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Abraham Lincoln Today

By Frank J. Williams


Feb/Mar 2005

History seldom repeats itself in exactly the same way, but recent editorials suggest resemblances between the policies of George W. Bush since September 11 and Abraham Lincoln's response to the crisis of the Civil War.

Leading members of both administrations described military conflict as epic struggles between good and evil inspired by the country's divinely ordained mission to spread freedom and democracy throughout the world. The "war on terror" has directed attention to the permissible limits on the rule of law. There is an echo of Lincoln in our day.

Interest in Abraham Lincoln, as reflected in our culture, suggests why the 16th president remains so respected "" even if he did take extra-constitutional measures to "save the Union." Despite waning respect for America abroad, Lincoln's reputation continues to grow.

The Lincoln story continues to fill news pages as richly as ever. In anticipation of Abraham Lincoln's 200th birthday in 2009, the U.S. Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission presented its report and recommendations to Congress last June (www.lincolnbicentennial.gov).

New books describing Lincoln's Cooper Union address as the speech that helped make him president accentuate the importance of our national elections. Others help explain his Emancipation Proclamation, his eloquence, and his assassination. The Lincoln Forum conference held in November discussed the election and re-election of Lincoln.

Editorial cartoonists made fun of the fact that both Lincoln and Democratic Vice Presidential candidate, John Edwards, were trial lawyers. One editorial writer suggested that today's presidential candidates should "debate more, not less," as Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas did in 1858.

Was Lincoln gay? In The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, the late psychologist and gay activist C.A. Tripp claims he found evidence that the 16th President was primarily homosexual "" but hardly everyone agrees.

Tripp's evidence includes Lincoln's sharing a bed with his friend Joshua Speed in Springfield and later sharing beds with other men; Lincoln once wrote a poem about men marrying each other; the President was terrified of wedding Mary Todd and theirs turned out to be a stormy marriage; and Lincoln had black moods all his life, perhaps because of his repressed homosexuality.

Those disputing this, argue that Philip Nobile, initially Tripp's co-author, now says Tripp (who died in May 2003) fabricated evidence. Bed-sharing was common in frontier times because beds and mattresses were few; Abraham and Mary had four boys; Lincoln's melancholy may very likely have been triggered by the death of his birth mother and first love, Ann Rutledge.

Sensational claims should be grounded in historical truth "" or at least credible evidence "" and Tripp's is not. It is, as historian James M. McPherson feared, "looking at history through the wrong end of a telescope." It skews history to a contemporary political agenda. But it does illustrate that every new minority has to deal with Lincoln.

Other Lincoln milestones in 2004 that insure Lincoln deserves to remain at the top of the chart, include these items:

The first statue to be unveiled at Lincoln's New Salem in 35 years, "Abraham Lincoln:Deputy County Surveyor," depicts a 25-year-old Lincoln with a surveyor's compass and staff.

Stephen Sondheim's revival of the musical Assassins, including John Wilkes Booth, insists that it does not celebrate its homicidal subjects but asks the question that arises in many people's minds:"Why would someone do that."

C-SPAN broadcast Sam Waterston's extraordinary performance as Abraham Lincoln delivering the Cooper Union address from the stage of Cooper Union's Great Hall on May 23.

Even Lincoln's assassination was re-enacted at Ford's Theatre on July 11 for a five-minute IMAX film and Toypresidents created "talking action figures" of Abraham Lincoln and other presidents. Each figure delivers 25 phrases.

The exhibit "Forever Free:Abraham Lincoln's Journey to Emancipation," organized by The Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif., and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History in cooperation with the American Library Association, continues to tour the country.

As Deborah Fitts reported in The Civil War News, after five years of planning, the borough of Gettysburg is spending $2 million dollars to rehabilitate its historic train depot where Lincoln arrived to deliver his Gettysburg Address.

Controversy continues in the construction and completion of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill., with complaints about the Disney-like figures that appear throughout the museum. Some local Springfield citizens chafe at the aggressiveness of the capable Executive Director of the library and museum, presidential historian Richard Norton Smith, calling him "imperious."

The Papers of Abraham Lincoln completed the electronic publication of The Lincoln Log:A Daily Chronology of the Life of Abraham Lincoln. http//dev.stg.brown.edu/projects/lincoln/index.php

John Y. Simon, Executive Director of the Ulysses S. Grant Association and editor of 26 volumes of The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, along with British historian Richard J. Carwardine, shared the $50,000 Lincoln Prize from the Gilder Lehrman Institute and the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College. Carwardine wrote Lincoln:Profiles in Power.

Joseph R. Fornieri is the editor of the anthology The Language of Liberty:The Political Speeches and Writings of Abraham Lincoln.

