Founders' Son CoverWhen Abraham Lincoln departed his Springfield, Illinois home in 1861, to be inaugurated as the sixteenth President of the United States, he told his friends and neighbors that the task before him was “more difficult than that which devolved upon General Washington.” One could argue the historical accuracy of that claim, but all must agree that what awaited Lincoln in the spring of that year was difficult indeed.

That difficulty—and Lincoln’s relationship with George Washington—is masterfully captured in Richard Brookhiser’s Founders’ Son: A Life of Abraham Lincoln. No American life has received as much attention and scrutiny as has the life of Abraham Lincoln. All aspects of his life have undergone careful (and in some cases, careless) investigation—his intellectual and emotional life, his life as a husband, father, lawyer, leader, politician, and rhetorician; as well as his relationships with his parents (his father, particularly), women, men, blacks, and God. All of that is included in Brookhiser’s readable narrative. But there’s more. Brookhiser gives us something new—Lincoln’s relationship with the founding fathers.

What we discover (and this should come as no surprise) is that Lincoln’s understanding of the founders matured as he matured. Nevertheless, the essence of his understanding remained consistent, especially when applied to the inescapable issue of the day: slavery. It is a well known fact that Lincoln abhorred slavery, an outlook he adopted from his estranged father, Thomas. Lincoln’s hatred of slavery was hardened by the fact that his father hired him out as a hand to work other men’s fields, and by what he witnessed as a young man on a riverboat trip to New Orleans.

But when Lincoln came to maturity, as a lawyer and politician, he felt constrained by law that very little could be done about the institution of slavery until circumstances warranted a change. What Brookhiser does is show us, clearer than most Lincoln scholars, how closely aligned Lincoln’s thinking was to that of the founders’. Most of the leading founders also abhorred slavery, including slaveholders like George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. These men, who avowed equality and liberty for mankind, are rightly criticized for their hypocrisy when it came to the personal practice of manumitting their slaves—which they failed to do during their lifetimes—but as a matter of national emancipation they were stymied as to what to do. The economic and social disaster they foresaw from such a move would throw the county into ruin.

Regardless of the founders’ personal failings regarding their slaves, however, they were concerned with a more pressing principle: American independence. So, as a practical political concession to more radical voices, men of good faith like Washington and Jefferson allowed slavery to be struck from the Declaration and the Constitution. Even so, the founders would limit slavery where they could in law, most notably in restricting slavery’s expansion into new territories with the passage of the Northwest Ordinance (1789) and in ratifying the end the slave trade in Article 1, section 9 of the Constitution within twenty years (1808).

Lincoln rightly held that the founders believed slavery would die a natural death. He believed it too. But what the founders didn’t foresee, and Lincoln only after the bloodletting began, was how deeply rooted slavery had become. It had become a metastasized cancer in the American soul; one needed radical surgery. Brookhiser shows that at this point, when the bodies of Northern and Southern boys were piling up, Lincoln could no longer rely on the founders; he must now turn to another father for guidance and understanding—God. In one of the best chapters in Founders’ Son, Brookhiser places us in the middle of Lincoln’s struggle with the divine will. What was God’s purpose in allowing the war to continue? The semblance of an answer was found in Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address:

If God wills that [the war] continue, until all the wealth piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years [1615—the Jamestown Colony and the introduction of slavery] of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn by the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago [in Psalm 19:9], so still it must be said, “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

Even in this mystery remains—mystery beyond the grasp of the founders and Lincoln himself. God the Father rules in His heaven and does on earth as He pleases (Daniel 4:35).

Founders’ Son is a book about fathers—about Lincoln’s relationship with his biological father, Thomas, his surrogate fathers, the founders, and God the Father. The book ends with Lincoln becoming a second generation father—another father of his country—who stood alone, but now, along with the other founding fathers, speaks still from the grave to guide those who still have ears to hear.

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