Magazine | November 3, 2014, Issue

Meeting Lincoln

Founders’ Son: A Life of Abraham Lincoln, by Richard Brookhiser (Basic, 376 pp., $27.99)

‘Another damn’d, thick square book!” groused the Duke of Gloucester to Edward Gibbon on the publication of a volume of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, and one might at first feel similarly about Richard Brookhiser’s much slimmer Founders’ Son. After all, as any reviewer is duty-bound to tell you, more has been written about Abraham Lincoln than anyone else, with the possible exception of Jesus Christ (and he had a 2,000-year head start).

And there is plenty of strong competition. If the Lincoln literature is a forest, a few trees loom larger than the rest. Three biographies in particular stand out: that by Lord Charnwood, an English aristocrat and politician with near-clairvoyant insight into Lincoln’s character; the one by Benjamin Thomas, whose Lincolnesque prose suavely conveyed interpretations that remain evergreen; and Michael Burlingame’s Brobdingnagian two-volume feast, informed by a lifetime of research and offering acute psychological insight.

But the presses never stop, and despite the vastness of the subject there are, perhaps, too many Lincoln books; those casting about for an introduction to the man are often overwhelmed.

Yet Brookhiser has done the seemingly impossible: He has written a life of Lincoln that is fresh, original, and ideal for those new to the subject. All the familiar biographical guideposts are there: the youthful frontier adventures; the determined autodidacticism; the apprenticeship in Illinois state politics and the single, undistinguished congressional term in Washington; the mother of all midlife crises; and the emergence in 1854 as the seasoned statesman “aroused, as he had never been aroused before,” by the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act and the opening of the western territories to slavery. But the author views these and the later presidential triumphs through the sharply clarifying prism of Lincoln’s intellectual and emotional relationship with the Founding Fathers.

It’s the sort of idea that might leave other Lincoln scribblers gnashing their teeth and thinking, “Why didn’t I think of that?” For there could hardly be a more illuminating way to survey Lincoln’s career. After all, it was he who declared, with only slight exaggeration, that “I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence.” And as Brookhiser forthrightly states, “he, not his rivals, deserved to be the Founders’ successor, in large part because he, not they, understood the Founders better.” While others have explored the influence of the Founders on Lincoln’s thought and statesmanship, most notably Harry Jaffa in his superb but dense and forbiddingly erudite A New Birth of Freedom, Brookhiser has distilled his own profound insights, gained from writing eight fine books on the Founders, into a masterpiece of brevity and crystalline prose. He is a moral biographer of great erudition — a Parson Weems with his facts straight — and has given us a study of Lincoln that can be swiftly read but should be slowly savored.

Throughout, he deftly assays Lincoln’s unique character. The future president’s origins were not merely humble but rather squalid, and the early loss of his mother, combined with a distant, testy relationship with his father, left a shadow on his psyche. Brookhiser sketches Lincoln’s melancholy briefly and sensitively; though Lincoln could be morbid, the author isn’t morbid about it. Of Lincoln’s self-medication through humor, he observes simply: “If life makes a terrible bargain for you, a funny story can push it aside for a time.”

And if circumstance creates a vacancy where your father should be, the Father of His Country can make a fine substitute. The childless Washington had “no family to build in greatness upon my country’s ruins.” But he was the political progenitor of the only man who surpassed him in presidential greatness. The young Lincoln would declare: “To add brightness to the sun, or glory to the name of Washington, is alike impossible. Let none attempt it. In solemn awe pronounce the name, and in its naked deathless splendor, leave it shining on.” One man fought to create the union, and launch it upon its perilous but glorious voyage; the other fought to save it from the storms of sectionalism and civil war.

