Abraham Lincoln and the Self-Made Myth Themes
by Richard Hofstadter

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Abraham Lincoln and the Self-Made Myth Themes

Lincoln’s Virtuous Legacy

Throughout his essay “Abraham Lincoln and the Self-Made Myth,” Richard Hofstadter refers to those qualities of Abraham Lincoln’s personality that defined him as a man of remarkable integrity. In addition to his political wit and steadfast antipathy towards slavery, Lincoln’s virtuous character was perhaps one of the most defining aspects of his time as a politician and a president. Hofstadter mentions this virtue in a number of different contexts, but in all of them the reader gets the sense that it was this inner goodness that solidified the “self-made myth” that would sustain Lincoln’s legacy for decades to come.

Lincoln was born of humble origins, and this has often been evoked to express how remarkable his political achievements truly were. As Hofstadter says, “It was precisely in his attainments as a common man that Lincoln felt himself to be remarkable, and in this light that he interpreted to the world the significance of his career.” Lincoln’s image of himself “placed him with the poor, the aged, and the forgotten.” He consistently demonstrated humility, modesty, and forgiveness in his dealings with other people, and he was beloved because of it. Furthermore, he was stricken with a severe, noble, and some might say self-defeating sense of guilt over the devastation, both human and material, the war had caused for Southern families. Lincoln never intended for his political decisions to lead to so much violence, and, despite the magnanimous outcome of his devotion to abolitionism for a free American society, Hofstadter maintains that he in fact felt quite defeated after the whole affair was over. Again:

This would go far to explain the desperation with which he issued pardons and the charity that he wanted to extend to the conquered South at the war’s close… Lincoln’s utter lack of personal malice during these years, his humane detachment, his tragic sense of life, have no parallel in political history.

In the context of the Lincoln myth, it was precisely this self-flagellating, remorseful attitude that secured the president as one of the most revered leaders in history.


Lincoln’s Political Sagacity

Hofstadter remarks that Lincoln was able to rise from a position of almost complete political obscurity at the age of twenty-four to become the leader of the Whig party in the Illinois House of Representative entirely because of his political precocity. Lincoln admired the political acumen of Whig politicians like Henry Clay, and especially revered Thomas Jefferson, whose love of American democracy inspired Lincoln’s own ideas. The country, according to Lincoln, needed three things: a strong national bank, federally-funded improvements to infrastructure, and a conservative economy, and he would be the figure to bring about these changes.

A large part of Lincoln’s strong political presence was his skill as an orator, and Hofstadter argues that Lincoln was born for the platform. For example, in his debates with Democratic party member Stephen A. Douglas, Lincoln claimed that Douglas, who had earlier worked with the Supreme Court to hand down the Dred Scott decision, was engaged in a “conspiracy… for the sole purpose of nationalizing slavery.” Such invective devastated Douglas’s credibility as a reliable politician or even an honest man.

Lincoln was especially adroit at penetrating the logic of pro-slavery arguments. As Hofstadter remarks,

The essence of his position was that the principle of exclusion has no inner check; that arbitrarily barring one minority from the exercise of its rights can be both a precedent and a moral sanction for barring another, and it creates a frame of mind from which no one can expect justice or security.

There was no political speaker of his day who could out-debate Lincoln on the issue of slavery. The Illinois representative had read and was intimately familiar with the democratic authors like Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas...

(The entire section is 1,055 words.)