There are only, I think, three Americans whom it is impossible to criticize publicallyour national saints. One is Martin Luther King Jr., and the other two are presidents, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. (In their own ways FDR and Reagan come close, but only for half the country each.) Given this, it’s no surprise that in Lincoln’s own time there was only one such irreproachable man, Washington himself, about whom Lincoln said: “Let us believe, as in the days of our youth, that Washington was spotless. … It makes human nature better to believe that one human being was perfect: that human perfection was possible.”
That story is just one of many reported in Our Lincoln, a 2008 anthology edited by Columbia University’s Eric Foner that admirably sets out to do what Fredrick Douglass once famously claimed was impossible: to say anything new about Abraham Lincoln. (I learned about that story from the book, too.) The 11 essays Foner has gathered attempt to wrestle from the mists of history and hagiography a balanced picture of the man who is almost certainly America’s most sacred martyr: a sad-eyed, dour man in a stovepipe hat and beard that every schoolchild knows saved the country a long time ago.
Many of the essays in Our Lincoln are, in their own ways, scandalous; a favorite is Richard Carwadine on “Lincoln’s Religion,” which begins with the catalog of insults levied against the man by some of his contemporaries, such as fellow Whig (and best man at his wedding) James J. Matheny’s claims that a privately atheistic Lincoln had “call[ed] Christ a bastard,” “ridiculed the Bible,” and even as a young man written a book disproving the Bible’s divinity that his friends forced him to burn.
But Foner’s anthology is only one option in the recent explosion of popular Lincolnology. Tom Wheeler’s book (Mr. Lincoln’s T-Mails) recounts Lincoln’s history-making embrace of the telegraph and the way that new communication technology both expanded the power of the presidency and helped him win the Civil War. (Comparisons to Barack Obama in light of his well-publicized fight to keep his BlackBerry are unavoidable.) And Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals has unexpectedly emerged as this year’s must-read Lincoln biography, at least among potential Cabinet appointeesthough Fred Kaplan’s Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer may also hold particular interest for those glad to see a writer in the White House.
There is, of course, a strong partisan political undercurrent to all this. Not everyone is aware of this, but it turns out that Barack Obama is another eloquent (not to mention tall and skinny) Illinois politician with a scant few years in the legislature who somehow grabbed his party’s nomination from rivals widely perceived to have more experience and went on to win the presidencyand if you hadn’t yet heard about these similarities you haven’t been listening to very many of our new president’s speeches. Obama has made no secret of his fetish for Lincoln, from his standard stump speech references to “the old state capital” in Springfield to his common evocation of a “team of rivals” to his rereading of Lincoln’s writings and his use of Lincoln’s Bible for his inaugural oath.
It should come as no surprise to find Lincoln lurking in Obama’s election-night victory speech: “As Lincoln said to a nation far more divided than ours, ‘We are not enemies but friends. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection.’” For Obama, the myth of Lincoln is about reconciliation and redemption, about holding the country together in the face of long-held hatredsa myth clearly at the core of his own political self-image.
But Republicans will not lose Lincoln without a fight, with many insisting that it is Bush who will eventually come to be as revered as Lincoln. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich wrote a much-discussed opinion piece for the Wall Street Journal that suggested the comparison in 2006, a theme that has also been taken up by former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, former speechwriter David Frum, former press secretary Tony Snow, and even Bush himself. “In a small way, I can relate to the rail-splitter from out West because he had a way of speaking that was not always appreciated by the newspapers back East,” Bush has said. Steadfast and unshakeable in a fight against pure evil, unwilling to surrender to know-it-all fifth columniststhis, not the Great Reconciler, is the mythic Lincoln Bush imagines for himself when he looks in the mirror.
It’s true enough that you can find any number of political enemies for Lincoln in Lincoln As I Knew Him, a collection of remembrances from his contemporaries edited by Harold Holzer, out in a new paperback edition this year. “The President is an idiot,” wrote General George McClellan in August 1861, a sentiment he tops several weeks later with “The President is nothing more than a well-meaning baboon.” Lincoln’s most famous adversary, Stephen Douglas, said “honest Abe” lacked the character necessary for integrity and truth; John Wilkes Booth, of course, called him a tyrant. But the overwhelming sense of the book is of a figure who was, by and large, beloved in his time, whose assassination sent paroxysms of mourning through even those who had once been his enemiesa figure who somehow seemed larger than life even in the midst of national chaos. Bush’s legacy seemsto be charitablesignificantly more mixed. That both Lincoln and Bush in their own ways suspended the writ of habeas corpus will, perhaps, come to be seen as a plus in Bush’s columnbut I suspect not.
Perhaps comparisons such as these are best left to the judgment of history. My mind turns instead to the many images of the Lincoln Memorial that have flooded the media in the last few weeks, from the widely circulated image of several visitors to the Memorial on the night America elected its first black president to the star-studded pre-inaugural concert on the Mall that had Lincoln for its backdrop. There is a suggestion of prophetic fulfillment in these images, the idea that Lincoln not only made Obama possible but that he would have approved of all this. And in its way that’s true. But Lincoln was also, undeniably, a product of his time, vociferously denying that he was in favor of full equality for African-Americans and even supporting, for most of his political career, a vision of “recolonizing” former slaves in either Africa or the Caribbean.
By our standardsand even by the standards of some in his daythe Great Emancipator’s racial politics fall far short of irreproachability. “He was preeminently the white man’s president,” wrote Fredrick Douglass, “entirely devoted to the welfare of white men. He was ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people in order to promote the welfare of white people in this country.”
Would Lincoln have been happy, then, to see an African-American elected president of the United States? Was this what he had in mind as he struck the political compromises and fought the war that eventually ended slavery? Is it even something he could ever have conceived of? Probably not. He was, after all, very much a man of his time, not a messiah; a canny politician, not a saint.
But Lincoln’s birthday is coming up, for the first time in the Obama era. So in honor of that occasion it might be nice to believe, as in the days of our youth, that Lincoln was spotless. Maybe somewhere that sad-eyed, dour man is smiling.