It was Tuesday, May 30, 1922, the day of the dedication of the solemn and splendid memorial to Abraham Lincoln in Washington, and the ceremony on the Mall featured speeches by President Warren Harding and Chief Justice William Howard Taft.
The most interesting observations about the 16th president, however, were not spoken amid the pomp but in the pages of the Crisis, the journal of the NAACP founded by W.E.B. DuBois. “Abraham Lincoln was a Southern poor white . . . poorly educated and unusually ugly, awkward, ill-dressed. . . . He was big enough to be inconsistent -- cruel, merciful; peace-loving, a fighter; despising Negroes and letting them fight and vote; protecting slavery and freeing slaves. He was a man -- a big, inconsistent, brave man.”
DuBois’ observations were brief yet controversial (one reader called them “unkind and uncalled for”), and he defended them in the next edition of the magazine. “We love to think of the Great as flawless,” DuBois wrote. “We yearn in our imperfection toward perfection -- sinful, we envisage Righteousness.” Such idolatry, however, serves little purpose: If we require the perfect and the righteous to lead us to higher ground, then we are not likely to get there, for there is not exactly a burgeoning oversupply of perfect and righteous leaders.
The conflict between the adulatory impulses of hero-worshipers and the cooler calculations of the historically minded is perennial. But the tension is especially interesting in Lincoln’s case since he is perhaps the most universally admired and revered member of the American pantheon.
Of all the leaders of the past, one would think, surely we could agree that Lincoln is above reproach: Yet such an agreement would serve us poorly. No one questions his bona fides as a great man, as the Savior of the Union and the Redeemer President. DuBois was not quarreling with the enduring image of Lincoln. He was, rather, asking his readers -- and, by extension, history -- to note well and long remember that Lincoln was a man before he was a monument, and the story of a man who becomes a monument is more interesting and instructive than the story of a man who was born one.
The man behind the icon
This is the Lincoln who fascinates me and who has captivated Americans for nearly a century and a half: the paradoxical, all-too-human politician who overcame his own prejudices and flaws to rescue the Union and, through Emancipation, redeem the original sin of the Founders. And this vivid, earthy, ambitious, uncertain, doubting and ultimately exhausted man is, thankfully, the central character in the great rolling stream of books being published to commemorate the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth in 1809 at Nolin Creek in Kentucky.
Readers looking for a path through the ever denser forest of Lincoln volumes should be guided by their own lights: What I can tell you is that the books listed here are smart, engaging, illuminating and fun. Some, like collections edited by Harold Holzer and Sean Wilentz, are terrific samplers. Holzer’s is rightly called “The Lincoln Anthology,” and you can silently underscore “The” in the title. A product of the wonderful Library of America series, “The Lincoln Anthology” gives us hundreds of pages of the greatest offerings on arguably our greatest president.
From Walt Whitman’s “Leaves of Grass” quartets on Lincoln to E.L. Doctorow in “The March” and Barack Obama’s speech announcing his presidential candidacy in Springfield, Ill., in 2007, Holzer has created the best kind of anthology: one that surprises and engages by its serendipity and idiosyncratic choices. It is good to have a single source in which to dip and read what Bram Stoker, Karl Marx, Winston Churchill, Henrik Ibsen, Leo Tolstoy, H.L. Mencken, Dale Carnegie, Langston Hughes, James Agee, Mark Van Doren, Jacques Barzun, Reinhold Niehbur, Robert Lowell and Allen Ginsberg have had to say about Lincoln in prose and in verse.
Wilentz’s volume, “The Best American History Essays on Lincoln,” is more modest in scope but is as fascinating in its way. A project of the Organization of American Historians, it brings together a kind of Platonic ideal of a scholarly Lincoln dinner party. The guests include Richard Hofstadter, James McPherson, David Herbert Donald, John Hope Franklin and -- to ensure a boisterous, unpredictable evening -- Edmund Wilson. It was Wilson who remarked that Carl Sandburg’s sentimental work on Lincoln’s “Prairie Years” was “corn” and that “the cruelest thing that has happened to Lincoln since he was shot by Booth has been to fall into the hands of Carl Sandburg.”
