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ONLY HIS STEPCHILDREN: Lincoln and the Negro Don E. Fehrenbacher If the United States had a patron saint it would no doubt be Abraham Lincoln; and if one undertook to explain Lincoln's extraordinary hold on the national consciousness, it would be difficult to find a better starting -point than these lines from an undistinguished poem written in 1865 :] .1 One of the people! Born to be Their curious epitome; To share yet rise above Their shifting hate and love. A man of the people and yet something much more, sharing popular passions and yet rising above them—here was the very ideal of a democratic leader, who in his person could somehow mute the natural antagonism between strong leadership and vigorous democracy. Amy Lowell, picking up the same theme half a century later, called Lincoln "an embodiment of the highest form of the typical American."2 This paradox of the uncommon common man, splendidly heroic and at the same time appealingly representative, was by no means easy to sustain . The Lincoln tradition, as a consequence, came to embrace two distinct and seemingly incompatible legends—the awkward, amiable, robust, railsplitting, story-telling, frontier folklore hero; and the towering figure of the Great Emancipator and Savior of the Union, a man of sorrows, Christlike in his character and fate. Biographers have struggled earnestly with this conspicuous dualism, but even when the excesses of reminiscence and myth are trimmed away, Lincoln remains a puzzling mixture of often conflicting qualities —drollness and melancholy, warmth and reserve, skepticism and piety, humbleness and self-assurance. Furthermore, he is doubly hard to get at because he did not readily reveal his inner self. He left us no * Presented at Gettysburg College, November 19, 1973, as the 12th Annual Robert Fortenbaugh Memorial Lecture, and at the College of William and Mary, November 28, 1973, as a James Pinckney Harrison Lecture. 1 Richard Henry Stoddard, Abraham Lincoln; an Horatian Ode, cited in Roy P. Basier, The Lincoln Legend: A Study in Changing Conceptions (Boston, 1935), p. 234. 2 Ibid., pp. 264-265. 293 294civil war histoby diary or memoirs, and his closest friends called him "secretive" and "shut-mouthed." Billy Herndon in one of his modest moods declared, "Lincoln is unknown and possibly always will be."3 Plainly, there is good reason for scholarly caution in any effort to take the measure of such a man. No less plain is the intimate connection between the Lincoln legend and the myth of America. The ambiguities in his popular image and the whisper of enigma in his portraits have probably broadened the appeal of this homespun Westerner, self-made man, essential democrat , and national martyr. Almost anyone can find a way to identify with Lincoln, perhaps because "like Shakespeare ... he seemed to run through the whole gamut of human nature."4 Whatever the complex of reasons, successive generations of his countrymen have accepted Abraham Lincoln as the consummate American—the representative genius of the nation. One consequence is that he tends to serve as a mirror for Americans, who, when they write about him, frequently divulge a good deal about themselves. Of course the recurring election of Lincoln as Representative American has never been unanimous. There was vehement dissent at first from many unreconstructed rebels, and later from iconoclasts like Edgar Lee Masters and cavaliers of the Lost Cause like Lyon Gardiner Tyler. In the mainstream of national life, however, it became increasingly fashionable for individuals and organizations to square themselves with Lincoln and enlist him in their enterprises. Often this required misquotation or misrepresentation or outright invention; but lobbyists and legislators, industrialists and labor leaders, reformers and bosses, Populists, Progressives, Prohibitionists, and Presidents all wanted him on their side. New Deal Democrats tried to steal him from the Republicans, and the American Communist party bracketed him with Lenin. Lincoln, in the words of David Donald, had come to be "everybody's grandfather."5 Most remarkable of all was the growing recognition of Lincoln's greatness in the eleven states of the Confederacy, ten of which had never given him a single vote for President. This may have been a necessary symbolic aspect of sectional reconciliation. Returning to the Union...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1533-6271
Print ISSN
0009-8078
Pages
pp. 293-310
Launched on MUSE
2013-01-02
Open Access
No
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