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the lincoln familyShoppers looking for presents at large American book stores have been greeted by a plethora of biographies on Abraham Lincoln recently. Three books have added to the already behemoth historiography of the sixteenth president: Richard Brookhiser’s beautifully written Founders’ Son, Harold Holzer and Norton Garfinkle’s polemical A Just and Generous Nation, and Sidney Blumenthal’s Self Made Man all deserve the attention of Imaginative Conservatives for what they tell us about a man often called the second father of the United States.

Mr. Brookhiser’s work is understandably applauded for being a remarkably readable and original take on why the sixteenth president adored the Founding Fathers, and how he developed his somewhat original and admittedly radical interpretation of the American Constitution. Brookhiser argues that Lincoln’s disappointment with his biological father, Thomas, resulted in the ambitious young man looking for intellectual and ideological surrogates. He found his new ghostly fathers in the pantheon of American heroes. From them, he understood that the mission of the United States—for what could America be if not a missional and propositional nation—to create a land of opportunity for everyone, no matter who his father was. Brookhiser points out that Lincoln never thought he owed very much to his father. In this, Brookhiser is not original. Lord Charnwood, Lincoln’s early twentieth-century British biographer, said that “Thomas Lincoln never prospered like Mordecai and Josiah, and never seems to have left the impress of his goodness or of anything else on any man.” Lincoln seemed especially disappointed in his father for lacking the haute bourgeois desire for self-betterment that later typified the younger Lincoln. Charnwood’s biography and Allen Guelzo’s Redeemer President both accurately accuse Lincoln’s early biographers of unfairly painting Thomas Lincoln as a dumb, brutish father who held back his brilliant son. In fact, as Guelzo points out, Thomas Lincoln was a contented, yeoman small farmer who had no desire to become anything more than what he was. Thomas remained “happy” and easily contented. What little wants he had he provided for easily. Thomas, Guelzo noted, always followed “classical agrarian patterns.”

Lincoln found agrarian life detestable and accused his father of not loving him because Thomas never let Abraham work for himself. That Thomas never understood his intelligent son seems clear, but Abraham’s lot was little different from his contemporaries on small farms in southern Indiana. Abraham’s reading apparently caused his father to resent him, but the record also affirms that young Lincoln proved to be a bit preening about his erudition. Schoolmates who affirmed the folk stories of their place found themselves corrected by the young Lincoln, who even as a child affirmed the rationalism and naturalism then pervading the nascent American intellectual milieu.

Lincoln’s desire to pursue the lifestyle of the growing American bourgeoisie, combined with his father’s preference for agrarian life, left Lincoln struggling with massive psycho-social insecurities. Historian Charles Strotzer credits Lincoln’s insecurities for his decision to live in the bourgeoning, capitalist-driven hamlet of New Salem, Illinois, and for his friendship with the scion of a socially respected slaveholding family, James Speed.[1]

Brookhiser’s testament to Lincoln’s self-appointed adoption by the framers of the American Constitution squares with his continued disdain for his own father, Thomas. In his renowned 1953 biography of Lincoln, Benjamin Thomas recounted Lincoln’s resentful behavior to his father during the latter’s mortal illness in the Winter of 1850-51. When Thomas reached out to Abraham in order to make amends, the now successful attorney, Lincoln rebuffed him; Lincoln refused to visit his dying father. Even more galling, “Lincoln did not attend his father’s funeral, and the letter of reassurance that he sent during the old man’s last illness has an unconvincing tone. One cannot escape the feeling that Lincoln had no real affection for his father and could not dissimulate about it.” The reason for Lincoln’s resentment: “Tom Lincoln had offered him scant encouragement in his efforts to make something of himself.” The biographer excused Lincoln by applauding “Lincoln’s inability to make even a pretense of affection for his father,” which kept with Lincoln’s “fundamental honesty; for frankness, candor, and truthfulness were second nature with him.”[2]

Rejection of agrarian life and family led to the rejection of other social pillars that upheld the agrarian order of southern Indiana and Illinois. Sidney Blumenthal, a former senior adviser to President Bill Clinton and a current adviser to Hillary Clinton, finds in Lincoln the sort of self-made spirit that made the United States great. Mr. Blumenthal’s comprehensive and well-written account nonetheless exposes the central weakness of Abraham Lincoln’s statesmanship: his wholesale rejection of cultural, religious, and social traditions. In order to make himself truly the great statesman posterity would recognize, Lincoln needed to throw off family and religion. Blumenthal praises Lincoln’s rejection of organized religion, especially his decision to reject “intolerant versions” of religion, such as orthodox Calvinism, which presented obstacles to the hyper-rationalism he made sovereign in his life. Blumenthal speaks in adulation of Lincoln’s heretical religiosity. Lincoln rejected Christ’s divinity, the Virgin Birth, Original Sin, and the Atonement. Blumenthal, a convinced secular statist, recognizes in Lincoln one of the first politicians to break the sway of orthodox Christianity in American political life.[3]

