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Founders’ Son A Life of Abraham Lincoln By Richard Brookhiser

Review of: Founders' Son
Richard Brookhiser

Reviewed by:
On January 15, 2015
Last modified:January 15, 2015


Founders' SonFounders’ Son
A Life of Abraham Lincoln
By Richard Brookhiser

So much has been written about the 16th U.S. president that some may wonder what Brookhiser could add that has not already been amply covered. In the Introduction to Founder’s Son, he explains:

This book is not a full-dress biography of Lincoln, or a history of the times. It is not about Lincoln’s marriage, or how the Battle of Gettysburg was won, though it will touch on these and many other points. It is the history of a career, and the unfolding of the ideas that animated it.

And no ideas were more central to that career than those of the nation’s founders. What began as boyhood admiration of George Washington became a politician’s oratorical device and then the touchstone of Lincoln’s political life. From the founders and the documents they created he drew strength and conviction when he needed them most.

Brookhiser traces Lincoln’s development as thinker, orator and politician. Whether a boy on his father’s hard scrabble farm, a young man taking hogs to market on flatboats, or co-owner of a (failed) general store, Lincoln read vociferously. From his earliest years he was curious about the world and how it worked. He finally found his calling in politics and law. He was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives in 1834 (his second try) and became a junior partner in a two-man law firm.

In his very first races Lincoln employed a technique he would use ever after: poor-mouthing himself… The modesty however was tactical; Lincoln was creating a role …a persona, the rube/boob, which served the same function in his political rhetoric as his did his odd appearance and his joke-telling…Lincoln admitted his infirmities to make way for his strengths. The technique would not have worked, of course, if he had no strengths.

Why politics? Lincoln hated farming, learned he had no head for business, and liked thinking and talking on his feet. Further, he was ambitious and politics had few barriers to entry in a growing state like Illinois.

In January of 1838, Lincoln gave a speech “in which he brought together many of the things he had been learning about politics and self-expression. He also spoke of the founders–their legacy and their passing: what they had accomplished and what would become of it now they were dead.” He warned that America faced a “threat from within: mob violence.” He listed things that mobs do: “burn churches, ravage and rob provision stores, throw printing presses into rivers, shoot editors.” His point was that if life and property depended upon “the caprice of the mob” decent men would become alienated from the government, giving ambitious men the opportunity to overturn the founders’ creation and substitute their own. With founders now absent, how could Americans preserve their legacy? Lincoln’s answer was reason. Reason would instruct Americans to honor the law. “Let reverence for the law be breathed by every American mother to the lisping babe that prattles on her lap.” Only then would American institutions be safe from mobs, and from alienation.

The supreme law of the land is, of course, the Constitution. Lincoln’s warning, that American institutions are at risk “when reverence for the law” ceases to be communicated from one generation to the next, resonates today.

During the 1840s Lincoln made speeches and worked for the Whig party, winning election to Congress in 1846. After an undistinguished two years, he lost to another Whig who subsequently lost to a Democrat. During this period Lincoln met and eventually married Mary Todd. It was not a happy marriage. Both were moody; Lincoln plagued by depression and Mary Todd Lincoln by mood swings and outbursts of anger. The decline of the Whig Party and his own flagging political career were further causes for depression. “As an Illinois Whig Lincoln was accustomed to failure, but his party nationwide was sinking from sight.”

Clay, the Whig most admired by Lincoln, was the author of the Missouri Compromise enacted in 1820 to preserve the balance of power in Congress between slave and free states. The law admitted Missouri as a slave state and Maine as a free state. It prohibited slavery (Missouri excepted) in the Louisiana Territory north of the 36° 30´ latitude line.

Democrat Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois wanted to be president. He orchestrated the repeal of the Missouri Compromise in 1854, two years after Clay’s death, thinking the bill would win him southern support. Douglas proposed two new territories –Kansas, the present state plus a piece of Colorado. Nebraska would encompass everything else all the way to Canada. Whether these territories would be slave or free depended upon what the inhabitants decided. Douglas called this new principle “popular sovereignty.”

