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Lincoln Off His Pedestal

When Abraham Lincoln breathed his last at 7:22 AM on April 15, 1865, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton solemnly intoned: “Now he belongs to the ages.”

Stanton’s words were more prescient than he could know. Lincoln’s image and legacy became the possession not only of future ages in America but also around the world. Almost two hundred statues and sculptures of Lincoln in marble or bronze decorate the American landscape from coast to coast. Several more can be found abroad. According to the Smithsonian Institution’s inventory of American sculpture, almost one third of the more than six hundred memorials and statues of American presidents commemorate Lincoln.1 On the centenary of Lincoln’s birth in 1909, Leo Tolstoy described him as “a Christ in miniature, a saint of humanity.” In his travels through remote regions of the Caucasus, Tolstoy met a Muslim chief who had never heard of any Americans—except Lincoln. “He was a hero,” said this village elder. “He spoke with a voice of thunder; he laughed like the sunrise and his deeds were as strong as the rock and as sweet as the fragrance of rose.”2

As we celebrate the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth this year, one wonders how many Muslim leaders would pay him a similar tribute today. In the United States, at least, the number of events associated with the bicentennial is beyond counting: symposia, conferences, lectures, a new play and other performances at Ford’s Theatre, concerts, television specials, museum exhibits, feature articles in newspapers and magazines, the release of four newly designed Lincoln pennies, and talking-head interviews on radio, television, and the Internet with everyone who claims a degree of expertise about Lincoln—not to mention the publication of dozens of new Lincoln biographies and other books about the sixteenth president.

As a participant in many of these activities, I have noted two paramount themes in the popular media. The first stems from the remarkable coincidence of the inauguration of our first African-American president just three weeks before the two hundredth birthday of the president who issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Questions about the Lincoln–Obama connection invariably come first in interviews in the press and television. Barack Obama himself helped to nourish such a connection. An Illinoisian like Lincoln, Obama announced his presidential candidacy in 2007 in the old state capitol at Springfield where Lincoln delivered his famous House Divided address in 1858. In his campaign, Obama frequently quoted Lincoln and cited his inspiration. Both men possessed limited experience in federal office before they were elected president—Lincoln with a single term in the House and Obama with four years in the Senate. Both entered the White House as the nation faced grave crises. Obama announced that the theme of his inaugural address would be the “new birth of freedom” that Lincoln had invoked in his Gettysburg Address, and he took the oath of office with his hand on the same Bible Lincoln had used in his first inauguration.

Even without these self-conscious parallels, the powerful symbolism of a full circle from the Emancipation Proclamation to the inauguration of a black president is irresistible. In a very real sense, Obama’s inauguration completed part of the “unfinished work” that Lincoln also referred to at Gettysburg.

The other matter that all of us who face the camera or microphone in this Lincoln bicentennial year must confront is the “Why” question: Why this enduring fascination with Lincoln? Why have so many books been written about him—16,000 by a common estimate (though that number, if accurate, probably counts titles, not whole books, and therefore includes many pamphlets, published speeches, and the like)? In any event, no other American comes even close to this number. Why so many more statues of Lincoln than of anyone else? Why do polls of historians regularly rank Lincoln as our greatest president?

There are several possible answers to this composite “Why” question, and taken together they may constitute a composite answer. First, Lincoln faced a greater crisis than any other president. When he took the oath of office, seven states had seceded from the United States and formed a separate nation. Several more slave states teetered on the edge of secession. Lincoln had become president not of the United States but of the dis-United States. If the once indivisible nation remained divided, the precedent could be invoked in the future by disaffected minorities and the once United States might collapse into a multitude of petty autocracies—thus fulfilling the prediction of European monarchists and aristocrats that the mad republican experiment of 1776 would never endure.

Secession was “the essence of anarchy,” said Lincoln in his first inaugural address, for if one state may secede so may any other until there is no government and no nation. “The central idea pervading this struggle,” he said in May 1861 after the Confederacy had begun the war by firing on American troops and the American flag at Fort Sumter,

is the necessity that is upon us, of proving that popular government is not an absurdity. We must settle this question now, whether in a free government the minority have the right to break up the government whenever they choose. If we fail it will go far to prove the incapability of the people to govern themselves.3

Lincoln met this challenge as commander in chief of the Union army and navy. Without his leadership and determination through times of defeat and despair—times that brought showers of derision down upon him—the cause for which his people fought might have failed. He carried that cause on his shoulders as George Washington had done in the American Revolution and with even greater resolution than Franklin D. Roosevelt did in World War II. At a low point in the war for the Union in June 1862, Lincoln declared that “I expect to maintain this contest until successful, or till I die, or am conquered, or my term expires, or Congress or the country forsakes me.” And so he did, surmounting all the obstacles that portended defeat and assuring the survival of the United States as one nation, indivisible. That achievement alone would have won him a place at the pinnacle of the American pantheon.

