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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.”

Lincoln believed that when Thomas Jefferson wrote of the self-evident truth that all men are created equal, he meant precisely that. On his way to Washington to take up the burdens of the presidency, Lincoln spoke at Independence Hall in Philadelphia on George Washington’s birthday. “I have never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence (Great cheering),” said the soon-to-be sixteenth president. These sentiments were not confined to

the mere matter of the separation of the colonies from the mother land; but something in that Declaration giving liberty, not alone to the people of this country, but hope to the world for all future time (Great applause). It was that which gave promise that in due time the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men, and that all should have an equal chance (Cheers).

Lincoln acknowledged that Jefferson and the other Founders who signed the Declaration “did not intend to declare all men equal in all respects.” They did not even “mean to assert the obvious untruth” that all people in 1776 were equal in rights and opportunities. Rather,

they meant to set up a standard maxim for free society, which should be…constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.

No one has ever offered a better definition of equality in its American historical context. It speaks to the idealism of Americans when governed by the better angels of our nature—which, alas, has not been often enough, in Lincoln’s time or ours. But the ideals themselves have a powerful appeal. They have done more for our positive self-image and our positive image in other lands—when we have had one—than all of our economic and military might.

Another facet of the Lincoln–Obama connection sprang from the ability of many Americans to overcome the legacy of racism and vote for a black presidential candidate, thereby “augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.” Both the timeliness and timelessness of Lincolns’s expression of the American dream in his life and words surely help answer the question of why Americans remain fascinated by him.

The clarity and eloquence of Lincoln’s rhetoric provide another part of the answer. Even if his deeds were to be forgotten, his words will live as long as there is a United States. Lincoln was only half right when he said at Gettysburg that “the world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” The world has not forgotten what he said.

Ronald C. White has written two splendid books analyzing Lincoln’s speeches,6 and the power of Lincoln’s words provides a central theme in his elegant new book, A. Lincoln: A Biography. Fred Kaplan’s Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer also offers penetrating insights on Lincoln’s ability to explain complex ideas in language accessible to a broad range of readers and listeners. Mark Twain was once described as the “Lincoln of our literature”; it is equally true, writes Kaplan, that “Lincoln was the Twain of our politics.” Kaplan is especially effective in tracing the influence on Lincoln’s literary style of his lifelong course of self-education by reading English-language classics: the King James Bible, Shakespeare’s plays, the poetry of Robert Burns and Lord Byron, John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, and Aesop’s Fables.

Lincoln had a unique ability to write for both the eye and the ear. His words are equally lucid on the page and eloquent to the listener. Although he occasionally tried his hand at writing rhymed poetry, he soon recognized that this medium was not his forte. But his best writings are a form of prose poems, as set forth in an ingenious little book by the late Sidney E. Zimbalist.7The American Heritage Dictionary of the American Language defines “prose poem” as “any literary composition written with an intensity or beauty of language more characteristic of poetry than of prose.” That description fits many of Lincoln’s writings and speeches. Consider the peroration of his first inaugural address, as parsed by Zimbalist:

We are not enemies, but friends.
We must not be enemies;
though passion may have strained,
it must not break
our bonds of affection.
The mystic chords of memory,
stretching from every battle-field,
and patriot grave,
to every living heart and hearthstone,
all over this broad land,
will yet swell the chorus of the Union,
when again touched, as surely they will be,
by the better angels of our nature.

Or the opening lines of the Gettysburg Address, which Carl Sandburg called the “great American poem”:

Four score and seven years ago
our fathers brought forth on this continent,
a new nation,
conceived in liberty,
and dedicated to the proposition
that all men are created equal.

Ronald C. White considers the second inaugural address “Lincoln’s greatest speech,” and it is also one of his most poetic, as indicated by this passage:

Fondly do we hope—
fervently do we pray—
that this mighty scourge of war
may speedily pass away.

Yet, if God wills that it continue,
until all the wealth
piled by the bond-man’s two hundred and fifty years
of unrequited toil,
shall be sunk
and every drop of blood drawn with the lash,
shall be paid by another drawn with the sword,
as was said three thousand years ago,
so still it must be said,
“the judgments of the Lord,
are true and righteous altogether.”

