Sunday, January 04, 2009

Lincoln Lincoln Bo Bicoln, Banana Fana Fo Fincoln, Fe Fi Fo Fincoln, Abe Lincoln!

A substantial Abraham Lincoln mythology had taken hold in the American imagination even before his assassination in 1865. This canon of broad brush strokes and tall tales gave Lincoln his historic due but overlooked or willfully ignored the myriad complexities of our greatest president.

So there may be no better way to inaugurate this Lincoln bicentenary year of posts at Kiko's House than to begin to unravel the Lincoln mythology, a not-easy task considering that thousands of books have been written about the 16th president and some of the most famous like Carl Sandburg's The Prairie Years and The War Years are highly ficitionalized.

So unravel this:

* Portrayals of Lincoln as a country bumpkin are inaccurate.

He was an experienced railroad lawyer and shrewd litigator with an astonishing intellect who sometimes was embarrassed by his own brilliance, which he would try to mask with bawdy stories as he sought to be just one of the boys.

* Lincoln's legendary debates with Stephen A. Douglas are perhaps the most distorted aspect of the historic record.

The seven face-to-face meetings in 1858 were not debates in the contemporary sense and had the air of big parties. The speakers soliloquized at great length without interruption, while Lincoln was nowhere near as eloquent as he appears to have been in debate transcripts, which were thoroughly edited to make him look better.

* Lincoln did not come to Washington a ready-made "Great Emancipator" and grew into that title in subsequent years.

He did not advocate political or social equality for blacks and never advocated emancipating them while campaigning. His primary goal was to keep the Union together, and he believed that by keeping slavery from spreading to new states in the West, it would gradually disappear. How very wrong he was.

* Lincoln did not have a firm hold on power during much of his first term.

That he was never deposed in what would have been the only
coup d'etat in American history is something of a miracle because his sacking of the ineffectual Major General George McClellan as commander of the Union armies in 1862 came close to precipitating an armed takeover of government and subsequent negotiated peace with the Confederacy.

* Lincoln cared little about his personal appearance.

By his own design, he always was slightly rumpled, dressed in black with a flamboyant tie, wore a top hat, often struck poses that emphasized his aquiline features, and was astutely aware of the power of the emerging medium of photography to capture and convey him as a commanding figure.
* Lincoln was a deeply religious man.

He came from a family of radical predestinarian Baptists, but was something close to a Deist as Thomas Jefferson had been. That is, he believed in a general sense of the existence of a God, or at least a force that gave order and shape to the universe, but was ambivalent about whether this God gave active direction and intervention to human affairs.

* Lincoln's wife and sons adored him.

His deep love for his family was not reciprocated. His wife Mary Todd was a bitter shopaholic, spending money on "flubdubs" for the White House, as he put it, and she was certifiably crazy by the time he was assassinated. His relationship with Robert Todd, the only son to live beyond his teenage years, was strained and he seldom visited Washington.

* * * * *
I spent a goodly amount of the holiday season reading up on Lincoln and George Bush. The experience was surreal, to say the least, and begs a question: What will the Bush mythology be to future generations?

Your thoughts?

This essay is drawn, in part, from Abraham Lincoln: Great American Historians on Our Sixteenth President, while the headline is from "The Name Game," a 1964 novelty-song hit by Shirley Ellis.

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