October 18, 2014


The Last Founding Father : Richard Brookhiser's new biography of Lincoln is splendid : a review of Founders' Son: A Life of Abraham Lincoln, by Richard Brookhiser  (MYRON MAGNET, 17 October 2014, City Journal)

Though what we call the Lincoln-Douglas debates occurred in their Illinois senatorial contest of 1858, the "six years from 1854 to 1860 were one long Lincoln-Douglas debate," writes Brookhiser, as Douglas went around the state defending the act and an indignant Lincoln pursued him, rebutting his emollient arguments in a string of immortal speeches. In Peoria in October 1854, Lincoln condemned Douglas for reopening an already scabbed-over wound. "Every inch of territory we owned already had a definite settlement of the slavery question," he observed; but thanks to Douglas, "here we are in the midst of a new slavery agitation." Douglas wants the people of the territories to decide? Fine. But who the people are "depends on whether a Negro is not or is a man." If he is, then isn't it "a total destruction of self-government, to say that he too shall not govern himself?" When a white man "governs himself, and also governs another man, that is more than self-government--that is despotism." [...]

Brookhiser properly devotes an entire chapter to Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, which he rightly judges the greatest of his speeches--and (in my view) is perhaps the greatest speech ever made. In it, Brookhiser believes, Lincoln completed his lifelong search for a surrogate father, moving from the Founding Fathers to God the Father. To be sure, this speech, delivered on March 4, 1865, like the Gettysburg Address given some 15 months earlier, resounds with the poetry of the King James Bible, which a childhood friend of Lincoln's sons' remembered the president would often read after lunch in the White House, while the children played, "sometimes in his stocking feet with one long leg crossed over the other, the unshod foot slowly waving back and forth" as he kept time to the rhythm of the Elizabethan language's stupendous music.

But if I have one disagreement with Brookhiser's splendid book, I would think of Lincoln not as the Founders' son but rather as the last Founding Father, shoulder to shoulder with them in greatness as he completed their work, giving the nation a "new birth of freedom" and ensuring that the government of the people, by the people, for the people, that they had instituted but could not perfect, would not perish from the earth. And in the Second Inaugural, he sounds like an Old Testament prophet, questioning God's purposes, even quarreling with them, as he felt himself to be the instrument of accomplishing them. Yes, the war was just and necessary, but why was it lasting so long? Why did so many have to die in the flower of their youth? "Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come;" Lincoln quoted, "but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!" Why would God decree that offenses must come and then punish those who act according to His decree? Why would He decree slavery, then decree its removal, and decree punishment to everyone who had benefited from it, not just Southern slaveowners but every Northern broker and shipper who had profited from it, down to his children and his children's children? We can only carry on "with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right," said Lincoln--however dimly that may be.

After the Confederate capital of Richmond fell a month later, Lincoln wanted to see it with his own eyes, and he walked the silent streets on April 3, 1865, with a bodyguard of only ten sailors, six days before Lee surrendered. But suddenly crowds of blacks surrounded him, shouting, "Glory to God! The great Messiah! Come to free his children from bondage." Several touched the president, as James McPherson recounts in Battle Cry of Freedom; and one old woman cried, "I know I am free, for I have seen Father Abraham and felt him." She was right: he was one of those world-historical figures we can never account for but can only marvel at with gratitude.

Six days after the victory, Lincoln was dead. "The Almighty has His own purposes," he had said in the Second Inaugural. But who can tell what they are?

Posted by at October 18, 2014 11:32 PM

blog comments powered by Disqus