The Myth of Lincoln, Reconstructed

Abraham Lincoln was born poor on the rugged frontier. He was physically odd, ugly even, and prone to despair. But he educated himself, elevated himself, and struck the first fatal blows against slavery. While saving the union, he also made it "the last best hope of earth." While winning an awful war, he pledged "malice toward none." Then he was killed. If stories are our instruments, here is one that seems crafted by a master. It reaches back beyond language, into the primordial pool where myths do their work.

Individuals tell themselves stories to live, and so do families, tribes, and nations. The Greeks had the gods of Olympus; the Elizabethans had Shakespeare's royalty. Americans have Lincoln--or, at least, we did. Thanks to the careful, thoughtful work of scholars, we can now apprehend the factual Lincoln better than ever. But the iconic Lincoln has a faded look, a hollow sound. In recent years, sociologist Barry Schwartz has shown, Lincoln's numbers have fallen sharply in opinion polls and in mentions by newspapers, magazines, and politicians. In Springfield, Illinois, signs that once pointed visitors to "Lincoln shrines" now refer to "Lincoln sites."

The change, explains an Illinois official, was made in order to appear "more respectable, more professional." To be less like civic clergy, in other words, and more like scholars. This is the tension. The more we seek the truth of details and facts, the more we will yield contradictions and ambiguities. The truth of scholarship butts against truth of a different kind, the sort we look for in stories, myths, fables, legends.

Without stories, the facts of the scholars are but a thousand splinters. Yet without some grounding in fact, the stories of mythmakers drift into the ether or cling only to small groups. Somehow the tension must be managed so that it can be maintained. Lincoln's case suggests a way.

The "real" Abraham Lincoln was a highly contentious figure. As president, he was not only despised by Democrats and Southerners but also derided and ridiculed by his own Republican Party--even his own cabinet. In 1862 Frederick Douglass described him as a "miserable tool of traitors and rebels" and "quite a genuine representative of American prejudice and negro hatred." Others were outraged by his kindness to abolition. Most everyone agreed that he was a lousy commander.

But the war turned, the Confederate armies surrendered, and days later, on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, Lincoln was shot at Ford's Theatre. News of his death spread just in time for Easter Sunday church services, where the words "Lincoln" and "Christ" shared the same air. A funeral train slowly wound through the nation from Washington, D.C., to Springfield. "Oh, it is grand, sublimely grand and godlike," said a resident of Columbus, Ohio, watching it pass, "to see a great people thus bowing down and worshiping the great dead."

But the Lincoln apotheosis did not happen with a gunshot. As Barry Schwartz shows in Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory, the scorn lingered. Lincoln had conscripted men, hung deserters, suspended civil liberties, burned cities. Schwartz argues that the lachrymose proceedings around Lincoln's death were expression of duty ("appropriate grief"), not inner sentiment.

Lincoln changed with the passage of time. Between 1860 and 1900, the United States swelled from 31 million to 74 million people (including 10 million immigrants). A country split and bitter over war gave way to one that trembled before the future. How could an industrial, imperial power reconcile itself with a nativist, rural tradition? What idea of America could unite New York, North Carolina, and North Dakota, and the Mayflower families, freed slaves, and the foreign-born?

Between 1900 and 1920, Schwartz notes, 22 Lincoln statues were unveiled, and the Illinois State Historical Library added 1,150 items to its Lincoln bibliography. This is the generation that made Lincoln their god. And he worked as a god, because people could share him and also fight over him. Lincoln was folk hero and statesman; progressive champion of the downtrodden and conservative defender of tradition. In 1915 the cornerstone was laid for a memorial in Washington, modeled after the temples of ancient Greece, with a statue after Zeus on his throne, and a location chosen to maximize "the power of impression by an object of reverence and honor."

The Lincoln Memorial was dedicated in 1922, and 41 years later, Martin Luther King, Jr., spoke from its steps to 250,000 people. "Five score years ago," he began, "a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand, signed the Emancipation Proclamation... . It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of captivity. But one hundred years later, we must face the tragic fact that the Negro is still not free."

In the speech, King took grand, old texts--from the Gettysburg Address to "My Country, 'Tis of Thee"--and charged them with new meaning. Like Lincoln himself (who did the same with the Declaration of Independence), King showed how shared images and stories from the past can be a foundation for progress. (Two years after King's speech, President Lyndon B. Johnson, introducing a voting rights bill, insisted that "equal rights for American Negroes" constituted a challenge "to the values and the purposes and the meaning of our beloved nation.") The speech is shot through with an appeal to what the sociologist Robert Bellah would describe in a 1967 essay as America's "civil religion"--a religion that was both formulated and embodied by Abraham Lincoln.

