Happy Birthday, Mr. Lincoln

Today marks the 206th anniversary of the birth of President Abraham Lincoln, one those of providential events in America history, and it should be noted. The nation once celebrated the date with a national holiday, but the Great Emancipator was eventually downgraded to sharing a day with George Washington, the Father of Our Country, with the imprecise name of Presidents’ Day suggesting they might also share the honor with some of the lesser figures who have occupied the office, and the lack of attention paid is not only a show of national ingratitude but also indicative a dangerous lack of historical perspective.
Lincoln got some favorable publicity a couple of years ago when Steven Spielberg released a sympathetic bio-pic, which received mostly favorable reviews from conservative critics despite a screenplay by the liberal writer Tony Kushner, and a semi-scholarly history of his administration became a best-seller back when Barack Obama was first running for office and being touted as the new and improved version of Lincoln, but even all the hype attendant to a Spielberg release or an Obama campaign cannot elevate Lincoln to his deserved prominence. A friend swore to us that he had spoken with some young people at the local university about the Lincoln movie when it came out and was told that they liked most of us but were unpleasantly surprised at the end when the titular character was assassinated. Despite the daily reminders of his face on five dollar bills and pennies, and despite his name on cars and tunnels and logs and countless road signs, we suspect that by now most Americans are only slightly more familiar with the story of Lincoln.
There was another recent movie about Lincoln as a zombie hunter, but that probably didn’t fill in many gaps in the public knowledge, and the schools don’t seem to be doing much better. We suspect they’re probably too busy telling their empty-headed charges about Emma Goldman, Malcolm X, Christine Jorgensen, and similarly significant historical figures who are more useful to the narrative of an America exceptional only for its racism and sexism and homophobia muddling along toward the liberal future only because of protest movements and higher taxes and bureaucratic control. To the extent that Lincoln is taught, the lessons are likely to come from Richard Hofstadter’s widely published essay “Lincoln and the Self-Made Myth,” which found the Emancipation Proclamation insignificant and preferred to focus on the speeches Lincoln made to deal with the racist realities he confronted in mid-19th Century America and how they fell short of the standards of late-20th Century liberalism. Such Lincoln-bashing has become something of an academic cottage industry, and is also common in the entertainment industry. When not axing zombies Lincoln can also be found in a trendy art-house flick from a few years back called “Confederate States of America,” which imagines an alternative history in which the Confederacy won the Civil War, and takes the boringly uncontroversial view that things would have gone badly, but with an unmistakable sense of moral superiority it portrays Lincoln, whose visionary leadership was singularly responsible for preventing that historical calamity, as a racist, a rube, a tyrant, and a coward. To our dismay, we have found this is a fashionable opinion.
One must somehow dismiss Lincoln, of course, to sustain that broader narrative about America being unexceptional except in its sinfulness. That narrative must be sustained, of course, to justify America’s retreat from the world and its apologetic unwillingness to bring any of its values to bear on the rest of the world. When the current occupant of the White House tells a prayer breakfast gathering that America should not “get on a high horse” when Islamist terrorists behead or crucify or burn alive their captives because a Christian America once had slavery, it is inconvenient to recall the far more eloquent and explicitly theological words that Lincoln used in his Second Inaugural address to explain a bloody war that ultimately abolished slavery. Because Lincoln cannot be denied credit for preserving the Union of these States, those who decry that outcome because it has failed to meet early 21st Century standards of liberalism must denigrate the accomplishment.
None of these critics are nearly so wise as Walt Whitman, America’s greatest poet, nor did they have the experience of the full horror of Lincoln’s war that Whitman endured as an ambulance driver in the bloodiest battles of that conflict, and neither do they have Whitman’s true vision of America’s once and perhaps future greatness. We’ll let Walt have the final words on this anniversary of Lincoln’s birth:
“This dust was once the Man,
Gentle, plain, just and resolute — under whose cautious hand,
Against the foulest crime in history known in any land or age,
Was saved the Union of these States.”

— Bud Norman


One response

  1. Pingback: Happy Birthday, Mr. Lincoln | My BlogThe Philosopher's blog.

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