When Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865 – only five days after Lee surrendered to Grant to end the Civil War – it marked the end of a giant of a man who led the fight to preserve the Union. But it was the beginning of a remarkable cult of personality unprecedented in American history.
When he died the next morning, his body was transported to the White House where he lay in state until being transported to the Capitol rotunda for further viewing. That was hardly the end of the Lincoln funeral as a grieving nation set out to honor their fallen president.
His body was placed on a train to Springfield, Illinois, for internment. Along the 1,654-mile journey that retraced the route Lincoln had traveled to Washington as the president-elect on his way to his first inauguration his body was taken to a dozen locations for massive funeral gatherings in Baltimore; Harrisburg, Penn.; Philadelphia; New York City; Albany, N.Y.; Buffalo, N.Y.; Cleveland; Columbus, Ohio; Indianapolis; Michigan City, Ind.; and Chicago before arriving in Springfield.
In addition to the vast crowds that packed these sorrowful galas, millions more viewed the funeral train along the way. There would not be another such massive outpouring of national grief until President Franklin D. Roosevelt died in Warm Springs, Ga., in 1945. Like Lincoln, he had led the United States through a devastating war with the end in sight at the time of his death.
In the 147 years since his death, Lincoln has assumed even greater stature in the hearts and minds of his fellow Americans. As we marked the celebration of Presidents Day in February, an inevitable comparison arose between Lincoln and George Washington, known as “The Father of His Country.”
Washington shepherded the United States to nationhood as its unquestioned leader during a tempestuous quarter-century that included the American Revolution and his two terms as the first president. This being the U.S., nothing is unquestioned but GW was definitely large and in charge. So why does he seem almost secondary to Lincoln in historical stature?
Historians will argue about this – and practically everything else – but a strong case can be made that it comes down to verisimilitude, the quality of realism. We don’t really know what Washington looked like, beyond the powdered wig and the Gilbert Stuart portrait painted three years before Washington died in 1799 — there is no enduring image of him that seems really real, with the possible exception of a plaster cast of his face in a New York museum. His monument is an obelisk that looms large in the capital city that bears his name, but when you visit it George Washington is not there. Contrast that with the Lincoln Memorial, which leaves many visitors awestruck and talking in whispers.
That reaction was memorably captured the 1939 Frank Capra film “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” with accidental Senator Jefferson Smith, played by Jimmy Stewart in one highlight of a distinguished career.
On his first visit to the Lincoln Memorial, Smith overhears a young boy and his grandfather reading aloud the Gettysburg Address from the inscription. Smith observes the scene with patriotic pride as an elderly black man with his hat against his chest looks up reverently. I first saw that film more than 30 years after its release and immediately identified with that scene – that could have been me and my dad the first time he took me there as a young child, the first of many visits over the course of a lifetime.
In a later scene, Smith recounts his first visit there on the Senate floor.
“I don’t think I’ve ever been so thrilled in my whole life, and that Lincoln Memorial! Gee Whiz! And Mr. Lincoln, there he is. He’s just lookin’ right straight at ya as you come up those steps. Just, just sitting there like he was waiting for somebody to come along,” Smith says in the film, an eloquent expression of an emotion felt by many of his fellow citizens.
The enormous statue of Lincoln sitting in a chair that dominates the interior of that Greek temple structure is all the more impressive because we know that is how Lincoln looked. He lived in the early days of photography when traveling Matthew Brady camera wagons captured the grim reality of the Civil War. They captured Lincoln as well, warts and all. The need for a photographic subject to remain perfectly still due to the long exposure time needed in those days lends additional gravitas to the pictures of the man. He stares out at us all these many years later, and we know this great man not just by his deeds but by his image.
There has never been the need for a Lincoln revival because he never went away in the public mind, but that awareness has been greatly magnified since the emergence from Illinois of another political leader onto the national stage.
Barack Obama launched his presidential campaign on the steps of the Illinois statehouse where Lincoln once served, and the symmetry between the author of the Emancipation Proclamation and the man who would become the first African-American to be elected president of the United States launched a new wave of Lincoln celebration.
An essay by Evan Thomas that appeared in Newsweek after the 2008 election described “two thin men from rude beginnings, relatively new to Washington but wise to the world, bring(ing) the nation together to face a crisis. Both are superb rhetoricians, both geniuses at stagecraft and timing. Obama, like Lincoln and unlike most modern politicians, even writes his own speeches, or at least drafts the really important ones — by hand, on yellow legal paper. …”
The comparison was undeniable – not that the Lincoln legend required any burnishing. As Business Journal writer Jill Swanson describes in a sidebar piece to this article, “There have been more than 15,000 books written about Lincoln, which include published speeches and pamphlets – more books that have been written about any other person in world history, with the exception of Jesus Christ.”
Among the most celebrated Lincoln books in recent years was “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln” by noted presidential historian Doris Kearns Goodwin. Published by Simon & Schuster in 2005, this massive tome – 944 pages – emerged at a time when few predicted the rise of Obama. The book’s theme rang true three years later when he established his own “team of rivals” by bringing former Democratic primary foes Joe Biden and Hilary Clinton into top positions in his cabinet.
