Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Founders’ Son: A Life of Abraham Lincoln

Founders’ Son: A Life of Abraham Lincoln
by Richard BrookhiserFounders Son

The pity of the great tales is their stories have already been told. While every few years some brave soul will attempt a comprehensive biography, for most researchers and readers there is a need to find new illuminating angles, if only to starve off boredom. Hence, this take on Abraham Lincoln and his relationship with the US Founding Fathers.

There’s much to recommend about this biography. Brookhiser has a regularly clever turn of phrase, and he has done his homework, turning up some original insights that I had not seen before. Yet there isn’t quite the material to sustain the theme. Brookhiser does well to eke out chapters on how Lincoln learned from George Washington and Thomas Paine, but after that the theme somewhat fades into the background.

It seems there isn’t quite the material for a thematic or founder-by-founder analysis, so this book quickly turns into a somewhat pottered biography of Lincoln. One of the better you’ll read, especially in just 300 pages, but still I was left wishing for slightly more. Or slightly less but tighter. Or slightly more speculative – especially with a writer of this quality – at the risk of appearing fiction. Instead, this book is safe and solid, as befitting the theme.

The best takes on Lincoln I’ve come across are those that set the man in his time. Like Allen Guelzo’s Fateful Lightning, or James M. McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom. Set alone, Lincoln somehow always manages to escape being captured by the page, even in the hands of as talented a writer as Gore Vidal or Richard Brookhiser. Maybe some great stories can never be properly told.


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