Almost 150 years after his death, Abraham Lincoln lies at rest inside a crypt within a memorial befitting a man considered among the most eminent leaders in world history.
Yet, he is hardly resting in peace.
Though a consensus formed long ago that the 16th president is among our greatest for his leadership in liberating African-American slaves and saving the Union, Lincoln’s legacy has remained alive through the generations in words — including his own (Gettysburg Address) and those of Walt Whitman, Carl Sandburg and Doris Kearns Goodwin, among many, many others — as well as memorial structures and stagecraft and film.
He has been among the most celebrated of characters in American history, whose deeds, says author Richard Wightman Fox, have been at times twisted as a means to effect political and public-policy ends.
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“We feel that there was more promise in him when he died than when he was born,” said future president Woodrow Wilson, then president of Princeton University, at a ceremony marking Lincoln’s 100th birthday in 1909. “That the force was so far from being exhausted that it had only begun to display itself in its splendor and perfection.”
Lincoln is the preeminent symbol of America and its body politic, a commoner whose homely physical makeup was a blend of ordinariness just like the people of America. Yet, the sum of all his commonness created a unique genius of leadership.
It is the subject of Fox’s cultural history, Lincoln’s Body, a unique perspective of the slain president published in time for the 150th anniversary of his assassination by John Wilkes Booth and his 206th birthday.
Fox, a professor and prodigious author of history at the University of Southern California, has turned out an exhaustively researched piece that academics and leisure readers alike can appreciate.
“Not a singular man,” Wilson said, “a very normal man, but normal in gigantic proportions — the whole character of him is on a great scale — and yet so delightfully informal in the way it was put together. That great, loose-jointed, angular frame that Mr. Lincoln inhabited was a very fine symbol of the big, loose-jointed, genial, angular nature that was inside.”
Even in crisis, Lincoln preserved his aloofness (much like the speaker himself), which was crucial to leadership. Always set your faith, Wilson continued, in a man who can “withdraw himself, because only the man who can withdraw himself can see the stage.”
Wilson and his audience were part of a group of Lincoln admirers that formed the night of April 14 and into the next morning as a crowd waited outside the Petersen House for word on the president’s health.
Many were recently freed black Americans, who, like Union sympathizers, saw Lincoln as a Christlike figure, a martyr who in exchange for ensuring the liberty of a people and saving the union gave his life — “Lincoln’s body as a voluntarily surrendered gift” — on Good Friday of 1865.
Even to many in the defeated South, he instantly became the gentle conqueror willing to forgive and forge ahead to form a united nation, as opposed to the wretched Reconstruction advocated by the Radical Republicans in Congress.
On the other hand, some of those Radical Republicans also believed Lincoln’s death was supreme intervention, the omniscient divine realizing that the president’s plan of conciliation was the wrong path for traitors who deserved punishment.
Fox creates a timeline of Lincoln memorials, illustrating that as time progressed, Lincoln’s legacy blurred, even as he was just about everywhere in American life, from schoolhouse to Hollywood to Disneyland. Many of those tributes, though, told only part of his story, in many cases ignoring Lincoln as an emancipator and emphasizing his work as a national unifier. (Activists even borrowed Lincoln in the fight against fascism in the 1930s.)
Ignoring Lincoln’s role in emancipation, of course, was an injustice for many black Americans.
But as the spiritual face of his country, Lincoln reappears as the emancipator during the most critical parts of civil rights movements in the mid-20th century.
Years after Marian Anderson’s dramatic rendition of My Country, ’Tis of Thee in front of the Lincoln Memorial — after she had been barred from performing at Constitution Hall and a segregated high school — Martin Luther King Jr. returned to the site twice, in 1957 and 1963, for the “Dream” speech.
With the fatherly figure of Lincoln overlooking the scene in 1957, MLK told his audience, in a Lincoln-esque speech, that “our aim must never be to defeat or humiliate the white man. I’m talking about a type of love which will cause you to love the person who does the evil deed while hating the deed.”
Moreover, Lincoln was Lyndon Johnson’s moral authority in taking on segregation in the South when he announced, only days after JFK’s death that, “after 100 years of talking” about Lincoln’s cause, the time had come to enact the “dream of equal rights for all Americans.”
Though King eventually turned away from the politics of Lincoln, his “Dream” speech surely was inspired by the former president.
As a young girl wrote in an essay contest entry brought to light decades later by Fox, Lincoln proved that character could prevail “when a person lacked the advantages of wealth, education or personal attractiveness.”
“Lincoln is one of the homeliest faces in the American portrait gallery,” the little girl wrote in the 1920s, yet “all children could take him as just like them and get busy, as he had done, developing their inner mettle.”
That’s the type of symbolic shadow, as Fox attests, and a heritage that we all continue to stand by — and rightly so.
Lincoln’s Body: A Cultural History
by Richard Wightman Fox
W.W. Norton & Co., $28.95
Audiobook: HighBridge Co., $39.99; read by author and narrator Pete Larkin.
More on Lincoln
▪ Lincoln’s Greatest Case: The River, the Bridge, and the Making of America by Brian McGinty (Liveright, $26.95) — The lawyer and Lincoln scholar (2008’s Lincoln and the Court) re-creates the sensational 1857 trial that put the future president’s legal skills to the test. It involved the steamboat Effie Afton, its crash into a bridge on the Mississippi River between Illinois and Iowa, and the subsequent trial that pitted commerce by water against railroads. Or St. Louis versus Chicago, duking it out for the transportation future of the country. Out now.
▪ Lincoln’s Bodyguard: In a Heroic Act of Bravery Saves Our Beloved President! John Wilkes Booth Killed in Act of Treason by T.J. Turner (Oceanview Publishing, $26.95) — In his debut novel, the historian presents a what-if scenario in which President Lincoln is saved from assassination by his bodyguard, Joseph Foster. This revisionist historical fiction navigates post-Civil War America through the eyes of Joseph, who becomes an enemy of the South by thwarting and killing John Wilkes Booth. Out April 7.
— Celeste Williams