Lincoln in American Memory

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Although he discouraged personal legends and mythmaking during his lifetime, Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth president of the United States, became the most celebrated and revered of American political leaders following his death in 1865. The biographical facts of his life firmly laid the groundwork for posthumous fame. A frontiersman by birth, whose parentage was obscure and whose early hardships had to be surmounted, he became the essence of the American success story by rising to the most powerful position in the nation. Self-educated as a lawyer, he possessed a sharp natural wit, a sense of humor, a genius for storytelling, and a dignified, eloquently cadenced prose style for oratory and writing. These qualities became assets to him when he found it necessary to debate important issues or to address subjects of the utmost importance to the nation. His personal life, though not without its ambiguities, was devoid of any hint of scandal or blame. While not all biographers would agree, the majority have viewed Lincoln as an exception to the generalization that greatness is accompanied by great flaws.

On issues of nationalism and of freedom Lincoln held decidedly idealistic positions. A lifelong opponent of slavery, he presided over its demise in the United States. Although he was denied the opportunity of implementing his vision of economic development, it was his destiny to lead the nation successfully through the terrible crisis and war that jeopardized its survival. In his role as commander-in-chief, made the fateful wartime decisions that led to a Union victory in the Civil War. The Founding Fathers had drawn up the Constitution; Lincoln assured its continuance by preserving the nation. Crowned with success, he died at the hands of an assassin. Taken together, the facts of his life constitute a greater claim on fame than that of any other American leader.

Merrill D. Peterson, professor emeritus of history of the University of Virginia, traces Lincoln’s fame and reputation from his assassination to the early 1990’s. Before undertaking this formidable task, he produced a similar study of Thomas Jefferson in the book The Jefferson Image in the American Mind (1960). In tracing Lincoln’s legacy in the mind of humankind, he has demonstrated that fame has cast Lincoln in the form of five great archetypal images: the savior of the Union, the Great Emancipator, the self-made man, the man of the people, and the first American.

Yet, as Peterson also demonstrates, not all the Lincolns reflected in the light of fame were accurate. Assorted movements attempted to claim him as one of their own, invoking his life or words in support of controversial and conflicting points of view. Crosscurrents in his fame and reputation arose when opposing movements seized upon him for opposite purposes.

As Peterson’s account shows, the course of Lincoln’s posthumous fame follows a path that one generally finds among people who have achieved renown during their lives. In the first stage, which Peterson labels apotheosis, there are elaborate obsequies, memorializing, and projected monuments. The fallen hero takes on the aura of sainthood as plans are laid for monuments to ensure that his fame endures. In Lincoln’s first period, poets such as Walt Whitman produced a multitude of dirges and elegies. A second stage occurs when contemporaries who knew the person begin to write their memoirs and reminiscences. At about the same time there are those who initiate collections of memorabilia—all the personal items, papers, and mementos that they can find. Also during this period, one or more biographies sanctioned by the family may appear.

Only later do professional scholars and historians begin a meticulous examination of the reliable records. For Lincoln this stage was delayed longer than usual because of the great number of journalists and acquaintances who wrote about him in an earlier phase and also because his papers were not accessible to scholars for many decades after he died. This delay was the wish of his son and executor Robert Todd Lincoln, who severely limited access to the papers until 1947. Even after delivering them to the Library of Congress in 1919, he stipulated restrictions that kept the papers from historians until long after his own death. When they were made available to scholars, they proved to contain little information that was entirely new.

Scholarly examination of the extant documents changes the complexion of the developing myth. As studies become more specialized and detailed, the heroic figure gradually recedes into memory, still hallowed and honored but no longer a...

(The entire section is 1902 words.)