Abraham Lincoln as Plutarch Might Have Seen Him

 
 

Thanks to its sympathy and its moral seriousness, Richard Brookhiser’s new biography of Abraham Lincoln is a fine study of statesmanship.

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The Victorian poet and classicist Arthur Hugh Clough, in the introduction to his revision of John Dryden’s translation of Plutarch’s Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans (still in print from Modern Library), offers a useful overstatement about Plutarch:

He is a moralist rather than an historian. His interest is less for politics and the changes of empires, and much more for personal character and individual actions and motives to action; duty performed and rewarded; arrogance chastised, hasty anger corrected; humanity, fair dealing, and generosity triumphing in the visible, or relying on the invisible world.

One could offer a similar judgment—with the overstatement toned down—of the works of Richard Brookhiser on the lives of noble Americans. A longtime journalist (still a senior editor and regular contributor at National Review), Brookhiser first turned to writing biography in 1996 with Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington. He described that book as “not a life history of George Washington, but a moral biography, in the tradition of Plutarch, of Washington as a founder and father of his country.”

What interested Brookhiser was the mind and character of the statesman. Evidently, Brookhiser believes that there is such a thing as statesmanship, that there are great men deserving to be called statesmen, and that they are best understood both in terms of what they made of their own gifts of character and intellect and in terms of what they accomplished for their country by the use of those gifts. Brookhiser’s unabashed admiration for greatness was (and remains) unfashionable in the academy, where it is reflexively mistaken for boosterism or hagiography, but it is popular with ordinary Americans too intelligent to be taken in by academic fashion, and Founding Father was a considerable success.

So too was his next foray, Alexander Hamilton, American. Again Brookhiser nodded to Plutarch, noting that he was one of the favorite authors of Hamilton and his contemporaries, because he provided “lives examined in moral terms.” And though he continued in this second book to call himself a journalist-biographer rather than a historian, Brookhiser’s mastery of the American founding and of the interactions of its leading figures grew as he continued turning out his own vivid “lives examined in moral terms,” writing on the Adams dynasty, on the constitutional stylist and rake Gouverneur Morris, and on the “father of American politics” James Madison.

Two decades after he began, Brookhiser can rightly call himself, as he does in his latest book, “a historian of the founding.” But he still retains the spirit of the amateur, and of the moralist Plutarch, seeking above all to understand how the characters of great men are shaped, and how they in turn shape the politics of their time. And this time he has moved out of the founding period of our history, yet not out of it. His new book is Founders’ Son: A Life of Abraham Lincoln, and his title is precisely chosen. Lincoln, in Brookhiser’s account, shaped his thoughts and actions in a continual dialogue with the founders who made the nation he worked to save from self-destruction. And from Brookhiser’s account we can learn a good deal about how to engage in such a dialogue ourselves, with the founders and with Lincoln, in order to meet the needs of statesmanship in our own situation.

Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

In Lincoln’s day, the country was not yet cursed by the cult of “authenticity” and of “being oneself” (though perhaps harbingers of it could be seen in the works of Thoreau and Emerson). Americans may have been self-made men in great numbers, but the selves they made were based on models they admired, in their own history and in more remote times and places. Aspiring to goodness and greatness meant finding someone to be like, a “beau ideal” to be present in the mind’s eye and to imitate. Whereas the founders had read Plutarch for this purpose when they were lads, their own example was just the thing for Lincoln’s generation.

For Lincoln, the need for such examples may have been more acute than for others. He did not find much to admire in his own father, Thomas Lincoln, an unlettered farmer and carpenter. His father did at least teach young Abe the value of hard work, if also imparting to him a keen desire to avoid a life of drudgery. Drawn to reading whatever he could lay his hands on, Lincoln found his models in books, such as Mason Weems’s semi-fictional biography of George Washington. Many years after his boyhood reading of Weems, Lincoln could cite episodes from the book, which depicted Washington as the great champion of liberty and Union, whose courage and steadfastness served his countrymen’s glory rather than his own.

A kind of intellectual father to Lincoln, for a time at least, was Thomas Paine. Although his Age of Reason made Paine persona non grata for many Americans in the final years of his life, it was still an influential work. From Paine, Lincoln imbibed a youthful (but not permanent) skepticism about religion, a faith in reason and logic, and a rhetorical style that could be cutting, devastating, and humorous all at once. But to what end would Lincoln devote the searching critical faculty that Paine helped him sharpen?

