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Biography 24.4 (2001) 970-973

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Barry Schwartz. Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory.Chicago: U of Chicago P, 2000. 367 pp. ISBN 0-226-74197-4, $27.50.

"Now he belongs to the ages." So said Secretary of War Edwin Stanton when Abraham Lincoln died on April 15, 1865. In this well-written and imaginative study, Barry Schwartz, a sociology professor at the University of Georgia, uses a wide variety of sources, including newspapers, magazines, paintings, and sculptures, to examine the shifting levels of Lincoln's reputation from his assassination to the dedication of his national memorial in Washington, D.C., on May 30, 1922. The evolving views of Lincoln, Schwartz argues, "show how the content of collective memory is influenced by the experiences and mentalities of the communities invoking it" (222). For the first few years following Lincoln's death, he did not take on major importance. Although he was among the very few Americans who opposed slavery and treated blacks with respect, he was part of a racist society that, by today's standards, fell far short of progressive. Indeed, the U.S. Congress approved the Lincoln Memorial to commemorate regional reconciliation and not racial reconciliation. But beginning with the Progressive Era of the early twentieth century, Lincoln came to embody the values of an industrialized, urban, and expansionist America. New historical discoveries did not raise Lincoln's prominence; wide-ranging cultural changes made him into a "national deity" (xi). Lincoln took on a dual image of the "plainness, familiarity, and sympathy" of the common man, as well as the "stateliness, authority, and dignity" of the state (256). He became "part of the soul of American society" (255). [End Page 970]

Lincoln's assassination provided a time for "ritual acts of national affirmation and national communion" that made him into one of the nation's "sacred symbols" (33, 42). Even the South mourned his death as a "celebration of America's integrity" (54). A sense of "national crisis and sudden death" had produced a commonality based on the people's "common participation in his funeral" and "their common identification with the nation" (60, 63). This "commemorative ritual" built "cohesion through uniformity of action rather than similarity of belief" (63). Once the emotions over Lincoln's funeral had subsided, however, his prestige fell among the American people. In the post-Civil War period, their emphasis was on healing the nation. But memories of Lincoln conjured up hard feelings over the rife divisions between North and South, the clashes between Republicans and Democrats over his wartime actions, and the bitter racial issues resulting from emancipation. The centennial celebrations of 1876 focused on the contributions of George Washington and other founding fathers, further diminishing Lincoln's standing. Not until this wartime generation had passed could Lincoln's reputation attain national respectability.

Lincoln's public stature grew in the Progressive Era of the early twentieth century, Schwartz argues, because this was a period of "political ferment, of suspicion of plutocracy and political bosses, a time for routinized muckraking and reexamination of the assumptions underlying popular conceptions of government" (14). The slain president moved from martyr to idol as many groups "created a literal cult of commemorative biography, poetry, statuary, painting, monuments, shrines, and ritual observance" (23). Lincoln became a moral and political model for progressivism by personifying its democratic values; he became a model of progressivism by reflecting its ideals of moral duty. Indeed, President Theodore Roosevelt claimed that he often envisioned Lincoln walking through the corridors of the White House, a constant reminder that in a just society human rights were more important than property rights. Not until the twentieth century, according to Schwartz, did Lincoln's birth in a log cabin become the "distinguishing symbol" of his life (147). Lincoln's appearance on the penny in 1909 demonstrated the growth of democracy in the United States, for as Carl Sandburg observed, the penny was "strictly the coin of the common people" (130).

The penultimate time for Lincoln's popularity came in World War I, when he epitomized the unifying...