INTRODUCTION: A BOY AND A BOOK
Every boy wanted to be a soldier. As he marched with his stick "musket" on his shoulder or fenced with a wooden sword, he became his grandsires wresting independence from the British in the war of the Revolution, his father preserving that freedom in 1812-15, or even his grown brothers mustering to meet the native menace that still threatened from time to time on the settled frontiers. He was the Minute Man, the yeoman abandoning his plow to meet a crisis, sacrificing all if need be, then to return to his humble pursuits when danger passed -- the very definition of the new American.
The story of those first Minute Men echoed powerfully in the imagination of American youths in the 1820s. The image possessed irresistible appeal. Writers reinforced its attraction with a stream of exciting and often lurid histories and novels, frequently more fantasy than fact. They were creating the mythology of a new people, and imagination and exaggeration were the tools used to sculpt their infant gods. Books sought not just to inform, or even to entertain, but to instruct, to mold a new generation of Americans by the example of the Founding Fathers, and a public still heady with self-conscious pride its new place in the world made an eager market. Even out on the frontier of southern Indiana such influences made their mark. Even in the humble log cabin of a semiliterate farmer at Pigeon Creek such a book could make an impression, and even on a boy who had no brothers in the militia, whose father did not fight the British in 1812, and whose grandfather had not been a soldier of the Revolution.
In this instance the book was Mason Locke Weems's The Life of Washington, and sometime in the mid-1820s a copy found its way to the small but comfortable cabin of Thomas Lincoln, and into the hands of his teenaged son, Abraham, newly -- if yet imperfectly -- literate after two years of intermittent schooling. The story Weems told was one of the very first books the young Lincoln read, and it impressed him just as it did tens of thousands of other Americans, young and old alike. The Life of Washington first appeared as a book in 1809, the very year of Abraham Lincoln's birth, though it had been in print in other formats since the turn of the century. Episodic and heavily fictionalized, it all but deified Washington, and clearly made him an agent and favorite of the Almighty. At the same time, it imbued the Revolutionary cause with a sense of predestination in the face of overwhelming odds, and made of every common volunteer a hero.
"I remember all the accounts there given of the battle fields and struggles for the liberties of the country," Abraham Lincoln would recall more than thirty years later. Certainly Weems covered them all, or at least those in which Washington commanded. At Monmouth the general personally inspired his men to meet the enemy. At Saratoga, again motivated by Washington and "fired with the love of liberty, the Americans poured out by thousands, eager for the glorious contest." In perhaps the most dramatic battle passage of the book, Weems described the "avenging passions" of the Continentals as they met and defeated the foe.
Yet it was an earlier and smaller fight that stayed with Lincoln, more a skirmish by later standards, and yet one fought in the darkest hours of the Revolution. He never forgot how the genius of liberty followed Washington's army the night it crossed the Delaware and marched on Trenton. "Pale and in tears, with eyes often lifted to Heaven, she moved along with her children to witness perhaps the last conflict," wrote Weems. Washington was never more inspiring as he prepared the men for the attack, seemingly imitating the lion as he called "his brindled sons to battle...till, kindled by their father's fire, the maddening cubs swell with answering rage." At last the general waved his sword above his head and shouted, "There! my brave friends! there are the enemies of your country! and now, all I ask of you, is, to remember what you are about to fight for. March!" By his looks and voice the general "rekindled all their fire, and drove them to the charge." The account of Trenton and the heroism of the men in the face of seemingly certain defeat "all fixed themselves on my memory more than any single revolutionary event," Lincoln remembered. Despite his youth and backwoods ignorance of men and the world, still the story of Trenton struck him with the thought that "there must have been something more than common that those men struggled for."
Moreover, as he read the book, Lincoln saw Weems repeatedly come back to a few central themes. In almost every battle he dwelled on some gallant American who fell gloriously, and much lamented. The dead soldier was venerated, Weems limning a Washington forever haunted by the scenes and the costs of the battlefield: "There the battling armies met in thunder -- the stormy strife was short; but yonder mournful hillocks point the place where many of our brave heroes sleep: perhaps some good angel has whispered that their fall was not in vain." Through it all, Washington himself remained a man of unparalleled modesty. When he took command of the Continental Army, the Virginian confessed, "My diffidence in my own abilities was superseded by a confidence in the rectitude of our cause and the patronage of Heaven."
