Abraham Lincoln and the Self-Made Myth

by Richard Hofstadter

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Last Updated on February 1, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 734

Richard Hofstadter’s essay “Abraham Lincoln and the Self-Made Myth” was published as the fifth chapter of his book, The American Political Tradition, in 1948. This essay is the best-known section of the book and is often taught and anthologized as a discrete text.

Hofstadter begins by noting that Abraham Lincoln and his legend have a unique hold on the American imagination. Lincoln is often seen as a Christ-like figure, a paragon of virtue destroyed at the peak of his success. Part of the Lincoln mythology has always been his image as a common man, one of humble origins who achieved dazzling success without losing his humanity or relatability. The simplicity was genuine, but Lincoln was not unaware of it or the effect that it created. Hofstadter points out that one of the most striking aspects of Lincoln’s life is how early and how completely he devoted himself to politics, making political speeches on the stump from the age of fifteen. He first ran for office when he was twenty-three, and for practically all his life was “busy either as officeholder or office-seeker.” He was a politically orthodox Whig, rather than the maverick he is sometimes imagined to be. He was always calculating and planning his career.

Although Lincoln was from a humble background, Hofstadter points out that “Lincoln belonged to the party of rank and privilege.” His rise through the political ranks was relatively easy, facilitated as it was by wealthy, powerful friends and backers. Many of his instincts were broadly conservative and he was critical of those radical abolitionists who were prepared to break the law in order to end slavery. Lincoln was “moderately hostile” to slavery but it did not attack it openly until after the Kansas-Nebraska Act, and anecdotes about his youthful vows to hit slavery “and hit it hard” are difficult to pin down. Hofstadter puts some emphasis on the fact that:

On October 4, 1854, at the age of forty-five, Lincoln for the first time in his life denounced slavery in public. [Author’s italics.]

Lincoln’s principal concern at this stage was to stop the spread of slavery to the North. Although he was against this expansion on principle, believing slavery to be endemically wrong, it was also a politically expedient position. The anti-expansion position had much more widespread support among Northern Republicans than straightforward abolitionism, since the latter would have damaged them economically. In his speeches at this point in his career and in his debates with Douglas, Lincoln continually relied on the dangers of extending slavery to the North, as a safe way to oppose the institution. The Republicans at this time began to accuse the Democrats of wanting to extend slavery to white people in the North, a very effective way of concentrating the minds of white working class voters against the institution of slavery in general. This type of rhetorical attack, rather than a straightforward denunciation of the evils of slavery, was Lincoln’s favored approach in his speeches.

By the time Lincoln became president in 1861, the great issue of the day was no longer slavery but the maintenance of the Union itself. Lincoln did not want war with the South, but accepted it as necessary to maintain the Union. Hofstadter concurs with Douglas, who said that Lincoln was not a weak man but he was “preeminently a man of the atmosphere that surrounds him.” Lincoln seems to have agreed with this assessment, saying that he had not controlled events; rather, events had controlled him. The emancipation of the slaves, therefore, while it accorded with Lincoln’s general philosophy, was a pragmatic exercise rather than a principled one. It became clear that the slaves would have to be freed if the Union was to be saved, and saving the Union was, as always, Lincoln’s primary concern. It was only reluctantly that he signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

Hofstadter ends the essay by portraying Lincoln as a lonely and perhaps rather disappointed figure, “shaken by the presidency.” The restless ambition which propelled him to the White House was largely exhausted by the time he arrived, and he seems to have wondered whether the struggle to get there was worth it. Lincoln was the epitome of the American success story, but his final “deathly weariness” proves that the story is a false myth:

He had had his ambitions and fulfilled them, and met heartache in his triumph.

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