April 1, 2009  

Loving Lincoln

Points worth remembering as we honor a legendary president

“Four score and seven years ago,” the National Park Service Web site proclaims, “Americans of different generations, races, backgrounds and occupations gathered in Washington, D.C., to dedicate the Lincoln Memorial.” Visitors are promised a similar spectacle this May 30 “as we rededicate the Lincoln Memorial and demonstrate that this government — this nation — truly is one of, by and for the People.”

If the recent past is any guide as to how the rededication festivities will play out, we can expect a star-studded cast of presenters drawn from the increasingly intertwined and indistinguishable worlds occupied by politicians, entertainers, journalists and public intellectuals. Lincoln, we can hope — albeit somewhat presumptuously — would have been gratified or at least mildly amused by the celebrity treatment. A “public relations” master before that unfortunate term existed, Lincoln was rarely loath to be photographed, acutely aware of his own ambition, and once even confessed to a friend his longing for historical immortality.

Indeed, 2009 may yet turn out to be the rousing crescendo of a 144-year-old American fascination-cum-obsession, a veritable perfect storm of all things Lincoln. We have the bicentennial of the great man’s birth; the rededication of the national shrine that immortalizes him (scheduled to coincide with the bicentennial, but oh-by-the-way allowing for that numerical wordplay with Lincoln’s most famous Address); the re-reopening of Ford’s Theatre; the fresh start of a president whose remarkable ascendancy is widely seen as the culminating triumph of Lincoln’s legacy (and who, by the way, is a Lincoln buff himself); and not coincidentally, a presidential inauguration that was consciously permeated with Lincoln imagery, from whistle-stop train rides to the famous Bible to the food and tableware at lunch.

Somewhere, Tom Wolfe must be penning an essay on Civil War re-enactments as the new radical chic.

Of course, as befits this greatest of republics which our legendary 16th president did so much to both save and renew, the inevitable corollary to this Lincoln love-fest in the capital is a good bit of self-aggrandizement served up by those who see themselves as the rightful political heirs to his legacy. Praising oneself while appearing to praise someone else, especially someone beloved and dead, is an invaluable political skill — which sounds almost like something Lincoln would be purported to have said, except of course that he would have said it better and more pithily.

Like most everything else in the realm of Lincolniana, the (mis)appropriation of Lincoln’s legacy is nothing new. As Andrew Ferguson points out in his witty and insightful book “Land of Lincoln,” the words and likeness of our martyred hero have been enlisted in myriad causes of varying credibility, many of them mutually exclusive. He’s promoted temperance and liquor sales, Unitarianism and Christian Science, civil rights and white supremacy, piety and atheism, pacifism and bellicosity, communism and unfettered capitalism, moral absolutism and non-judgmentalism. And this far-from-exhaustive list doesn’t even broach all the ill-fitting commercial ventures incorporating Lincoln imagery.

Moreover, as Ferguson notes, a slew of recent Lincoln “scholarship” seems less concerned with historical study than with self-justification. A clinically depressed biographer concluded that Lincoln was clinically depressed; a gay rights proponent discovered that Lincoln was gay; former New York Gov. Mario Cuomo addressed the rhetorical question of why Lincoln matters by asserting that Lincoln was at heart a Northeastern Democrat in the late 20th/early 21st century mold. In 1992, former President Ronald Reagan misquoted Lincoln to show that he was a staunch fiscal conservative. In 2007, former Vice President Al Gore misquoted Lincoln to show that he was a staunch fiscal progressive.

Everyone, it seems, has long felt that they know the authentic Lincoln, despite the fact that his own law partner — who later became one of the first biographical purveyors of the “real” Lincoln — conceded that Lincoln’s reticence made him virtually impossible to understand.

Ferguson’s journalistic journey through the geography and psychology of our collective Lincoln fixation gives new cause to celebrate Lincoln iconography, while simultaneously posing a fundamental and timely question: Is the ultimate goal of our eternal pursuit of the elusive Lincoln to better ourselves by recasting us in his image, or is it really just to make ourselves feel better by recasting him in ours?

