Themes

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Last Updated on May 13, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 946

Death Lincoln’s life, as it is presented in this play, was ruled by his feelings about the deaths that he witnessed. Lincoln’s issues with death begin early, in the first scene, when Lincoln tells Mentor Graham that he thinks about death often ‘‘because it has always seemed to be close...

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Death
Lincoln’s life, as it is presented in this play, was ruled by his feelings about the deaths that he witnessed. Lincoln’s issues with death begin early, in the first scene, when Lincoln tells Mentor Graham that he thinks about death often ‘‘because it has always seemed to be close to me—as far back as I can remember.’’ He then describes helping build a coffin for his mother, who died when he was young, relating it to the men he saw in New Orleans who ‘‘had murder in their hearts.’’ The theme of death is continued with his loss of Ann Rutledge, the woman that he loved, who was socially and physically out of his league. Her death causes him to retreat from his political rise. He explains to Bowling and Nancy Green, ‘‘I couldn’t give any devotion to one who has the power of death, and uses it’’—a statement referring to prayer, but with implications to the responsibilities he will accept as president, sending troops off to war. Just as Ann’s death drives him away from political involvement, the death of his longtime friend Bowling Green makes him retreat from his planned marriage to Mary Todd. It is the near-death of young Jimmy Gale, though, that pulls him back into a sense of responsibility in both political and personal arenas. His prayer at the end of Scene 7 relates life to freedom and death to imprisonment and shows Lincoln shifting from despair to hope. Throughout the whole play, one element of death remains constant. His expectation of his own early death is present in the first scene, with his fear of the city, and is still present in the final scene, when, as Elizabeth points out, he always prefaces his plans with, ‘‘If I live . . .’’

Doubt and Ambiguity
Abe Lincoln in Illinois offers audiences a new way to look at Lincoln. Popular conception, based on his decisive actions during the Civil War, remember him as a man with a vision, who could see the necessity of fighting to preserve the Union no matter what the cost, and historical studies almost unanimously praise him for making the right choices. What Sherwood presents in this play, however, is a view of Lincoln as an uncertain man who in no way felt that he knew the right thing to do and who did what he could to avoid the responsibility of making decisions about the lives of others. From the moment when it is first suggested that he might run for political office, in Scene 2, he comes up with various excuses why the people would not want to vote for him, and why he himself is unfit for the position. His run for the presidency is just as clouded by doubt. ‘‘I’m afraid I can’t go quite that far in selfesteem,’’ he tells the committee that comes to offer him the nomination. In addition, he is never confi- dent in romance, humbly asking Ann Rutledge to consider him in spite of his faults, and later backing out on his marriage to Mary Todd on their wedding day because, as his letter puts it, their marriage ‘‘could only lead to endless pain and misery for them both.’’ In his notes, Sherwood points out that the real Lincoln did not seem so ambiguous, especially regarding his own political career; while the play presents him as someone who has to be dragged to action, he was actually a much more active participant in his own fate. For the sake of drama, this man, who is known all over the world as a fearless leader, is presented as growing into his fearlessness and confidence in his early, formative years.

War and Peace
Lincoln’s entire presidency was engulfed by the Civil War. Some Southern states split away from the country before he even took office. The war began when Southern troops fired on Fort Sumter, just over a month after he was inaugurated, and he was assassinated five days after the South surrendered. It is ironic that he is so closely associated with war, when Lincoln, as presented in this play, is a man who supported peace at almost any cost. Throughout much of the play, Lincoln opposes slavery, but he does not oppose it strongly enough to support open hostility over it. In Scene 4, he speaks with disgust about seeing slaves shackled together, but when he is asked to participate in a rally against slavery he dismisses the opponents of slavery as ‘‘a pack of hell-roaring fanatics.’’ He equates opposition to slavery with violence, and so he cannot condone it. He feels that the abolitionists who are fighting to abolish slavery are agitators who should be put in jail for disturbing the peace. ‘‘I am opposed to slavery,’’ he tells his friends. ‘‘But I’m even more opposed to going to war.’’

By the time of his debate against Stephen Douglas in Scene 9, he is more in favor of involvement. He opposes his own former policy, saying that the fundamental virtues of democracy are threatened by the institution of slavery: ‘‘I believe most seriously that the perpetuation of those virtues is now endangered, not only by the honest proponents of slavery, but even more by those who echo Judge Douglas in shouting, ‘Leave it alone!’’’ On election night, Billy Herndon points out two facts that are evident to everybody: Lincoln will go to war against any states that try to secede, and that they will secede upon his election. Horrible as the prospect of war is, he has come, throughout the course of the play, to accept it as the only right thing to do.

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