March 2, 2008 saw the last night of a successful play in Burbank, California’s Falcon Theater. Actor Granville Van Dusen completed an upbeat one-man performance in The Memoirs of Abraham Lincoln. The program for this event included a fulsome tribute given by ex-President and then Chief Justice William Howard Taft at the presentation of the Lincoln Memorial to Congress on May 30, 1922. “Clarity of thought and intellectual honesty, self-analysis and string inexorable logic, supreme common sense, a sympathetic but unerring knowledge of human nature, imagination and limpid purity of style, with a poetic rhythm of the Psalms – these were his intellectual and cultural traits,” Taft said of Lincoln.
Since then, Mr. Lincoln’s stone temple in Washington, D.C. has worked for Americans seeking inspiration. The list includes Jimmy Stewart’s young Congressman Jefferson Smith pausing breathlessly before it in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) to the Duarte High School Academic Decathlon Team from small-city Duarte, California, posing there as part of a trip back east to get revved for the state and national events in 2008 (which they won!). As 2008 rushes along we can already sense a fluttering at the interface of popular and academic culture, an intimation that the Lincoln Bicentennial of 2009 has already begun. U.S. News and World Report offers a glossy “Collector’s Edition” on the newsstands titled “Secrets of the Civil War” featuring Lincoln’s pre-bearded visage next to pictures of tennis star Andy Roddick and the republican presidential candidate’s wife Cindy McCain. All of this can be a good thing for a United States that will be seeking, gingerly, to re-enter and again bring shaping leadership to the world community. It will not be done with Abu Ghraibs and Bradley assault vehicles this time, but, if the country’s new leaders are smart, a drawing upon one of the nation’s best faces to the world, Abe Lincoln of Illinois.
It’s been said that Abraham Lincoln attracts biographers the way a picnic attracts ants. Some of this traces to the fact that the American Presidency was constitutionally conceived as both a political and ceremonial office, a combination of Queen Elizabeth II and Machiavelli. Yet something about the enigma and stature of the prairie lawyer who guided the nation through its greatest crisis from 1861 to 1865, seeming to come in and go out on the winds of an unprecedented social and political maelstrom, will not go down. Even in his lifetime this was true. The patriarchal evocation in his Biblical name “Abraham” was not lost on his countrymen. In what has been praised as “the Lincoln biography for this generation,” the moderate David Herbert Donald recorded in 1995: “For the first time in American history citizens began to feel that the occupant of the White House was their representative. They referred to him as Father Abraham, and they showered him with homely gifts: a firkin of butter, a crate of Bartlett pears, New England salmon.”
The books keep coming. Two of the more recent entries into the popular biography genre show the span of Lincoln’s appeal. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize. That same year, Joshua Wolf Shenk graced the History/Psychology shelves with his non-sensational study Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness. The New York Times named Shenks effort A Notable Book of the Year winning both the Abraham Lincoln Institute Book Award and a forWard Award from the National Mental Health Association. Shenk is also a member of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. The eagles were thus gathering well before February 12, 1809, the Bicentenary of Lincoln’s birth. Nor will this abate soon. The bicentennial of the Civil War beginning in 2011 will keep Lincoln in the public eye for the foreseeable future. Altogether, not an unhappy prospect.
Other clear signifiers of this gathering trend were Professor Edna Greene Medford, Professor of History at Howard University, defending criticisms against Lincoln from her African-American colleagues on C-Span’s Book TV on March 3, 2008. The Lincoln boomlet after the grisly events of September 11, 2001, came in the midst of a decade that seemed to need all the reinforcement from history that the stressed Republic could get. In this decade of large-scale American disenchantment with conflict, Michael Hirsh’s At War With Ourselves (2003) intoned the collapse of the second Bush administration’s grand vision for democracy in Iraq and the larger Middle East. It was a vision, said Hirsh, “infused with the hubris of its authors, men who had never heard a shot fired in anger and who were brave with other people’s courage, that of the young men and women they sent to war.” In 2002 came Chris Hedges’ eloquent and influential War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning and Joseph Nye’s prescient The Paradox of American Power (2002) was subtitled, “Why The World’s Only Superpower Can’t Go It Alone.” Nye coined one of the decade’s memorable phrases, “soft power,” the ability to entice and attract flowing “in large part from our values.” He went on: “These values are expressed in our culture, in the policies we follow inside our country, and in the way we handle ourselves internationally.”