This question gets to the heart of our yearlong orgy of celebrations and commemorations. As addictions go, Lincoln-philia is generally as healthy as they come. Only in America would the object of our worship be a homebred intellectual descended from such humble beginnings, a fierce wartime commander whose preferred weapon was determined-but-conciliatory words, a complicated and tortured soul whose very contradictions and nuances (as W.E.B. Dubois so memorably described) were the very wellspring of his greatness. Lincoln was, in the best sense, quintessentially American. His stalwart defense of the Union was not an end in itself, based on ethnic, religious or linguistic ties to a homeland, but rather a means to something much larger and more transcendent: the realization of the founders’ noblest ideals, the perpetuation “for our children’s children [of] this great and free government.”

Granted, the whole Lincoln thing can at times get a bit macabre. At a traveling Lincoln exhibit in Hartford, Conn., I spent an hour staring at a handkerchief purportedly spotted with the president’s blood, somehow feeling a newfound kinship and unable to draw myself away until I realized how spooky the display really was.

But on the whole, idolizing the man who unrelentingly saw our nation through its toughest test since its founding has to be a whole lot healthier than the alternative: i.e., anachronistically condemning him as a racist or barbarian. One intrepid newspaper columnist recently came up with the startling revelation that Lincoln “would have been appalled” at the sight of a biracial president. Really, a 19th century backwoods white guy was racially insensitive by 21st century media standards? Go figure.


Various sources have noted that President Barack Obama evokes Lincoln a lot, even for a politician. Of course, it would be tough to top Teddy Roosevelt, who wore a strand of Lincoln’s hair encased in a ring, made Lincoln’s erstwhile private secretary his secretary of state, was instrumental in placing Lincoln’s profile on the penny and was reported to approach thorny issues by asking himself, “What would Lincoln do?” More than one president has recounted Lincoln sightings in the White House.

Obama’s reported affinity for “Team of Rivals” is not in itself unusual. His predecessor was fond of “April 1865,” whereas President Bill Clinton swore by “Lincoln on Leadership.” Nonetheless, it is undeniable that ever since launching his campaign in the shadow of the Springfield statehouse, the current president has, to quote the New York Times, “taken the identification with the 16th president to a new level.”

Of course, who could blame Obama for linking himself to Lincoln? After all, Lincoln was a lanky, somewhat peripatetic lawyer-legislator from Illinois, possessing no prior executive experience but a considerable way with words, who became probably America’s greatest president, and arguably its greatest American, too. As the abolitionist preacher Henry Ward Beecher, a frequent Lincoln critic, eulogized the former object of his censure: “Four years ago, O Illinois, we took from your midst an untried man, we return him to you a conqueror.”

Indeed, it’s entirely understandable why any leader would want to hitch his proverbial wagon to Lincoln. There is, however, an attendant danger. How many promising basketball careers have been tarnished by premature comparisons to Michael Jordan? For a prospect, the adjective “Jordanesque” is often a curse. And Jordan, for all his exploits, didn’t save the NBA by facing down a Western Conference secession.

So if we’re going to indulge in the Lincoln comparisons, especially in this year of Lincoln commemorations, there are at least a couple points worth remembering, if not for Lincoln’s sake, then for our own.

First, during his tenure in office Lincoln was roundly and routinely excoriated by the American press, not to mention the American populace (both North and South), as everything from an incompetent simpleton to a warmongering dictator. Horace Greeley, the prominent editor of the New York Tribune, incongruously criticized Lincoln first for resisting Southern secession, then for not emancipating the slaves quickly enough, then for hardheadedly insisting on total victory and total destruction of the institution of slavery.