But there was more. The new birth of freedom that Lincoln spoke of at Gettysburg referred to the imminent abolition of slavery. The Civil War did not begin as a war to abolish slavery. Quite the contrary, the Union that the North initially fought to restore was a Union in which nearly half of the states were slave states. As late as August 1862—sixteen months into the war—Lincoln declared that

my paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.

Often misinterpreted, Lincoln’s purpose in this statement was to prepare public opinion for the proclamation of emancipation he had already decided to issue at the right time. He had concluded that it would be necessary to free at least some of the slaves in order to save the Union. He knew that many defenders of the Union disagreed, and he was telling them in advance that necessity might require them to accept emancipation if they wanted to save the Union.

Lincoln had always opposed slavery, which he believed made a mockery of the nation’s founding charter that proclaimed the self-evident truth that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator” with the unalienable right of liberty. Americans liked to boast of their republic as a “beacon of freedom” to the oppressed peoples of other lands. Yet by the mid-nineteenth century the United States was the largest slaveholding country in the world. “The monstrous injustice of slavery,” Lincoln had said back in 1854, “deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world—enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites.”

The Civil War gave Lincoln the opportunity to attack this “monstrous injustice.” As commander in chief, he believed he had the power to seize enemy property being used to wage war against the United States. Slaves were such property, for their labor sustained the Confederate economy and the logistics of Confederate armies. By mid-1862 Lincoln had come to the conclusion that to win a war against an enemy fighting for and sustained by slavery, the North must strike against the institution. “Without slavery the rebellion could never have existed,” he said. “Without slavery it could not continue…. We [want] the army to strike more vigorous blows. The administration must set an example and strike at the heart of the rebellion.”4

As he went to his office on the cold afternoon of January 1, 1863, to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln told friends who had gathered to witness the event: “I never in my life felt more certain that I was doing right than I do in signing this paper.” If “my name ever goes into history it will be for this act, and my whole soul is in it.”5 Lincoln was surely right. His name went into history, as much for the Emancipation Proclamation as for anything else he did.

But there is more. Lincoln’s life exemplified what has been variously labeled “the American dream,” “the right to rise” from “rags to riches”—or in Lincoln’s case quite literally to rise from a log cabin to the White House. The dominant image of Lincoln in much of the folklore is of a boy plowing his father’s fields or splitting fence rails with an axe during the day and lying in front of the fire at night reading a book to achieve self-improvement. The image is romanticized, of course, but in Lincoln’s case it was also real, which has made him a powerful symbol of what Americans want to believe about social mobility and the opportunity to get ahead in their society.

Lincoln cultivated this image in his own autobiographical writings. “I am not ashamed to confess,” he said in a speech at New Haven in 1860, “that twenty-five years ago I was a hired laborer, mauling rails, at work on a flat-boat—just what might happen to any poor man’s son.” In a society characterized by free labor and equality of opportunity, however, “when one starts poor, as most do in the race of life, free society is such that he knows he can better his condition; he knows that there is no fixed condition of labor, for his whole life.” But slaves were fixed in their lifelong condition of bondage. That is why slavery was such a “monstrous injustice” and why Lincoln welcomed the opportunity during the war to use his war powers as commander in chief to emancipate slaves. At New Haven he said that “I want every man to have the chance—and I believe a black man is entitled to it—in which he can better his condition.”

  1. 1

    James A. Percoco, Summers with Lincoln: Looking for the Man in the Monuments (Fordham University Press, 2008), pp. xxii, xxiii.

  2. 2

    Merrill D. Peterson, Lincoln in American Memory (Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 185.

  3. 3

    The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, edited by Roy P. Basler, 9 vols. (Rutgers University Press, 1953–1955), Vol. 4, p. 628; Inside Lincoln’s White House: The Complete Civil War Diary of John Hay, edited by Michael Burlingame and John R. Turner Ettlinger (Southern Illinois University Press, 1997), p. 20.

  4. 4

    Basler, Collected Works, Vol. 5, p. 530; Gideon Welles, “The History of Emancipation,” The Galaxy, 14 (December 1872), p. 843.

  5. 5

    Frederick W. Seward, Seward at Washington, as Senator and Secretary of State (Derby and Miller, 1891), p. 151; Francis B. Carpenter, Six Months at the White House with Abraham Lincoln (Hurd and Houghton, 1866), p. 269.

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