Abraham Lincoln arguably is the most recognized icon in American history and may very well be the individual about whom the most books have been writtensome fourteen thousand according to author Andrew Ferguson. While the discovery of new primary sources is increasingly rare, this has not prevented authors from attributing all forms of qualities to the man. Questions have addressed “weighty” issues such as whether Lincoln suffered from Marfan’s syndrome, contributing to his gangly appearance, whether he was really a friend to African Americans, given his mixed feelings toward emancipation at the start of the Civil War, and even whether Lincoln was gay, since he carried out the (common for the times) practice of sharing a bed with traveling companions. Lincoln, it would appear, is the modern equivalent of a square peg that can be fitted into any round hole.
In this reviewer’s opinion, only two recent books, each in its own way addressing the subject of Lincoln, bring a new perspective to the man. The first text, Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals (2005), explores presidential aspirant Lincoln’s political competitors and the ability of President Lincoln to utilize the strength from each in leading the country through America’s greatest crisis. In the other book, reviewed here, Land of Lincoln, Andrew Ferguson explores the modern Lincoln and the various ways in which the man serves as an icon for organizations as diverse as historical societies, business organizations, and even the restaurant owner with a statue of Lincoln on the counter, a businessman who brings new meaning to the phrase “our daily bread.”
Ferguson developed his interest by visiting historic sites associated with the sixteenth president. Ferguson had the additional impetus of growing up in small town in Illinois in a house not far from one in which Lincoln allegedly spent a night. Unfortunately, like many in his generation, the author lost his interest and idealism in the iconic Lincoln. The change emerged from a combination of effects: competition for his interestsfirst the Beatles and then women, and then the “shocking” discovery that Lincoln was not a god but a mere imperfect mortal. The change was a microcosm of the loss of idealism in the nation as a whole, and the result was the shift of Lincoln into a less prominent historical role in the minds of much of the population. Only in the viewpoints of Lincoln buffs and other historians did he retain an exalted position. Lincoln was not forgotten, but an understanding of the significance of his work and impact was beginning to recede in the public’s collective mind.
As the author describes it, his own personal reawakening began with a newspaper headline and story referring to the controversy that erupted in the capital of the former Confederacy in Richmond, Virginia, when a statue of Lincoln was to be unveiled in the city. Intrigued by the response of citizens generations removed from the Civil War, Ferguson traveled to Richmond to see for himself what inspired the controversy and to understand the depth of feeling among those on each side of the issue. The visit began a nationwide trek by the author in which he explored the varied ways in which Lincoln retains a significant place in the collective thoughts of the nation. Along the way, Ferguson integrates his observations and discoveries with a biography of Lincoln himself.
Not surprisingly, given the sites associated with Lincoln prior to his presidential years, the author spent much of his search in the Midwest: Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky. The title of the book, Land of Lincoln, originates with the slogan for the state that provided the only true home for the future president, and it is in Illinois that Ferguson developed his search in earnest. Springfield was the capital in Lincoln’s time, as it is today, and it was here that Lincoln and his law partner William Herndon began a law practice that eventually led to Lincoln’s political career. Herndon would contribute as much as anyone to the image of the mythical Lincoln, a Christ-like figure martyred for his country. More significant, from a historical standpoint, it was Herndon...
(The entire section is 1718 words.)