Exhibition curator John Sellers speaks Feb. 9 during a preview of a new Lincoln collection at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., which is commemorating his 200th birthday.
By Alex Wong, Getty Images
Updated 2/24/2009 10:34 AM
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LINCOLN ALL OVER
Events in all 50 states will commemorate the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth Thursday. A sampling:
Washington, D.C. — Ford's Theatre, where Lincoln was shot in 1865, will present musical performances and readings of some of his speeches. Details at www.lincolnbicentennial.gov/calendar
Springfield, Ill. — From Humble Beginnings: Lincoln's Illinois, an exhibition at the Illinois State Museum. Details at www.museum.state.il.us
Gettysburg, Pa. — Opening of the David Wills House museum, where Lincoln spent the night before delivering the Gettysburg Address on Nov. 19, 1863. The museum is at Gettysburg National Military Park. Details at www.palincoln.org
Hodgenville, Ky. — The U.S. Mint will release the first of four newly redesigned Lincoln 2009 pennies during festivities in his boyhood hometown. Details at www.nps.gov/abli
Source: Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission
Enlarge By Jacquelyn Martin, AP Photo
Curator John Sellers holds the Lincoln Bible in the conservation division of the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C.
USA TODAY/GALLUP POLL
If you had to choose, which one of these U.S. presidents would you regard as the greatest?
Ronald Reagan: 24%
John Kennedy: 22%
Abraham Lincoln: 22%
Franklin Roosevelt: 18%
George Washington: 9%
No opinion: 4%
Source: Poll of 1,018 adults Fri. and Sat. Margin of error: ±3 percentage points.
200 years later, a more complex view of Lincoln
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By Rick Hampson, USA TODAY
Born 200 years ago Thursday in a log cabin on the Kentucky frontier, Abraham Lincoln today sits deified in a marble temple on the National Mall in Washington. Americans are still trying to figure out how he came such a long way, and what kind of man made the trip.
Having saved the Union, freed the slaves and redefined freedom, Lincoln was struck down in his hour of triumph. He is the most compelling figure in U.S. history, the subject of about 16,000 books in English, more than anyone except Jesus and Shakespeare.
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Americans can't get enough of Lincoln — especially now, having elected an African-American president in the midst of an economic crisis. They can't stop arguing about what made Lincoln great, what he'd have done if he hadn't been assassinated six weeks into his second term, what he'd do if he were alive today.
Each year, millions of visitors mount the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, gaze at the statue of this American Zeus and read his immortal words, carved into the walls.
Yet on his 200th birthday, the monolithic, mythic Lincoln — the barefoot boy who studied by candlelight and became honest Abe, the rail splitter — is fragmented into an array of competing and contrasting Lincolns.
Some are verifiable, others theoretical, few wholly compatible with the Lincoln of sainted memory.
Revisionists have gathered evidence to describe Lincoln the racist, Lincoln the tyrant, Lincoln the crybaby. There are scholars who argue that Lincoln probably was gay, or an atheist, or depressed, or henpecked.
To Catherine Clinton, author of a new biography of Lincoln's wife, Mary, this evolution is inevitable, given the interest in his life. "How can we not learn new things about Lincoln?" she asks. "We're all going to find new Lincolns."
During the Lincoln Bicentennial, new books are coming at a rate of one a week, according to Frank Williams, a former Rhode Island Supreme Court chief justice working on a Lincoln bibliography. There's also an avalanche of TV shows, conferences, re-enactments, rededications, essay contests and exhibitions, plus the re-opening of the renovated Ford's Theatre in Washington, where Lincoln was shot.
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One team of researchers is scouring the country for every legal document Lincoln signed. Another is combing through several cubic acres of documents in the National Archives, looking for Lincoln.
The search extends to attics and basements across the nation. "You never know what's going to turn up," says Edna Medford, a historian at Howard University in Washington. "You could be sitting on a gold mine."
Although for years Lincoln and George Washington ran neck-and-neck when historians ranked the greatest presidents, lately Lincoln seems to be pulling ahead; he was No. 1 in a London Times survey last year. A USA TODAY/Gallup Poll taken Friday and Saturday ranked only Ronald Reagan ahead of Lincoln and John Kennedy among presidents Americans consider great.
Michael Burlingame, author of a new two-volume Lincoln biography, says Lincoln's compassion, eloquence and humor make him more accessible than Founding Fathers such as Washington — powder-wigged, knee-buckled, imperious.