It was the Founders who formed the substance of the speech that informally but decisively launched Lincoln’s presidential campaign. His earlier rhetorical references to the Founders were often glib, but at the Cooper Union in New York City, on February 27, 1860, he offered one of the greatest explications of their views on slavery. Through exhaustive research and oratorical might, the prairie lawyer thrust himself onto the national stage. As Brookhiser puts it, “Lincoln turned pedantry into music,” carefully following the “legislative trail” of the men who had brought the nation into being, and demonstrating that, when given a chance, most of them voted to exclude slavery from territories owned by the United States. And this musical pedantry climaxed in a ringing declaration that thrilled the hearts of Republicans (and chilled those of Southerners): “Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.”

#page#Throughout, Brookhiser is particularly good — even gimlet-eyed — at appraising Lincoln’s writing. The remarkable and mysterious result of marination in the King James Bible and Shakespeare, ceaseless effort, and innate brilliance, Lincoln’s matchless style helped ensure his rise and cement his reputation. And though his mind was hard and logical, a colleague observed “a curious vein of sentiment running through his thought.” Thus Lincoln loved poetry, and though his own attempts at verse were somewhat clumsy, “he assimilated the moods and music, and learned to call on them, when needed, in his prose.”

With deft, epigrammatic phrases Brookhiser distills Lincoln’s life to its essence. Of Lincoln at the 1854 rebirth of his political career, he writes, “All the elements of Lincoln’s mind and personality, which had lain about like engine parts in a workshop, finally came together into something coherent and ultimately powerful. He made use of humor, logic, and eloquence, each trait now purged of grossness, rigidity, or bombast.” Of the Radical Republicans, President Lincoln’s chief congressional tormentors, Brookhiser says simply: “Everything that Lincoln did they wished he had done the day before, and they were certain that if they themselves had been in a position of authority they could have done it.”

Brookhiser admires but is unawed by his subject. Even the greatest writers produce an occasional clanger, and Lincoln perpetrated the odd bit of rhetorical flatulence early in his career. But the author can be a bit overcritical: Lincoln’s lovely “The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present” is dismissed as “horsehair stuffing”; his admonition to General Hooker to “beware of rashness, but with energy, and sleepless vigilance, go forward, and give us victories” is “worthless” and an “imitation gemstone”; and Brookhiser even wonders whether “the glacid sheen” of the Gettysburg Address is “inherent or conferred by so many repetitions.” Tough editor. We are reminded, perhaps more than is necessary, of Lincoln’s “rube/boob persona.” And to Brookhiser, Lincoln’s unfortunate presidential whiskers made him resemble “an Easter Island head that had been rolled over the floor of a barber shop” — a harsh take on a noble visage.

But barbs such as these bounce harmlessly off the carapace of Lincoln’s greatness, and diminish not at all the value of this book. And to be fair, Lincoln is a challenging subject for a scrupulous, tough-minded biographer. One doesn’t want to fawn, and there has long been a compulsion among historians to “humanize” their subjects by highlighting their flaws. This is all the more tempting when contemplating one who had so few.

There is a paradox at the heart of the art of Lincoln biography. On the one hand, a life so eminent is self-evidently worthy of being exhaustively chronicled; on the other, Lincoln’s life is so mysterious that the details often merely baffle. We want and need to know all that Lincoln did, but the exercise does little to reveal how he did it.

For all the research and insight in the world cannot quite account for his genius; somehow, the story as traditionally told never fully adds up. Brookhiser dismisses Lincoln’s “fantasy” that his abilities were inherited from a cultured Virginia planter whom he believed to have been the father of his illegitimate mother. But it’s as good a guess as any — Lincoln shared his genetic musings with his Boswellian law partner, William Herndon, in the sort of private exchange that Herndon tended to relate convincingly. In any event, we are left to ponder what Thomas Mallon so nicely called Lincoln’s “semi-divinity,” and wonder how any politician could be viewed by his private secretary, privy to all, as “the greatest character since Christ.”

“Lots of wisdom in that document, I suspect,” said Lincoln proudly of his Second Inaugural. He might have said the same of Richard Brookhiser’s elegantly wrought and intellectually profound biography. Founders’ Son is a superb introduction to the greatest human being ever to live in the White House.

– Mr. Bishop has held several posts on Capitol Hill and in the White House and is the former executive director of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.

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