The Book of Abraham
Founders’ Son: A Life of Abraham Lincoln
By Richard Brookhiser
Basic Books, 2014
Although the subtitle of Richard Brookhiser’s new book Founder’s Son is “A Life of Abraham Lincoln,” that’s not exactly what the book delivers, as Brookhiser himself is the first to point out; it is, rather, “the history of a career, and the unfolding of the ideas that animated it.” Learning this, some readers may recall Brookhiser’s similarly unconventional 1996 book Founding Father: Rediscovering George Washington and look forward to 350 equally stimulating pages on Lincoln. They’ll be gravely disappointed, and it won’t be Lincoln’s fault.
As the book’s title indicates, Brookhiser’s intent is to analyze the ways in which Lincoln’s knowledge of the lives and writings of the Founding Fathers affected his own life and writings. As Brookhiser says, when it comes to somebody like Lincoln, it’s often every bit as instructive to study the development of rhetoric as it is to study day-to-day events, and his book, a marvel of economy, packs quite a bit of both those kinds of developments into its length. We get a quick but empathetic sketch of Lincoln’s boyhood, some enjoyably dramatic recountings of his adventures in the legal profession (although, as is almost always the case with biographies of this man, incomplete recountings; when Lincoln wasn’t performing TV-style theatrics in court, he could be a pretty slimy lawyer), a very good re-enactment of the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, and of course the tribulations of President Lincoln during the Civil War, and we get it all briskly presented.
The chapter on specific parallels and contrasts between Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson is especially thought-provoking, although commensurately problematic. Jefferson the slaveholder was notoriously hypocritical about the so-called Peculiar Institution, and Brookhiser faithfully parses most of that hypocrisy (at one point he says, simply and accurately, “Who that thought seriously about Jefferson did not hate him, at least a little?”). But there’s an imbalance that steadily worsens in the discussion, perhaps born of the reluctance Brookhiser shares with so many Lincoln biographers to acknowledge that his hero had a record on the subject that was problematic to say the least. Lincoln told nigger jokes, in public and private, his whole life; he intentionally varied not just the temperature of his rhetoric but substance of it, depending on what kind of crowd was in front of him; his Emancipation Proclamation was far more a military and political move than an expression of civil rights; he favored crazy postwar schemes to ship America’s blacks to some distant colony across the sea; in offhand references, he clearly showed that he thought only “very intelligent” black people even approximated being human; he shared, in other words, almost all the racial prejudices of his time. The key similarity with Jefferson, as Brookhiser rightly sees, is that both men were equally unhappy about that fact, but such a slender insight can hardly support the weight of circle-squaring so strenuous as to yield lines like, “Jefferson proclaimed freedom at the first, in the Declaration, and to the last, he clung to it. Wearily, with bad faith, by his fingernails – but he clung to it. Lincoln, in his turn, clung to Jefferson.”
But the tone of the book is off-kilter from the start, at once oddly pushy and hagiographic, and many of its scattered insights come across as derivative bromides. The writing itself is too often unaccountably lazy and cliched. All of this is both odd and depressing; this is an author capable of first-rate popular history, and yet most of Founder’s Son reads like off-the-cuff remarks delivered at a local Kiwanis dinner. The characterizations are inconsistent, the generalizations are bland and borderline false, and the text is peppered with frankly weird apostrophes like the one in which Brookhiser muses on the nature of the Civil War dispute:
If a minority of Americans, having lost an election, simply left the country, as happened in 1861, they could take slavery with them – and cripple the very notion of republican government on their way out. (What good is a form of government that cannot maintain itself?)
Brookhiser has been a published author since he was a teenager, and he’s spent plenty of time both in the historical archives and in the corridors of power at the White House. He simply must know how fatuous, how infinitely self-justifying, how equally applicable to the Third Reich as to the United States, is that parenthetical question: in other words, if all the answers to a rhetorical question are patently obvious, what’s the point of asking it? it’s a positive stumper (as his subject would have said) as to why he includes it here. And it’s far from the only such stumper in the book.
