An author who specializes in biographies of the Founders looks at their influence on our 16th president.
Only two of the men who fought in the Revolution, wrote the Declaration and framed the Constitution remained alive as Lincoln reached his 20s. By the time he departed Springfield in 1861, the president-elect had spent his political maturity pondering the lessons of the Founders, teasing out the principles that informed them as he faced a task he deemed “greater than George Washington’s”—holding together a dangerously fragile union. Famously self-made, Lincoln learned most of what he knew from books. Byron, Shakespeare and the Bible account for the touches of poetry in his prose; to Euclid goes partial credit for the rigorous logic underpinning his arguments. The Founders, however, became Lincoln’s most reliable instructors: Thomas Paine for plainspoken proofs; Washington as a model of virtue and for his love of liberty; the problematic Jefferson for the Declaration’s perfect expression of the American purpose. National Review senior editor Brookhiser (James Madison, 2011, etc.) touches on many other influences that shaped Lincoln’s mind, even throwing a little credit to Thomas Lincoln (something Abraham never did) for his son’s talent for storytelling. If the author’s attempt to link the figure of John Wilkes Booth to the dreaded and destructive “towering genius” prophesized in Lincoln’s 1838 Lyceum Address doesn’t quite work, his discussion of the second inaugural is genuinely moving and instructive. The narrative always smoothly returns, though, to the Founders and Lincoln’s unceasing attempt to divine their intentions and to examine the institutions they built and the opportunity they created for someone like him to thrive.
For years now, Brookhiser has helped bring the Founders back to life, precisely Lincoln’s purpose as the president contemplated for his country a new birth of freedom, “the old freedom” they envisioned in 1776 but couldn’t quite perfect.