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…

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