The lure of Lincoln
Published 11/01/2013 | 05:00
When Abraham Lincoln breathed his last on the morning of Easter Saturday 1865, at 7.22am, his friend, the war secretary Edwin M Stanton, stood before the roomful of mourners who had gathered in a vigil at his bedside and declared: "Now he belongs to the ages."
People tend to say these portentous kinds of things about departing US presidents, especially if they have just been assassinated, but in the case of "Honest" Abe Lincoln, those words turned out to be truly prophetic.
From the moment of his death, right up to the present day where Steven Spielberg's new film 'Lincoln' has packed out cinemas across America and looks likely to pick up a pile of awards, the 16th president of the United States has been lionised and loved like no other.
The sanctification of Lincoln's memory began almost immediately. That Easter Sunday in 1865, according to the Lincoln historian Jennifer L Weber, "preachers took to their pulpits and talked about Lincoln as the 'American Jesus'?". Writing 45 years later, Leo Tolstoy was still making comparisons almost as lofty, declaring that "The greatness of Napoleon, Caesar or Washington is only moonlight by the sun of Lincoln", and predicting that "his example is universal and will last thousands of years".
As Spielberg's film shows, the fascination with – or, more accurately, the deep-seated affection for – Lincoln among Americans has never dimmed. As a relatively recent arrival to the US, with primary school-age children in tow, it is striking to me that the Lincoln picture books far outnumber those on, say, Washington, Jefferson or FDR in my local library and in the children's school satchels. The love of Lincoln is implanted early in the DNA of every American schoolchild.
His achievements alone, while monumental – winning the Civil War, emancipating the slaves, building the transcontinental railroad – cannot explain it all.
America has what Frank J Williams – author of 14 books on Lincoln and founder of the Lincoln Forum, which meets every year in Gettysburg to discuss his legacy – describes as a "thirst" for the man. "When the film first came out last November, there were long lines to get in," he recalls. "People watched it very quiet and engaged. There was applause at the end of the movie. Not to use hyperbole, but Americans thirst for that kind of leadership, or the leadership we think he represents."
One obvious part of Lincoln's attraction is that his life story is also the American dream. The other great presidents – Washington, Jefferson, Madison, FDR or Teddy Roosevelt – were all born into privilege. Lincoln, by contrast, disparaged as a "rail-splitter" and a self-taught hick, was the original rags-to-riches story. "Here's a guy who grew up in a log cabin, with less than a year of formal education, yet he rose to the greatest heights of power that we have in this country and he did it entirely on his own merits," Prof Weber says. "He is the embodiment of the American dream."
He was also, like many great American politicians, blessed with the ability to "connect". As Mitt Romney discovered, Americans have an instinctive preference – think Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton – for men of the world. Lincoln resonates with Americans because his wisdom was forged through often-bitter real-world experience – he lost his mother at nine, and two of his children – and expressed in simple, homespun language.
Lincoln grew up reading Aesop's fables and went on to become a brilliant raconteur, honing his skills by entertaining judges and fellow lawyers in long evenings on the Illinois circuit. As Spielberg's film shows, he loved to tell a good story, a skill that didn't always win him plaudits at the time. When Lincoln won the Republican nomination for president, beating establishment favourites like William Seward, who would go on to be his Secretary of State, the commentariat of the day openly held their noses. The 'New York Herald' described him as "a fourth-rate lecturer who cannot speak good grammar", while 'The Times' sniffed that he was merely a "village lawyer".
This, of course, was the man who would go on to write the Gettysburg Address and a second inaugural speech that, more than 150 years later, are still the most quoted speeches in American politics. "He was our most eloquent president," reckons Dr Ronald White, the author of a host of Lincoln books, including the biography 'A Lincoln', "and that is another reason why he is so loved. It was a case of the humble being sent to show up the wise".
And there, perhaps, lies part of Lincoln's deeper attraction to contemporary America. He appeals because of his manifest honesty and integrity – virtues that seem in short supply at a time when politicians are popularly held to be a self-serving elite who, unlike Lincoln, seem to have forgotten who they are and where they come from.
An ability to "get things done" was another of Lincoln's virtues that seems to shine particularly brightly in 2013, when the US Congress has just completed the least productive legislative term in its history. Comparisons are often drawn between Lincoln and Obama, and not just because the current president is another Illinois politician with a talent for making speeches. When Obama talks about giving Americans a "fair shake", he is echoing Lincoln's own commitment to the idea that the glory of the American democratic experiment was that it promised every American "an unfettered start in life, and a fair chance, in the race of life".
But where the comparison falls apart, says Mr Williams of the Lincoln Forum, is that "Old Abe" knew how to make things happen. "Lincoln was not just about the words – the difference with Mr Obama is getting things done. Winning the war, saving the Union, freeing slaves, choosing the right generals like Grant and Sherman, pushing through the 1862 Pacific Railroad Act and the Homestead Act to encourage settlement in the West. Lincoln was an essentially effectual man."
That is another key part of Lincoln's attraction. He might be a revered figure – a Gandhi, a Mandela, a Martin Luther-King – but to truly appeal as an American hero, he also needs a rough touch as an antidote to all that saintly high-mindedness.
The same man who used his soaring second inaugural address to urge forgiveness and healing after four years of war – "With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds" – was also a hard-bitten political street fighter.
"Lincoln knew postmasters he had appointed, he knew everyone in the area, and even papers people subscribed to," says Dr Thomas F Schwartz, a former state historian for Illinois who set up the Lincoln Museum in Springfield and who was among a group of scholars consulted by Spielberg in 2006. "Postmasters controlled the delivery of mail, so if someone wanted to send out political mailing, a postmaster could sit on it. This was the stuff that occupied Lincoln on a daily basis.
"Lincoln came from Illinois, which was a world of bare-knuckled politics. His hands were greasy. President Obama had some experience in the political realm, but he doesn't have the breadth of that network that Lincoln enjoyed."
The Spielberg film – which focuses on the four months of Congressional wheeler-dealing required to ensure the passage of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery – revels in Lincoln's grittier side as he works the "machine", using somewhat dubious and underhand methods to achieve a higher purpose. If the film has a contemporary message, Dr Schwartz concludes, it is that, at times, ugly and difficult compromises are the real engine of progress.
And that is how Lincoln still lives and breathes in the American public's mind. Not as a saintly cipher, but as a figure whom Doris Kearns Goodwin describes in her book 'Team of Rivals' as a "plain and complex, shrewd and transparent, tender and iron-willed leader" whose qualities are not simply admired but sorely missed. (© Daily Telegraph, London)