Abraham Lincoln was a remarkable leader in so many ways it is only natural that shelves upon shelves of books have been written about our 16th president. The first Republican president was an astute politician who knew how to include his opponents on his team. He of log cabin fame knew how to use his humble background to his advantage, as his Honest Abe image conveyed. The savior of the Union even got away with muzzling major newspapers and restricting civil liberties.
Since he is well-chronicled, and often mythologized, it is hard to expand our understanding of Lincoln. But Richard Brookhiser does an expert job of finding new room. A biographer of Founding Fathers such as George Washington, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton, Brookhiser details one of the more unheralded aspects of Lincoln’s success as a political leader, reporting on the influence of the writings, thinking, and leadership of the Founders on Lincoln as he evolved into a national figure.
Today, of course, we still pay homage to the wisdom and skill of our Washingtons, Madisons, and Franklins; in Lincoln’s day, though, the Founders were relatively fresh figures. Only recently had the passage of time removed them from national life. For Lincoln, these men were not distant figures. And, as was usually the case with Abraham Lincoln, he learned about these imperfect yet transformative leaders through books.
Brookhiser recounts how Lincoln, as a young boy, read Parson Weems’s Life of Washington. This biography, popular at the time, contained the fabled story of young George not lying about that cherry tree.
But more important, Weems captured Washington’s sense of responsibility as he moved from farm life to leadership when duty called. Lincoln latched onto Washington as a man of action: “This was the Washington who thrilled Lincoln,” writes Brookhiser.
Indeed, Lincoln knew Washington so well that he could recount the general’s moves in the Battle of Trenton with great clarity. As he headed to Washington, D.C., for his own inauguration in 1861, Lincoln stopped in Trenton. There, he addressed both houses of the New Jersey legislature and, speaking to the senate, recalled Weems’s description of the battle.
He also identified himself, in that address, with Washington’s defense of liberty at Trenton and on other battlefields: “Washington and his men had defended liberty,” Brookhiser writes. “Lincoln and the nation must be ready to defend her again. Washington’s task was now his.”
George Washington was not the only formative figure for Lincoln, whose weak relationship with his own father leads Brookhiser to surmise that Lincoln’s interest in the Founders had something to do with finding a father figure. Lincoln also paid attention to revolutionaries such as Thomas Paine. To be sure, he mostly went the other direction from Paine politically, but Lincoln admired his style.
Paine had the punch of an editorial writer, with the clarity and speed of a good reporter. This made Paine important to Lincoln the future writer and speaker. Lincoln already knew how to tell stories; Paine showed him how to make and win arguments.
Lincoln also studied the life and works of Henry Clay, the Kentucky legislator who (although not a Founder) authored the Missouri Compromise and taught Lincoln the significance of the Fourth of July. The Declaration of Independence, writes Brookhiser in capturing Clay, set forth the idea that “all men yearn for liberty, and as men, deserve it.” The trick, of course, was translating that into reality in a nation divided over slavery, and here Lincoln went with Clay the compromiser and strategist over the abolitionists and their radical tactics.
Lincoln liked Clay for another reason as well: Henry Clay thought a lot about what we today call infrastructure, and “Clay’s vision, which he called the American System, was an interlocking structure of internal improvements, a national bank, and protective tariffs,” writes Brookhiser. Lincoln would support canals, roads, and other internal improvements in his home state. He would also back the Second Bank of the United States against Andrew Jackson. We tend to think of Lincoln as a man who spoke of grand concepts such as the perils of a house divided, but he was also interested in making things work.