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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    Forgetting the real Lincoln

    It may seem strange to contend that we are in danger of forgetting the significance of Abraham Lincoln. After all, Lincoln is the most celebrated figure in our history, and the fuss over his 200th birthday today will probably threaten to eclipse, however briefly, virtually everything else going on in America.

    Unfortunately, we’re in danger of forgetting why we care in the first place. Only a handful of states still celebrate Lincoln’s Birthday as a separate holiday; the rest have submerged it into the odious Presidents Day, as if all presidents were Lincolns. Our memories may be long, but time has corroded them: A recent Gallup poll found that more Americans considered Ronald Reagan the greatest president, with Lincoln sharing second place with John F. Kennedy. What on earth has brought us to this state? “”The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here,”” Lincoln remarked at Gettysburg. He was wrong, of course, but why do we remember? What are we trying to celebrate when we celebrate Lincoln?

    We’ve forgotten because we’re too busy trying to pretend that there’s nothing, really, to celebrate. In part, it’s an all-too-natural leveling impulse in the face of something awe-inspiring, an impulse to reduce and eventually destroy something by analyzing it beyond all reason. Surely no one could be worth that much fuss, we declare, and then waste millions of words on why he wasn’t.

    Just look at Tuesday’s USA Today story, which promises a “”more complex”” view of Lincoln. There are “”many Lincolns,”” not just one. So says Henry Louis Gates Jr., a Harvard professor, in a new documentary. The old, “”mythic,”” Lincoln, we are told, has given way to a host of new Lincolns: a closeted gay man, a racist, an atheist, a manic depressive. Surely all these new Lincolns are more interesting than the old one? “”It’s a pretty good myth,”” snorted John A. Farrell of U.S. News and World Report. Myths are well enough for children, but adults have outgrown them.

    What makes us shrink away from acknowledging Lincoln’s greatness? Mostly, I think, it’s that we’ve lost touch with our past. We can no longer understand a world in which someone like Lincoln could mean anything to us. That’s why we focus on the pointless minutiae of his life, instead of the meaning of his life.

    We read Lincoln’s writings as historical documents, not relevant – and revelatory -ÿpapers on how citizens can run their own affairs, or how democratic leaders should conduct wars. We blithely pass over Lincoln’s great speeches and note that he wouldn’t pass muster as a 21st century liberal. We come not to learn, but to nitpick.

    Lincoln matters for us – or should matter – because he embodied the principles of democracy more than any other leader in our history. He was a better Jeffersonian than even Jefferson himself. One example may serve to illuminate how deeply we’ve repressed this.

    Contrary to what my high school history teacher told me, Lincoln despised slavery -ÿhe re-entered politics in the 1850s, in fact, because he feared that the country’s leaders were plotting to extend slavery across the land, rather than allow it to die a peaceful death, as he believed the Founding Fathers had intended. That is the point of his famous 1858 “”House Divided”” speech, in fact – it’s the part no one ever quotes.

    His friends had advised him not to make the speech, fearing its effect on his career would be catastrophic. At the end of a powerful description of what he calls a “”piece of (legal) machinery”” designed by a handful of powerful politicians to preserve slavery, Lincoln urges the people “”to meet and overthrow that dynasty.”” He received a furious ovation.

    To read such a speech and then realize that only two years later Lincoln would be president is astonishing. Politicians don’t talk like that anymore. In fact, as far as America is concerned, Lincoln didn’t talk like that. The only line anyone ever quotes from the “”House Divided”” speech is the line that gives it its title.

    When people started comparing every speech Barack Obama gave to the “”House Divided”” speech, I scanned article after article, trying to find someone else who gave some sign of having read the speech. Nothing. The man who urged his fellow citizens to rise up and fight for their rights is gone.

    So much for a “”more complex”” Lincoln. The myth has been replaced, all right, but it’s been replaced by academic boilerplate and wishy-washy, politically correct doublespeak. The real Lincoln still exists, of course, but he’s been reduced to the few lines of the Gettysburg Address – made all but meaningless through overexposure. Reading the words of the address on my first visit to the Lincoln Memorial this year, I wondered what it would have been like to stand there in that chilly Pennsylvania cemetery and hear them spoken for the first time.

    It was hard to imagine. But standing there in the ghostly quiet and gazing up at the statue of Lincoln – clothes disheveled, hair a mess, as he was in life – and the great speeches entombed in stone that could last a thousand years, I felt what countless other visitors must have felt: Something happened, something that no amount of cynicism or revisionism could ever obscure.

    A friend of mine refers to that memorial, coyly, as “”the Temple of Lincoln.”” A republic can honor but few of its citizens thus, without turning into another Rome, where demagogues become gods upon death. In this case, I think we made the right choice.

    -ÿJustyn Dillingham is the opinions editor of the Daily Wildcat. He can be reached at

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