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The Bush Institute Talks with Richard Brookhiser about Lincoln's Leadership

Article by George W. Bush Presidential Center November 25, 2014 //   8 minute read

Abraham Lincoln’s leadership has been described in many different ways, but Richard Brookhiser takes a unique approach with the 16th president’s development as a national leader. In his new book, “Founders’ Son,” Brookhiser explains the influence that America’s Founding Fathers had on Lincoln’s leadership.

Brookhiser has ample experience with the Founders’ thinking. He is the author of acclaimed books on George Washington, James Madison and Alexander Hamilton. As part of the Presidential Leadership Scholars program, the Bush Institute talks in this interview with Brookhiser, a senior editor of the National Review, about the influence the Founders had on one of America’s most admired leaders.

At the beginning of your book, you describe how Abraham Lincoln essentially absorbed George Washington. So much so that you write "Washington was inside him?" What did that mean for Lincoln? And how do leaders find a core like that?

For Abraham Lincoln, George Washington was a hero who fought for liberty. That was the aspect of Washington’s life that most impressed him.

The key early part of his discovery of Washington was Parson Weems’ Life of Washington, which may have been the first biography of Washington. Lincoln read it as a child.

We know that what most struck him was Weems’ account of the Battle of Trenton. Lincoln said so in 1861 on his way to his first inauguration.

He passed through Trenton, stopping the day before Washington’s birthday. Lincoln addressed the New Jersey State Senate. He recalled reading about the Battle of Trenton and said, “Boy even though I was, I thought ‘there must have been something more than common that those men struggled for…something even more than the National Independence.’”

That something was liberty. The Battle of Trenton was about the survival of liberty in the world.

When you read Weems’ account, he depicted it that way. After the American troops crossed the Delaware, they were watched over by the spirit of Liberty. She had been driven from Europe to America, and was now pursued by her enemies.

Only Washington's "little band" remained to defend her. Before the Americans charged, Weems had Washington say, "All I ask of you is just to remember what you are about to fight for!" In 1861 Washington was remembered.

But how do leaders find a core like Washington’s? Or Lincoln’s?

Lincoln said his impressions of Washington were strong from boyhood. A lot of this is luck. Your attention is grabbed by something early in your life. And you may be looking for something.

Lincoln was a talented boy who was not so happy with his own father. He was reading this account of the father of his own country and he absorbed it, perhaps at an unconscious level.

You explain how Lincoln absorbed other Founding Fathers, such as Thomas Paine. What do we have to learn from how Lincoln engaged them? You contend that he was more right about the Founders than wrong.

This is complicated. Everyone was trying to engage the Founders in the 1850s and ‘60s. This was America’s first Greatest Generation and only one or two generations removed from Lincoln’s day.

Lincoln grasped them well because he was smarter and a more careful thinker and reader. Stephen Douglas, his great Illinois opponent from 1854 to 1860, had his own views of the Founders and the founding of the country. He said it was all about self-government. The people of any state or locale have the right to govern themselves.

That was not wrong, but Lincoln saw the limitations of this argument. If a man governs himself, that is right. But if he governs himself and another man, Lincoln said, that is despotism.

You have to think about these principles and see if there are any limitations or contradictions. What other principles come into play? You can’t go with slogans.

You detail how Lincoln could go deeply into an issue, like slavery or promoting canals and railroads in Illinois. How important is it for leaders to be able to go deep into an issue?

There are different kinds of leaders. Theodore Roosevelt was a polymath. He knew about many things.

Abraham Lincoln was a much more focused man and mind. He loved Shakespeare, yet he didn’t read them all. He read the ones he liked most, which were the tragedies and histories. He bore down on them.

The same was true with history. Lincoln was not learned in all of history but he was in American history.

His law partner said that he dug up a root when he went into a case. That was true in his grasp of slavery. He saw the politics of the 1850s and how the issue of slavery was connected to Americanism. If we did slavery wrong, we would get the other things wrong, too.

He knew that slavery could only be tolerated in a republic as an evil slated for extinction. We couldn’t get rid of it right away, but we could contain it, cutting off its supply by abolishing the slave trade, and restricting its expansion by keeping it out of our new territories. If we let it flourish and even grow, it would undermine republican government.

Passion in leadership is another subject you deal with in Founders’ Son. What is passion’s role?

Lincoln changes his mind a bit about passion. As a young man, he gave a speech to the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois. He says there that Americans must be guided by reason. He acknowledged our passions were engaged during the American Revolution. We were throwing off Britain. It was a struggle. All our feelings of pride and self-respect were engaged. But he said that the war was won and the men who won it are now gone.

We need to think about how we can maintain our commitment to our institutions. We can only rely upon reason to see how reasonable our republican government is.

That is what he said, but I don’t buy it. At the same time, Lincoln is being eloquent in his Lyceum address. He said of the Founding Fathers: “What invading foemen could never do, the silent artillery of time has done.” The “silent artillery of time” was poetry, and he was using impassioned language to move his audience.

He was trying to say the Founders were still alive and they can help us do the right thing. He is forging an emotional connection with his audience.

Leaders need both passion and reason. Passion without reason is an unguided missile. Reason without passion does not move anyone. Without passion, why bother?

You describe Lincoln “going down the beaten path” at one point in his career. He did normal things like earn a living and have a family. How do leaders balance knowing that people want to identify with them but also expect them to not go down the beaten path?

The path has to open up. Suppose there had not been a crisis in the British Empire. George Washington would have been a successful planter and knighted in his old age.

Suppose the slavery issue was resolved early in our history. Abraham Lincoln would have been a railroad lawyer.

This is not to dismiss the beaten path. We need lawyers and politicians, even though we don’t often like them. But occasions do make the man, in some sense. They face an intersection between their talents and the problems they face.



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