoln to say? What else would any politician say? He was in Trenton, on the day before Washington’s birthday; Weems’s book, so far from being obscure, was still in print. Bring on the clichés.
But Lincoln’s remarks did not float in the ether of buncombe; brief though they were, they tracked Weems’s account of the battle. He was not speaking in generalities but recovering a reading experience from more than 30 years earlier.
Every feature of the Battle of Trenton that Lincoln summarized — river, Hessians, hardships — was something Weems had described at length. When Weems took Washington across the Delaware, he piled on the details. “Filled with ice . . . darksome night, pelted by an incessant storm of hail and snow . . . the unwelcome roar of ice, loud crashing along the angry flood . . . five hours of infinite toil and danger . . . frost-bitten.” These details also underlie Lincoln’s reference to “great hardships.” Weems gave the Hessians several pages, first as clownish marauders, speaking in crude German accents, who believed that Americans scalped, skinned, and ate their prisoners — “Vy! Shure, des Mericans must be de deble” — then as pitiable prisoners themselves, induced to switch sides by the merciful treatment they receive: “Poor fellows!” the Americans tell them. “Leave [your] vile employment and come live with us.”
But the strongest proof that Lincoln had been molded by Weems’s Life is that the most important lesson he drew in 1861 from the Battle of Trenton was the very lesson that Weems had presented as most important. “I recollect thinking,” Lincoln continued, “. . . boy even though I was, 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.”
Weems thought so too, and he expended his powers, such as they were, in evoking it. When Washington and his troops, having crossed the Delaware, began their march on Trenton, they were accompanied, Weems wrote, by an invisible being, “the weeping genius of liberty.” This is no father-figure, but a grieving mother. “Driven from the rest of the world, she had fled to the wild woods of America, as to an assured asylum of rest.” But tyranny followed — “the inhuman few, with fleets and armies, had pursued her flight!” Who would fight for her? “One little band alone remained . . . resolved to defend her or perish.” For Weems, the Battle of Trenton was a struggle for the world; the fate of liberty everywhere depended on it.
When the Americans finally reached Trenton, Weems gave the last word to Washington. “All I ask of you,” he tells his troops as they are about to charge, “is, just to remember what you are about to fight for.”
Lincoln remembered. He told the New Jersey senate that he wanted to perpetuate Liberty and Union “in accordance with the original idea for which that struggle” at Trenton “was made.” Washington and his men had defended liberty, Lincoln and the nation must be ready to defend her again. Washington’s task was now his.
Lincoln found Washington in Weems, but he also had to save him from Weems, or from those chapters of The Life of Washington that had the greatest popular impact. So powerful were Weems’s tales of Washington’s youth that the father of his country became an icon of moral virtues, beyond and above politics. Thanks to Weems, the most famous thing Washington ever said — “I can’t tell a lie” — was something he almost certainly never said.
When Lincoln first read Parson Weems, he responded most not to Washington as a good boy but to Washington as a man of action and principle, and he invoked that response again during his own trials decades later. Not that he reread Weems in 1861. He did not have to; Washington was inside him. As he said in Trenton, “You all know, for you have all been boys, how these early impressions last longer than others.” The Battle of Trenton was more useful to Lincoln, as an ambitious boy and as president-elect, than the cherry tree.
But Washington and the other Founders did not belong to Lincoln alone. Every politician of the 1850s and ’60s wanted to claim them, often for very different purposes. The struggle over slavery took the form of a fratricidal contest over who was the Revolution’s legitimate heir.
Lincoln spent years contending with rival visions of the Founding Fathers. He contended successfully — and legitimately. For all the times he squeezed the evidence or hurried over the record, he was more right about the Founders than wrong — and more right about them than any of his contentious contemporaries.
– Mr. Brookhiser is a senior editor of National Review. This article is adapted with permission from his new book, Founders’ Son: A Life of Abraham Lincoln (Basic Books).