Simon and Schuster published Harold Holzer's Lincoln at Cooper Union:The Speech That Made Abraham Lincoln President and Allen C. Guelzo's Lincoln Emancipation Proclamation:The End of Slavery in America.

Ronald White's latest book, The Eloquent President:A Portrait of Lincoln Through His Words, was published by Random House, as was American Brutus:John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies by Michael Kauffman.

The People's Vote, co-sponsored by the National Archives and Records Administration and U.S. News and World Report, invited Americans to vote for 10 of 100 milestone documents. The top 10 included the Declaration of Independence which received the most votes, the Emancipation Proclamation was fifth, the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery was seventh, and the Gettysburg Address was eighth.

The Associated Press reported that presidential historian Richard Lawrence Miller had searched every issue of the weekly Sangamo Journal to find an unsigned poem endorsing suicide that was thought to be written by Abraham Lincoln. Miller believes The Suicide's Soliloquy was written by Lincoln for the Aug. 25, 1838 issue.

Civil War and Lincoln scholars lost fellow travelers during the year. Jerry Russell, the outspoken advocate for battlefield preservation, died in December 2003, as did former U.S. Senator Paul Simon who wrote about Lincoln's legislative years. Senator Simon proposed the creation of The Abraham Lincoln Study Abroad Fellowship Program aimed at expanding opportunities for students to travel overseas in order to understand other cultures.

Military historian Frank Vandiver, author of Their Tattered Flags:The Epic of the Confederacy and Black Jack:The Life and Times of John J. Pershing, died at 79. Russell F. Weigley who wrote A Great Civil War:A Military and Political History, 1861-1865 died in March, and Rich Sokup of Freeport, Ill., President of The Lincoln-Douglas Society and a popular Stephen A. Douglas interpreter, died last January.

And the International Lincoln should not be forgotten either. William D. Pederson, Director of the International Lincoln Center at Louisiana State University in Shreveport, is busy traveling to cities abroad that commemorate Abraham Lincoln. He delivered a paper, "Abraham Lincoln's Influence on Nelson Mandela" at the annual meeting of the Association of Third World Studies, and on "The Lincoln Model of Conflict Resolution" at Andhra University in India.

With the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth in 2009 and the sesquicentennial of our Civil War in 2011, it is time for Lincoln groups and Civil War Round Tables to join together in planning commemorative events. In addition to the U.S. Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, some states like Rhode Island, Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois have enacted legislation creating Lincoln bicentennial commissions for their states.

On June 10, James Taranto reported in The Wall Street Journal that The Federalist Society prepared a new survey for ranking presidents. The society asked 78 scholars in history, law and politics to rate the presidents on a 5-point scale. Three presidents made the cut as "Great:" George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt.

On July 10, The Washington Times reported that academics and politicians in the District of Columbia urged lawmakers there to declare April 16 (Emancipation Day) a public holiday. On April 16, 1862, Lincoln signed the D.C. Emancipation Act which ended slavery in the city and freed more than 3,000 slaves. This occurred nine months after his Emancipation Proclamation.

Political courage is the order of the day and Lincoln's acts symbolize courageous leadership. New York Times columnist David Brooks recently wrote an op-ed, "The Courage Factor," which praised John McCain, Rudy Guiliano and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Brooks' criteria amply applies to Abraham Lincoln. First, Lincoln was clear and self-confident in his beliefs. Having made errors in judgment in prosecuting the war, Lincoln learned to trust his own judgment. While he made mistakes, they were not mistakes of self-doubt.

Second, Lincoln knew his own mind. He said, "I desire so to conduct the affairs of this administration that if at the end, when I come to lay down the reins of power, I have lost every other friend on earth, I shall at least have one friend left, and that friend shall be down inside me."

Third, Lincoln, like the Founding Fathers, was obsessed with character. After the Kansas-Nebraska Act was passed in 1854 permitting the extension of slavery into the territories, Lincoln believed that the act's sponsor, Senator Stephen A. Douglas, had violated the country's sense of decency and the Founders' belief that slavery would ultimately end.

Finally, Lincoln was most alive when in the midst of the fray. Theodore Roosevelt once declared, "Aggressive fighting for the right is the noblest sport the world affords."

Lincoln approached Civil War, if not with relish, at least with an understanding that our nation was, "The last best hope of Earth" "" and he acted accordingly. This sort of courage still inspires.

The coming months and years will demonstrate who really has the courage and resolve of Abraham Lincoln.

Frank J. Williams is Chief Justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court and founding chair of The Lincoln Forum. He is a member of the U.S. Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. His latest book, Judging Lincoln, was published by Southern Illinois University Press.

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