What Does Abraham Lincoln Mean to Americans Today?
This article is excerpted from Abraham Lincoln: A Legacy of Freedom, published by the Bureau of International Information Programs of the U.S. Department of State.
"Ah,” said a book-writing acquaintance, when I told him that I had signed up to write a book of my own. “A book about Abraham Lincoln. Just what America needs.” In fairness (to me), my book wasn’t exactly about Lincoln, at least not about Lincoln directly. Even so, my acquaintance’s sarcasm stung.
There was truth behind it. He didn’t know the numbers, but I did: Since that unfortunate mishap at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., where an assassin’s bullet claimed his life, more than 14,000 books have been written about Lincoln, placing him second only to Jesus and Napoleon as an obsession of the world’s book writers. And the assembly line has never slowed, shows no signs of slowing even now. I hadn’t been working on my own Lincoln book for very long when the point was pressed upon me.
I was in Lincoln’s hometown of Springfield, Illinois, one weekend, at a Lincoln conference. (It’s an odd weekend in Springfield when someone isn’t holding a Lincoln conference.) The audience was fairly large—roughly 100 scholars, authors, amateur historians, hobbyists, buffs, and, by the looks of it, a few vagrants in from the street. At one point, the moderator interrupted the proceedings to ask for a show of hands.
“Just out of curiosity,” he said, “how many people here are writing a book about Abraham Lincoln?”
And nearly half of the audience raised their hands.
I was unnerved but not deterred, and before long I began bumping up against the practical difficulties the Lincoln glut creates for authors who are foolish enough to try to add to it. They include, but go far beyond, the problem of combing through a historical paper trail that has already been pulped for every conceivable fact and revelation. We still learn new things about Lincoln every once in a while, but the discoveries, tiny as they are, pique the interest of only professionals and the most hollow-eyed obsessives; the recent Lincoln books that have caught the public’s attention consist in taking old facts and arranging them in new ways. A more mundane and, for me, unforeseen problem involved the matter of a title. Let the writer beware: Somewhere in that pile of 14,000 volumes, one author or another has already given his or her Lincoln book the same title you’d chosen for yours.
Lincoln in print
Every phrase that can be detached from Lincoln’s most famous utterances has been stamped on a cover, from A New Birth of Freedom to With Malice Toward None, from With Charity for All to Of the People, By the People, For the People. I looked further and discovered a kind of verbal daisy chain, as though all Lincoln authors had been given a limited number of words and were forced to arrange them in a different order. There was The Sword of Lincoln and Lincoln’s Sword; Lincoln and the Generals and Lincoln’s Generals; The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln, The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s World, and Abraham Lincoln’s Intimate World; Lincoln’s Virtues and the Virtuous Lincoln. There was In Lincoln’s Footsteps, In the Footsteps of the Lincolns, and—for variety’s sake—In Lincoln’s Footprints. By my count, there are three books called The Real Lincoln, each of which presents a real Lincoln utterly incompatible with the real Lincoln described in the other two.
This surprised me less than it might have, for the other thing that struck me as I researched my own book, Land of Lincoln—not to be confused with The Living Land of Lincoln, by Thomas J. Fleming, which was published in 1980—was just how many Lincolns were running around. I had been a boy in the early 1960s when Lincoln loomed large and inescapable, a common possession, a touchstone for the country at large. Now everyone seemed to have his own Lincoln. It was as if this great piece of our national patrimony had been broken up and privatized.
Again the books told the story. Just in recent years we’ve had a book proving Lincoln was a fundamentalist Christian—this was written by a fundamentalist Christian. Another proved that Lincoln’s greatness arose from his struggle with clinical depression; the book was written by a journalist who has struggled with clinical depression. Most notoriously, a gay activist published a book in 2005 asserting that Lincoln, though not a gay activist himself, was at least actively gay. Conservatives have written books about Lincoln’s conservatism. Liberals have claimed him in books describing the liberal Lincoln. And in 2003, a book was published proving that if Lincoln were alive today, his political opinions would be indistinguishable from those of the former governor of New York state, Mario Cuomo. Two guesses as to who wrote that one.
Understanding the Lincoln infatuation
Agog at this exfoliation of Lincolns, you might be tempted to answer our title question—What Does Abraham Lincoln Mean to Americans Today?—with a glib counterquestion: What doesn’t Lincoln mean to Americans today? He seems to mean all things all at once, which might lead a cynic to conclude that Lincoln has ceased to have any particular meaning at all. But that really is too glib. For there is something peculiarly American in the sheer excess and exuberance of our Lincoln infatuation. Understanding the infatuation, I came to believe, might be a way not only of understanding Lincoln but of understanding the country itself.
The passion was undeniable, also surprising for a country supposedly indifferent to its own history. No other American has been so swarmed by curiosity seekers, so coddled and picked at and pawed; indeed—again with the possible exception of Napoleon—no other human being in modern history has shared a fate so implausibly extravagant.