The current Lincoln wave shows no sign of abating. Goodwin’s book is being adapted for a big Hollywood movie scheduled for release at Christmas 2012. The movie – working title “Lincoln” – is being directed by Steven Spielberg and stars the British actor Daniel Day-Lewis as Lincoln. Both are Academy Award winners not exactly known for their cinematic restraint, so expect to see Lincoln’s angst and melancholia laid out like industrial carpet – by the yard.
The supporting cast includes Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field, David Strathairn and Hal Holbrook, the veteran character actor who played Lincoln in a 1975 television mini-series based on the multi-volume biography authored by Carl Sandburg. Holbrook reprised the role of Lincoln 10 years later in another miniseries, “North and South,” based on a family-saga trio of novels. The miniseries starred Patrick Swayze with Holbrook’s Lincoln relegated to a minor role.
A more ambitious work was Gore Vidal’s “Lincoln: A Novel,” published in 1984, part of the author’s Narratives of Empire series that spans the history of the United States from the revolution to the post-World War II years. This too was adapted into a 1988 miniseries starring Sam Waterston before his “Law and Order” days.
Indeed, the list of actors who have played Lincoln is lengthy in works that range from the ridiculous to the sublime. A young Henry Fonda starred in John Ford’s “Young Mr. Lincoln.” The fanciful 1939 film was based on a screenplay tailored to the Hollywood conventions of the time, but Fonda is impressive in the role.
Others with Lincoln on their movie or television resumes range from Gregory Peck, Raymond Massey and Jason Robards to Kris Kristofferson, Brendan Fraser and F. Murray Abraham.
Even more diverse are books about Lincoln.
“Angels and Ages: A Short Book About Darwin, Lincoln, and Modern Life,” a book by Adam Gopnik published in 2009, starts from the fact Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were both born on the same date, Feb. 12, 1809, one in a cabin, one in a country house. Gopnik argues that both radically changed the way Americans and Englishmen think about the modern world – and they were born on the same day. What are the odds? At least Gopnik is brief.
Other themes explored in various books, essays and purportedly scholarly articles include speculation over whether Lincoln was mentally ill, a racist, an atheist, gay, a dictator, etc. Whatever your view of our 16th president, you can probably find some title among the over 15,000 books on the man to support your inclinations.
Another view of Lincoln exists among a minority of die-hard Confederates who disdain the term Civil War, preferring the more colorful “War of Northern Aggression,” although the historical accuracy of that label is hotly disputed.
Prominent among these Lincoln-haters is Maurice Bessinger – and he doesn’t like President Obama much either. In the 1950s and ’60s, Bessinger’s National Association for the Preservation of White People was a vocal opponent of desegregation, spoke out loudly against racial mixing, and refused to let blacks into the main dining room of his Maurice’s Gourmet Barbeque restaurants in South Carolina. When that state permanently lowered the Confederate flag from its capitol dome a decade ago, Bessinger promptly hoisted it above his restaurants in defiance. For his trouble, Walmart pulled his Southern Gold barbecue sauce off its shelves, a move Bessinger said cost his company 98 percent of its wholesale business.
Eventually he pulled the flags down, but the damage was largely done. If you can overlook his racial attitudes, they do serve a good plate of barbecue at his restaurants. They also sell neo-Confederate literature including the book “Honest Abe Wasn’t Honest” written by Pastor John Weaver, a graduate of Bob Jones University. Weaver – and Bessinger – argue that Lincoln was an evil man who issued “illegal” executive orders.
Contrast that with another book on the shelves at Maurice’s Gourmet Barbeque entitled “Biblical View of Slavery,” which argues that slavery is not evil because it is permitted in the Bible and that African slaves actually felt happy and blessed to be slaves, and they were sad when slavery was abolished. So Maurice, your view is Lincoln evil, slavery not evil? Got it. Think I’ll pass on eating any more of that barbecue next time I visit South Carolina.
with Lincoln genre is the story “Wolfman Lincoln in Murder at the Astrodome,” which portrays Lincoln as a time-traveling detective who also happens to be a werewolf. He is retained to investigate a murder by Houston legend Judge Roy Hofheinz, who built the Astrodome – and hilarity ensues.
The author is T. Sean Shannon, a comedy writer who worked on “In Living Color” and “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” and won an Emmy and Writers Guild Award for his work on “Saturday Night Live.” He directed the 2008 feature film “Harold” starring Spencer Breslin, Cuba Gooding Jr. and Ally Sheedy – and is the younger brother of Business Journal editor James Shannon. The inclusion of “Wolfman Lincoln in Murder at the Astrodome” is not intended as a form of familial opportunism but to illustrate the absurdity of some entries in the Lincoln bibliography – although “Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter” accomplished that feat all on its own.
To return to the original theme – that Abraham Lincoln is the focus of a remarkable cult of personality unprecedented in American history – the Lincoln business is thriving and shows no signs of abating more than 200 years after his birth. n
THIS STORY ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED FOR GREATERORANGEBUSINESSJOURNAL.COM