Other rumors of Lincoln’s religiosity vary. While some evidence exists that suggests he might have converted to orthodox Presbyterianism in 1863, the majority of written accounts pointed to Lincoln remaining diffident at best to orthodox religion even during his presidency. “Sometimes,” one of his acquaintances said, “Lincoln bordered on atheism. He went far that way, and shocked me… He would come into the clerk’s office where I and some young men were writing and staying, and would bring the Bible with him; would read a chapter and argue against it.” Lincoln was enthusiastic in his infidelity. Friends complained that he was too indiscreet. “He didn’t talk much before strangers about his religion; but to friends, close and bosom ones, he was always open and avowed, fair and honest; to strangers, he held them off from policy.” His first law partner John T. Stuart accused Lincoln of being an “avowed and open infidel” who sometimes “bordered on atheism.” Lincoln, said Stuart, went “further against Christian beliefs and doctrines and principles than any man I ever heard; he shocked me. I don’t remember the exact line of his argument; suppose it was against the inherent defects, so-called, of the Bible, and on grounds of reason.” More specifically, “Lincoln always denied that Jesus was the Christ of God—denied that Jesus was the son of God as understood and maintained by the Christian Church.”[4]

After removing family and religion from his life, Abraham Lincoln’s chief object of devotion remained the American nation alone. Lincoln’s nation was one shorn of the supremacy of institutions like family and religion. Lincoln never rejected these institutions entirely. He proved to be a devoted father and faithful husband to a near-lunatic wife. Yet he subordinated all to the progress of the ephemeral idea of an American nation he believed his adopted fathers, the Founders, had left unfinished. That brings us to Holzer and Garfinkle’s Just and Generous Nation. The authors offer a polemic on American economics. Lincoln, they suggest, focused his “entire political career, in peace and war alike, in pursuit of economic opportunity for the widest possible circle of hardworking Americans.” The Confederacy, in Lincoln’s eyes, “posed a direct threat to self-sustaining middle-class society and to the promise of America leading the way to spreading the idea of opportunity and upward mobility throughout the world.” The life of the American nation, therefore, must be defended at all cost—even cost in hundreds of thousands of lives. Lincoln fought the Civil War over the principle of “establishing a role for government in securing and guaranteeing economic opportunity for its citizens.[5]

That Abraham Lincoln loved the American idea and hoped to expand opportunity is admirable. That he failed to see the destruction that war and ever-increasing federal power might bring remains the greatest failure in his statesmanship. Edmund Burke believed conservatism lay in the understanding that human government was a contract among the dead, the living, and those yet to be born. Lincoln’s tragic appeal to idealized Founding Fathers, rather than to his own flawed father, holds consequences for us today. Lincoln’s unintentional Gnosticism led to an embrace of an idealized nation shorn of the flesh and blood realities of church and family. And it presents a serious obstacle to characterizing Lincoln as a conservative. A belief solely in primary importance of the economic and material progress of an idealized nation, rather than traditional pillars of human society, laid foundations for American progressivism in the twentieth century. One wonders what might have been had Lincoln’s days with his father been different.

Notes:

[1] Rochard Brookhiser, Founders’ Son; Lord Charnwood, Abraham Lincoln; Allen Guelzo, Redeemer President, 33; Michael Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life vol. 1, 33; Charles B. Strotzer, Your Friend Forever, A. Lincoln, 2-3.

[2] Benjamin Thomas, Abraham Lincoln: A Biography, 134

[3] Sidney Blumenthal, A Self-Made Man: The Political Life of Abraham Lincoln, 68

[4] William H. Herndon, Herndon’s Lincoln Vol 3, 440

[5] Harold Holzer and Norton Garfinkle, A Just and Generous Nation: Abraham Lincoln and the Fight for American Opportunity, 3

 

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2 replies to this post
  1. It is difficult for this particular nonspecialist who has read all of Lincoln’s writings (except of course the few unknown letters that have emerged after the early 1980s) to believe that the world of economics was the major cause of his objections to slavery, as well as his willingness to go to war over secession. He may have been the most complicated man so far in the brief history of our presidency. That he could not have imagined anything like today’s economic world is a truism about any and all people born in the early 19th century. Even Karl Marx could not have dreamed how the world would turn. For me the more puzzling issue is how it happened that in spite of his 18th century deistic bent he wound up leading a highly religious crusade of primarily Christian abolitionists.

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