The crisis over slavery’s expansion into western territories, and the model of a political father in his own Whig party who confronted that crisis, Henry Clay, provided the answers. Clay was a complex figure—a Kentucky slaveholder but a champion of (eventual) freedom for slaves, a southerner representing agrarian interests who advocated the “American system” of internal improvements and developing commerce, a man of principle who was also the Great Compromiser. Lincoln called Clay his “beau ideal of a statesman” and was fond of quoting him on the central importance of the nation’s founding principles of equality and liberty, found in the Declaration of Independence.

Jefferson and Lincoln

The example of Clay led Lincoln straight back to the founders—both to the framers of the Constitution and to the signers of the Declaration, and, among the latter, the draftsman Thomas Jefferson above all. As his own political career accelerated in the 1850s, Lincoln educated himself deeply about the founders’ thoughts and deeds, particularly on slavery questions. As Brookhiser says of Lincoln’s famous debates with Stephen Douglas, “the issue overhanging all of the debates . . . was what the politicians on the podium thought of politicians who had never set foot in Illinois and who had, by 1858, all died years ago.” Getting right with the founders, and enlisting them on your own side of a controversy, had never been so crucial, for the nation was grappling with the founders’ largest postponed problem—the ultimate fate of chattel slavery—and had only the founders’ tools for the job, in the constitutional order they had left as their greatest legacy.

And the founders’ principles. But what exactly were those? Federalism, understood as “states’ rights”? Democracy, understood as “popular sovereignty”? Liberty, understood to include the right to make property even of other human beings and to have that right made good in courts of law?

None of these, Lincoln saw, was the most fundamental of the principles “our fathers” bequeathed to us. The “sheet anchor of American republicanism,” he said in Peoria in 1854, was “our ancient faith,” expressed in the Declaration of Independence, that “all men are created equal.” For this reason, Lincoln offered “all honor” to Thomas Jefferson, who had placed those mighty words in the document that brought the United States into being.

Jefferson, in Brookhiser’s clear-eyed account, is a deeply flawed father-hero for Lincoln, as he should be for us as well. If Clay was complex, Jefferson was downright contradictory, “the most problematic of the founders,” if also “one of the very greatest.” His thoughts and deeds on the slavery issue over the course of his long career can most charitably be called . . . mixed. Less charitably, they are hypocritical and even cynical, with self-interest and cowardice frequently outweighing statesmanship and courage, and high ideals too often put off for the day after tomorrow. (There may be ample explanation in these pages for the fact that Brookhiser has never devoted a book to Jefferson.) However, as Brookhiser writes:

The truths of the Declaration were Lincoln’s great backstop against all the founders’ miscellaneous utterances that his research had not discovered, or that he, having discovered them, had chosen to minimize. Whatever their stray opinions or their stubborn practice, at the moment of America’s creation Jefferson had proposed that all men are created equal, and in Congress assembled all the United States had agreed.

Amid all the dross of Jefferson’s public and private fits and starts, here was some gold—indeed, as Lincoln put it in an image from the Book of Proverbs, an “apple of gold,” the inherent and equal dignity of every human being, framed in “pictures of silver,” a constitutional order strong and stable enough to make good on the founding promise.

Another Father

But was that constitutional order truly strong and stable enough? This question was Lincoln’s final test, and the abattoir of the Civil War drove him into the arms of “another father for this extremity: God the Father.” Brookhiser is by no means the first biographer of Lincoln to consider the religious turn in his thinking and his rhetoric, but he brings a gifted writer’s sensibilities to the subject of the Second Inaugural, which he is right to call “Lincoln’s greatest speech.” In that speech, with all its brevity, Brookhiser perceives “four movements,” like a compact symphony.

Among other things, Brookhiser notices that the founding fathers are completely missing from the address. God, in all His providential awfulness, is at its center, “implacable and unapproachable.” Yet He is also there in the final movement, ready to “show Americans the right,” if they will only pay attention. The now-absent founding fathers had glimpsed the right but not finished the work of living it, which was up to their children, if they would but remember that they are children of God first. Such reflections will do, I think, for our own circumstances today, though Brookhiser prudently refrains from any attempt to draw explicit “lessons” from history. He would rather show than tell.

Founders’ Son engages at times in some psychological interpolations that might be questioned, and as a fine prose stylist himself, Brookhiser has the kind of strong opinions that lead him sometimes to deprecate Lincoln’s rhetorical choices, especially early in his career. One might quibble with these interpolations and criticisms here or there. But his willingness to criticize, and his effort to enter imaginatively into the life of his subject, bespeak Brookhiser’s Plutarchian intentions.

Thanks to the degree of its sympathy and its moral seriousness, Founders’ Son is a fine study of statesmanship. There is a continual stream of Lincoln books, and no one can read them all. But this one is worth your while.

Matthew J. Franck is the Director of the William E. and Carol G. Simon Center on Religion and the Constitution at the Witherspoon Institute.

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