In 1841, feeling profoundly depressed about the breaking of his initial romantic relationship with Mary Todd, Lincoln told his friend Joshua Speed that he would be more than willing to die except “that he had done nothing to make any human being remember that he had lived.”8 By 1865 he had done many things that gave people everywhere reasons to remember that he had lived. If Lincoln’s life had continued through the biblical span of three score and ten years (to 1879), he would be remembered today as the savior of the Union, the Great Emancipator, and author of the Gettysburg Address. But we probably would not have two hundred statues of him around the country and the world or the majestic marble monument on the mall in Washington.

It was the manner of his death that elevated him above all others in the American Valhalla. Coming five days after General Robert E. Lee surrendered at Appomattox, John Wilkes Booth’s shot heard round the world changed triumph into a tragedy of Shakespearean proportions. Occurring on Good Friday, the assassination also caused instant comparisons of Lincoln to Christ—a comparison still powerful a half-century later in the mind of Leo Tolstoy. Lincoln’s martyrdom at the moment of victory assured him of an immortality achieved by no other American.

But it also turned him into an icon, a man of marble and bronze rather than a human being. The great value of the biographies by Ronald C. White and Michael Burlingame is their humanizing of Lincoln and explorations of contradictions in his character. A melancholy man subject to depression, he entertained friends and strangers alike with a limitless fund of humorous stories and apt anecdotes. Awkward with women, he experienced many ups and downs in his marriage to Mary Todd, whose mercurial temperament was probably exacerbated by his indifference to social niceties and his prolonged absences from home on the legal circuit and campaign trail.

A man of generous instincts toward political adversaries who famously called for “malice toward none” in his second inaugural address, he had also written many anonymous newspaper articles cruelly satirizing opponents in his early career. He ceased this practice only after one such article brought him to the brink of a duel in 1842. Ambitious for high political office, he failed to achieve a desired appointment under President Zachary Taylor and was twice defeated in contests for the United States Senate until the exceptional political circumstances of 1860 unexpectedly catapulted him into the highest office. Gregarious and a good listener, he had few close friends and made his most important presidential decisions in lonely contemplation. All of these and many other character traits of this complex human being are explored in the Burlingame and White biographies.

The two thousand closely written pages of Burlingame’s Abraham Lincoln may be truly described as “definitive” in both the positive and negative senses of the word. The author knows more about Abraham Lincoln than any other living person. These two volumes are valuable as an encyclopedic reference work. But Burlingame has crammed too much of what he knows into the narrative. The reader sometimes gets lost in the verbiage and in a dozen or more quotations to sustain each point where two or three would do.

The narrative is also marred by a relentless hostility to Mary Lincoln, who had, he writes, “many symptoms associated with narcissism and with borderline personality disorder,” including manic depression. She made Lincoln’s domestic life “a burning, scorching hell” as “terrible as death and as gloomy as the grave.” Burlingame goes on for page after page like this, quoting almost every negative portrayal of Mary Lincoln he found and almost nothing from the numerous sympathetic appraisals that other historians and biographers have cited. Ronald White’s biography errs in another way, for it has little to say about Mary Lincoln or about the quality of their marriage and family life—a subject of intense interest to many readers.

For a balanced profile of Mary Lincoln one should turn to a new biography of her by Catherine Clinton, where we encounter a sensitive treatment of a woman who (like Abraham Lincoln) endured the death of her mother when she was a child and watched helplessly the deaths of three of her four sons in childhood and youth—not to mention the assassination of her husband by her side. It was little wonder that she sometimes seemed to go off the rails. But she had many positive traits as well. Mary’s “unconditional love sustained Lincoln’s growth to greatness,” writes Clinton.

She was a woman of intense intellect and passion who stepped outside the boundaries her times prescribed, and suffered for it. She was someone who endured more personal loss and public humiliation than any other woman of her generation.

Clinton provides a fuller, fairer portrait of the Lincolns’ marriage than any of the biographies of Abraham. Together these books offer a three-dimensional, flesh-and-blood Lincoln who comes down off his marble pedestal to join the rest of us frail humans who have known success and failure, satisfaction and frustration, joy and anger, life and death, just as he did. And because we encounter him as a human being, not an icon, we appreciate his extraordinary achievements even more.

  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.

  6. 6

    Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural (Simon and Schuster, 2002) and The Eloquent President: A Portrait of Lincoln Through His Words (Random House, 2005).

  7. 7

    The Prose Poems of Abraham Lincoln (privately printed, 2008).

  8. 8

    Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln, edited by Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis (University of Illinois Press, 1998), p. 197.

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