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Joshua Wolf Shenk: The True Lincoln

Joshua Wolf Shenk, in Time Magazine (7-4-05)

[Mr. Shenk is the author of Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness, to be published in September by Houghton Mifflin.]

... after 140 years of manipulation, can Lincoln's memory ever again find its true shape?

Abraham Lincoln died shortly after 7 a.m. on April 15, 1865. "Now he belongs to the ages," Edwin Stanton, Lincoln's Secretary of War, said at the President's deathbed. It was a prescient thought, because it suggested not only the long cultural presence ahead for Lincoln but also the fact that generations would possess him.

From the start, his memory was molded to serve a purpose. When telegraph wires clicked with the news that Lincoln had been shot at Ford's Theatre, the nation was facing the monumental and confounding task of restoring peace after four years of broiling war. Lincoln had thought both North and South were complicit in the shame of slavery. He even suggested, in his second Inaugural Address, that God may have brought "this terrible war" to punish both regions, urging the nation to bind up its wounds "with malice towards none, with charity for all."

He wanted reconciliation, but his eulogists struck a different note. With a sentimental tip of the hat to the fallen leader, many Northern journalists, preachers and politicians actually tried to use Lincoln's death to stoke the fires of vengeance. "If the rebels can do a deed like this to the kind, good, generous, tender-hearted ruler, whose every thought was purity," exclaimed Benjamin Butler, a general in the war, to a crowd in New York City, "whose every desire a yearning for forgiveness and peace, what shall be done to them in high places who guided the assassin's knife?" The crowd began to chant, "Hang them! Hang them!" The assassination, Northern leaders saw, had a great political value. "His death," noted a caucus of Republican Congressmen, "is a godsend to our cause."

If his contemporaries quickly contradicted his ideas, they were also slow to elevate him as an icon, even though he had all the ingredients to be one: an epic time (the split of a nation and a war over its future), bold ideas (union and liberty) and a violent death. One reason is that while people felt strongly the symbolic loss of a President through the nation's first assassination, few knew what to make of Lincoln as a man. Beneath the spectacular symbols of mourning--houses draped in black, endless ceremonies as his body was taken by train from Washington to his home of Springfield--was an intense ambiguity: stories circulated regularly about him as a religious doubter, a teller of vulgar stories, an uncouth and awkward man, a usurper of power. But Republicans saw him as a great asset and tried to build a myth that would last--and do the party lasting good. In May 1865, the Republican editor Josiah Holland interviewed the President's law partner William Herndon at length. When the subject of religion came up, Herndon told him, "The less said, the better," doubting that the pious Holland would want the details of Lincoln's unorthodox history. How, for example, Lincoln had doubted the divinity of Christ and the infallibility of the Bible. "Oh, never mind," Holland said. "I'll fix that"--and his book made Lincoln a model Christian.

Holland wasn't alone in trying to "fix" Lincoln. "Those who have spoken most confidently of their knowledge of his personal qualities," Pennsylvania Republican Alexander McClure said of Lincoln, "are, as a rule, those who saw least of them below the surface." And many real Lincoln intimates kept a low profile, wishing to avoid the media circus. Meanwhile, one man who tried to talk about Lincoln in a complex and honest way paid a heavy price. After Lincoln died, Herndon solicited memories from men and women who had known him, identifying and tracking down crucial sources, then hounding them until they gave a statement or an interview. We call that kind of material oral history, but in the late 19th century it was just as likely to be called gossip--or, worse, scurrilous trash. Herndon thought that history should tell the full truth about a man and that Lincoln's character could only be magnified by a full portrait of it. He dug hard on matters that polite people thought should be left to rest: that Lincoln's mother had been born out of wedlock, for example, and that Lincoln as a young man had serious, nearly fatal depressions. Down on his luck, Herndon didn't publish his book until 1889. It didn't reach many readers, but he caught plenty of flak. "It vilely distorts the image of an ideal statesman, patriot, and martyr," the Chicago Journal said of his book. "It clothes him in vulgarity and grossness. Its indecencies are spread like a curtain to hide the colossal proportions and the splendid purity of his character."