President Obama repeatedly invoked Lincoln during the campaign, praising his wisdom and humility, and then followed his fellow Illinoisan's example by picking a "team of rivals" for his Cabinet.
The inauguration's theme was "A New Birth of Freedom," echoing the words of the Gettysburg Address, and the oath was administered on the Bible that Lincoln used 148 years earlier. On Thursday, Obama will speak in Springfield, Ill., where Lincoln is buried.
In an interview last month with USA TODAY, Obama said that when he sits down to write a speech, "I'm hearing certain voices in my head. … Lincoln's one of them."
'How did he do it?'
The critical and often more realistic view of Lincoln that has emerged from all this research and reinterpretation has made him seem even more admirable — and more perplexing.
"We're back where we started: He is a great man," says Lew Lehrman, a former Republican candidate for governor of New York and author of a new book on Lincoln's anti-slavery speech of 1854 in Peoria, Ill.
This new Lincoln is more nuanced and complex than the one to whom the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated in 1922 and whom Americans have encountered in school, on television and at the movies.
This Lincoln's flaws make him seem even more heroic, because frontier poverty turns out to have been just one of his obstacles. "The simple fable becomes even more amazing when we study it in detail," Clinton says. "We can complicate this story and still come up with the same amazing moral."
Stephen Berry, a Lincoln expert who teaches at the University of Georgia, says students are fascinated by this inner Lincoln. "They ask, 'Was he gay? Was his wife crazy? Was he a Christian?' All these contemporary concerns keep him relevant. We knocked him off the pedestal, and now we're dusting him off and picking him up for a new generation."
Part of our interest is self-interest. When Americans are in a jam — like now — "people want to know, 'How did he do it?' " says Allen Guelzo, a Lincoln scholar at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania. "Since he saved the Union, we wonder, 'What was his secret?' "
Each discovery or new interpretation raises new questions:
ON DISPLAY: Bible used by Lincoln, Obama goes on view in D.C.
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• Lincoln the "racist": Did the man who freed the slaves really believe they were equal?
Lincoln's racial attitudes kept evolving, but he harbored some of the prejudices of his time, according to Harold Holzer, co-chairman of the Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.
Lincoln, lauded for generations as "The Great Emancipator," freed the slaves primarily to cripple the South's wartime economy, Holzer says. The Emancipation Proclamation of Jan. 1, 1863, did not even apply to all slaves — just those in the Confederacy.
Although Lincoln opposed slavery, he favored only gradual abolition, with the government compensating slaveholders and encouraging former slaves to immigrate to other countries, lest they stay in the USA as second-class citizens, says Tom Schwartz, the Illinois state historian.
When he was younger, Lincoln, like many of his contemporaries, told "darkie" jokes and used the "N" word to describe the race issue, Holzer says.
With the rise of the civil rights movement, African-Americans — who'd revered Lincoln for a century — began to examine this less admirable side of "Father Abraham." Some came to believe, as Ebony magazine editor Lerone Bennett Jr. put it in a 2000 book, that Lincoln was "forced into glory" by wartime demands.
Now, there has been a backlash against the backlash. Clinton, for instance, says she found in researching her book that Lincoln took his son Tad to the home of a black family in Washington for "a play date." Burlingame says he found a lost speech by abolitionist Frederick Douglass — who'd once called Lincoln a "slave hound" — praising him shortly after his death as "the black man's president."
"No doubt he was a racist, but if you look at him in the context of his time, he's so far ahead of other politicians," says Vernon Burton, a retired University of Illinois historian. "Look at Stephen Douglas (Lincoln's Democratic opponent for U.S. Senate in 1858 and president in 1860). His whole platform boiled down to white supremacy. Lincoln changed and grew, especially as president."
• Lincoln the "crybaby": How did his mental health affect his presidency?
Historians generally agree that Lincoln suffered from clinical depression, part of a lifelong struggle with mental health issues. He twice suffered nervous breakdowns as a young man, and friends worried he would commit suicide. "Melancholy dripped from him as he walked," said William Herndon, Lincoln's law partner. In Washington, he wept in public so frequently that Clinton calls him "our first crybaby president."
Lacking access to proper psychiatric medicines or formal therapy, Lincoln coped with depression in part by making jokes, telling stories and reading sad poetry. Historians such as Joshua Wolf Shenk believe this actually may have fueled Lincoln's rise and made him a more compassionate and patient president.
•Lincoln the atheist: What did he believe?
Herndon thought Lincoln was an atheist — a view not emphasized in Lincoln hagiography. But just because Lincoln didn't go to church or belong to one doesn't mean he wasn't a believer.
