Will the Real Abe Lincoln Please Stand Up?
Rev. Jeffrey Symynkywicz, February 9, 2003
“There is no new thing to be said of Lincoln,” the American writer Homer Hoch wrote years after the sixteenth President’s death. “There is no new thing” that could be said of someone this immortal, this constant, this true, Hoch said—and he likened Lincoln to the mountains, the clouds, and the sea.
Less lyrical writers seem almost as effusive when it comes to Lincoln. A leading contemporary historian, Henry V. Jaffa, in his recent study of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, A New Birth of Freedom (which is, indeed, a 550-page analysis of a 272-word speech) calls Lincoln “the greatest enemy of tyranny the world has ever known”. “Never, perhaps, since the drama that began in Bethlehem,” Jaffa exudes, “has someone risen from so low an estate to play so high a role in deciding the fate of mankind.” Lincoln exhibits “an intellect unsurpassed in any public forum”. To Jaffa, Lincoln is “the greatest of all exemplars of… statesmanship”… “the greatest master of political speech the world has ever seen”. Dr. Jaffa, no doubt, writes with all the subtlety of a p.r. man for the government of North Korea!
Compare Jaffa’s words with those written in Harper’s Magazine about Lincoln in his own day:
Lincoln was “Nothing more than a well meaning baboon,” said General George McClellan, who was one of Lincoln’s commanders (and who would run against Lincoln for the Presidency in 1864—an election whose result was in doubt until the very end). Lincoln is “An offensive exhibition of boorishness and vulgarity,” McClellan added, in words that could easily have been applied to himself.
And even the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher of Boston (father of Harriet Beecher Stowe), and in many ways a Lincoln supporter, gave this estimation of the President:
Then there is the question of Lincoln’s religion (or lack thereof). Was he a believer, or wasn’t he? A Christian or not? Indeed, he was a devoute Christian, said Rev. Dr. Phineas Gurley, pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington to which Mary Todd Lincoln belonged, and which the President attended, occasionally. He had a great conversion experience at Gettysburg, and was going to make a public profession of his faith on Easter Sunday, 1865—had he not been assassinated on April 15, 1865-- which was Good Friday.
If Gurley’s assertions are correct (and they are the subject of great debate in circles which debate such things), then Lincoln’s conversion to devout Christianity was very late, indeed—and in marked contrast to his religious persuasions through most of his life. According to Will Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner in Springfield and perhaps his closets personal friend, Lincoln rejected dogmatic Christianity throughout his life, and described his own religious persuasions as “liberal”. This, of course, led both Unitarians and Universalists to claim Lincoln as one of our own, at least in spirit (the fact that “he never joined a church” also led some UUs to assume that that meant, naturally, that he belonged to us). But it should also be said that Lincoln did have great admiration for the works of the outstanding Boston Unitarian minister, Theodore Parker (from whom Lincoln “borrowed” the phrase “government of the people, by the people, and for the people”, which Parker had uttered as early as 1850).
Over the years, Lincoln has also been claimed as well by the Baptists. Lincoln’s parents belonged to a church called the Hardboiled Baptist Church (I kid you not; that was its actual name) on the frontier in Indiana, and he had the precepts of Calvinism bred into him from an early age. He always said that when he was ever tempted to do something he ought not to, he would hear his mother’s voice intoning: “I am the Lord Your God, and you shall keep My Commandments: ‘Thou shalt not steal…. thou shalt not kill….’ and so on, down through all ten.). He has also been claimed, at various times, by the Methodists, the Disciples of Christ, the Presbyterians—as well as by various groups of Humanists, Free Thinkers, agnostics, and even atheists.
I think the best description of Lincoln’s temperament (if not his religion necessarily) was by Carl Sandburg, who said that Lincoln had “New Testament patience and Old Testament stubbornness”. What more do we need to know of a man’s religious outlook than that?
Everybody wants a piece of Lincoln, it seems. Leading gay rights activist Larry Kramer caused a stir a couple of years back when he made the assertion that Lincoln himself was a homosexual (or at least bisexual), and that he had “evidence” to prove it (as though most of us would care). When Pulitzer Prize-winner David Herbert Donald toured the country promoting his latest biography of Lincoln, the first question audiences asked was, invariably, "Was Lincoln gay?" One elderly radio listener phoned a call-in program to assert that she had read, somewhere, that Lincoln was black. "She thought she knew this," Donald recalls. She was convinced it was true.
Not to be outdone, perhaps, no less an authoritative source than the Weekly World News came out with an issue under a banner headline reading “Abraham Lincoln Was A Woman!”. Thanks to "maverick historian Jessica Durbeen," the article inside reads, we now know that Honest Abe was born Abigail Lincoln, and that he (or she) was a victim of Marfan's syndrome, a genetic disorder that can cause disproportionate growth. (That’s why he—or she—was so tall.) As a young girl, Abigail decided to dress as a man to work as a rail splitter and, thanks to some Log Cabin luck, found a male transvestite to marry, by whom she gave birth to six children while, possibly-- and here Durbeen can go no further than the “evidence” allows--carrying on a torrid affair with John Wilkes Booth. That was the “real” reason Lincoln was assassinated, according to Durbeen. (One may well ask: with a life that exciting, why bother becoming President?)
Seriously, though, Lincoln is a very difficult figure to nail down historically. Everybody looks at him, and sees what he or she most wants to see—those traits of character, those civic and private virtues, those aspects of religion and soul—which one either celebrates most in oneself, or feels missing most from oneself.
