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 when 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.
There has, of late, been much plumbing the depths of why Americans feel such an emotional connection with him. 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 (of London) 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. “Today, as we look at the gridlock in Washington, we’re searching for someone with integrity, someone who can get something done,” says Dr White, when asked why Lincoln’s appeal so endures. “Someone who has a voice that we can listen to, and that’s why Lincoln is still so important today.”
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