by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
Richard Brookhiser has spent much of his time in recent years documenting the exploits of the American Founders. So it should be no great surprise that those towering figures still occupy much of Brookhiser’s attention as he jumps ahead in American history to focus his latest book, Founders’ Son, on the 16th president.
Unsurprising, certainly, and ultimately enlightening — for Abraham Lincoln spent much of his time pondering the Founders’ words and deeds, choosing from among them key ideas that helped guide Lincoln through one of the most consequential political careers in American history.
The fathers that Lincoln took to heart and that showed him how to be a great man were the founding fathers, surrogates plucked from reading and history. As a boy he was thrilled by George Washington and his struggles for liberty. As a young man he was thrilled by Thomas Paine’s skepticism and his laughter. As a middle-aged man, however much he disliked Thomas Jefferson’s late-life cowardice, Lincoln found the perfect expression of America’s essence in the Declaration of Independence — logical, beautiful, and universally endorsed (“We hold these truths …”). But Lincoln loved everything about the founding fathers: the Constitution and its Preamble, the Northwest Ordinance, the Revolutionary veterans and their widows. What he did not love he made lovable, or ignored. He brought the founding fathers back to life; he labored to have their principles recognized, by political rivals and crowds of listening voters. He enlisted them in the fights of his time, from prairie elections to multi-thousand-men battles. He enlisted them in his own rise to power, which would (he hoped) be power to do good.
As Brookhiser notes, other political figures of Lincoln’s day invoked the Founders — often for purposes diametrically opposed to those of the wartime president. Readers can decide whether Lincoln or his antagonists used the Founders in the most accurate and appropriate way.