Several decades ago, the Civil War historian James G. Randall raised the question as to whether the Lincoln theme in American history had been exhausted by the vast outpouring of books on the life and lives of our sixteenth president. He need not have worried: There was never any danger that Americans would tire of hearing about Abraham Lincoln or that historians and biographers would run out of things to say about him.

Lincoln, after all, is a central figure—perhaps the central figure—in the unfolding epic of the American nation. What we are today we might never have been had Lincoln not intervened in the sectional conflict of the 1850s. There was also something about the rough-hewn man from the prairie that set him apart from the secular statesmen who founded the nation and the patronage-seeking and media-savvy politicians who followed him. Unpolished, unschooled, and untutored, he somehow managed to master a situation that, as he said, was “piled high with difficulty,” and he did so with a rhetorical mastery that no other American political figure has come close to matching. The coarse photographs from the era, while giving us a clearer sense of his contemporaries, seem mainly to illustrate Lincoln’s fundamental elusiveness. “That son of a gun Lincoln grows on you,” observed Carl Sandburg in 1939 upon completing his magisterial biography of Lincoln. He “grows on us” still.

Sandburg pointed to the central difficulty faced by anyone trying to articulate a definitive interpretation of Lincoln. There were too many sides to the man: homespun hero, storyteller, debater, politician and party leader, writer and rhetorician, statesman, perhaps a villain (in the eyes of some), martyr, and prophet of American liberty. Who was the “real” Lincoln? That is a matter of serious debate, even now a full century and a half after he was assassinated. By now, most historians have given up trying to see Lincoln “whole,” and are increasingly satisfied to understand one or another dimension of his genius.

Harold Holzer is fascinated by Lincoln’s skills as a politician, and in particular by his masterful use of the press to advance his career and the Whig and anti-slavery causes with which he was associated. Holzer, a widely published Lincoln scholar and the Roger Hertog Fellow at the New-York Historical Society, may know more about Abraham Lincoln than any other living person, and it shows in his fascinating study of Lincoln’s relations with the press barons of his time. In Lincoln and the Power of the Press, the lofty statesman and savior of the Union gives way to the shrewd prairie politician who was more adept than his better-known rivals in the use and manipulation of the press.1

Lincoln entered the journalistic fray early in his political career, joining with others in 1840 to finance a Whig newspaper to support William Henry Harrison’s campaign for the presidency. Throughout the 1840s, he contributed unsigned articles to the local Springfield newspaper, the Sangamo Journal, ridiculing Democrats and supporting Whig candidates and, in particular, the political career of Henry Clay. In this way, as Holzer writes, Lincoln could have it both ways, acting in public as a high-minded lawyer and candidate for office and behind the scenes as a bare-knuckled partisan fighter. Later, when he challenged Senator Stephen A. Douglas for his U.S. Senate seat in 1858, Lincoln arranged for The Chicago Tribune to call for a series of “western-style” debates over the extension of slavery into the western territories. Shortly before, Lincoln had kicked off that campaign with his “House Divided” speech before a Republican assembly in Springfield, which he had typeset for immediate distribution in the offices of the Illinois State Journal. During the debates with Douglas, he made a further arrangement with Joseph Medill, the editor and publisher of the Tribune, to send a friendly reporter to cover the exchanges, certain that Douglas would make parallel arrangements with a Democratic newspaper. The press coverage of those debates helped to turn Lincoln into a nationally prominent political figure, and also into one of the main challengers to New York’s William Seward for the Republican presidential nomination in 1860.

Lincoln and the Power of the Press is a particularly valuable study for the light it shines on the openly partisan character of the American press in the mid-nineteenth century. As Holzer writes, “The press and politics often functioned in tandem as a single, tightly organized entity in furious competition to win power. ” He focuses on the competition between and among three titans of mid-century journalism: Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune, Henry Jarvis Raymond, founding editor of The New York Times, and James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald. Greeley, one of the original crusading journalists, was an off-again, on-again supporter of Lincoln; Raymond, who learned the newspaper trade under Greeley, was the steadier and more reliable supporter; Bennett was the vitriol-slinging inventor of the tabloid press, a fervent Democrat, opponent of Lincoln, and all-around bigot. These three established the template for journalistic competition in the 1850s and 1860s as they built loyal followings around partisan causes (not unlike journalistic enterprises today). All had political ambitions: Greeley wished openly to be designated a U.S. Senator, and attended the Republican national convention in 1860 where he maneuvered behind the scenes to deny the presidential nomination to his fellow New Yorker Seward and to deliver it to Lincoln.

