It was “interesting,” said Gertrude Stein of the Civil War, although she was far more intrigued by General Grant than Abraham Lincoln, whom she virtually ignored. She’s the only one, so it seems, especially now with the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, duly touted by committees, books and celebration, having arrived just a few weeks after President Barack Obama’s historic inauguration, during which he took the oath of office using Lincoln’s burgundy velvet Bible. But then Lincoln has been for a very long time enshrined as a legend, albeit a complex one, whose fate was sealed by the martyrdom that gave him to the ages, or angels, depending on how one recalls Secretary of War Edwin Stanton’s tender benediction.
By 1865 the outlines of Lincoln’s life were already familiar to enthusiasts and detractors alike, for Lincoln’s rise to the presidency fleshed out the American dream of equal opportunity, at least for white men: born into hardscrabble poverty, his mother dead of the “milk sickness” when he was 9, and the son of a feckless or restless father (depending on your point of view), young Abe Lincoln, six-foot-four in stocking feet, read at night by the fire, etched out his thoughts on the back of a shovel and in his early years earned his keep as a farmer, rail-splitter, surveyor, ferryman, postmaster and storekeeper. By 28 he was an avid student of Blackstone’s Commentaries and Aesop’s Fables as well as a crackerjack lawyer and a formidable Whig leader in the Illinois House of Representatives. Galvanized by the repeal of the Missouri Compromise in 1854, he later worked assiduously in 1856 for the Republican presidential candidate, John C. Frémont, opposing the extension of slavery into the territories although, according to William Dean Howells, Lincoln’s presidential campaign biographer, Lincoln was no “ultra” (i.e., abolitionist). He was, however, astute, articulate and persuasive; he launched his seven well-covered debates with Stephen Douglas for the Illinois seat in the United States Senate with the stirring “House Divided” speech: “I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved–I do not expect the house to fall–but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other. Either the opponents of slavery, will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new–North as well as South.”
This was a man to be reckoned with. Though provincial, depressive and ugly, he was able to help the Union win the Civil War with words. He could speak; he could write; he was quick on his feet. He could stir multitudes. Yet, as Edmund Wilson once quipped, there is “more romantic and sentimental rubbish [about Lincoln] than about any other American figure, with the possible exception of Edgar Allan Poe.”