"Honest" Abe?

Could Lincoln win the presidency today? It's doubtful.



photograph by Carlos Soler Martinez | Dreamstime

Prediction: Abraham Lincoln will lose to James Bond at the box office this holiday season, but not by much.

The movie Lincoln, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Daniel Day-Lewis, came out in November the same week as the latest James Bond movie, Skyfall, starring Daniel Craig.

I give Lincoln a post-election bounce, as well as legs as long as those of Honest Abe himself because of the subject matter. Sure as weight-loss resolutions in January, millions of parents and students will go see it out of genuine interest and curiosity as well as a dose of penance for all the trashy entertainment we ingest. Prepare for bicentennial Lincoln-mania. More than 20 books are scheduled to come out before next summer, adding to the 16,000 or so already on the Lincoln shelf.

My question is, could Lincoln be elected today? I doubt it.

Spurred by the movie opening, I went looking for a quick read on Lincoln and checked out Lincoln at Gettysburg by Garry Wills.

I had forgotten most of the 272-word speech I memorized long ago that Lincoln delivered in three minutes. The main speaker that day, Edward Everett, one of the great orators of his time, spoke for two hours. Lincoln at Gettysburg includes the text of that one, too, and it’s actually not bad. And Everett took great pride in not speaking from a manuscript.

But back to Lincoln. Wills goes into the making of the man and the making of the Gettysburg Address, which does not directly address slavery.

“Lincoln was accused during his lifetime of clever evasions and key silences,” Wills writes. “He was especially indirect and hard to interpret on the subject of slavery.”

Prepare for Lincoln-mania. More than 20 books are scheduled to come out before next summer, adding to the 16,000 or so already on the Lincoln shelf.

Lincoln dodged the subject in his 1858 debate with Senate candidate Stephen Douglas, and delivered some campaign speeches that would get him branded as a racist today. Here is an excerpt from one that Wills quotes:
“I will say then that I am not nor ever have been in favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races; that I am not nor ever have been in favor of making voters or jurors of Negroes nor of qualifying them to hold office, nor of intermarrying with white people. And I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of political and social equality. And inasmuch as they cannot so live, while they do remain together there must be the position of superior and inferior, and I as much as any other man am in favor of having the superior position assigned to the white race.”

Imagine the political handlers or the pundits on MSNBC or Fox News going after that one. Wills writes that Lincoln’s political base, Illinois, had a case of “Negrophobia” and in 1848 amended the state constitution to deny freed blacks the right to enter the state.

“Lincoln knew the racial geography of his own state well,”  according to Wills, “and calibrated what he had to say about slavery according to his audience.”

Granted we’re talking about America 165 years ago; still it remains a fact that some of Lincoln’s contemporaries, notably the Unitarian minister and orator Theodore Parker, were unequivocal about the abolition of slavery and had little regard for Lincoln’s political caution.

 Lincoln composed the Gettysburg Address on a train ride from Washington to Pennsylvania. After delivering it, he feared he had bombed.

What did Memphian and Civil War historian Shelby Foote write about Lincoln in the second volume, Fredericksburg to Meridian, of his trilogy? Lincoln thought the Gettysburg Address a failure.

“As he resumed his seat and heard the perfunctory spatter of applause whose brevity matched his own, the speaker himself was taken with a feeling of regret that he had not measured up to what had been expected of him,” wrote Foote.

Lincoln’s home state newspaper, The Chicago Times, was brutal: “The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat, and dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States.” Future generations of critics would be more charitable.  

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