The structure of politics at the time allowed politicians to court favor with journalists by holding out the prospect of patronage jobs. Following Lincoln’s election in 1860, editor Bennett of the New York Herald sent a young writer out to Springfield to report on the President-elect’s comings and goings during the months leading up to his inauguration. The journalist Henry Garrison Villard sent back regular dispatches on Lincoln’s activities, noting especially the enormous amount of time taken in dispensing patronage positions. Many of these jobs, as Holzer writes in great detail, went to working journalists, all supporters of the Republican campaign, who won positions as ambassadors, postmasters, port collectors, and, in a few cases, as cabinet officers (Gideon Welles, publisher of the Hartford Times, became Secretary of the Navy). Greeley’s New York Tribune was especially favored in the contest for such jobs, so much so that a writer for Bennett’s New York Herald observed that “the Tribune would be depleted of writers in consequence of the necessity of the new administration for suitable men to send abroad as ambassadors and consuls.” But Lincoln was not above courting Bennett himself: He intervened to promote Bennett’s son to officer rank in the Navy.

Lincoln redoubled his efforts both to use and to court favor with the press during his presidential years. He leaked reports of battles and presidential orders to favored reporters and at times defended his policies toward slavery and the South in letters to editors. His famed statement—“my paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union”—was contained in a brief letter to Greeley in 1862 in response to Greeley’s editorial “The Prayer of Twenty Millions,” in which he (Greeley) called for the confiscation of Southern property as a step toward the emancipation of slaves (written at a moment when Lincoln had already drafted but had not yet published his Emancipation Proclamation). Lincoln more or less left it to his generals to monitor and often censor reports from the battlefield, or in some cases even to arrest reporters or exile them from the front. When Lincoln announced stringent rules banning commercial intercourse with the South, many officials and supporters read it to apply to the distribution of news and newspapers. The Postmaster General soon banned the distribution of several Democratic newspapers through the U.S. mail. Lincoln, as Holzer acknowledges, went along with censorship of the press, though he did not necessarily encourage it, in the belief that this, like other wartime measures, was one of those temporary expedients required to save the Union.

Lincoln and the Power of the Press ought not to be read as a book on Lincoln alone, but rather as an important study—and among the best that we now have—of the partisan press during the sectional crisis and the Civil War era. It is a long book—more than 700 pages in all—but a richly rewarding one for the mass of detail it contains and the conclusions the author draws from it regarding the overlapping worlds of politics and journalism. In looking back on that era, one necessarily wonders if we have gained very much by the rise of “objective” journalism or the evolution of journalism as a profession supposedly independent of politics and political influence. Holzer’s book suggests that we have not: For all its faults, the partisan press, working with the shrewdest of politicians, helped to keep the country together in a time of immense peril.

Richard Brookhiser gives us a much different perspective in Founders’ Son, his illuminating but unconventional new biography of Abraham Lincoln.2 Mr. Brookhiser, a senior editor at National Review and author of acclaimed biographies of George Washington, James Madison, and Alexander Hamilton, has the credentials to take up the challenging task of saying something original about Lincoln the man and politician. As he acknowledges up front, this is not a conventional biography that takes us step-by-step through his subject’s life but rather an interpretation that seeks to ground Lincoln’s career in a handful of fundamental assumptions and principles. It is, as he writes, a life of Lincoln, not the life. For the most part, he succeeds brilliantly in giving us a new and original perspective on Lincoln’s statesmanship. His prose is spare and robust (the author has been schooled by Lincoln) and even readers who know little of Lincoln will find the treatment entirely readable, enjoyable, and persuasive.

Brookhiser’s central argument is that Lincoln, in challenging the expansion of slavery into the western territories, understood himself to be vindicating the intentions of the founding fathers and in the process saving the Constitution and the experiment they launched in popular government. It was in this sense that he was the “founders’ son.” As Brookhiser writes, “The founding fathers inspired Lincoln to take up public life [and] showed him how to win arguments. They gave Lincoln direction, which bound all his talents . . . together.” Lincoln, who had a cool relationship with his biological father, found inspiration in his life as a public figure from the exemplary deeds of the nation’s fathers. From Lincoln’s point of view, the Southerners who would rend the union to extend slavery were disloyal sons in rebellion against the teachings of the fathers.