But such things could conceivably be lumped under the catch-all heading of eccentricity (like any veteran historian, Brookhiser has earned the right) and easily overlooked if they were the extent of the problems with Founder’s Son, but they’re only the beginning. Far more alarming is the book’s handling of its sources. Sometimes it’s relatively harmless, as when he relates a bit from the long interview Lincoln’s stepmother gave after his death:
“Mr. Lincoln [her husband] never made Abe quit reading to do anything if he could avoid it. He would do it himself first.” Reading, writing, and arithmetic were useful skills to have, and Thomas wanted his son to have them.
But Mrs. Lincoln doesn’t mention arithmetic; that’s just Brookhiser thoughtlessly reaching for the ‘reading, writing, rithmetic’ cliché that was the first thing to come to his mind – it’s amazing he didn’t actually spell it that way. Or there are more-or-less harmless embellishments made to sharpen some rhetorical point of his own, as when he talks about father and son: “The Lincolns were differently built – Abraham (who rose to be 6’4”) lean and gawky, Thomas (who stood 5’10”) compact and solid.” We have no record of whether or not Thomas Lincoln was “compact and solid” at the time of Abraham’s young manhood, but we should probably count ourselves fortunate to get even this about Lincoln’s actual – as opposed to spiritual or metaphorical – father: Thomas Lincoln gets only a handful of mentions in this book about patriarchal influences on Abraham Lincoln, and in most of them Brookhiser is content to parrot the President’s own later disparaging comments about the man. It’s not a very satisfying feeling, getting the impression your biographer is slacking off right in front of you.
That kind of contentment wafts off most of this book. Take Brookhiser’s account of a famous moment from Lincoln’s only visit to Richmond:
Lincoln went to see the Confederate capital on April 14 . He arrived without fanfare, accompanied only by a small bodyguard. When a party of black workmen recognized him, they tried to kiss his feet. “That is not right,” Lincoln told them. “You must kneel to God only.” What a temptation. Satan only offered Jesus all the kingdoms of the world; these men offered Lincoln their homage. Turning it aside was one of his noblest moments.
It’s tempting to say “leaving aside those preposterous final two sentences,” but we shouldn’t leave them aside: this is a professional historian and full-grown adult seriously giving Lincoln the edge in a comparison with Jesus Christ and saying, with a straight face, that one of his noblest moments was declining to be worshipped as a god on Earth. What would Brookhiser have said if Lincoln hadn’t objected, for Pete’s sake?
But even so, leaving aside those preposterous final two sentences, there’s Brookhiser’s attribution for the whole scene: “Donald, 576.” This refers to David Herbert Donald’s 1995 biography of Lincoln, and if we dutifully turn to page 576 of his book, we find a different quote: “Don’t kneel to me … That is not right. You must kneel to God only, and thank him for the liberty you will hereafter enjoy.” And if you’re curious to know who’s right, you’ll have to dig up Donald Pfanz’s 1989 book The Petersburg Campaign, since that’s Donald’s source. Why it isn’t Brookhiser’s source as well is beyond me; the book is only $12 on Amazon. It’s true that Brookhiser has only trimmed the quote and not altered its essence, but it would have been nice if a writer of his long experience hadn’t been quite so ready to relay basically unsourced fourth-hand bits of business.
Likewise that most darkly famous moment of the Lincoln story, the end of it. Brookhiser lays out the familiar scene: John Wilkes Booth stealthily stepping up behind the President as he sat absorbed in a play at Ford’s Theater, pulling the trigger, and then leaping onto stage yelling “Sic Semper Tyrannus!” But there’s a complication, and Brookhiser relates it thus:
In Booth’s downward leap, one of his spurs had caught on the bunting that hung from the Lincolns’ box, causing him to land off balance and break a leg. One eyewitness compared his walk afterward to “the hopping of a bullfrog.” This was an error: actors on the stage of history should not hop like bullfrogs.
Part of this is immediately suspect: whether Booth broke his ankle or only fractured his leg, he certainly didn’t break it, but since there’s always been some doubt as to whether he injured himself at Ford’s Theater at all (I myself have never believed it, and virtually none of the eyewitnesses clearly attest to it, even though it should have been glaringly obvious to all of them, since they were looking right at it when it happened), we can extend some leeway to Brookhiser. But what about that business with the bullfrogs? In Brookhiser’s account, it seems simply bizarre – read it as many times as you like, and you’ll still find yourself wondering what in tarnation he can mean by it, that “actors on the stage of history should not hop like bullfrogs.” Confused, we turn to his source for the whole story.