Yet not even Napoleon has ever inspired a group of men who make a living pretending to be him, as Lincoln has. In some respects, the Association of Lincoln Presenters (known as the ALP) is merely a trade association like any other—the Teamsters, for example, or the National Association of Manufacturers, or Petsitters International. Like them, the ALP holds an annual convention where members gather to socialize, swap professional tips, and hear expert speakers give advice on how to improve business. Unlike those other trade conventions, however, every member of the ALP is dressed in a black frock coat and stovepipe hat and sports a coal-black beard, real or otherwise. After the convention they return home and, refreshed, begin again the work of school appearances, Kiwanis club talks, Chautauqua presentations, walk-throughs at county fairs—the work of evangelizing Lincoln to a country that they believe needs him more than it needs anything. I asked their founding president why they do it, why they bother. “Lincoln,” he told me, “reminds us of what we need to know but might have forgotten.”
It’s hard to describe the effect of seeing more than 100 men dressed like Abraham Lincoln gathered in a hotel ballroom, listening to a public relations expert discourse on “Making Local Media Work for You,” but I got used to such oddities as I looked for Lincoln.
There are perhaps as many as 15,000 Americans who are serious collectors of Lincoln memorabilia, even though in recent years the price of Lincoln documents and other firsthand artifacts—what one collector called “the really good stuff”—has soared into a stratosphere accessible only to the wealthiest connoisseurs.
But collectors of more modest means are undeterred. With typical ingenuity, they have defined quality downward, to cover commodities that can be more reasonably priced: the “good stuff” now might include, for example, matchbook covers from the old Lincoln Life Insurance Company, which sell for under $10. The online auction eBay has proved that anything with a Lincoln association can find a buyer. Documents in Lincoln’s hand now go for tens of thousands of dollars; so non-rich Lincoln lovers have begun trading in forged Lincoln documents, particularly those of such celebrated forgers as Joseph Cosey, a scam artist who prospered in the 1930s. A Cosey-forged “Lincoln letter” might sell for $2,500. “But you’ve got to make sure it’s a real forgery, a real Cosey,” one collector told me. “The market’s so hot now we’re seeing a lot of fakes.”
Expressing the American experiment
For nearly a century, historians and sociologists have tried to explain the historical infatuation that could result in such endearing absurdities. The reasons they’ve come up with are often clever and sometimes even plausible. Lincoln continues to fascinate his countrymen like no other historical personage, we’ve been told, because he was the first such personage to be commonly photographed: He is thus more real to us than great figures from earlier times can be. And it’s true that Lincoln was exquisitely sensitive to the ways in which he presented himself to the public, including through the use of the then-new photographic art. He seldom passed up a chance to have his likeness made. Thanks to that craftiness, we seem to know him in a way we could never know George Washington or Thomas Jefferson.
Even so, goes another argument, no matter how familiar we are with his face, with the sad eyes and tousled hair, Lincoln is tantalizingly and finally unknowable; it’s this mystery that draws us back to the melancholy, humorous, intelligent, reserved, distant, and kindly man that his acquaintances described. Other historians have said our infatuation with him is rooted in the drama of his personal story: Born in abject poverty to become one of the great men of human history, Lincoln embodies the “right to rise” that Americans claim as their birthright. Still others credit his enduring fame to his assassination on Good Friday, a shock from which the country never quite recovered. The most sober-minded of our theorists say we’re obsessed with Lincoln because he presided over, and somehow exemplifies, the greatest trauma of American history, a civil war that reinvented the United States into the country we know today.
There’s truth in all these explanations, I suppose, but it’s the last one, in my opinion, that comes closest to being the comprehensive truth. I live not far from the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., that grand, photogenic temple on the banks of the Potomac River that is home to the “iconic Lincoln.” Researching my Lincoln book, spending time with scholars and collectors and obsessives and being introduced by each of them to yet another privatized Lincoln, a Lincoln pieced together from their own preoccupations, I was always glad to return home and pay the memorial a visit: to see this singular and solid Lincoln, the enduring Lincoln that every American can lay claim to.
The memorial is the most visited of our presidential monuments. The strangest thing about it, though, is the quiet that descends over the tourists who climb the wide sweeping stairway and step into the cool of the marble chamber. Before long their attention is drawn to one or both of the two Lincoln speeches etched in the walls on either side of the famous statue. After all this time I am still astonished at the number of visitors who stand still to read, on one stone panel, the Gettysburg Address, and, on the other, Lincoln’s second inaugural address.
What they’re reading is a summary of the American experiment, expressed in the finest prose any American has been capable of writing. One speech reaffirms that the country was founded upon and dedicated to a proposition—a universal truth that applies to all men everywhere. The other declares that the survival of the country is somehow bound up with the survival of the proposition—that if the country hadn’t survived, the proposition itself might have been lost. Sometimes the tourists tear up as they read; they tear up often, actually. And watching them you understand: Loving Lincoln, for Americans, is a way of loving their country.
That’s what Lincoln means to Americans today, and it’s why he means so much.
Andrew Ferguson is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard magazine and the author of Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America.