Peter Foster: The Lure of Lincoln

Peter Foster is the Telegraph's US Editor based in Washington DC.

When Abraham Lincoln breathed his last on the morning of Easter Saturday 1865, at 7.22am, his friend, the war secretary Edwin M Stanton, stood before the roomful of mourners who had gathered in a vigil at his bedside and declared: "Now he belongs to the ages."

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...

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