In the elementary schools of the American Midwest, Abraham Lincoln has always enjoyed a good press. Schoolchildren in northern Indiana, I can attest, marked Lincoln’s birthday by drawing crayon portraits of the president while listening to inspirational stories about his life. In middle school we read a long story that extolled Lincoln’s Hoosier roots and portrayed him as a studious, rail-thin young man who could readily flatten any bully who gave him grief. But Honest Abe, we learned, earned that name because he was always fair, good-humored, and kind. And, as president, Abraham Lincoln did one incomparably grand and noble thing: He freed the slaves.
Growing up near Chicago, Andrew Ferguson also learned to revere the Great Emancipator. As a kid he looked forward to family car trips to Springfield, the state capitol, where Lincoln’s house and tomb have long been maintained as popular tourist cites. Ferguson always cleared his schedule¯"not hard to do when you’re ten"¯whenever such films as Young Mr. Lincoln turned up on TV; his favorite book was a collection of photographs called Lincoln in Every Known Pose . Ferguson even hung pictures of Old Abe on his bedroom’s walls. "I was," he admits, "a buff."
But, like most Americans who went to college during or after the 1970s, Ferguson found that the book of American history was under radical revision, and even Lincoln was losing his heroic glow. One of Ferguson’s college friends informed him that Lincoln’s reputation as a foe of slavery was "a load of crap"; that the Emancipation Proclamation was a "cynical, empty act"; that Lincoln’s real desire was to "ship the slaves back to Africa." Lincoln, in sum, wasn’t an indisputably great man: He was just the Man¯another racist white guy obsessed with crushing his rivals and feathering his nest.
In Land of Lincoln ¯a smart and lively mix of popular history and reportage¯Andrew Ferguson looks afresh at Lincoln’s contemporary reputation, and he is struck by the multitude of forms it takes. Probably for most Americans, Lincoln remains an unmatched symbol of liberty and equality¯the political giant memorialized by Daniel Chester French’s great sculpture in Washington, D.C. But Lincoln is also a boon for scholars, a deity for collectors, a target for dissenters, and a magnet for cranks. "We can’t shake him," Ferguson writes; his presence is "undeniable" throughout the land.
Ferguson begins his search for Lincoln in Richmond, Virginia, where¯in 2003¯a great controversy surrounded the installation, in a local plaza, of a statue of the sixteenth president of the United States. Lincoln, of course, had visited Richmond in 1865, just a month after delivering his Second Inaugural Address with its call for "charity for all" and "malice toward none." This privately funded statue was meant to strike a similar note of reconciliation, offering not a triumphant commander-in-chief but a strangely "diminutive" figure seated on a bench beside one of his young sons. The boy, Ferguson writes, looks up expectantly at his father, who has "a faraway look in his eyes." The effect "is supposed to be contemplative, but really it looks as if the son has caught dad puzzling through a senior moment."
Still, even a paternal and unpresuming Lincoln didn’t appease the statute’s critics, some of whom appeared at its unveiling singing "Dixie" and waving placards that read "Jefferson Davis Was Our President" and "No Honor for War Criminals." Ferguson describes meeting the protest’s leader, a rhapsodist of the Old Confederacy, who believes Lincoln "invented the concept of Total War" in order to advance the interests of Big Business and Big Government and smash "a Southern culture of farms and small towns that only asked to be left alone."
Ferguson finds that turning Lincoln into a monster is almost as common as making him a saint; in Richmond he also attends a conference of academics and amateur historians who "really really hate Abraham Lincoln," and for whom the Civil War still rages, rhetorically, on. Most of these "Abephobes" are libertarians and neo-Confederates who blame Lincoln for a host of modern ills; some, it seems, also idealized Lincoln as youths and became permanently disillusioned after learning that he was not wholly above the usual run of human flaws. The "real Lincoln," they insist, was a rich railroad lawyer far less interested in the abstractions of the Constitution than the "Whig economic program of the early nineteenth century." Slavery did not interest him, but pleasing Northern profiteers did. Ferguson listens as one speaker portrays Lincoln as a syphilitic, money-grubbing Philistine who spoiled his children and slighted his wife. He had both a "messiah complex" and a fondness for dirty jokes. And those were his good points.
This, then, is the demonized Abe. There’s a commoditized Abe, too, as Ferguson discovers¯the historical superstar whose name gleams among the buyers and sellers of Americana. Ferguson meets the nation’s top Lincoln collector, a California woman whose massive inventory of rare and valuable Lincoln memorabilia includes a pair of Mary Todd Lincoln’s underpants and the chamber pot that served Lincoln during his White House years. Legions of less affluent collectors, Ferguson finds, gather up Lincoln stamps, playing cards, ashtrays, or even matchbook covers from "the Lincoln Life Insurance Company circa 1950, which you can buy, according to the book Collecting Lincoln , for a mere six dollars. If that’s your thing." Odder still are forged Lincoln signatures-¯"fakes, acknowledged and advertised as such, yet still somehow carrying (in the eyes of the willing collector) an ion of the original radiance." Phony Lincoln letters have value if they are traced to one of several star forgers from the early twentieth century; these, in fact, fetch thousands of dollars. Asks Ferguson: "Has the mojo of celebrity ever extended so far?"