But the Vietnam War and the other cataclysms of the era (among them, King's assassination and the ensuing riots) came as a severe test to Americans' civic faith. Many abandoned it entirely. A generation grew up resenting the sanctimonious and imperious state. At first they stuffed flowers into guns and listened to John Lennon sing about revolution; then they used the song in a Nike commercial. In popular culture, irony clubbed earnestness, nearly to death. In the academy, historical heroes and their "meta-narratives" gave way to antiheroes and the smaller stories that history had long ignored. And in politics, LBJ's Great Society was turned on its head. Such belief in the state, ascendant conservatives argued, could not solve problems; it could only create them.

Meanwhile, historians continued to excavate Lincoln's life and times, as they still do. (Amazon.com lists more than two dozen hardcovers about Lincoln published in 2000 alone.) But as a symbol, he went into steady decline: from an object of worship (in 1918 a popular image showed a girl looking at a statue of Lincoln, imploring, "What would you do?"), to an object of respect (starring in Young Mr. Lincoln in 1939, Henry Fonda was the upright Illinois lawyer defending an innocent boy against a bogus murder charge), to an object of farce in some quarters. Through those earlier years, many Americans, including some blacks and southerners, hung photographs of Lincoln in their parlors; but these days, a typical Lincoln image comes into homes via modem lines--as "Hard Drinkin' Lincoln." In this animated cartoon (at www.icebox.com), Lincoln is a blend of Homer Simpson and Kenny from South Park: Whiskey is his drink, Mary his nag, and John Wilkes Booth shoots a hole through his head in every episode.

Enter the Public Broadcasting Service with its lavish, six-hour documentary Abraham and Mary Lincoln: A House Divided. The film was produced and directed by David Grubin, whose recent subjects include Harry Truman, Lyndon Johnson, and Napoleon Bonaparte. Grubin's films, like those of Ken Burns and Bill Moyers, are a rare blend of public education and pop entertainment. PBS expects 50 million Americans to watch some portion of the initial broadcast on February 19, 20, and 21. And the National Endowment for the Humanities will distribute 5,000 DVDs of the film to public schools. (I should note that I know David Grubin and am a friend of his daughter.)

You might even say that PBS's long-form documentaries are the closest thing we have, in the age of movies, to the pedagogy once provided by epic poems and plays. These documentaries have the rare chance to reach a mass audience with a big, true story. But to do so, that story has to occupy the ground between fact and myth.

This is a scholarly film. And yet, from the start, it announces its intention to treat Lincoln as secular deity. An early scene shows the Zeus image in Washington, with the mortals below gazing upward in awe. Over a snare drum and flute playing "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," we hear the voice of a child as he reads the words etched above him in marble.

Boy: In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of ...

Mother: ... Abraham Lincoln ...

Boy: ... Abraham Lincoln is ...

Mother: ... enshrined ...

Boy: ... enshrined forever.

The boy is drawn to respect, if not reverence, before he even recognizes Lincoln's name. A scholar's voice-over drives home the point. "If you go to the Lincoln Memorial," she says, "and you look at that figure seated on a throne, in this marble temple... . I remember going as a child and thinking that's what God looked like."

But the film must address nonbelievers, or at least get their attention. This is a formidable challenge. Photographs of Lincoln are scarce, as are details of his personal life. The crucial, early stories--of his parents, of his courtships, of his bouts with melancholy--are embedded in thickets of mystery. "The story of the real Abraham Lincoln," David McCullough narrates, over a mournful cello and shots of misty woods, "has receded so far into the nation's memory that what remains seems little more than a dream."

This, however, is one of the film's very few allusions to the challenge of extracting the "real" Lincoln. The narration proceeds with brash confidence. Scholars punctuate the narration but never disagree. The film is even omniscient--telling us how Lincoln feels, what he believes, and that he "fell in love."

This latter event, the Ann Rutledge story, provides a fine example of how historians draw story lines in shifting sands. In the 1940s, Rutledge was as well known a "character" in America as Marilyn Monroe is today. Lincoln, the story went, fell in with her in New Salem (this was years before he met Mary Todd, his future wife, in Springfield) and was crushed by her death. The story had its origins in oral history, and Carl Sandburg and John Ford ladled generous sentiment upon it.

But the scholars who took control of Lincoln in midcentury hated this sap. They attacked the evidence that gave rise to it, and a generation of Ph.D. candidates learned to ignore Ann Rutledge entirely. Now, the story is back: The original oral histories, as John Y. Simon and Douglas L. Wilson have argued convincingly, contain a strong consensus that Lincoln was distraught over Ann Rutledge's death and even talked suicide. "He made a remark one day when it was raining that he could not bare [sic] the idea of its raining on her grave," one remembered. "That was the time the community said he was crazy."

Can we conclude from this that Lincoln had fallen in love? I don't know. Only one man could ever have known, and I imagine that even Lincoln had no easy answer to the question.