Among the founding fathers, Lincoln focused especially on two Virginians: Washington and Jefferson, slaveholders both. Washington was ever Lincoln’s model as a patriot, statesman, and self-made man. He read Parson Weems’s The Life of George Washington as a young boy and from that point forward molded his career and his understanding of patriotic duty around Washington’s example. As president, Washington confronted disunion and disloyalty on a small scale in the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794. If Lincoln was the “founders’ son,” then it was Washington who was first among his fathers. Toward Jefferson, however, he had an ambivalent posture. On the one hand, Jefferson authored the Declaration of Independence, in Lincoln’s view the nation’s central founding document, and he had the foresight to insert into it the fundamental principle that “all men are created equal.” On the other hand, Jefferson never followed through on that principle in his deeds as national leader and spokesman for the founding generation. He carried on (as Lincoln thought) sexual affairs with his female slaves. He argued that slavery should be “diffused” among the western territories, a position that Lincoln rejected and, indeed, devoted his political career to defeating. Jefferson idealized the yeoman farmer and hoped the United States would evolve as an agrarian republic. Lincoln abandoned his father’s small farm as soon as he reached manhood and looked forward to an American future based upon trade and industry.

Lincoln seemed to have worked out in his mind his relationship to the founding fathers and even his own role in the sectional crisis long before it broke open in the 1850s. Brookhiser calls attention to a prescient speech Lincoln gave in 1838 to the Young Men’s Lyceum in Springfield on the subject of “The Perpetuation of our Political Institutions.” In that speech, the young Lincoln raised the question as to where Americans might look for threats to their free institutions. Lincoln assumed that because of geographical factors the danger to the Union could never come from abroad. “If destruction be our lot,” he said, “we must ourselves be its author and finisher. As a nation of free men, we must live through all time or die by suicide.” The main source of danger, he argued, was the “increasing disregard for law that pervades the country and the disposition to substitute wild and furious passions in lieu of the sober judgment of courts”—this a reference to a recent case in which the editor of an abolitionist newspaper had been murdered near St. Louis and his printing press tossed into a river. (Lincoln was already sensitive to the political threats to journalistic freedom.) Mob rule and disregard for law, Lincoln argued, if permitted to continue, would eventually destroy the attachment of the people to their government and bring to an end the experiment the founders had launched. In some way, he suggested, slavery would be at the bottom of this future revolt.

In Lincoln’s prophecy, the rebellion against law and order would eventually open up an opportunity for a dictator in the model of a Caesar or a Napoleon to arise and overturn the fabric of constitutional government created by the founding fathers. Men of “towering genius,” he said, disdain the beaten path and “scorn to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious.” They thirst for distinction and, as he said, “would have it, either at the expense of emancipating slaves or enslaving freemen.” His solution to the crisis he foresaw was to urge Americans to defend their free institutions by cultivating a reverence for the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and by creating a “political religion” around the works of the founding fathers. Such a national religion, he thought, would bind Americans to their republican institutions and thereby enable them to fight off impending threats from men of “towering genius.” In the young Lincoln’s political theology, reverence for the founding fathers was the foundation of self-government, the “rock” upon which the nation was built.

Lincoln spent the next sixteen years building up his law practice in Springfield and pursuing an episodic career in politics (he served one term in Congress) as a member of the Whig Party and supporter of Henry Clay. As Brookhiser suggests, Lincoln might have been content to continue on such a path if his premonitions about slavery had not been reawakened in 1854 by the passage of the Kansas–Nebraska Act. That legislation, engineered by Senator Douglas, sought to organize the still unsettled territories acquired via the Louisiana Purchase on the basis of popular sovereignty—a policy that gave local legislatures the authority to decide if slavery would be permitted within territorial borders. On its face, the Act seemed defensible: it took the slavery issue out of Congress where it was stalemated by the balance of Northern and Southern interests; it set forth a formula for the organization of the western territories, which was also bottled up in Congress due to discord over slavery; and it allowed local legislatures to vote slavery “up or down” on the basis of majority opinion. Sen. Douglas, Lincoln’s political adversary in Illinois, hoped to win the presidency on the basis of this ingenious compromise.

Brookhiser guides the reader through this critical chapter in Lincoln’s career as he took the lead in organizing the Republican Party in opposition to the Kansas–Nebraska Act and as he followed Douglas from town to town in Illinois, setting forth his objections both to popular sovereignty and the expansion of slavery into the territories. Lincoln occasionally summarized his objections to Douglas’s policy in pithy aphorisms: “If one man chooses to enslave another, no third party may be allowed to object;” or, “inasmuch as you do not object to my taking my hog to Nebraska, therefore I must not object to you taking your slave.” Popular sovereignty blotted out the moral dimension of slavery, placing it on the same level as any other form of property. Lincoln claimed that the founding fathers wished to place slavery in a position that would lead to its ultimate extinction. They refused to defile the Constitution by inserting “slavery” into its text. The Declaration of Independence, he claimed, was the central pillar of the American union, and it committed the nation to an experiment in liberty and equal rights. Lincoln, expressing the central principle of the Republican Party, called upon Congress to restrict the expansion of slavery into the territories as a step toward its ultimate elimination—a position the Southerners viewed as illegitimate and which, in the Dred Scott decision, the Supreme Court ruled as contrary to the Constitution.

