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Liberating Lincoln

Lincoln in American Memory

by Merrill D. Peterson
Oxford University Press, 482 pp., $30.00

The Presidency of Abraham Lincoln

by Phillip Shaw Paludan
University Press of Kansas, 378 pp., $29.95

The Lincoln Persuasion: Remaking American Liberalism

by J. David Greenstone
Princeton University Press, 312 pp., $13.95 (paper)

A half score years ago I lectured on Lincoln’s birthday to the Lincoln group of Delaware, one of many similar organizations dedicated to preserving the memory of our sixteenth president. I spoke about Lincoln’s leadership in the “Second American Revolution” that abolished slavery and overthrew the power of the planter class. After the talk I agreed to an interview with a Wilmington radio station. The first question the interviewer asked was: “If Lincoln were alive today, what would he do about abortion and the budget deficit?”

This question was my initial encounter with a phenomenon familiar to seasoned Lincoln scholars: the “What Would Lincoln Do” syndrome. I was tempted to answer, as did Senator George Norris when asked in the 1930s what Lincoln would do about the Depression, that “Lincoln would be just like me. He wouldn’t know what the hell to do.”

More has been written in the English language about Abraham Lincoln than about anyone else except Jesus of Nazareth and William Shakespeare. Books run the gamut from multivolume biographies to those with titles like Lincoln Never Smoked a Cigarette and Abraham Lincoln and the Coming of the Caterpillar Tractor. Forty years ago the historian David Donald wrote an astute essay, “Getting Right With Lincoln,” which analyzed the compulsion of American public figures to square their own position with what they suppose Lincoln would have done in similar circumstances, or to find a Lincoln quotation that allegedly supports their present view on almost any issue under the sun.1 And if they cannot find a genuine Lincoln saying, there are plenty of spurious ones to choose from, as Ronald Reagan demonstrated in his address to the 1992 Republican national convention.

Merrill Peterson’s Lincoln in American Memory provides us with an engaging and encyclopedic chronicle of the numerous ways in which Americans have used and misused Lincoln during the past six score and nine years. Like Peterson’s earlier study of the image of Thomas Jefferson, this book is neither history nor historiography nor cultural criticism, but a combination of all three. Here one can find analyses of serious Lincoln scholarship, of popular biographies, of novels and plays and movies and inspirational stories for children, of Lincoln iconography in sculpture and monuments, of Lincoln collectors whose zeal and resources have driven the prices of Lincoln documents to seven figures and of forgers who saw their opportunities and took them, of partisans ranging from the American Enterprise Institute to Communists and from the Ku Klux Klan to Martin Luther King, Jr., who have conjured up Lincoln’s name and blessing.

Peterson does not offer an explicit answer to the big question: Why does Lincoln’s image loom so large over our cultural landscape? But he provides a wealth of evidence to help readers tease out answers for themselves. The first—and perhaps most important—clues came in the initial reactions to Lincoln’s assassination. That fell deed occurred on Good Friday. Five days earlier, on Palm Sunday, Lincoln had returned in triumph to Washington after a two weeks’ visit to the battlefront in Virginia, during which Union forces captured Richmond and caught up with Robert E. Lee’s army at Appomattox, forcing its surrender the very day that Lincoln returned to Washington. His supporters did not on that occasion spread palms before him, but on Easter Sunday hundreds of sermons drew the obvious parallel. “Heaven rejoices this Easter morning in the resurrection of our lost leader,” said one of New York City’s leading clergymen, “dying on the anniversary of our Lord’s great sacrifice, a mighty sacrifice himself for the sins of a whole people.”2