It’s Donald again, this time page 597, on which we’re told, “Quickly he limped across the stage, with what one witness called, ‘a motion… like the hopping of a bull frog.’” So what does Brookhiser mean, that this account is an “error”? That the story is unseemly, or that it’s factually wrong? Probably the former, but at such a dramatic high point in his narrative, this kind of donnish wisecrack falls flat. Again, it won’t help turning to Donald’s own source; it’s W. Emerson Reck’s 1987 book A. Lincoln, His Last 24 Hours. By this point I’d gone far beyond wondering if any primary sources for Lincoln’s life even exist; I’d started wondering if Lincoln even existed. It’s hard to see any worth in all this third- and fourth-hand stuff.
But it turns out Brookhiser is no more reliable even when he’s got a demmed elusive primary source right there in front of him. Take just one incident, when word of Lincoln’s assassination reaches General Sherman just as he was mopping up the last of Southern resistance in the field. Here’s how Brookhiser describes it:
On April 17, as Sherman in North Carolina negotiated the surrender of the last major Confederate army, he told Joseph E. Johnston, the Confederate commander, news that he himself had just learned: Lincoln had been assassinated. Johnston, honest soldier, called it a disgrace to the age.
But when we turn (and perhaps we don’t; perhaps by this point we’re plumb afraid) to his End Note on the subject, we read: “This is Sherman’s characterization of what Johnston said. In his own memoirs Johnston said he called it ‘the greatest possible calamity to the South.’” And why, pray tell, is our author preferring General Sherman’s ‘characterization’ of what Johnston said, as opposed to Johnston’s own account of what he said? Can anybody answer that? Donald? Pfanz? Reck?
As mentioned, it’s baffling that a trained old hand should turn in such work, and the baffled mind naturally looks for explanations for the complacency that fills this book. An off year? A tax audit? An illness? It’s only at the very end of the book that a far more, shall we say, comprehensive explanation offers itself. It’s in the book’s final pages that we read “God never lets us see more than a piece of the picture,” and it’s not Lincoln being quoted – it’s Brookhiser himself, casually telling his readers about the ways of God. And he’s not done:
Humor helped, by showing your own and everyone else’s limitations; so, in a different way, did poetry, by describing and ministering to life’s disappointments; so, most remotely, did God, Who presumably knew what He was doing, even if we did not.
No idea who that “we” is – it certainly can’t include Lincoln, who was at the very least a bitter agnostic his entire life and might have been a plain old downmarket atheist. But surely, we faintly protest, Brookhiser can’t be insinuating that Booth was part of God’s plan? That Lincoln’s assassination, and the long decades of Reconstruction and segregation that followed, happened because God wanted them to? What kind of thing would that be for a writer of history to say, in 2014? Hell, if a writer of history had said that in 1914, Theodore Roosevelt would have dashed off a scathing review for McClure’s before the ink was dry. Surely even for so drastically uneven a book as Founder’s Son, Brookhiser can come up with a better ending-note than dreary, shopworn faux-Calvinism? Well:
So Lincoln did his duty. There would be charity for all after the bloodletting stopped. And if, thanks to Booth, charity was delayed, it would come some day. The Almighty had His own purposes.
If the Almighty (our author doesn’t exactly specify, but presumably the Christian Almighty, since Lord Ganesha isn’t mentioned) has His own purposes, and if all reality down to the last civil war and assassin’s bullet dances unwittingly to those purposes, then why write biographies at all? If the Almighty cannot err, knows no evil, and is not schizophrenic, then why talk of heroism, or cowardice, or doubt, or conviction? If His purposes are so calmly, constantly guiding the course of history, then we don’t need biographers to praise Lincoln and condemn Hitler, because each was just a puppet in any case. This is the ultimate consolation and tedium of theology, and if we have to invoke it, we’re a long, long way from serious history.
Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Washington Post, The National, The Wall Street Journal, The Boston Globe, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly, and hosts one of its blogs, Stevereads.