Obama will affect how we remember Lincoln on the 200th anniversary

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The connections between presidents Barack Obama and Abraham Lincoln define Obama’s image today, but these associations also influence how Lincoln will continue to be remembered, says a Purdue University historian.
“Lincoln, who was born 200 years ago on Feb. 12, is known as a great speechwriter, thinker and consensus builder,” says Caroline E. Janney, an assistant professor of history who studies Civil War memorials and remembrance. “While people are watching how Obama is following Lincoln, many may not realize that today’s president is shaping the way we remember the 16th president. Memory is always crafted by its contemporary context.”

Janney says one type of memory is called the collective memory. Collective memory refers to the ways in which different groups reconstruct the past by adapting historical facts to fit the present. When individuals look to the past, or their perceived sense of past, they often create a sense of community. For example, white southerners may still look to their region’s Confederate history to create a common bond, while those from Illinois may refer to themselves as from the “land of Lincoln.” They use the past to create a community among people in the present.

Using historical facts to fill in the needs of the present in reconstructing the past creates a collective memory. For example, how people from the North and South remember Lincoln differs, and those differences, when expressed in each region’s monuments and memorials, create a sense of community for those who share a common past, she says.
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