Part of the reason for this may well be that, almost from the very moment of his death, Lincoln’s life ascended out of the plains of history and into the rarified heights of myth. At almost the very moment of his final breath, his Secretary of War, Stanton, uttered the famous words: “Now he belongs to the ages,” and from that point on, objective historiography became replaced by hagiography. The President who had barely been re-elected the year before became transformed into an American saint-- indeed, perhaps the American saint—or second only to Washington himself, certainly. As cultural historian Tony Rotundo observes, "In the American pantheon, Lincoln plays Christ to Washington's God." Washington is austere, remote, and untouchable. Lincoln, because he suffered (from depression, a bad marriage, a violent death) is vulnerable, and more recognizably human.
And it is in that “recognizable humanness”, in my opinion, that the real Abe Lincoln stands.
“Lincoln was not a type,” said the nineteenth century American philosopher Robert Ingersoll. “He stands alone—no ancestors, no fellows, no successors.”
Certainly, Lincoln is as unique as any of us. He, like each of us, is the product of a particular lineage, a particular history, a particular synthesis of nature and nurture. But still, even we much less impressive men and women can hear echoes of our own stories in his.
He was a man of no small ambition, who, from an early age, felt himself destined for something more—something greater than the life of a frontier farmer or store clerk, or ever lawyer. Immediately after his election to the Presidency in 1860, he told his friend Herndon: “You know better than any man living, Willie, that from my boyhood my ambition was to be President.”
But as Larry Jordan has written, Lincoln, from birth onward, seemed likely to wind up an “also ran” in the race toward mere prosperity, let along greatness. He was born poor and had little formal schooling. He failed in business as a storekeeper. He was unlucky in love, and when he finally found Ann Rutledge, to whom he wanted to dedicate his life, she died. The first woman he proposed to turned him down. His subsequent marriage to Mary Todd proved a stormy one. She may have married him as much to spite her family as for any deep affection she felt toward him.
In politics, his record at first seemed no better: He lost more elections than he won. He ran the first time for a seat in the Illinois legislature in 1832, a race he seemed destined to lose. Just before the election, he wrote: “If the food people in their wisdom shall see fit to keep me in the background, I have been too familiar with disappointment to be much chagrined.” Lose the election he did.
When his business failed, and he was saddled with a sizeable debt, he became a village postmaster. “Had he succumbed to his tendency to melancholy and self-doubt,” Jordan writes, “young Abe might well have disappeared into the mists of history, just another obscure frontier failure.”
But he persisted, one day at a time, one step in front of the other. He found some old law books that had been discarded in a trash bin and he began to read. He took up the study of law and grammar. He began to read Shakespeare. Slowly, his spirits rose and so did his prospects…
He was a man of great sadness and great humor, Sandurg wrote later. And his life was an epic of greatness too—and of great tragedy, both personal and national. It was a life full of defining moments, and the historian Jordan identifies some of these:
The simplicity of his life on the frontier taught Lincoln to value democracy and equality, and gave him a deep empathy, a burning sympathy, for the common folk, especially for those struggling against the odds.
He was a deep thinker, certainly (amazingly deep, when we consider his humble origins). But he was also a man who knew the power and value of action, as well as thoughts—and that thoughts without actions were lifeless and dead. He was a man of great physical strength, and the title “The Rail Splitter” was no mere political ploy; he had earned it.
Lincoln’s work as a woodsman in the Illinois wilderness and as a boatsman on the Mississippi gave him a sense of the vastness of the hard land of America—and a sense of the vastness of its power and potential.
Lincoln’s experience of death from an early age—his mother died when hew was only nine; his only sister died a few years later; Ann Rutledge, the love of his life, died when he was a young man. These sad experiences crystallized Lincoln’s sense of himself as a humanitarian and an emancipator.
He was a great man, certainly—though far from perfect. When you peal away the patina of myth, the unvarnished, flawed man remains. But even Lincoln’s faults, it seems to me, can render him more humane, more accessible. They create a bridge of imperfection on which we lesser folk can meet him, through the ages.
We all know him as “Honest Abe”, of course, and he was known throughout Illinois as “the most honest lawyer east of China”. But shortly after his election to Congress in 1847, there were calls for an investigation of his office when it was found that Congressman Lincoln was charging the Treasury twice for certain expenses on his trips back to his district in Illinois. Honest Abe, perhaps, wasn’t always so honest.
He could be as calculating as any politician at times. Early in his career, he was a vehement opponent of slavery. But when his position seemed to get in the way of his political career, he toned down his criticisms somewhat. In 1860, he wheeled and dealed to gain the Republican nomination for the Presidency from one of the most corrupt political conventions in history, and then hid his views on slavery so well that he never mentioned the issue again in public until after the election.
After the Civil War, he was hailed by blacks as whites alike as the “liberator” of the slaves, and a friend and father figure of the black man. But while in Congress he delighted in telling racist jokes to his colleagues. He steadfastly denounced “mixing” of the races, and rather than abolishing slavery, he would have preferred simply shipping all of America’s blacks to a colony in Africa or the Caribbean, and even tried to introduce a Constitutional amendment to that end.
He was a man of his times, and often he exhibited the limitations and prejudices of those times.
But he was also a man who could change with the times, who knew that history often demands that we be true to something deeper than mere expediency or personal power alone.
On Aril 4, 1865—just ten days before his assassination—President Lincoln visited Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital from which Jefferson Davis and his government had just fled. The historian David Herbert Donald presents the scene:
Certainly, “Old Abe” had come a long way from his days as a rail splitter in Illinois.
With martyrdom, just ten days later, he would ascend to even more mystifying heights, leaving much of the real Abe Lincoln—the real man—behind.
“There is no new thing to be said about Lincoln,” Hoch wrote so many years ago.
In a sense, perhaps, he was right. But in another sense, the newness of Lincoln always abides, in every generation. The distinctly, poignantly human magic of Abraham Lincoln lives on in every American as we take our own places along this long, difficult, winding road toward peace and justice and freedom.