… The Kansas-Nebraska Act (often called the Nebraska Bill or act, for short) was greeted in the North with rage…Now Douglas had given slavery and the South an opening for nothing in return, and he had obliterated one of the key provisions of an earlier deal–the Missouri line–to do it. Northern politicians, both Whigs and Democrats, denounced him.

Anti-Nebraska men formed the new Republican Party with the intention of halting the spread of slavery throughout the United States and its territories. It brought together Whigs, Democrats, Free Soilers and abolitionists. Lincoln was one of its Illinois leaders.

Lincoln went after Douglas. He shadowed Douglas, “speaking where he spoke” and replying to what Douglas said. Lincoln tried, “in succession, to join Douglas in the Senate, to replace him in the Senate, and finally, to beat him to the White House.”

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.

Lincoln studied history for instances in which the founders, contrary to the Kansas-Nebraska Act, had restricted slavery, either by limiting its spread or by interfering with the slave trade.

The Lincoln-Douglas debates took place in 1858. But the years 1854 to 1860, in Brookhiser’s words, “were one long Lincoln-Douglas debate.” Douglas wanted a third term in the U.S. Senate and Lincoln wanted to replace him.

The Republican Convention chose Lincoln as their candidate to unseat Douglas. Lines from Lincoln’s acceptance speech still echo:

A house divided against itself cannot stand… I believe the government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free …Either the opponents of slavery will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest on the belief that it is on a course to ultimate extinction or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all states, old as well as new–North as well as South.’”

The central issue of the debates was where the contestants stood in relation to the founders’ views on slavery. Douglas attempted to square himself and slavery to the Constitution. He also said the Declaration of Independence only applied to white people.

Lincoln had a very different view. The founders, he said, had accepted slavery out of necessity. But acknowledging necessity did not equate to approval. Lincoln said his position on slavery was the founders’ position and that Douglas had betrayed them.

It was an Illinois contest, but slavery was a national issue and the debates made Lincoln a national figure. However, Illinois was split along sectional lines and Douglas won by three votes. (Until 1913, state legislatures chose senators.)

By 1859, Brookhiser writes, Lincoln was running for president. To increase his visibility he accepted invitations to address Republicans throughout the Midwest.

At the time presidential candidates did not campaign openly. “Lincoln had to be discreet. He could not speak about himself; instead he spoke about the founding fathers.”

At issue once again were the two men’s portraits of the founders, and their own self-portraits as founders’ sons. Their argument over slavery and politics had become a fratricidal contest over which of them was the Revolution’s legitimate heir.

According to Lincoln’s law partner, William Herndon, Lincoln’s reverence for the founders did not extend to Thomas Jefferson. Lincoln revered the Declaration of Independence but hated Jefferson’s later cowardice in refusing to speak out against slavery when others in his class freed their slaves and publicly repudiated slavery. Lincoln often expounded on the Declaration of Independence but kept his opinions of its author to himself.

Lincoln’s major Republican rival for the presidential nomination was U.S. Senator, and leader of the powerful New York Republican Party, William Seward. Among the other contenders was perennial presidential hopeful Salmon P. Chase, former governor of Ohio, the third-largest state in the nation. But support for Chase among Ohio politicos was not universal.

Lincoln’s supporters lobbied hard to put the party convention in Chicago to give their man a home state advantage. The convention made its choice on the last day. Seward led, but Lincoln gained momentum on the second ballot, getting 181 votes to Seward’s 184. A switch of four votes from Ohio on the third ballot, followed by “a stampeded of last-minute conversions,” put Lincoln over the top.

The Democrats had already held their convention in Charleston, South Carolina and it was a disaster. The party split when Douglas led and disgruntled Southern Democrats left to reassemble in Baltimore, Maryland, tapping John Breckinridge as their candidate. Yet another group chose John Bell as their candidate. The divided field doomed Douglas’s chances. However, Brookhiser points out:

If every man who voted for Douglas, Breckinridge or Bell had voted for only one of them, Lincoln would have lost Oregon, California and his four electoral votes in New Jersey, but he would still have won 169 electoral votes and the White House.