"Lincoln powerfully thought there was a divine being, but he didn't choose to identify it," Clinton says. Although in speeches he repeatedly invoked God and quoted the Bible, "He never mentioned Jesus."
Lincoln was a fatalist. Although most Americans think of him as "an energetic change agent," says Douglas Wilson, head of Lincoln studies at Knox College in Galesburg, Ill., Lincoln was fond of reciting: "What will be will be. And no prayers of ours can arrest the decree."
Berry, the University of Georgia professor, believes that although Lincoln originally believed in a distant, impersonal God, he became more intensely spiritual because of the Civil War and the death from typhoid of his son Willie, 11, in 1862.
Lincoln said he often was driven to his knees in prayer, "because there was nowhere else to go." He took the Union's victory in the Battle of Antietam in 1862 as a divine signal to free the slaves, according to Lincoln scholar Richard Carwardine.
•Lincoln the homosexual: A gay man in the White House?
Some writers, such as the late sex researcher and gay rights activist C. A. Tripp (The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, 2004) have argued that Lincoln was sexually attracted to men.
Lincoln's long friendship with Joshua Speed, a young store owner in Springfield, Ill., when Lincoln arrived there at age 28 in 1837, has attracted the most attention. Lincoln, whose worldly possessions at the time fit in two saddlebags, accepted Speed's invitation to save money by sharing the double bed in the room he was renting, according to many of the biographies, including David Herbert Donald'sLincoln.
Most historians don't think they were lovers. As Donald points out, bed-sharing was not unusual at the time because of financial necessity. Many boys grew up sharing a bed with one or more brothers.
Burlingame says speculation persists about a Speed diary and letters in which he wrote explicitly about a relationship with Lincoln. Burlingame doesn't buy it; nor does Berry, who says Lincoln wasn't homosexual, but homosocial.
"He cried too much to be a man's man, but he was a guy's guy," Berry says. "He liked nothing more than to sit around the stove, telling jokes and stories."
• Lincoln the henpecked: A loveless marriage?
People have speculated about Abraham and Mary Lincoln's marriage almost since their wedding in 1842, and the debate continues. Clinton, author of Mrs. Lincoln: A Life, says that what turned out to be the last month of Abraham Lincoln's life "was one of the worst of their marriage," partly because of tensions over their son Robert's enlistment in the Army.
However, she says the Lincolns' relationship has been portrayed unfairly and that it was an important element in Lincoln's rise to power.
Burlingame takes a dimmer view of Mary. He says he found evidence she padded payrolls and expense accounts, took kickbacks "and generally made Lincoln's life miserable" before and after entering the White House.
• Lincoln the dictator: Did he abuse his wartime powers?
Southerners weren't the only ones who viewed Lincoln as a tyrant. He cracked down on the press, proclaimed a trade and military blockade of the Confederacy, spent without congressional authorization and summarily imprisoned thousands of suspected Confederate sympathizers. Union interrogators even employed an early form of waterboarding, trying to get suspects to talk by forcing their heads underwater.
As a result, some critics see "a straight line from Abraham Lincoln to John Ashcroft," Mark Neely, a Penn State historian, said at a recent Lincoln conference at Columbia University. Ashcroft was the Bush administration's attorney general when the White House approved holding foreign terror suspects without charges.
Neely says, however, that Lincoln's civil rights record compares favorably with those of Franklin Roosevelt, who interned more than 100,000 Japanese nationals and Japanese Americans during World War II, and Woodrow Wilson, who sharply curtailed Americans' speech rights during World War I.
A cabin that's a temple
For a visceral sense of how far Lincoln rose, visit the Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site near Hodgenville, Ky.
There, in a sublime irony, an old replica of the cabin sits encased in a pink granite temple constructed in 1909 to the designs of John Russell Pope, the greatest American neo-classical architect of the time. It has 56 steps, one for each year of Lincoln's life.
The temple inhibits conversation. Sandy Brue, the site interpreter, says that when people walk inside, they're awed, reverential. They whisper.
"I have to tell them it's OK, they can talk," she says.
When visitors look at the little cabin, they see the physical poverty Lincoln overcame. What they can't see is the emotional poverty — of the boy who lost his mother and siblings and was estranged from his father; of the depressed young man who said he couldn't kill himself only because he'd die without having accomplished anything; of the president who endured constant excoriation and the greatest slaughter in U.S. history.
"Yet he came out of it all a psychologically mature man" — and a great man, Burlingame says. "That says there's hope for all of us."