As generations rolled by, the comparisons deepened and broadened. In 1909 Leo Tolstoy called Lincoln “a Christ in miniature, a saint of humanity.” Jesus unfolded wisdom for the ages in parables; Lincoln did the same, disguising them as humorous stories. A Muslim leader in the Caucusus said that Lincoln “spoke with a voice of thunder, he laughed like the sunrise and his deeds were as strong as the rock.” Rabbi Joseph Silverman of Temple Emanu-El in New York said on Lincoln’s birthday in 1910 that “there is no need to preach the precepts of the Bible when we have such a real Messiah, who lived in the flesh and never pretended to be more than a man.” In Walt Whitman’s haunting poem “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” the parallel was not to the Messiah but to nature’s symbols of the perennial return of springtime and therefore of eternal life: the lilac, the hermit thrush warbling “the carol of death” in spring twilights, and the evening star burning with unusual brightness in the spring sky before falling below the horizon.

Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.

Whatever the image, Lincoln’s apotheosis gave him a godlike quality. He became the deity of American civil religion, a Delphic oracle to whom one can go for a solution to any problem—including abortion and the budget deficit. In 1938 the playwright Robert Sherwood wrote Abe Lincoln in Illinois, which opened on Broadway the week of the Munich crisis and became, in Peterson’s words, “a tonic to democratic despair.” Raymond Massey, who played Lincoln, said in an interview that “if you substitute the word dictatorship for the word slavery throughout Sherwood’s script, it becomes electric for our time.” A quarter-century later, Jacqueline Kennedy sought comfort in the Lincoln Room of the White House in times of trouble. “The kind of peace I felt in that room was what you feel when going into a church. I used to feel his strength. I’d sort of be talking with him.”

Peterson discerns five themes in the apotheosis of Lincoln, themes that occur in serious history as well as in popular culture: Savior of the Union; Great Emancipator; Man of the People; the First American; and the Self-made Man. “Like the movements of a symphony,” writes Peterson, these themes “interpret and reinterpret each other” and all are blended in the grand theme of democratic nationalism, as in Sherwood’s play. Peterson does not hammer the themes into the reader’s head; rather, he lets them emerge and recur in numerous variations throughout the book, which is organized chronologically beginning with Lincoln’s death and culminating in the early 1990s with the publication and translation into Eastern European languages of a collection of Lincoln’s writings on democracy sponsored by Governor Mario Cuomo.3

Except for Lincoln as the First American, which is rather obscure, the five themes are clear enough. Lincoln as Savior of the Union and as Great Emancipator are of most interest to historians, for they encompass the two great results of Lincoln’s leadership in the Civil War. Man of the People and Self-made Man remain part of popular mythology, as expressed by the opening sentence of a college student’s paper some years ago: “Lincoln was born in a log cabin that he built with his own hands.” Essays by high-school students in a contest sponsored by the Lincoln Sesquicentennial Commission in 1959 demonstrated a better grasp of chronology, but Lincoln’s rise to fame in the face of adversity remained the dominant theme. By 1990, however, the Self-made Man theme had faded, according to Peterson. He cites a professor at Lincoln Memorial University, founded to help Appalachian youth get ahead, who said that “Lincoln doesn’t cut it with these kids any more.”

That conclusion may be premature, for the theme appears to be alive and well in essays submitted for another high school contest sponsored by the Farmers’ Insurance Group and the Huntington Library in connection with the library’s 1993–1994 Lincoln exhibit. Lincoln’s “accomplishments prove to me that America is the Land of Opportunity if I am willing to work hard and achieve my goals,” wrote a student from a tiny town (population 301) in Oklahoma. “I can see by studying Lincoln’s life that I should not view my background as an obstacle but as a stepping stone.” Another essayist fused the Self-made Man theme with that of the Great Emancipator in writing of a high-school teacher in Bulgaria who learned of Lincoln in the 1950s and inspired his students with a Lincolnian vision of freedom until the government arrested him. One of those students kept the vision alive and escaped to the United States where she became the essayist’s mother. “Mr. Lincoln freed my Mother from a slavery to communism; and into this freedom I was born.” Savior of the Union combined with Self-made Man to inspire the essay of a third student, whose parents immigrated from India “to provide a better future for their descendants.” But “if the United States was not in existence today, I would not have the opportunity to excel in life and education.” Lincoln preserved the Union “not only for the people yesterday, but also for the lives of today.” All three of these essay finalists are girls.4

