We don't outright invent history, but often it is made by the questions we ask. Few figures have provoked more questions than Abraham Lincoln, both because of his broad importance and his fantastic complexity. And few figures have proved so malleable.
At times, the bearded man in the stovepipe hat seems much like a hologram, a medium for our fears and fantasies. Recent claims that Lincoln was gay--based on a tortured misreading of conventional 19th century sleeping arrangements--resemble the long-standing efforts to draft the famously nonsectarian man for one Christian denomination or another. Over the years, he has been trotted out to support everything from communism and feminism to prohibitionism and vegetarianism. But if a figure can be made to stand for everything, does he really mean anything?
Today, as we march toward the 2009 bicentennial of Lincoln's birth and a trove of Lincoln scholarship has become instantly available on the Internet, primary material has become newly accessible, and there's a new drive to get him right. "We really are in a renaissance of Lincoln literature," notes Harold Holzer, a co-chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. "All of the classic works are being updated and improved upon. All the great themes that hitherto we thought had been dealt with definitively are being re-explored." In popular culture too, there is a Lincoln boom: in April a $150 million Lincoln library and museum complex opened in Springfield, Ill. Steven Spielberg has cast Liam Neeson to star in the first feature film on Lincoln since before World War II.
But after 140 years of manipulation, can Lincoln's memory ever again find its true shape?
Abraham Lincoln died shortly after 7 a.m. on April 15, 1865. "Now he belongs to the ages," Edwin Stanton, Lincoln's Secretary of War, said at the President's deathbed. It was a prescient thought, because it suggested not only the long cultural presence ahead for Lincoln but also the fact that generations would possess him.
From the start, his memory was molded to serve a purpose. When telegraph wires clicked with the news that Lincoln had been shot at Ford's Theatre, the nation was facing the monumental and confounding task of restoring peace after four years of broiling war. Lincoln had thought both North and South were complicit in the shame of slavery. He even suggested, in his second Inaugural Address, that God may have brought "this terrible war" to punish both regions, urging the nation to bind up its wounds "with malice towards none, with charity for all."
He wanted reconciliation, but his eulogists struck a different note. With a sentimental tip of the hat to the fallen leader, many Northern journalists, preachers and politicians actually tried to use Lincoln's death to stoke the fires of vengeance. "If the rebels can do a deed like this to the kind, good, generous, tender-hearted ruler, whose every thought was purity," exclaimed Benjamin Butler, a general in the war, to a crowd in New York City, "whose every desire a yearning for forgiveness and peace, what shall be done to them in high places who guided the assassin's knife?" The crowd began to chant, "Hang them! Hang them!" The assassination, Northern leaders saw, had a great political value. "His death," noted a caucus of Republican Congressmen, "is a godsend to our cause."