In his oration dedicating the Freedmen’s Memorial in 1876, the great Frederick Douglas, who understood and explained Lincoln probably better than anyone else then or since, noted that “few great public men have ever been the victims of fiercer denunciation than Abraham Lincoln was during his administration. … He was assailed by abolitionists; he was assailed by slaveholders; he was assailed by the men who were for peace at any price; he was assailed by those who were for a more vigorous prosecution of the war; he was assailed for not making the war an abolition war; and he was bitterly assailed for making the war an abolition war.”

President Warren G. Harding said at the Lincoln Memorial’s first dedication that “no leader was ever more unsparingly criticized or more bitterly assailed, lashed by angry tongues and ridiculed in press and speech.” No leader, perhaps, until Harding’s commerce secretary, the future President Herbert Hoover.


Second, Lincoln’s unpopularity at home was matched only by the disdain and derision his name elicited abroad. Henry Adams, in his classic “The Education of Henry Adams,” recounted the near-unanimous “violent social prejudice” against Lincoln in London high society. The grandson and great-grandson of presidents himself, Adams accompanied his father on the Union’s diplomatic mission to Great Britain and found that a pernicious “belief in President Lincoln’s brutality” and “incapacity” had planted a “deep root in the British mind.” According to Adams, “London was altogether beside itself on one point, in especial; it created a nightmare of its own, and gave it the shape of Abraham Lincoln.”

Given Lincoln’s postmortem celebrity, understanding the extent of his unpopularity while governing and breathing is all the more important, and can’t help in the end but deepen our appreciation for him. Putting aside the bicentennial Lincoln chic, we should do our best to recall how close he was, but for fortuitous news from the front, to losing his bid for re-election, and thus his goal of total Union victory. We should remember that Lincoln wasn’t even the principal speaker at Gettysburg, but had to endure a two-hour soliloquy from a Harvard Greek-literature scholar before rising to deliver his brief remarks with no fanfare, in a high-pitched voice that was far from the manly baritone of our imagination.

Viewed in the light of his inglorious circumstances, Lincoln’s resolve and perseverance are even more astounding. As the historian Wilfred McClay reminds us in a recent essay, the most important history is not made before roaring crowds, accompanied by triumphant music, or greeted with public adulation: “The orator or the soldier has to wonder whether he is acting in vain, whether the criticisms of others are in fact warranted, whether time will judge him harshly.”

As we rightfully honor the savior of our nation throughout this year of renewal and remembrance, it is surely worth keeping in mind that the theatricality of our celebrations belies the austerity of Lincoln’s predicament. Other than by the guide of his internal compass, Lincoln could not have known whether he would be celebrated as a patriot or condemned as an imperialist.

Lincoln’s centennial celebration was marred by the cruel and now-obvious inconsistency of honoring the emancipator while racially segregating the events in his honor. At his tricentennial, how will our celebrations be judged?

Obviously, we cannot know. But instead of laying claim to him for our own narrow agendas, we would do better to study and emulate him. Instead of making him more like us, we’re better off seeking to make ourselves more like him. Walter Berns, one of the most eloquent writers on Lincoln’s meaning in American life, has remarked that “not every American can be a Lincoln, but all Americans are made better by reading his words and coming to love him and the cause for which he gave his life.” Self-aggrandizement only gets in the way of this noble pursuit.

Memorializing Lincoln, and especially rededicating a monument that has served as a backdrop for so many different political movements, requires us to walk a fine line. We pay tribute to him by distilling the lessons of his life, but risk being manipulative if we claim his legacy for ourselves.

In a famous quotation, the veracity of which is itself the subject of scholarly debate, Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton remarked at Lincoln’s deathbed, “Now he belongs to the ages.” As we celebrate and reflect upon Lincoln, let’s have the decency to leave him there. He has most certainly earned it. AFJ

AIR FORCE CAPT. CHARLES G. KELS is a medical law consultant at the Mike O’Callaghan Federal Hospital, Nellis Air Force Base, Nev. The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect those of the Air Force or Defense Department.