Yet most of all the imaginative writer returned again and again to an idea founded, no doubt, on Washington's by now universal sobriquet as the "Father of His Country." As a young officer in the Virginia militia during the war with the French, Weems's Washington looked on the British army in which he served under General Edward Braddock as his "family," loved the men under him "as his children," and when angered at them showed "paternal displeasure." Weems rang these familial chimes the more so in dealing with the Revolution and its aftermath. "With a father's joy he could look around on the thick-settled country, with all their little ones, and flocks and herds, now no longer exposed to danger," he wrote of the general. When he discussed Washington's farewell address to his troops, he said it should be read "with the feelings of children reading the last letter of a once-loved father." And in the end, when the Virginian died, Weems called for Americans spiritually to "gather yourselves together around the bed of your expiring father -- around the last bed of him to whom under God you and your children owe many of the best blessings of this life."
Less than a decade after reading Weems, Lincoln published his very first public political statement in March 1832. He spoke in part of books and learning, and expressed the hope that "every man may receive at least, a moderate education, and thereby be enabled to read the histories of his own and other countries, by which he may duly appreciate the value of our free institutions." Certainly, by the agency of Washington's life, Weems left an impression of the meaning of freedom and sacrifice and citizenship on young Lincoln. Learning by his own experience, Lincoln thereafter advocated the reading of history as a means of instilling patriotism. It was a message deeply impressed on a whole generation. Weems addressed The Life of Washington to children, and most of its readers were youths like Lincoln when they read the book, youths reared in a culture that preached reverence for the father. By emphasizing the "father" ideal of Washington, Weems took his young readers into a realm whose relations they understood. They were children who reverenced and obeyed their fathers; Americans were the figurative offspring of Washington and the Founding Fathers, and by extension of their great men and leaders in all times.
This was hardly new with Weems. By the time Lincoln read his book, this paternal view virtually surrounded Americans. His generation grew up in an atmosphere that quite consciously equated the United States with a family, in an effort to inculcate the reverence and patriotism needed to ensure the longevity of the Union. Doing so, in fact, helped make the nation understandable by reducing it to a familiar level, just as Weems made the Revolution meaningful and comprehensible by identifying it with Washington personally. The Union was like a house, its states and people members of a family, and automatically, of course, the president was the father. Already Washington had been enshrined as the Father of His Country, an idea even better illustrated by the Revolutionary financier and patriot Gouverneur Morris when he declared: "AMERICANS! he had no child -- BUT YOU." In the prevailing view, the Founding Fathers were truly "fathers" to the nation and its people, and so were their successors, the men chosen to govern. The thrust of Weems's book and prevailing thought implied that, in the present and the future, especially in a time of crisis, the people should look to their foremost leaders for protection and guidance, and accord them the parental obedience and respect that in their own families they reserved for their fathers. Thanks to their background before the Revolution, Americans felt an instinctive distrust of civil and military rulers, but the family and the father on the other hand remained unquestioned and universally acceptable figures of authority, with ancient power undiminished by modern thought. Better yet, ideally, love and reverence bound children to the father and the family out of love and reverence rather than fear, which made discipline and control all the easier to achieve, and the more potent because freely, rather than grudgingly, given.
Though Washington's memory never quite fathered a cult, there is no doubt that the power of his image, and especially as delivered to millions by Mason Locke Weems, generated enormous influence on how Americans saw their nation, their rulers, and even themselves. Certainly Abraham Lincoln absorbed and reflected that feeling. "Washington is the mightiest name of earth -- long since mightiest in the cause of civil liberty," he would say in 1842. "To add brightness to the sun, or glory to the name of Washington, is alike impossible. Let none attempt it. In solemn awe pronounce the name, and in its naked death less splendor, leave it shining on."
There was another message in The Life of Washington, one implied rather than stated. Not only was every president potentially an heir to the legacy of the Virginian, it seemed to suggest. Any American might conceivably be called upon one day to wear that mantle, and possibly in a moment of great peril critical to the very family, the Union, of which they were all a part. Yet could Americans really expect to see another Washington, another Father of His Country come from their midst? Weems himself asked, "For who among us can hope that his son shall ever be called, like Washington, to direct the storm of war, or to ravish the ears of deeply listening Senates?"
Copyright © 1998 by William C. Davis