Unlike those mega-biographies that bury their subject’s chief accomplishments under 900 pages of undigested detail, Richard Brookhiser’s compact, profound, and utterly absorbing new life of Abraham Lincoln, Founders’ Son, leaps straight to the heart of the matter. With searchlight intensity, it dazzlingly illuminates the great president’s evolving views of slavery and the extraordinary speeches in which he unfolded that vision, molding the American mind on the central conflict in American history and resolving, at heroic and tragic cost to the nation and himself, the contradiction that the Founding Fathers themselves could not resolve.
Lincoln did not start out an abolitionist. As early as 1837, he showed ambivalence on the subject. When the Illinois legislature voted to condemn abolition societies as unnecessarily provocative that year, legislator Lincoln and a colleague voted yes but entered a protest, declaring for the record “that the institution of slavery is founded on both injustice and bad policy.” Even so, as a campaigner for Whig candidate William Henry Harrison in the election of 1840, Lincoln, in a debate with Martin Van Buren supporter Stephen Douglas, “was not above slyly trafficking in prejudice,” Brookhiser notes, attacking Van Buren for supporting voting rights for New York State’s free blacks. But as his congressional term drew to an end in 1849, he proposed (unsuccessfully) a plan for ending slavery in the District of Columbia, and the next year, when the three-decade-long era of trying to find a compromise on the issue of slavery came to a climax with the Compromise of 1850, Lincoln knew that the choice between slavery and abolition was inevitable for the nation—and he knew that he would stand against slavery. “When the time comes my mind is made up,” he told a friend, “for I believe the slavery question can never be successfully compromised.”
The time came soon enough, with the infamous Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854. In effect, the act repealed the 1820 Missouri Compromise, which, in admitting Missouri as a slave state, had barred slavery from the rest of the Louisiana Territory lying north of the 36° 30’ parallel. By the terms of the new act, however, settlers pouring into the vast, hitherto empty territories of Kansas and Nebraska, which mostly lay north of the 1820 line, could choose whether to admit or bar slavery by “popular sovereignty,” the term used by Democratic senate leader Stephen Douglas, who boasted of having “passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act myself. . . . I had the authority and power of a dictator throughout the whole controversy.”
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.”
Lincoln appealed to the authority of his beloved Founding Fathers — a subject Brookhiser, biographer of several of them, knows better than most. These great men found slavery already existing in the colonies, and to forge a new nation that the slave states would agree to join, they had to accept the evil out of necessity, not principle. They clearly knew that it was wrong, as is evident in the 1787 Northwest Ordinance, by which the Continental Congress strove to prevent slavery’s spread to unsettled territories; in the Declaration of Independence—“the sheet anchor of American republicanism,” said Lincoln, “that teaches me that ‘all men are created equal,’” including blacks, who are emphatically men; and in the Constitution itself, which accepted slavery so reluctantly that it wouldn’t even name it, Lincoln noted, “just as an afflicted man hides away a wen or cancer, which he dares not cut out at once, lest he bleed to death.” So let’s not go beyond where the Founders felt themselves forced to go. Let’s not metastasize slavery further.