As the war-weary first American decade of the twenty-first century ground along, some encouraging voices were raised about the American future and the need to reorient its foreign policy and its face to the world. Abraham Lincoln factored into some of these popular recalibrations. The December 2006 Atlantic magazine featured Lincoln’s doleful yet steadying Matthew Brady stare with a cover story titled “The 100 Most Influential Americans of All Time.” The summation was crisp, “He saved the Union, freed the slaves, and presided over America’s second founding” yet Lincoln’s reassuring image adorned many a history classroom as the death toll in Baghdad mounted. In a Los Angeles Times opinion piece “America isn’t over” (June 18, 2008), Ted Widmer warned against the temptations of neo-isolationism for the next president. Such a retreat, said Widmer, seems very “un-American.” He added: “One of the reasons Abraham Lincoln fought the Civil War, as he stated on numerous occasions, was to keep our democratic influence in the world from waning.”
During another war in another decade, historian Garry Wills gave an eloquent popular reassessment of Lincoln’s multi-faceted hold on the country. It was the Gulf War which inspired the February 1991 Life magazine’s extreme close-up of Brady’s picture with the tag line: “The President who gave honor and meaning and purpose to the Civil War speaks to us still.” Wills was to the point: “In a time of crisis, it is important to remember the President who…was able to do what recent Presidents have failed to do: he inspired the better angels of our nature.” Wills himself has proven adept at reaching the literate public with thoughtful fare, describing in 1991 “Lincoln’s mastery over words,” asserting that his “aimed and arrowy metaphors were sometimes as valuable to the North as the more cumbrous weaponry turned out by our foundries.” Lincoln, said Will, set the highest standards for addressing the nation: “Men must know what they are dying for.” It is not the “vision thing” but the depth factor, the “character thing” that makes Lincoln stand out both in American politics and in American letters he was implying "the need for a morally persuasive rhetoric is felt most acutely in crisis. Likeable Presidents like Dwight Eisenhower or Ronald Reagan can get by in prosperous times on their personal charm and nostalgic appeal…It is harder to get by on such minimal performances if one is calling a nation to sacrifice lives in war – as Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson learned in the Vietnam War. (Even a crisis like the Ayatollah’s seizure of hostages was something Jimmy Carter could not put in terms that would unite the nation around him)… John Kennedy, despite the superb rhetoric of his inaugural address could not meet high standards of truthfulness because of covert activities he was authorizing.”
As Wills noted in 1991, hollow jingoism is not enough. What is needed is heft, weight, moral gravitas of the kind Lincoln exemplified at his best, a style of address that is very hard to imitate and falls flat when not backed up with sincerity. Here are just a few reminders of that elevated – yet penetrating -Lincoln style that moved him beyond the jack legged lawyer making a quite comfortable living representing the railroad interests:
· “Fellow-citizens we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves.”
· “My countrymen, one and all, think calmly and well upon this whole subject. Nothing valuable can be lost by taking time.”
· “I shall adopt new views, as fast as they shall appear to be new views.”
· “It is safe to assert that no government proper ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination.”
· “What constitutes the bulwark of our own liberty and independence? It is not…the guns of our war steamers or the strength of our gallant and disciplined army…Our reliance is in the love of liberty God has planted in our bosoms.”
Ultimately, of course, there is always the mystery about Lincoln that is hard to penetrate. One reason is because genius is hard to explain. Another is because he treasured his privacy, according to Goodwin. Secrecy was no small part of his nature. Lord Louis Mountbatten once remarked that all leadership was a show, to a certain extent, but that it must be “a real show” based on real substance. In projecting confident assurance in a pettifogging democracy there must be something there to project. Modest and plain in appearance – if not jolting - Lincoln often conveyed the solemnity of an undertaker while relaxing with numerous visits to the theatre and enjoying a fund of folksy stories that he delighted telling, punctuating with his high horse-like laugh. He was, in popular culture terms, what John Fiske calls a “broad text.” That term needs unpacking.
