Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The theme of Vidal’s novel is the theme of Lincoln’s life. The president makes clear, in one of his few truly frank statements, that it has been the objective of his life to hold the highest political office. A man of fierce, undeviating ambition, Lincoln could only hold on to the presidency by holding on to the nation. As Hay puts it at the end of the novel:1>The Southern states had every Constitutional right to go out of the Union. But Lincoln said, no. Lincoln said, this Union can never be broken. Now that was a terrible responsibility for one man to take. But he took it, knowing he would be obliged to fight the greatest war in human history, which he did, and which he won1.5>It is the political and the human example which Lincoln set that prompts Hay to say that Lincoln remade the country “in his own image.” It is against this sense of “terrible responsibility” that all other presidents since Lincoln have been measured. There was much that Lincoln could not do, much that he was not competent to do, but he never wavered in his pursuit of unification and never compromised on this one principle5.

After nearly three years of Lincoln’s administration, William Seward, one of the president’s chief doubters, is forced to recognize that he has been manipulated by a “political genius,” one who has played the “joking, timid backwoods lawyer, given to fits of humility in the presence of all the strutting military and political peacocks that flocked about him,” only to conceal his single-minded role of “Lord Protector of the Union by whose will alone the war had been prosecuted.” Lincoln’s assassination at the end of the war, when the Southern cause was truly hopeless, was not simply the last gasp of rebellion, Vidal insists, but a recognition of how powerful he had become as a political force. He had, indeed, presided over the “bloody and absolute” rebirth of his nation, as Hay says at the end of the novel—a rebirth, he speculates, which required Lincoln’s own death “as a form of atonement for the great and terrible thing that he had done.”