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Archive for Monday, February 12, 2007

The lure of Lincoln

As bicentennial of his birth approaches, 16th president enjoys pop iconic status

February 12, 2007

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Most Americans think of the stovepipe hat, the famous penny profile and a booming voice intoning, "Four score and seven years ago ..."

But beyond these iconic impressions, Abraham Lincoln remains among the most complicated and important figures in American history.

"What's really interesting about him is that coming into office he looks on paper like one of the least qualified presidents the United States had seen up to that point," says Jennifer Weber, an assistant professor of history at Kansas University and Civil War expert.

"He had served in Congress for just one term. His military experience was limited to the Black Hawk War, where he said, 'I shed a great deal of blood, but it was all to the mosquitoes' in that conflict. He was a self-educated lawyer from what was still considered in the East a frontier state. He had very little experience on the national stage.

"Yet it turned out he was exactly the right man for that time."

Today, on the 198th anniversary of Lincoln's birth, scholars are already scrambling in preparation for the grand bicentennial celebration, with events kicking off next year.

Weber is an academic adviser to the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission and is doing her best to help educate the public on the man and the myths.

"What makes him great is that he had vision, patience, a very thick skin for criticism. He was brilliant at articulating for the public what the Civil War was about and what its objectives were - which is a really important component in maintaining public support," Weber says.

Lincoln was a rather controversial figure in his own time, and history has tended to gloss over some of the less complimentary aspects of his life. Some will find it surprising that his popularity was noticeably low among Northerners at the height of the war.

"In August in 1864, he and pretty much everyone else - Republicans and Democrats alike - thought he was going to lose the election," she says. "And they thought he was going to lose really big because the war was not going well for the Union at all. I think if the election had been held in August instead of November, he would have lost big."

Weber also reveals there is much speculation that Lincoln suffered from depression.

"There were a couple points when he was a young man that people commented they were afraid he was going to kill himself," she says.

Trouble in Kansas

While the Illinois native reputedly only visited Kansas once during his lifetime, the state ended up figuring prominently in his career.

Lincoln had, for all practical purposes, retired from politics when he got out of Congress, and for much of the 1850s he resigned himself to spending the rest of his life in a lucrative law career. What turned that around was the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

"He was so upset about the act that he became increasingly active in politics again," Weber says. "In 1858 he ran against Stephen A. Douglas, who was the principal author of the Kansas-Nebraska Act for the U.S. Senate seat in Illinois. That launched him as a national figure."

Weber says Lincoln was opposed to the act because it allowed the populace to determine whether Kansas would be a free territory or slave territory. She says, "He saw the possibility for corruption, which is exactly what played out. There was a great deal of election fraud, and, of course, Bleeding Kansas was a byproduct of the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

"Douglas had no position on slavery morally," she adds. "It wasn't something he was particularly concerned about. The fact Douglas had not considered the moral dimensions of slavery really bothered Lincoln."

Revisionist history

What tends to bother scholars these days is the recent revision about Lincoln's own position on slavery. Movies such as the Lawrence-crafted "C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America" portray the 16th president as more concerned about the economic and cultural repercussions of slavery than the moral implications.

"The new misconception that is out there - although I don't know how broadly held it is in the general population - is the idea that Lincoln was not interested in freeing the slaves and didn't free the slaves. But Lincoln said, 'If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong.' He had opposed slavery since he was a very young man. I think he deeply opposed it for all kinds of reasons," she says.

However, when Lincoln became president in 1861, he was actually limited by the position.

"The Constitution protected slavery. Lincoln was sworn to protect and uphold the Constitution. He could deal with slavery in the territories and limit its dimension. But he could not snap his fingers and eradicate it," she says.

Lincoln's life ended tragically with his assassination at the hands of John Wilkes Booth. This, coupled with his wartime presidency, has led many to picture Lincoln as an overwhelmingly serious figure.

Weber says, "Lincoln had a great sense of humor, which is what I think kept him sane during those four years."

Comments

cerealmom 7 years, 10 months ago

Abe Lincoln was a tall man A lanky six feet four. He had to duck a little when going through the door, but never was he known to flee or duck responsibility. Abe Lincolns sense of humor was such a saving grace it turned the dark to brightness transformed his homely face and brought the people when he spoke large wisdom and a little joke.

I memorized that in 2nd grade. Why do I remember that?

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