Lincoln won no electoral votes in the fifteen slave states and only 39.8 percent of the popular votes and none from the 10 slave states. Lincoln was the first Republican president and the first in American history to win without southern support.

His first task was to assemble a cabinet. Doris Kearns Goodwin analyzed Lincoln’s cabinet as “a team of rivals.” But Brookhiser offers a more colorful analogy: “One of Lincoln’s first jobs …three decades earlier had been to maneuver thirty hogs onto one flatboat. He would face similar tasks many, many times with the members of his cabinet.” Lincoln would have loved that description.

By the time Lincoln took office seven southern states had seceded from the Union. In his Inaugural Address he assured the South that slavery would be protected where it existed, but on the issue of its expansion in the territories he would not compromise.

Nor would the South. The war ended slavery but was not begun for that reason. Congressman Charles Francis Adams (son of John Quincy Adams and grandson of John Adams), defined the central issue as “ one of power ” and its loss, the South’s ‘only true grievance.” (See We Have the War Upon Us by William J. Cooper, reviewed here.) The South that had dominated the central government for so long had fallen behind in population and economic might and now could not match the North in political strength. If the South was to remain politically viable, it needed to match the expansion of free states with slave states.

Lincoln ended his Inaugural with another appeal to the founding fathers:

I am loath to close. We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies…the mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave, to every living heart and hearthstone all over the broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.

But there weren’t enough angels to prevent the coming conflagration.

Details of the war years can be found in many books and Brookhiser does not replicate them. Rather, he elaborates on Lincoln’s presidency and the ideas that animated it. He also discusses the skills Lincoln did and did not bring to the executive office, observing that Lincoln lacked managerial experience: “He had never managed anything larger than a two-partner law firm, and he had done that by stuffing papers in his hat.” But Lincoln’s political skills were of the highest order.

There were no pollsters then to ask people questions; people came straight to Lincoln, by mail or in person, and spoke their minds.

He kept tabs on his team of rivals, observing their rivalries with each other and with himself. He might not take their advice but he took their temperature. He always knew better what they were thinking than they knew what he was thinking; if they schemed against him, he generally had a better sense of their chances of success than they themselves did.

Lincoln spoke and wrote for public consumption more than was normal. He reached people who never met him through his words. “Words alone did not win wars or lead men, but what words could do, Lincoln’s would.”

Lincoln kept the disparate, fractious Republicans from tearing the party apart while suppressing the fratricidal rebellion. But the problems he faced after the war were just as daunting. To restore the nation he would have to restrain the victors from vengeance and prevent festering resentment among the vanquished. He would have to contend with radical Republicans in Congress about the political and economic disposition of freed slaves and their former owners. The former dependent on meager resources and the latter impoverished by emancipation and war. But Lincoln would not live to grapple with them.

He addressed the tenor of his solutions, if not the details in the closing lines of his Second Inaugural Address.

With malice toward none, with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives to see the right, let us strive on to finish to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nations wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan–to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and lasting peace, among ourselves and with all nations.

Lincoln had found reason and direction in the founders’ words about slavery, but he had to turn to God to try to justify the slaughter that ended it.

Readers accustomed to a more reverent approach to Lincoln may be put off by Brookhiser’s analytical approach. But the author’s dispassionate insights and elegant prose illuminate both the man and his presidency. His careful dissections of Lincoln’s private and public writings are an indispensible addition to understanding Lincoln and the founders. Founders’ Son is a must for serious students of American history.


1 John Oller { 01.15.15 at 9:05 am }

Excellent review, make me want to go out and buy it. I am continually amazed at how writers can keep coming up with fresh insights and analyses of Lincoln (and I’m not referring to the off-the-wall books that have proliferated the past few years). I’m currently reading Todd Brewster’s “Lincoln’s Gamble,” about the Emancipation Proclamation, which I also recommend.


Marcia Reply:

Thank you for your kind words and recommendation of the Brewster book. It will be an interesting follow-up to this one.


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