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Tuesday, April 06, 2010

L is for Lincoln


Most Americans probably know Abraham Lincoln better than any other President. He's the only one, other than John Kennedy, whose birth day (February 12, 1809) and date of death (April 15, 1865) I know by heart.

So why are historians endlessly fascinated by the 16th President to a degree that there are over 2500 biographies of the man? Maybe it's because the simple narrative of Honest Abe, born in a log cabin, who saw slavery as an issue worth fighting a Civil War over is instinctively such an incomplete narrative.

2009 was the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth, and there were a number of pieces on PBS (public broadcasting in the US) about the man shed new light on him for me, and possibly for you as well.

Bill Moyers discussed THE LINCOLN ANTHOLOGY: GREAT WRITERS ON HIS LIFE AND LEGACY FROM 1860 TO NOW is a collection of more than 90 authors from across the years who create a constantly evolving portrait of the man whose shadow keeps lengthening across our history.


Moyers also highlighted Lincoln through the eyes of critically acclaimed, veteran dance artist Bill T. Jones. "In a groundbreaking work of choreography called FONDLY DO WE HOPE...FERVENTLY DO WE PRAY, Jones reimagines a young Lincoln in his formative years through dance."

Jones said: "Lincoln was, in some people's mind, always Honest Abe on a pedestal, but Lincoln had a sexuality. Lincoln was a politician. In the debates, Lincoln is the one that said to Douglas that, no, I would never marry a black woman. But I don't — just because I don't want a black woman for a wife doesn't mean I must have her for a slave. And he even said, I'm not sure if all — if blacks and whites are equal, you know. But he said, people have the right to certain liberties. They have certain rights because they are in America. He was a man of his era."

Also, from a conversation with Henry Louis Gates, Jr.:

What made Lincoln such a unique president?

Lincoln had a tremendous capacity for personal growth – more than any other American President. He was essentially a man of his times, resolute in his belief in the inequality of the races. But within the cauldron of the Civil War, he began to see that there could not be a United States without freedom for the black man. He came to embrace blacks, particularly those that fought so valiantly for the Union, as fully deserving the basic human right of freedom. He was slow to the cause to be sure, but once he got there, he was unshakable. Now, we will never know how far he might have gone had he lived. That’s part of the mystique that still surrounds him: the question “what if?”

Why is Lincoln’s legacy so contested?

Because Lincoln is so closely identified with what it is to be American, everyone wants to claim him, to rewrite his story to satisfy their own particular needs. For my own people, it was important to imagine him as the Great Emancipator, the Moses who led us out of slavery. For others, it was Lincoln the humble man who rose to greatness, or Lincoln the great Commander, or Lincoln the martyr. Every generation since his death has conjured up their own Lincoln. There were many Lincolns — enough for people to love and hate.



That explanation of the third US President (of eight) to die in office, but but the first (of four) to be assassinated, resonates with me. We project onto Lincoln, who was only 56 when he died, who he was and who he might have become. This might explain the release just last month of the generally positively-reviewed novel Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. No, really.

Finally, this story retold in Living Water.

The Debt
When he was an attorney, Abraham Lincoln was once approached by a man who passionately insisted on bringing a suit for $2.50 against an impoverished debtor. Lincoln tried to discourage him, but the man was bent on revenge. When he saw that the man would not be put off, Lincoln agreed to take the case and asked for a legal fee of $10, which the plaintiff paid. Lincoln then gave half of the money to the defendant, who willingly confessed to the debt and paid the $2.50! But even more amazing than Lincoln's ingenuous settlement was the fact that the irate plaintiff was satisfied with it.*


More Lincoln photos here.

ABC Wednesday
The largest of over 100 places in the US named Lincoln is in Nebraska.


20 comments:

Carol said...

A man of his era indeed! This is a great Lincoln post, interesting and thought provoking. I have never heard the debt story, I wonder if many people would come up with the same solution....

Diann @ The Thrifty Groove said...

Fun and interesting post. And about an interesting man!

Sylvia K said...

A great post, Roger! Lincoln was indeed an incredible man! This was very, very interesting and I had never heard the debt story either. Terrific!

Sylvia

Paula Scott said...

Although McLinky is still in hiding, thanks goodness folks do comment. That has helped to track down fellow ABCers!
What a great post on Lincoln! As always, very informative fused with humor and wonderment of sorts.

Nydia said...

I loooove Lincoln, what a strong personality and powerful image. Gore Vidal wrote a biography, called... "Lincoln", that is wonderful.
What a perfect choice for the L post!

Kisses from Nydia.

LisaF said...

I just don't think they make statesmen like this anymore. Too bad. There's so much to him most textbooks can't begin to cover.

Hildred and Charles said...

A fine post, - we are very partial to Lincoln in our family. Charles was born on Lincoln's birthday and his American father honored him by calling him Charles Lincoln, - now we have little ones in the family carrying on the tradition. A highly principled and compassionate man.

Gattina said...

Thanks for the history lesson !
I put a new link think on the post, Mcklinky has an internal server error, I put "inlink" that works.

RuneE said...

A very proper "L". For a foreigner like me, US citizens sometimes seems a bit obsessed about their presidents, but with people like Lincoln you have every right to be.

A very interesting post.

anthonynorth said...

A great assessment of the assessments of Lincoln.

Greyscale Territory said...

Refreshing insight into the layers of Lincoln!

Tumblewords: said...

A lively look at Lincoln - a fine man by any standards!

Sheila @ A Postcard a Day said...

I've learnt a lot about the human being Lincoln in this post.

photowannabe said...

Utterly fascinating. Thank you for the information. I would have liked to sit down and chat with this man.

Troy said...

Nothing really ever changes, does it. Lawyers still get more from a lawsuit than do the palintiffs or the defendants.

Absolutely fascinating post!

And of course, without Lincoln, we could never have the Town Car...

Grace and Bradley said...

Always love to read your insight story. Thanks for sharing.

Beverley Baird said...

I always look forward to your posts - there is always something to learn!
Even Canadians admire and know a lot about Lincoln.

Jay said...

I'm not that interested in politics, but you made that interesting! And of course, it wasn't only about politics, but the man himself, and it's always interesting to read what motivates people.

Love the story of the debtor. Lincoln had a great deal of wisdom, it seems!

Joy said...

I had not realised he was only in his fifties when assassinated (guess everyone looked older then). Always a "what if" when people are taken before their time. Interesting post giving an extra dimension to the man.

jabblog said...

Certainly he was a man of his time and should be judged and regarded as such. To be compassionate when so many were not is to his eternal credit - he recognised that all men are born equal; so many still don't.