John Fiske asserts that one of the delights of the popular is the pleasure of multiplicity, of allowing a mass audience to decode artifacts even of commercial culture in creative ways. For a work of art (Mona Lisa), a piece of architecture (the Empire State Building), a catchphrase (“May the Force be with you”), a commodity (blue jeans or athletic footwear), or a children’s tale (E.T., the Narnia series) to “take off” in the pop culture it must allow the mass audience to bring their own readings to the artifact. The wider the possibility of meanings, the wider the circulation of the commodity or persona through the culture, he alleges. Fiske sees items of mass culture (a baseball bat is a piece of crafted lumber) becoming signifiers that speak to our imaginary forces (a bat actually signed by Derek Jeter is something to dream on).
If Fiske is right, it is easier to see how the persona of Abraham Lincoln has at times dominated our political culture. People “wrote on him” what they wanted to see. Lincoln himself possessed that rare ability in a politician to see both sides of an issue, the ability to empathize. In his Second Inaugural, as the bitter war between North and South continued apace, Lincoln spoke to this. “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other,” he philosophized. “The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully.” There seemed to be cavernous depths behind those limpid eyes. Lincoln studied and thought incessantly about great public issues and possessed that rare ability in democratic leaders to weigh realities dispassionately and then take his audiences with him on a journey of thought. He has been a commanding sphinx-like presence, a wide text on which people from many walks of life have been able to write, uniting in a strange alchemy the popular, the political and the literary cultures. The briefest survey offers evidence of his almost unique mythological status for his countrymen:
Icon of the Civil Religion: From Alexander De Tocqueville to Robert Bellah there have been postulations of an almost unaware Civil Religion of Americanism in the United States. It has its own cathedrals (the Capitol in Washington), sacred Scriptures (the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution) and its own founding deities (Washington, Jefferson, Franklin). Lincoln has become deeply inscribed in this almost unconscious national iconography as the martyr of democracy. He is the New Testament to Washington’s Old, almost Christ-like in his ability to bear suffering, to see the task through and then be taken from us.
The Success Myth: Lincoln’s resume as an early failure as farmer, storekeeper, postmaster, novice politician and other trades is cited regularly on the Toastmaster and self-help seminar circuit. The upwardly striving Dale Carnegie was so impressed he wrote his own biography of Lincoln.
Classroom Teacher’s Friend: Closely linked to the success emphasis is the well-documented Lincoln love of reading, the self-educated democratic man intent on improving himself. In his 1939 film, Young Mr. Lincoln, director John Ford had Henry Fonda (in a striking and under-rated performance) lying in the grass under a tree, his long legs resting vertically on the tree trunk reading Blackstone’s Legal Commentaries. Blackstone’s works, which Fonda-Lincoln is almost hypnotized by in the movie’s opening, was a major inspiration for the Constitution of 1787. Teachers have not completely given up on citing Lincoln “the Reader as Leader” even in the age of text-messaging and YouTube.
A Text of High Culture: The time would fail to tell of them all. There is the organ music of Lincoln’s set speeches, many of them classics of American literature. There are Walt Whitman’s often-anthologized tributes in “O Captain! My Captain!” and “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed,” the latter elegizing “the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands.” There is the neglected Carl Sandburg of Illinois listening to stories of men who had known Abraham Lincoln and writing: “He still smiles, and remains impenetrable.” Pastors on Mother’s Day often cite Rosemary Benet’s 1933 tribute to Lincoln’s mother Nancy Hanks returning as a ghost and breaking people’s hearts by asking “Have you seen my son…did he get on?” Eleanor Roosevelt on FDR’s funeral train in 1945 remembered that both men died on the same date (April 12) and recalled Millard Lampell’s balladic “A slow train/a quiet train/Carrying Lincoln home again.” In the 1970s, there were record albums of Charlton Heston reciting Aaron Copland’s “Lincoln Portrait.” Sam Waterston did him proud in Ken Burn’s Civil War series in 1990. Creaky Walter Brennan in a 1960s movie musical seemingly put the folk memories together in democratic doggerel:
“In 1861 our ship of state was sinkin’
Along came a man of destiny, a man by the name of Lincoln.”
Mr. Lincoln gets around.
