Adventures in Abe’s America
Atlantic Monthly Press, 2007, 279 pp., $24
Taking to heart Abraham Lincoln—the life he led and the words he wrote—is edifying. That is the corny truth that Andrew Ferguson tries to stave off in his funny and affecting Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America. He can only stave it off for so long, however.Ferguson, who has written for the American Spectator, the Weekly Standard, the Scripps Howard newspapers, Time and many other publications, grew up near Chicago in a Lincoln-worshiping family. He retraces here his youthful pilgrimages to Springfield, Illinois, and other sites where the 16th president spent parts of his life. He travels coast to coast interviewing Lincoln buffs, spends time with Lincoln impersonators and Lincoln-hating neo-Confederates, and reviews how museums and scholars have treated Lincoln over the past several decades. He even takes his family to an amphitheater near Evansville, Indiana, for a performance of the musical Young Abe Lincoln. The players in their lumberjack shirts and gingham dressesdanced when the Lincoln family arrived from Kentucky and they danced when they left, they danced when someone got married or died, went a-huntin’ or a courtin’, and even, in a particularly confusing dream sequence, when someone fell asleep. Happy Feet replaced Milk Sick as the greatest threat to public health.
Amid these entertaining investigations into what Abraham Lincoln means to us today, Ferguson writes: “Lincoln seemed harder to get hold of than ever.” But that’s a bit of a pose, and Ferguson, a conservative journalist with a good deal of populism to his conservatism, has reasons enough to strike it. He knows better than to wear a big “C” on his sleeve, for that would scare off the great American middle, educated as they have been to a relativism that leaves little room for unalloyed greatness. Ferguson, moreover, respects the fact that Lincoln-as-icon—as symbolic of our country—transcends party and ideology. Nor could it be lost on him that books about the Founders and American history have been selling very well.11.
Consider these books, all published within the past five years: We Are Lincoln Men: Abraham Lincoln and His Friends by David Herbert Donald; Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Defined America by Allen C. Guelzo; Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin; Lincoln and Whitman: Parallel Lives in Civil War Washington by Daniel Mark Epstein; American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies by Michael W. Kauffman; The Madness of Mary Lincoln by Jason Emerson; Lincoln’s Speeches Reconsidered by John Channing Briggs; and Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech That Made Abraham Lincoln President by Harold Holzer. The reading public is on a kind of patriotic nostalgia kick, and Ferguson seems to be banking on the chance that a lighter approach to the hoary and the solemn will exert a certain appeal.So as a social critic Ferguson is genial, not hectoring. He sort of backs into his social criticism. He won’t tell readers, for example, that commemorating Lincoln can encourage ordinary people to emulate his honesty, perseverance, patience and wisdom. Instead, he has us listen in on a verbose postmodern historiographer making light of efforts to commemorate Honest Abe in order to instill honesty, perseverance, patience and wisdom, and then nails the postmodern snob for his pomposity and cynicism. The “party poopery” of academics and intellectuals “is dispiriting”, writes Ferguson—his way of giving us permission to go ahead and feel downright uplifted and even teary-eyed when standing before Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ statue in Chicago’s Lincoln Park or Daniel Chester French’s massive seated figure on the Mall in Washington.Did I say Andrew Ferguson was a populist? He is also an elitist—of the meritocratic kind, that is. Populism blended with meritocracy is not only a viable combination but one that describes Lincoln himself: a man born in prairie obscurity who rose to eminence by saving the Union on the principle of equality of rights. On the other hand, though, the standards of judgment of a populist-elitist like Ferguson can be somewhat unclear. The populist-elitist’s relationship to popular culture, for example, is bound to be tricky. Which pop culture manifestations are deemed fun in a kitschy sort of way, and which are rejected as crass, can seem arbitrary. For example, one of the many things that irks the author about the new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield is its accent on Lincoln the husband and father at the expense of Lincoln the statesman. But if the museum is cheesy, then on what basis would an evidently extremely cheesy Irving Stone novel—Love Is Eternal, a 1954 potboiler filled with scenes of Abe romancing his main squeeze, Mary—earn the qualified approval that Ferguson gives it? Similarly, Ferguson feels nostalgic for the hot-dog stand and souvenir hut of his boyhood visits to the Lincoln birthplace in Hodgenville, Kentucky, and he feels anger at the purist National Park Service for its plan to clear away such accretions. Yet a page or two later, while giving an interesting account of the changes the Hodgenville site had gone through during the Gilded Age, he applauds a group led by the famous journalist Ida Tarbell for wanting to “save the cabin and the farm and remove them once and for all time from the greasy paws of commerce.” This is definitely a “two cheers for capitalism” kind of book—or make that one-point-five, depending on the section one happens to be reading at the time.Some of Ferguson’s ambivalence makes its way into his portraits of the Lincoln buffs he interviewed, but it lends to these portraits a wonderfully rounded quality. The bombastic judicial reformer in Rhode Island; the excruciatingly humble Thai couple in Chicago; the rich but winsomely sincere Beverly Hills woman who has cornered the market on Lincoln collectibles and driven prices skyward for everyone else—all identify closely, if in idiosyncratic ways, with the Rail Splitter from Illinois. It is a shock to find out that there are adults like this living among us today. Ferguson gets us to see them as touching and even admirable in their