The Journal, it's important to note, was a Republican paper. Today, when Lincoln is the favorite of everyone from George W. Bush to Mario Cuomo (not to mention Fidel Castro), it is easy to forget how partisan his memory once was. In the late 19th century, a kind of cult of Lincoln grew up among the party faithful, with banquets on his birthday as a rite, while Southerners licked their wounds and Democrats rebuilt an organization that had been split in the war.

But in the early 20th century, Lincoln's appeal broadened considerably. By then, adults who had lived and suffered through the Civil War had died. Once a symbol of division, Lincoln came to be seen as a symbol of national peacemaking, admired alike by New York bankers and the Sons of the Confederate Veterans. In 1922, the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated, its structure modeled after the temples of ancient Greece, its statue reminiscent of Zeus on his throne, its location chosen to maximize the power of impression by an object of reverence and honor. In Illinois, sites associated with the 16th President were marked as "Lincoln shrines."

And so the legend grew. In the 1930s, Henry Fonda played Lincoln on the big screen and stonecutters carved his face on Mount Rushmore; in the 1940s, Aaron Copland's magisterial Lincoln Portrait debuted; in the 1950s, Carl Sandburg held a joint session of Congress rapt with his speech that began, "Not often in the story of mankind does a man arrive on earth who is both steel and velvet, who is hard as rock and soft as a drifting fog, who holds in his heart and mind the paradox of terrible storm and peace unspeakable and perfect." In 1963, TIME put Lincoln on the cover of its 40th-anniversary issue, "The Individual in America," and christened him the embodiment of that quality "in the special double sense that Americans attributed to the word--the common man who is yet uncommon."

In retrospect, one of the high points of the Lincoln legend may also have marked its breaking point. In August 1963, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial, and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. began his landmark "I Have a Dream" speech by paying homage to Lincoln: "Five score years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand signed the Emancipation Proclamation. This momentous decree came as a great beacon light of hope to millions of Negro slaves who had been seared in the flames of withering injustice. It came as a joyous daybreak to end the long night of captivity."

For decades, African Americans had not only remembered Lincoln kindly but also invoked him as a present-day force. "The rise of Jim Crow segregation in the South," explains Allen C. Guelzo, "occurred hand in hand with the efforts of Southerners to downplay the significance of slavery both for the war and for Lincoln, and blacks battled back by keeping slavery and Lincoln's image as the Great Emancipator at the forefront of the nation's memory." A common folktale in the mid--20th century South--which Leadbelly poignantly rendered in a song he recorded in the early 1940s--had Lincoln rising from the dead, coming down and bringing justice to the Jim Crow South.

But as the civil rights movement shone a spotlight on inequality and discrimination, Lincoln's image came in for a beating. The myth of Lincoln as the black man's best friend was hard to square with his own words, from the Lincoln-Douglas debates, that he had "no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and the black races" and that "there is a physical difference between the two, which in my judgment, will probably forever forbid their living upon the footing of perfect equality." In a 1968 piece for Ebony, "Was Abe Lincoln a White Supremacist?", Lerone Bennett Jr. presented a Lincoln who often told racist jokes and who, well into his presidency, urged that freed blacks should leave the U.S. for another continent. Three decades later, Bennett returned to the theme in his book Forced into Glory, which became a best seller in black-interest bookstores...

...But for men to share beds in the mid-19th century was as common and as mundane as men sharing houses or apartments in the early 21st. Tripp's claim proceeds from what Jonathan Ned Katz calls "epistemological hubris and ontological chutzpah." A scholar of 19th century sexuality, Katz explains that the terms homosexual and heterosexual did not exist in Lincoln's time, and that fact is just one piece of evidence that the concepts of gender, sexuality and same-sex relationships were radically different in Lincoln's world. In those days, men could be openly affectionate with one another, physically and verbally, without having to stake their identity on it.

