“Founders’ Son: A Life of Abraham Lincoln” by Richard Brookhiser was published in 2014. Brookhiser is a journalist and historian focusing on the Founding Fathers and their era. He has written biographies of James Madison, John Marshall, Gouverneur Morris and Alexander Hamilton, among others.
Notwithstanding the book’s subtitle (and its marketing claim) this is not a biography of Lincoln in any traditional sense. It does cover the major events of his life in varying degrees of detail…but with frequent (and often lengthy) philosophical diversions. These tangents are not meant to be distracting, however; they are the point of the book.
The author’s objective is to highlight Lincoln’s lifelong efforts to perpetuate the work of the Founding Fathers and to connect his actions to his understanding of the intentions of luminaries such as George Washington, Thomas Paine and Henry Clay. Although the biographical portion of the narrative is frustratingly discontinuous by design, the book is somewhat successful in accomplishing its intended purpose.
This book’s overarching flaw, however, is that it is neither a dedicated biography nor a focused exploration of Lincoln’s political philosophy. Instead, it is an awkward hybrid of the two which leaves the “whole” worth less than the sum of its parts. At times this book is engrossing; on occasion it is nearly impassable. It can be intellectually stimulating on one page and regrettably pro forma on the next.
So while the author’s mission seems intriguing, his execution is flawed. It is hampered, one might assume, by a lack of hard evidence to support his thesis. And instead of drawing explicit connections between Lincoln’s thoughts, his interpretation of the Founders’ words and deeds, and his ensuing actions, much of the book is conjecture and supposition…occasionally bordering on psychoanalysis.
Fortunately, “Founders’ Son” is not without moments of clear merit. It periodically provides valuable insights that will delight even well-read fans of Lincoln. Introductions to characters such as Paine, Clay and Stephen Douglas are unexpectedly engrossing (almost serving as mini-biographies). And the author’s consideration of Lincoln’s evolving view of slavery is notable.
Overall, however, Richard Brookhiser’s “Founders’ Son: A Life of Abraham Lincoln” is not a book well-suited to most fans of presidential biographies. Readers seeking a traditional biographical experience (or even a cohesive introduction to the 16th president) will quickly become frustrated – and possibly confused. And even the most Lincoln-literate readers are likely to find there is not quite enough “meat on the bones” to be fully satisfying.
Overall Rating: 3 stars