nuttiness.Well nigh irresistible in this regard is the vignette of Mr. and Mrs. Oscar Esche, who emigrated from Thailand to Chicago in the early 1970s. I won’t divulge one of Ferguson’s best punch lines, but I will say that inside a certain Kedzie Avenue restaurant there sits a Lincoln statue that gets a lot of attention. Patiently, the owners explained to Ferguson why a complete Thai meal, freshly prepared, is each day set before this statue: Once upon a time, Mrs. Esche noticed the “Land of Lincoln” slogan on Illinois license plates and wanted to know what those words meant. She and her family looked it up, and thus began their veneration of Abraham Lincoln for “tell[ing] everyone that they are equal”, and also for being directly responsible—in the Esches’ view—for the financial success of the Thai Little Home Café on Kedzie Avenue.The Esches may or may not know about their hero’s pro-immigrant pronouncements and his staunch hostility to the nativists of his day. But in fact it was in Chicago, in 1858, that Lincoln declaimed on the meaning of the Fourth of July, using the holiday to assail Senator Stephen Douglas’ crabbed conception of the Declaration of Independence. It wasn’t only the descendents of the Founders who could claim attachment to that document, said Lincoln, but also recent arrivals from Continental Europe. German, Irish, French and Scandinavian Americans, he said, can read in the Declaration that “all men are created equal” and, when they do, they “feel . . . that it is the father of all moral principle in them, and that they have a right to claim it as though they were blood of the blood, and flesh of the flesh of the men who wrote that Declaration.”Lincoln was neither the first nor the last politician to articulate the universality of the American creed, but he has to have been among the shrewdest. For here we have both a statement of high principle and an appeal to a new and growing sector of the American electorate. New Americans—in defiance of the short-lived Know Nothing Party’s effort to exclude foreigners and Roman Catholics from political participation—voted in substantial numbers for candidates from the new Republican Party.“The oppression of negroes” and the “degrading [of] classes of white people” were one and the same, wrote Lincoln in a letter to his friend Joshua Speed. Both were violations of equality of right. Most famously in the letter to Speed, Lincoln heaped scorn on the Know Nothings for the Old World tenor of their thinking. Should they prevail, Lincoln quipped, “I should prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty—to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy.” Such details of Lincoln’s domestic and foreign policy are largely absent from Land of Lincoln, however, geared as it is toward the average American’s view of the man. Non-academics are generally not interested in the historical twists and turns. There are exceptions, though, and these can be boiled down, on the evidence of this book, into two groups: the small fringe of Americans who consider Lincoln to be the arch-villain of U.S. history, and the multitude of Americans who scour bookstores in search of self-improvement tips. To the Lincoln-despising Sons of Confederate Veterans, Ferguson tries to be sympathetic insofar as he can. He takes a dim view of the way history is taught in our schools, as do the neo-Confederates. He is no fan of big business, big government or affirmative action quotas, all of which they, too, identify as the symptoms of America’s decline. Ferguson deftly shows where these law-abiding and middle-class people—who are not racists, contrary to the mainstream media’s portrayal—go off track: They have seized upon the convenient notion that one man, and one man only, is responsible for the depressed state of our country today. Their condemnation of Lincoln as “the American Caesar” is supported with crackpot political and economic history but, Ferguson seems to say, at least it keeps Old Abe in the topical mix.As for the self-improvers, it turns out to make a good deal of sense that, as we learn in Land of Lincoln, the first book by Dale Carnegie (author of How to Win Friends and Influence People) was his biography of Lincoln published back in 1932. Lincoln was and ever remains a staple of management and leadership gurus. They make much of his steadfastness through the horrors of the Civil War and his ability to remain unaffected by the nastiness and other personal flaws of his generals and cabinet members, so that he could get good work out of them. Just the other day I saw an on-line advertisement spoofing one of those seminars, and the person being “worked on” by the rest was sitting in the center of the group with a big black stovepipe hat atop his head. The hat had a single word scrawled on it: “Honesty.”None of us is a Lincoln, but it’s a good idea to try to be Lincolnian. The develop-your-inner-CEO books and wealth-maximization seminars claim to be about getting ahead and getting rich but, Ferguson tells us, they often turn into something else: occasions “for painless, gentle moral instruction. Lincoln lets them do it. . . . It turns out that . . . in this buck-hustling country, there really is The Secret, or in any case, this secret: You can always try to become a better person.”Well, that’s nice to know. It’s nice to know, too, that in the “Lincoln-lite” genre critiqued by Ferguson—in a book that is itself an astute contribution to that genre—something of Lincoln’s greatness shows through anyway. No amount of kitsch, it seems, can cover over a man as tall as Honest Abe.
Consider these books, all published within the past five years: We Are Lincoln Men: Abraham Lincoln and His Friends by David Herbert Donald; Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates that Defined America by Allen C. Guelzo; Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln by Doris Kearns Goodwin; Lincoln and Whitman: Parallel Lives in Civil War Washington by Daniel Mark Epstein; American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies by Michael W. Kauffman; The Madness of Mary Lincoln by Jason Emerson; Lincoln’s Speeches Reconsidered by John Channing Briggs; and Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech That Made Abraham Lincoln President by Harold Holzer.