The “Rural is Better” Signifier: From the “Leatherstocking” tales featuring Natty Bumpo through to Huckleberry Finn and George W. Bush’s latest malapropisms, there is a strong (if diminishing) Jeffersonian-like strain in American life which believes that rural is better, that small-town mores are the real America, that genuine wisdom reposes in common folk. This is often set against the machinations of wily, polished city slickers. Some of this is hokum and some of it is a remnant of an earlier democratic ethos. One has only to think of Sheriff Andy Taylor of Mayberry, the Beverly Hillbillies, and perhaps the antics of Reno 9-1-1 to capture the durability of this ethos. The Lincoln resume played perfectly into this definite American subtext. Born in Kentucky, raised in Indiana and a success in Illinois, Lincoln’s own ascent was a geographic parable all its own at a time when Kentucky was a “crossroad of American empire.” Henry Fonda superbly captures this mystique in the 1939 film reenacting Lincoln’s first speech in front of a country store: “You all know who I am, plain Abraham Lincoln…My politics are short and sweet like the old woman’s dance.”
The Canny and the Uncanny: Lincoln, the cool strategist who maneuvered the South into firing the first shot at Fort Sumter, that bloodless sacker of generals, also had a supernatural aspect to his character. His famous dreams are well-attested, most poignant, perhaps, the one of his appearing at his own coffin in the White House to the sounds of cries and mourning. This admits rustic Lincoln into the more mystical and sometimes offbeat interests of his countrymen. He attended at least one séance sponsored by his wife Mary Todd Lincoln in the White House, the poor lady trying frantically to contact the spirit of her dead son Willie. Both Donald and Goodwin attest to this side of Lincoln even while offering that it was not a major part of his character. His were more sentimental times very much attuned to the common religious impulse.
In counterpoint, however, adding to that multifaceted dynamic which makes his life such a rich text, Lincoln is hailed for his “spiritual perception far above the ordinary” by today’s leading evangelical historian, Mark Noll. “It is one of the great ironies in the history of Christianity in America that the most profoundly religious analysis of the nation’s deepest trauma came not from a clergymen or a theologian but from a politician who was self-taught in the ways of both God and humanity.” Lincoln’s habit of invoking God in his public speeches was not uncommon in a land still digesting the emotional outbursts of the Second Great Awakening and the Abolitionist Crusade.
In conclusion, what of Abraham Lincoln as internationalist, of the claim advanced earlier that he saw the United States through the lens of a world system where working democracies were few and far between, of America as almost an exemplar of a higher standard of international conduct? The first evidence of this trait surfaced in young Congressman Lincoln’s bitter denunciation of President James Polk’s role in starting the Mexican War (1846-1848). In ringing tones and balanced contrapuntal phrases such as no war protestor has matched, he blasted away at the party line: “I more than suspect already that [Polk] is deeply conscious of being in the wrong – that he feels the blood of this war, like the blood of Abel, is crying to heaven against him…. Let him remember he sits where Washington sat, and so remembering, let him answer as Washington would answer.”
Lincoln was 38 when he made that speech. At age 53, he was busy guiding his Cabinet through the Trent affair, an incident on the high seas which threatened war with Great Britain. Lincoln realized the existence of the nation probably hung on avoiding the folly of “two wars on his hands at a time.” Ah, yes, such a pointed lesson for Presidents there. Lincoln had read Jefferson’s words in the great declaration referring to that “decent respect to the opinions of mankind.” He echoed this in his December 1, 1862, message to Congress. “We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this.” Brevity is the soul of eloquence. A case could be made that, in essence, Lincoln helped redirect American war policy from aggressive war to defensive-aggressive war. The fledgling Republic had invaded Canada in 1777 to spread unilaterally the blessings of democracy and tried yet again in 1812. On the international scene the cocksure Republic struck first for the third time against Mexico in 1846. Yet Lincoln announced twice to the disgruntled Confederacy that “the government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without yourselves being the aggressors.”
That was Lincoln the legally trained lawyer staking out the moral high ground. His Second Inaugural ended with an eloquent summons “to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.” “With all nations” seems a haunting text for America’s foreign policy today, a text for the times. Thus Abraham Lincoln, a man to praise and not to bury, a rare mix of seeming near-saintliness and sagacity, the ruthless War Leader who protested war, the Emancipator in spite of himself. The very paradoxes ensure he will remain a puzzle and fascination for Americans and American popular culture well beyond his own Bicentenary. And these are the vibrations we feel when we stand at the base of the Lincoln Memorial.
From guest contributor Neil Earle