In the prelude to his historic debates with Douglas during the campaign of 1858, Lincoln said (quoting the New Testament) that “A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free.” Lincoln did not think that any compromise could ever resolve the slavery question: The nation would have to pass through a grave crisis to settle it one way or another (much as he imagined in his Lyceum speech). This speech was judged by many to have been a fatal error on Lincoln’s part for, as Douglas pointed out, it was more or less a forecast of disunion or civil war. The founding fathers had managed to compromise the issue, and indeed had written those compromises into the Constitution. From Douglas’s point of view, it was Lincoln (not he) who had turned his back against the founders. Yet, through the course of those debates Lincoln succeeded in discrediting popular sovereignty while elevating his own stature as a national candidate and champion of the anti-slavery cause. At the same time, he managed to entice Douglas into statements that antagonized his supporters in the South, thereby producing a portentous split in the Democratic Party between its northern and southern factions.

Lincoln was mindful of the charge that in his efforts to contain slavery he was acting against the intentions of the founders—and that he might be complicit in causing the national crisis that he had forecast in his “House Divided” speech. Following his campaign against Douglas and in advance of the election of 1860, Lincoln travelled the country making the case that the founding fathers had looked upon slavery as an evil that in due course would be brought to an end by the expanding spirit of liberty. In his address at Cooper Union in New York City—perhaps the speech that sealed the presidential nomination in 1860—Lincoln traced the views of the signers of the Constitution with regard to their views on slavery, pointing out that a clear majority voted at one time or another in the Continental Congress or the U.S. Congress to restrict the spread of that institution into the new territories. This was a key point that separated Lincoln and his Party from the abolitionists on one side and the slaveholders on the other, both of whom claimed that the Constitution was an instrument for the promotion of slavery.

Brookhiser deftly takes the reader through Lincoln’s election to the presidency, his confrontation with secession and disunion, and his majestic efforts to explain the tragedy of civil war to the American people. There were those in the North—Greeley, for example, and many leading Democrats—who felt that the Southern states should be allowed to go their own way. Lincoln saw secession as simple rebellion against the Constitution and the laws: a minority cannot be permitted to break up the Union because it has lost an election. Throughout the war, as the casualties mounted, Lincoln called upon the founding fathers to justify the sacrifices required to maintain the Union—which he more and more referred to as “the nation.” In the Gettysburg Address, he dated the founding of the nation to the Declaration of Independence, and explained the war as a universal test of whether any government devoted to liberty and equality could long survive; and in his Second Inaugural Address, judged by Brookhiser to have been his finest effort, he accounted for the war in biblical terms as divine punishment for both North and South for the offense of slavery. Lincoln’s assassination occurred six weeks later—three days after Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox—at the hands of the itinerant actor John Wilkes Booth, described by Mr. Brookhiser as the “towering genius” of the kind Lincoln foretold in his Lyceum address (a false note perhaps: Booth was a small-scale villain, not a Napoleon or a Caesar). It is easy to see Lincoln as a radical or reformer who brought far-reaching changes to the United States. Brookhiser reminds us that those changes were brought about by Lincoln’s consistent appeal to the founding fathers.

Was Lincoln the loyal son of the founders or perhaps, as some have suggested, a founder himself of a new order, with the Declaration of Independence as its central pillar? The answer is: some of both.

Richard Brookhiser makes a strong case for the first, but between the lines of his fine book one can see that Lincoln, by his leadership and rhetoric, added something startling and original of his own to the founders’ experiment. In his Lyceum speech, Lincoln suggested that the basis upon which the founders built the Constitution might be insufficient to sustain it over the long run. The secular principles contained in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were insufficient to hold back the impulses of sectionalism and abolitionism that were then gaining strength. James Madison and his colleagues relied upon institutional checks and the diversity of interests in the extended republic to keep the Union together, but Lincoln now thought that something new and additional—a civil religion—would be required to keep it from spinning apart. He lived on to act out a role in his own prophecy. In his Civil War addresses, Lincoln acknowledged that the founders’ formula had not worked after all. The nation was in need of “a new birth of freedom,” one sanctified by the sacrifices made to save the Union and sustained by a quasi-religious understanding of the founders’ experiment in republican government. By his timely death at the close of the war, Lincoln became a symbol of the cause he championed—and by this means a subject of inexhaustible curiosity for Americans down to the present day.

1 Lincoln and the Power of the Press, by Harold Holzer; Simon & Schuster, 733 pages, $37.50.

2 Founders’ Son: A Life of Abraham Lincoln, by Richard Brookhiser; Basic Books, 347 pages. $27.99.