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Founders’ Son: A Life of Abraham Lincoln

By Richard Brookhiser, Basic Books 2014, $27.99

Richard Brookhiser, a senior editor at the has written extensively about National Review, our nation’s Founders. His many books include works on George Washington, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton, as well as a volume that asks “What Would the Founders Do?” Having exhausted the subject of the Revolutionary War leaders, he now turns to their influence on subsequent  generations. In this insightful volume, Brookhiser teases out the connections between the Founders and the political thought of Abraham Lincoln.

Of course, as any reader of the Gettysburg Address knows, Lincoln venerated the Founders and offered an interpretation of their actions that served as a pole star for his own journey. In a speech at Trenton, N.J., on February 21, 1861, on his way to his First Inauguration, Lincoln recalled reading Parson Weems’ Life of Washington and thinking “that there must have been something more than common that those men struggled for….Something that held out a great promise to all the people of the world to all time to come.”

The Civil War too was a struggle for “something more than common,” and time and again Lincoln enlisted the Founders in the struggle against slavery, never more so than in his February 27, 1860, Cooper Union Address in which, Brookhiser recognizes, he “would make his most elaborate case that he was the founders’ son.” To counter the argument that the Constitution was a proslavery document, Lincoln researched the actions of the signers and argued that a majority sought to ban or restrict slavery in the territories.

In 1854, Lincoln confessed, “[I]f all earthly power were given me, I should not know what to do, as to the existing institution.” But guided by his understanding of the Founders’ principles, and forced to act to save the Union, he figured it out. He did so while refuting the Confederates’ own claim to be acting as the true sons of the Revolutionary generation: “Our adversaries have adopted some declarations of independence in which, unlike the good old one penned by Jefferson, they omit the words ‘all men are created equal.’”

Founders’ Son is about words and ideas, and Brookhiser shows how even Thomas Paine, a somewhat suspect Founder, influenced Lincoln. “Words  alone do not win wars or lead men,” Brookhiser observes, “but what words could do, Lincoln’s would.”


Originally published in the March 2015 issue of America’s Civil War. To subscribe, click here.