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“What Shall We Do with the Narrative of American Progress?”: Lincoln at 200 and National Mythology

From: Reviews in American History
Volume 38, Number 1, March 2010
pp. 67-71 | 10.1353/rah.0.0164

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Historians today like to believe that the formation of American civil religion was someone else’s doing—that our national mythology crystallized in a bygone era marked by an abiding faith in our own exceptionalism. We owe this perception to the fact that it has long been fashionable to hold aloft the lamp of cynical-minded realism and shine its unflattering and inescapable light upon an antiquated historical narrative that had been formed by generations of latent chauvinism. The athenaeum of American revisionism produced in the second half of the twentieth century exposed countless half-truths while bringing to the fore the contributions of individuals omitted by an earlier set of Eurocentric male scholars. Such work bears enduring witness to the historical profession’s progressive accomplishments. Thus, with the slain body of American exceptionalism now at our backs and the still-smoking interpretive weapons of race, class, and gender holstered securely on our hips, we might ride into the sunset confident in the knowledge that hackneyed metaphors for patriotic mythology will never again haunt our writings.

It seems appropriate, however, that with the turbulent first decade of the twenty-first century coming to a close, we might question whether or not the revisionism of the last fifty years merely traded the deeply entrenched dogma of American exceptionalism for the equally powerful narrative of liberal democratic progress. The notion that the United States is somehow aboard a teleological conveyor belt bound, albeit with halts and starts, toward a freer and more just future has for decades informed the literature of the American Revolution, World War II, and the Civil Rights Movement. Yet nowhere is this prevailing belief more deeply engrained than in our collective memory and historical scholarship of the Civil War era. By extension, no single figure holds greater metaphorical significance for our nation’s political and moral identity than President Abraham Lincoln. What historians write about the sixteenth president speaks both consciously and unconsciously to what our nation wants to believe about itself. Most portraits that have been painted of Lincoln reveal flaws, but seldom do they set their canvas at an unflattering angle.

Lincoln could scarcely be a hotter historical topic than he was in 2009. The occasion of his two-hundredth birthday became the raison d’être for numerous symposia, commemorative events, community festivals, and a larger than usual number of books dealing with the president’s life and legacy. These works appear in addition to the over two-thousand entries returned by a recent query of the Library of Congress online catalog. Yet perhaps more indicative of the currency that Lincoln enjoys as “The Great Emancipator” are the connections made by souvenir vendors that link the 1809 birth of Lincoln to the 2009 inauguration of Barack Obama. One popular T-shirt depicts portraits of Lincoln, Martin Luther King, and the new President, creating a visual continuum of racial progress. Meanwhile, the cover of Doris Kearns Goodwin’s flattering Team of Rivals now bears a foil star with a quote from Obama indicating that the book is “a remarkable study in leadership.”1 Lincoln’s reputation as an agent of racial egalitarianism in America seems firmly entrenched in the national psyche.

Perhaps it is because we are awash in a sea of “Lincolnalia” pop iconography and literary fluff that Paul Escott’s new work offers such a refreshingly new and sober portrait of the man in the stovepipe hat. As Escott so ably points out, the question of “what shall we do with the Negro?” stood, in all of its racist assumptions, as the single most important domestic policy question of Lincoln’s political career. Moreover, he argues that Lincoln and other public figures, in both North and South, answered this question guided by a nineteenth-century worldview that found incontrovertible truth in white supremacy. Escott’s “effort to tell a more realistic and less celebratory story” poses important, if currently unpopular, questions not only about Lincoln, but also about the inclination of American historians to project representative democracy as the engine of liberal social progress (p. xv). To wit, he suggests that perhaps we might more accurately attribute greater positive change to uncontrolled and uncontrollable forces...



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