Three other books merit specific mention, for they too eschew the Sandburgian slide toward gloss and gauze. Ronald C. White Jr.'s comprehensive “A. Lincoln” is an admirable account of the life in full; it is the most readable such volume since Donald’s 1995 biography. (Disclosure: I read White’s book in galley and, impressed, offered words of pre-publication endorsement.)
John Stauffer’s “Giants,” a parallel biography of Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, is an original, eloquent, unsentimental examination of both men and their legacies. Stauffer is cold-eyed about his subjects, particularly Lincoln. He paints a scene in the White House in the fall of 1861, when Jessie Fremont -- daughter of Sen. Thomas Hart Benton of Missouri and wife of John C. Fremont, the Union officer who unilaterally issued his own emancipation proclamation in 1861 (thus freeing the slaves of Confederate sympathizers in Missouri) -- came to see Lincoln, who pointedly did not ask her to sit down.
The president, trying to save the Union and still unwilling to take slavery on directly and fully, was annoyed with her husband. She spoke in terms that echoed Douglass. As Stauffer writes, “She said that a war for emancipation would deter Britain, France, and Spain from recognizing the Confederacy.”
Lincoln interrupted her, disagreeing. Her husband, he said, “should never have dragged the Negro into the war. It is a war from a great national object and the Negro has nothing to do with it.” Overstated in the excitement of the moment, perhaps, but Lincoln’s exchange with her opens a window on his painfully calibrated political and war leadership.
It would be easier for Lincoln mythologizers if their man had been a noble soldier in the cause of abolition from the beginning. But he was not, and his anguish over the issue was real and deep. As James McPherson details in his small, elegant book “Abraham Lincoln,” the president had often said that slavery was “a social, moral, and political wrong,” but he would add: “I have never understood that the Presidency conferred upon me an unrestricted right to act officially on this judgment and feeling.”
As late as Aug. 22, 1863 -- only a month before he finally issued the Emancipation Proclamation, after the Union victory at Antietam -- he wrote: “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that.”
Lincoln was a practical man. When he suspended habeas corpus during the war, he rejected Chief Justice Roger Taney’s ruling that the suspension was unconstitutional, writing: “As commander-in-chief of the Army and Navy, in time of war, I suppose I have a right to take any measure which may subdue the enemy.” What might seem unforgivably arrogant or imperial in one president, then, was crucial in Lincoln’s as he set about protecting the possibilities of America. He understood what idealists rarely do: that the world is a dark and difficult place, and the forces of light require occasional assistance (in men and materiel) from the forces of darkness. An uncomfortable truth, but a truth nonetheless.
What is done is done; the debates over his views on abolition and civil liberties will go on. How we remember Lincoln is the only part of his life and legacy in our control. In a beautiful volume titled “Looking for Lincoln: The Making of an American Icon,” Philip B. Kunhardt III, Peter W. Kunhardt and Peter W. Kunhardt Jr. explore posthumous portraits of Lincoln.
The book is powerfully illustrated, beginning with the assassination and ending with the death, in 1926, of Robert Todd Lincoln, the president’s surviving son. To leaf through its pages is to walk through the life of the nation after that night at Ford’s Theater in 1865, watching as a man became a legend. To remember Lincoln, the Kunhardts demonstrate, is to remember ourselves -- for better and occasionally for worse. (The lone speech by a black man at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial, we learn from “Looking for Lincoln,” went largely unreported.)
At the end of the defense of his remarks in 1922, DuBois observed: “The scars and foibles of the Great do not diminish but enhance the worth and meaning of their upward struggle.” So it is with Lincoln’s scars and foibles. Amid the eloquent evocations of his deathless words during the bicentennial we should bear in mind that their author was one of us -- which means that perhaps, just perhaps, another Lincoln may emerge from the present to redeem our past and give us a future worthy of the American promise.
Meacham is the editor of Newsweek and the author, most recently, of “American Lion: Andrew Jackson in the White House.”