Books: Founders’ Son

Basic Books, 2014 | ISBN 978-0465032945
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For Abraham Lincoln, the road to the future always began in the past—America’s, and his. As a boy he admired George Washington as a champion of liberty. As a young man, he found in Thomas Paine lessons about religion, which he ultimately abandoned, and about how to win arguments, which he retained for the rest of his life. At the height of his career he embraced Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence as a statement of principle (an “apple of gold,” he called it, quoting the Bible), and the Preamble to the Constitution, which named the people as beneficiaries and guardians of freedom…. Other books on Lincoln have noted his interest in the founding fathers and how he looked back to them, but here for the first time a historian of the founding looks ahead to Lincoln.

What is new about Founders’ Son?

In this book I look where Abraham Lincoln looked—to the founding fathers who inspired him to take up public life, who showed him how to win arguments, and who laid out America’s principles. The founders gave Lincoln direction, which bound all his talents—politics, humor, poetry, leadership—together. Our greatest man was shaped by our original greatest generation.

Why haven’t people noticed Lincoln’s reliance on the founders before?

They have, but there is so much else in his rather short, busy life—from personal trauma to political maneuvers to the country’s worst war—that it’s easy to be distracted. Instead of being a Lincoln scholar looking back to his roots, I am the author of eight books on the founders looking ahead to their greatest heir, and so I see the connections more clearly.

So many of the founders were slave owners. How could they help Lincoln in the Civil War?

As Lincoln said, they accepted slavery out of necessity—there it was, and there it had been, for 250 years. But most founders, and all of the most important ones, were ashamed of it, hoped it would disappear, and took steps to hasten the day. That was what Lincoln told Americans over and over, for the last eleven years of his life.

What was the most surprising thing you discovered about Abraham Lincoln?

His fondness for two books: Parson Weems’s Life of Washington, and Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason. We dismiss Weems as a children’s writer, who made up the story of George Washington and the cherry tree, but what Lincoln took from his book was Washington’s heroism and love of liberty. Paine mocked Christianity, and so did Lincoln as a young man. But the grind of events brought God back into Lincoln’s life, and he used the techniques of mockery in debates for the rest of his life.

Anything surprising about Lincoln personally?

How sad he was and how funny he was. Everyone knows a few of his funny sayings, and the sad eyes look at us from the photographs. But Lincoln held off depression for much of his life, and told funny stories habitually, to manage other people, and to manage himself.

Did your opinion of the founders change?

Like Lincoln, I was impressed with their honorable principles where slavery was concerned. But you have to wish they had taken even more steps to contain it than they did. Lincoln compared slavery to a cancer, and like many cancers it metastasized.

All Lincoln books have to end in Ford’s Theater. What was that like to you as a writer?

Intensely depressing. John Wilkes Booth marred our history for a hundred years. Fortunately Lincoln had laid out the right path for America, even if it took a long time to pick it up again it. And he was used to delayed gratification. “The Almighty has his own purposes.”

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