On the 150th Anniversary of Lincoln’s Assassination

How Lincoln’s Image Came to Be

If there’s a political reality familiar to us all, it has to be the spin. In our multimedia world, it assaults you nearly every minute of each day. So it should come as no surprise to anybody that parsing (a word ready to be overworked by pundits of all stripes as the presidential election cycle picks up steam) is as old as politics, probably even predating the nation state. Spinners of a particular viewpoint will parse the words and life of a friend or foe, extract what pleases them or supports their cause or damns an opponent’s, then toss that forth as proof of sorts that their person or idea is saint or sinner.

Nothing new, as Lincoln’s Body and Lincoln’s Boys remind us on the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination (shot by Booth on April 14 and died the morning of April 15, 1865).

Those interested in the 16th President of the United States and the American Civil War will find both books worthy additions to the already vast library on the subjects.

Wightman Fox covers the perception of Lincoln at the time of his assassination and how our image of him changed through various periods of American history up to the present. Zeitz focuses on how Lincoln’s two secretaries actively worked to give us the image we have today of Lincoln.

Lincoln’s Body: A Cultural History

By Richard Wightman Fox

Wightman Fox delineates how Lincoln went from divisive leader, to a cult figure, to an emancipator, to an emancipator and reunionist, to a reunionist, all of this under the umbrella of cultishness, to being nearly set aside, and then once again raised up as an emancipator and a stalwart of the Union. It all boils down to who is doing the spinning and doing it to the biggest audience.

Wightman Fox divides his book into three parts. The first covers the assassination, its effect on the people immediately afterward, and the funeral (which the author later on shows influenced Jackie Kennedy and her preparations for President Kennedy’s funeral). Notable here is speculation on what Lincoln might have done to reconcile North and South, how the Radical Reconstructionists took the reins, the poignant gratitude and near worship of Lincoln by African-Americans, as well as some sensational creepiness, as those close to the Lincoln’s body copped memorabilia.

The second details the first memorials and some of the best known images we have of Lincoln. As interesting and maybe more important, it traces the ongoing ideological battle over the Civil War. Was it a war to free the slaves? Or, was it primarily fought to preserve the Union? Was Lincoln at heart a racist? Or, was he the everyman elevated to leader who sought justice for all, and to right the original sin of the Nation’s birth?

The third section carries the story from the centenary year of Lincoln’s birth up to current times with some revelatory analyses of Sandburg’s very popular Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years and The War Years (The War Years appeared years later), as well as several films from old Hollywood, followed by Gore Vidal’s bestseller Lincoln: A Novel, that the author portrays as a hatchet job on Lincoln’s republicanism. Also included is an insightful analysis of the much-praised Speilberg-Kushner-Day-Lewis Lincoln that resurrects Lincoln as an emancipator.

Lincoln’s Body is a noble chronicle of the evolution of Lincoln’s image in the American mind from the time of his death to the present. In addition, it once again illustrates how culture and those establishing its norms determine how we Americans view ourselves, our history, our historical figures, and, ultimately, our concept of ourselves as a people.

Includes 35 illustrations incorporated into the text and footnotes that serve also as the bibliography, as well as an index.

Lincoln’s Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln’s Image

By Joshua Zeitz

Zeitz demonstrates even more clearly how history itself gets shaped. His book is worthwhile as a history of the period, much of it concise and trenchant. His biographies of John Hay and John Nicolay are focused and comprehensive. But it’s the characterization of Lincoln, the Lincoln we know, or, as Zeitz puts it, the Lincoln Memorial Lincoln and the revisionist histories of the Civil War most readers will find enlightening.

In the first part of the book, Zeitz covers the early lives of Hay and Nicolay, the foundation of their individual character. Also here, he succinctly and clearly takes readers through the issues leading up to the election of 1860, in particular the various compromises that kept the lid on a boiling cauldron, as well as the machinations of the election process. The rabid partisanship before and after the war will disabuse readers of the notion there is anything singular about current American politics. Along the way, Zeitz offers a few keen observations that still ring true, among them this on postwar prosperity:

“Rarely did it occur to business and political elites that they had not prospered strictly by the rules of the free labor economy. Railroad companies profited heavily from government land grants and financial subsidies. The Timber Culture Act (1873) and the Desert Land Act (1877) gave away millions of acres of public land to those with the means to plant trees and irrigate arid allotments in the Southwest….At every turn, an activist state born of necessity to prosecute the Civil War found new and increasingly inventive ways to subsidize business concerns that had grown out of the same armed struggle. Many of the primary recipients of this public largesse remained oblivious to the role that the government played in making them wealthy.”

In the last third, Zeitz shows how Hay and Nicolay, with the support of Robert Lincoln, shaped the President Lincoln we know today, primarily in their serialized and widely read 10-volume biography, Abraham Lincoln: A History, and Nicolay’s condensed one-volume version, A Short Life of Abraham Lincoln: Condensed From Nicolay & Hay’s Abraham Lincoln: A History. Without them, we might have inherited a different Lincoln, one more shaped by William Herndon, Lincoln’s old Springfield law partner, and others, without the pair’s first-hand knowledge of Lincoln’s true character and witness-to-history status.

While successful in giving us the Lincoln we know today, Hay and Nicolay were less fruitful in preserving the historical perspective that the South rebelled, that a Civil War was fought, and that the central issue leading to conflict was slavery. Revisionism took over for a reason Zeitz explores, leaving us with concepts like The War Between the States, competing economic systems, states rights, brother against brother, and the like. (Wightman Fox also covers this ground, with his a bit more expansive.)

Finally, Zeitz does an excellent job of illustrating how Hay and Nicolay’s attitude on race evolved from when they were young men in pre-Civil War America to when they were older and wiser men. Anti-slavery didn’t mean racial equality to them, or Lincoln, or most any anti-slavery advocate. But over time, attitudes changed.

All in all, you’ll find it a superb and enlightening excursion into the most crucial period in the Republic’s history. Includes footnotes, bibliography, index, and a small collection of photos.

Finally, if you would like to once again listen to and read perhaps the greatest speech in American history, go to the “Gettysburg Address” at Wikisource. There you will find an audio version, as well as the various renditions of the address, all with somewhat different words and punctuation. In addition, you will find the text and report of the inauguration of the Gettysburg Cemetery that appeared in the Daily Illinois State Journal of the day. c/w

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