Lincoln’s celebrity has always been good for museums; Ferguson fondly recalls visiting the Chicago Historical Society, when that "solid and stately" building displayed various items associated with Lincoln’s personal life¯his house slippers, eyeglasses, and shawl. In those days, the CHS also offered a re-creation of the room where Lincoln died. Here, visitors might ponder his murder and legacy in a somber atmosphere where hymns quietly played. But, as Ferguson notes, such exhibits are considered too kitschy and too dull by the standards of today’s leading historical museums, including the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois. The ALPLM, as it is known, exemplifies the notion that museums are a branch of show business; that history must be made colorful, relevant, and "fun"; that learning about Lincoln should be like going to see Pirates of the Caribbean .
Ferguson is a widely published journalist well-known for sharp analyses of cultural and political trends; his description of Springfield’s Lincoln museum makes for particularly humorous, if discomfiting, reading. The ALPLM was designed in full awareness of the fact that "today’s audiences" have been "weaned on TV and sozzled by video games" and left "subverbal." It aims to delight seventh graders and all who share similarly adolescent expectations and tastes. The result is a slick panorama of polymer-blend, Disney-like figures enacting scenes from Lincoln’s life; in one, Frederick Douglass appears, looking "just like Powhatan, Pocahontas’ father." A high-tech video introduces the spectacle, its narrative punctuated by many multimedia effects: at one point, a cool breeze drifts through the theatre, and the seats bounce a bit when the film notes the time young Abe was kicked by a mule.
The museum, projected as a boon to Springfield’s sagging economy, has earned good reviews; Ferguson quotes one satisfied customer¯a nine-year-old¯who proclaims "It’s great! So much fun! I didn’t have to read anything!" But Ferguson suggests that the museum ends up sending the message that Lincoln "is interesting because a lot of people over the past 150 years have been interested in him." In other words, "he’s reached the zenith of American celebrity. He’s famous for being famous."
Lincoln’s own writings are widely available, in both scholarly and popular editions; they of course prove for the ages that the most skilled American politician of his century was also a master of English prose. But in his writings and speeches, Lincoln is very much a public figure, and¯even in his letters¯he tends to remain cordially aloof. Lincoln was sociable, but private; he was not an effusive man. His friend, law partner, and biographer Thomas Herndon believed that Lincoln had "never poured out his soul to any mortal creature at anytime and on no subject.” He was, Herndon wrote, "the greatest man ever to walk the earth," and also "the most secretive¯reticent¯shut-mouthed man that ever existed."
Lincoln, then, left a blank slate that scores of historians, biographers, and polemicists have been eager to fill. Over the years, Lincoln has been portrayed as both a "bookish don" and a "horny-handed son of toil"; he’s been claimed by liberals and conservatives, integrationists and white supremacists, Unitarians and atheists. At least one writer has described Lincoln as a "proto-Bolshevik," and another believes that he "had been reincarnated as Charles Lindbergh." Lincoln knew the Bible well, and often evoked God in his speeches, but his religious views have always been a particularly keen topic for debate. Another early biographer, Josiah Holland, stressed Lincoln’s Christian roots and, according to Ferguson, wound up portraying him as a "prairie St. Francis." For Thomas Herndon, however, Lincoln was "a skeptic, perhaps even an infidel," very much like Herndon himself.
Writers thus tend to find the Lincoln they seek, and the one they seek is most like themselves. Ferguson points, for example, to the phenomenon of business educators portraying Lincoln as a managerial guru in his own right¯a trend that Dale Carnegie began back in the 1930s. Like Lincoln, Carnegie had escaped life with an "oafish, ill-educated" father; he earned success as a traveling salesman before turning himself into a homespun philosopher and bestselling author. Lincoln was, for Carnegie, a model of managerial success: He learned from life How to Win Friends and Influence People. Fair enough, notes Ferguson, but Lincoln was also badly disorganized and far from financially shrewd. He could not run a general store, or an office, and he stored his most important correspondence in his hat¯not, as Ferguson notes, one of the Seven Habits of Highly Successful People.
And yet, Carnegie’s earnest enthusiasm is understandable, for Lincoln does exemplify the ideal of American possibility. He was born without prospects in a poor and wholly undistinguished family. He schooled himself, seized his opportunities, and achieved power and fame while also retaining many admirable and observable virtues. The Old Rail Splitter was, in many ways, a man of natural grace whose words and actions show¯as Lord Charnwood noted in his excellent 1916 biography¯a "most unusual sense of the possible dignity of common men and common things."
And, as the popularity of his Memorial in the nation’s capitol makes clear, Lincoln’s greatest accomplishment remains crucially important for many millions of people, Americans and non-Americans alike. Whatever his failings and vanities, Lincoln, as Ferguson writes in his final chapter, preserved not just "the Union" but a nation daringly pledged to the highest governmental ideals. If Lincoln had failed, writes Ferguson, "the founders would have lost their bet that ordinary people could govern themselves, and the principle they were betting on¯that all men were created equal¯would have slipped into darkness, and no one can say when it might have been revived."
In the nineteenth century, Abraham Lincoln did more than any other American to define the United States; and Americans, in turn, have been defining Lincoln ever since. The results¯as Andrew Ferguson demonstrates in this engaging book¯have been magnificent, comic, worshipful, moving, and absurd. Lincoln is surely "the most celebrated and most graphically depicted man in American history," and Ferguson shows us why. But he is also one of the most elusive¯a major reason for his continuing appeal.
Brian Murray’s new critical guide to Charles Dickens is forthcoming from Continuum.