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Book reviews

‘Lincoln and the Power of the Press’ and ‘Founders’ Son’

Abraham Lincoln.
Alexander Gardner/Getty Images
Abraham Lincoln.

He loved newspapers. He mingled with reporters. He owned a German-language newspaper. Even before he became president, Abraham Lincoln saw the press as an important power center in American life.

That is the thesis that animates “Lincoln and the Power of the Press’’ by Harold Holzer, who has produced some four dozen books, most of them about Lincoln.

But for Lincoln, it wasn’t only newspapers. He also was shaped by the books he read — Aesop, “Pilgrim’s Progress,’’ “Robinson Crusoe,’’ “Arabian Nights,’’ biographies, the Bible. Reading is what helped the young Lincoln escape from the mean circumstances of his childhood, what stretched a very tall young man into a very broad adult thinker.

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That is the thesis that animates “Founders’ Son’’ by Richard Brookhiser, who has produced more than a dozen volumes, most of them about the founding fathers.

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Library shelves groan under the weight of books about Lincoln, and it’s likely that among the things America may need — a good 5-cent cigar, in the words of early 20th-century Vice President Thomas Marshall, or an end to political partisanship — another book, or especially another two books, about Lincoln is not a top priority.

But these books by Holzer (a fellow at the New York Historical Society) and Brookhiser (a senior editor of National Review) plow new ground about a man whose journey from “[t]he short and simple annals of the poor” (a line he often cribbed from Thomas Gray’s “Elegy’’) began with his realization that reading was his means of escape — and his way of escaping a life of plowing the ground in early 19th-century Kentucky and Indiana.

Reading, Brookhiser argues, provided Lincoln with “a portal to thought and inspiration’’ and also was a “visible mark of his aspirations.’’ And newspaper reading also was, Holzer explains, indispensable to Lincoln in a world where “politics and the press functioned in tandem, within a system of widely accepted mutual interdependence in which each fueled the success of the other, sought the destruction of the opposition, and often encouraged practitioners to occupy both professional spheres at once.’’

Both of these volumes are beautifully written and choked with insights. Neither is hagiographic. And both treat with imagination broader themes — Brookhiser’s with Lincoln’s debt to the Founding Fathers and his role as their principal legatee at midcentury, Holzer’s with the much-ignored relationship between the most powerful man in Washington and the three most powerful men of the New York press: Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune, James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald, and Henry Raymond of The New York Times.

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The message of these two books is that Lincoln became a man of the ages by studying the wisdom of the ages and engaging intimately in the questions of his own age — a recipe in serious jeopardy in our own world, where the classics are shunted aside and civic debate is conducted in sound bites and digital news bytes.

The man who emerges from these books is both familiar (Lincoln as the rail-splitter with a gift for the quip fortified with a moral) and unfamiliar (Lincoln as a prodigious writer of anonymous articles in local Illinois and national newspapers). In both volumes he is wracked by depression and infused with inspiration — and most at ease in the reader’s easy chair.

“In his worst moods he believed he was damned; at all times his mind taught him (wrongly, probably) that he was doomed, predetermined, caught in a mesh of causes,’’ Brookhiser writes. “But he always wanted to see, know, and understand.’’

Together these books go a long way toward explaining how Lincoln made the transition from what Brookhiser calls “a self-made man of no consequence’’ to “the beleaguered man of patience, wisdom, and unfailing humor,’’ Holzer’s characterization of the enduring image of Lincoln crafted by Henry Villard, the reporter who perhaps knew him best.

Lincoln’s admiration of, and personal involvement in, the press, particularly newspapers with a Whig orientation, did not prevent him from trampling on press rights as president. The Confederacy wasn’t his only enemy in the Civil War; he also conducted, or tolerated, offensives against what Holzer characterizes as “antiwar, anti-administration, anti-recruitment newspaper editors.’’

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Though pro-war papers generally flourished, the government over which Lincoln presided approved press restrictions, confiscated type, and banned anti-war newspapers — a stain on the Union cause and on the legacy of Lincoln, who, like so many presidents who followed him, never reconciled himself to unfettered press freedom in wartime. A man whom Brookhiser argues was shaped by the American heroes of the past even reached back, in Holzer’s account, to one of his betes noires of the past, Andrew Jackson, in defense of press suppression.

Both Holzer and Brookhiser see the 16th president as a man rooted in an American past of the Founders’ virtues while struggling to create an America that finally dared to implement the values of its founders. For Holzer, the press — empowered and ennobled by the First Amendment — was the critical means of exchange in the transaction. For Brookhiser, Lincoln’s life was an encounter with a succession of fathers: his own, the Founding Fathers, and God the father. Can it be only a coincidence that in time he himself was regarded as Father Abraham?

LINCOLN AND THE POWER OF THE PRESS: The War for Public Opinion

By Harold Holzer

Simon & Schuster, 733 pp., illustrated, $37.50

FOUNDERS’ SON: A Life of Abraham Lincoln

By Richard Brookhiser

Basic, 376 pp., illustrated, $27.99

David M. Shribman, for a decade the Globe’s Washington bureau chief, is executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He can be reached at dshribman@post-gazette.com.