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…

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