So what do we, today, make of a world that operated according to such fundamentally different rules? And what do we make of the personal life of a leader so long encrusted in mythology? Fortunately, we've never been in a better position to see him. Along with new interest in the private lives of public figures, new trends in scholarship allow us a fresh chance to see Lincoln as he lived, thought and acted. Following the boom in oral history in the 1960s, today's Lincoln scholars are closely studying the massive body of recollections from people who knew him well, including intimate portraits that had long been neglected or obscured. In the past decade, more than a dozen volumes of essential primary evidence on Lincoln have been published, including original writings and research by his White House secretaries, John Hay and John Nicolay, and the Civil War dispatches of Lincoln intimate Noah Brooks. The granddaddy of all oral histories, the interviews and statements collected by Lincoln's law partner Herndon, are now easily available for the first time.

Then there's the Internet. It is possible to word-search, online, Lincoln's collected speeches, his known activities on each day of his life, his incoming correspondence and other ephemera at the Library of Congress and a vast array of primary sources from the 19th century, including letters, diaries and memoirs...

...learned, much to my surprise, that the vital subject of his melancholy--which his friends uniformly identified as one of his chief characteristics--had been neglected for much of the 20th century. As I dug into the story, I learned about the two times, at ages 26 and 32, when Lincoln broke down so severely that he came near suicide; about his profound gloom in his middle years and his deliberate work to cope with it; and, finally, about how his depression both plagued him and fueled his great work as President. How could such an amazing story be so long left untold?

One answer to that question is a paradox about history. In order to appreciate Lincoln's significance for our time, we have to humble ourselves to an understanding of his time and how he lived. Previous works on Lincoln's psychology have tried to force his melancholy into the mold of psychoanalytic theory: finding explanations in his early childhood and searching his adult writings for clues about his lust for his mother and rage toward his father. But Lincoln had his own ideas about why he suffered. He was seeped in his own rich culture, in which psychology was wrapped up with philosophy and spirituality. By studying that context, alongside Lincoln's words and the commentaries of his friends, neighbors and colleagues, we can begin to see his story. When Lincoln wrote, "I am now the most miserable man living"; when he averred that melancholy is a "misfortune, not a fault"; and when he said that without his jokes, he would die, for they "are the vents of my moods & gloom," he was leaving a record, not only of how he lived and grew but also of how he saw the world...

...There's a good reason, though, to take Lincoln seriously: he offers many lessons for our own future. As we stand divided on religion, we can learn from a deeply spiritual man who was also deeply skeptical of religious dogma, who felt guided by a divine will but insisted that every public act be justified in secular language and reason. As we stand divided over a war, we can learn from a man who insisted that conflict in arms raised questions about who we are as a people--and who understood that "right makes might."

There is something useful, too, in Lincoln's humor. At a time when we both take ourselves desperately seriously and scoff off all attempts at meaning, we can learn something from a man who saw life as serious and deeply absurd, and who drew on both to fuel his deep sense of purpose. "I've been a fan of Lincoln's from an early age," Conan O'Brien told TIME, "and really fascinated by him. The main thing for me is that he was really funny. He chose the right words and kept things short, and those are two secrets to being timelessly funny. My favorite example was after the battle of Chickamauga. One of the Union generals had behaved badly and had become unnerved. Lincoln said the general was 'confused and stunned like a duck hit on the head.' You don't have to think about that in the context of 1863. It's just a funny image--full of anger and bitterness but getting deeply to the truth too."

"If there was a fire in my house," O'Brien says, "I'd get my wife and child out, and then I'd run back in and get a Lincoln signature that I own--a pardon that he signed. I think I look at it every day." Asked why, he pauses for a second. "He's become such an otherworldly figure, such an iconic figure. But the fact is, he's a person. I guess it's inspiring to me that people are capable of being that cool."