For black Americans the theme of Great Emancipator has been the most meaningful. Numerous Lincoln sculptures and other kinds of iconography portray the President striking the shackles from a slave. The Lincoln Memorial in Washington has been the scene of powerful moments in the freedom struggle, most notable Marian Anderson’s concert on Easter Sunday 1939 (after the DAR had denied her the use of Constitution Hall) and the March on Washington in 1963. In 1957 Martin Luther King, Jr., led an earlier civil rights pilgrimage to the Lincoln Memorial, where Mahalia Jackson sang “I Been ‘Buked and I been Scorned” with such feeling, wrote Langston Hughes, that “even Abe Lincoln’s statue nodded his head.” When King stood in front of the crowd of 200,000 along the reflecting pool six years later, he began his “I Have a Dream” speech with the words: “Fivescore years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand today, signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been scarred in the flame of withering injustice.”

But among many African Americans today Lincoln’s image does not stand tall. They have noted his remarks in the debates with Stephen A. Douglas in 1858 disavowing a belief in racial equality (which white supremacists are wont to quote) and his apparently grudging gradualism on the issue of emancipation during the Civil War. Frederick Douglass had these things in mind when he spoke in 1876 at the dedication of the Freedman’s Monument in Washington. “You are the children of Abraham Lincoln,” he told whites in the audience. “We are at best his step-children.”

The Freedman’s Monument shows Lincoln standing over a kneeling slave whose chains he has broken with the Emancipation Proclamation. For many blacks this image is a pernicious myth. Lincoln did not free the slaves, they insist; the slaves freed themselves. Peterson touches on this issue more lightly than it deserves, for it has recently become central to a significant historical debate. “While Lincoln continued to hesitate about the legal, constitutional, and military aspects of the matter,” wrote the historian Vincent Harding in 1981, “the relentless movement of the self-liberated fugitives into the Union lines…took their freedom into their own hands.”5 In the PBS video The Civil War and its accompanying book of the same title, Columbia University historian Barbara Fields likewise declared that “freedom did not come to the slaves from words on paper” but “from the initiative of the slaves.” Indeed, Lincoln may have hindered more than helped the cause, for he seemed “more determined to retain the goodwill of the slaveowners than to secure the liberty of the slaves.”6 Lincoln as the Great Emancipator, writes University of Pennsylvania historian Robert Engs, is a myth created by whites to convince blacks that Lincoln “had given them their freedom [rather] than allow them to realize the empowerment that their taking of it implied. The poor, uneducated freedman fell for that masterful propaganda stroke. But so have most of the rest of us, black and white, for over a century.”7

  1. 1

    David Donald, Lincoln Reconsidered, 2nd edition (knopf, 1961), pp. 3–18.

  2. 2

    This theme is also explored in David B. Chesebrough, “No Sorrow Like Our Sorrow”: Northern Protestant Ministers and the Assassination of Lincoln (Kent State University Press, 1994).

  3. 3

    Mario M. Cuomo and Harold Holzer, editors, Lincoln on Democracy (Harper and Row, 1990); the Polish edition, published in Warsaw, is titled Lincoln O Demokracji.

  4. 4

    Copies of the essays are in my possession; I am one of the judges.

  5. 5

    vincent Harding, There Is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America (Harcourt Brace, 1981), pp. 228, 230–231.

  6. 6

    Barbara J. Fields, “Who Freed the Slaves?” in Geoffrey C. Ward, editor, The Civil War: An Illustrated History (Knopf, 1990), pp. 181, 179.

  7. 7

    Robert F. Engs, “The Great American Slave Rebellion,” paper delivered to the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College, June 27, 1991, p. 13.

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