Grubin's film flattens ambiguity, in this case, in the service of a story. Time is short, and drama is necessary. And so, when known texts are inconvenient, they are tweaked. Where photographs are not available, scenes are done up with musicians, actors, period sets, and props--even digital imaging. (Lincoln's first Springfield house, of which no pictures exist, is shown in color, before moving clouds, and even with lightning.) Lincoln is given a deep drawl, though his actual voice, as Garry Wills has noted, was "high to the point of shrillness."

These choices will help the film reach a wide audience, which it deserves. It is a gorgeous film, expertly done. But will it work as myth? And if so, for whom?

Myths must fit the needs of their time. And our crucial need today is to lay bare the ugly truths of the past, especially with regard to the human beings brought to this continent in chains. Whatever its problems, a culture skeptical toward "heroes" has more room for people long ignored and trod upon. For such people, I fear the Lincoln of this film will be of little use.

Consider the story the film tells about Lincoln and race: Lincoln always hated slavery and always wanted to see it end. He parted with abolitionists mainly about means, not ends. He cannily maneuvered to make the causes of union and emancipation inextricable, and he threw himself behind the 13th Amendment. The man grew up among bigots and said some awful things. But he grew and grew. The film quotes Frederick Douglass describing his 1863 visit with Lincoln: "I was never in any way reminded of my humble origin, or my unpopular color." Douglass, says Margaret Washington, one of the scholars featured in the film, "now saw Lincoln as the black man's president."

But Douglass had a mixed message on Lincoln. In 1876 he told a crowd that Lincoln had opposed slavery for "the interests of his own race," that he was "preeminently the white man's President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men."

The film does not include these latter remarks, perhaps because of time constraints. But then why does it lavish attention on the twists and turns of the Civil War, a subject already comprehensively covered in Ken Burns's epic? (And why, for that matter, is the film framed as a joint biography of Abraham and Mary, when she gets so little time as to render her a caricature?)

The real reason, I suppose, is that myths should make us feel as though they are narrated from on high. And mythical heroes should be flawed enough to seem real but grand enough to seem divine.

But that may be a view of myth that needs replacing. Take, for example, Lerone Bennett, Jr., whose recent book Forced into Glory: Abraham Lincoln's White Dream tells of a Lincoln who liked "nigger" jokes, found blackface minstrel shows amusing, and defended the Fugitive Slave Act in court. Bennett highlights Lincoln's interest in shipping blacks to Africa and argues that he wrote the Emancipation Proclamation only because he was "forced" to by military necessity.

With the exception of Eric Foner in the Los Angeles Times, no big paper even reviewed Bennett's book. (Last May a columnist in Time magazine called attention to this fact, and in late August The New York Times Book Review reviewed it critically.) But whatever scholars may think, the book has a receptive following. "Bennett's ideas are widely shared," says Gregory Stephens, the author of On Racial Frontiers: The New Culture of Frederick Douglass, Ralph Ellison, and Bob Marley, who speaks regularly before black audiences. "I encounter this attitude everywhere I go."

Forced into Glory has a number of errors, mainly of omission. But I value the book because it is a bracing reminder that while we are often blind to history, we can, with great effort, see in it our present. "Lincoln is a key," Bennett writes, "perhaps the key, to the American personality... . What we invest in him, and hide in him, is who we are."

Andrew Delbanco has noted that two true stories can be told about America and race. One is the story of a "poisonous idea"; the other, of a "struggle to live up to the principle of inviolable rights." Neither, he argues, should prevail, and neither should be suppressed--"because separately they impair the possibility of a collective future, whereas together they may help us achieve a future in which all Americans feel part of a culture that treats them with dignity and to which they owe respect."

In the seventeenth century, European settlers looked to God for the reassurance that their way of life was the right one. In the Age of Reason, with new emphasis on sacred bonds among people, George Washington was a demigod. Lincoln replaced him. Maybe, now, Lincoln should be replaced. Gregory Stephens suggests that Lincoln should be paired with Frederick Douglass--that we should throw out the heroic individual in favor of the heroic pair, a symbol of struggle and symbiosis.

If Lincoln is to work for us still, if he is to be of use on the great questions of the day, he must be kept big enough to contain our furious, necessary arguments. That means acknowledging his flaws and his mysteries. Yes, he said things that we understand as racist. He also ended slavery. It's our job to reconcile these facts, to tell true stories.

"Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid," Lincoln wrote a friend in 1855.

As a nation, we began by declaring that "all men are created equal." We now practically read it "all men are created equal, except negroes." When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read "all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and catholics." When it comes to this I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty--to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocracy [sic].

This is a man who speaks hard, true, pretty, and horrible, who lived such a life, who tried--and failed, as we all must--to be pure. Sounds like a good story to me.

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