Interpreting Abraham Lincoln through a 21st century lens

A new sociological book explores how Americans have interpreted Abraham Lincoln for their own purposes:

Jackie Hogan, sociology chair at Bradley University in Peoria, writes that, by now, nearly 150 years after his assassination, the way we think about Abraham Lincoln says more about us than about him.

“In the years since that fateful night at Ford’s Theatre, fact and legend have become so intertwined in the Lincoln story that it now may be impossible to know the man as he really was,” Nolan writes in her new book, “Lincoln, Inc.: Selling the Sixteenth President in Contemporary America.” “Instead, we are largely limited to 21st-century interpretations of what 20th-century historians wrote about 19th-century recollections of the man. We are reduced to standing in a historical hall of mirrors, trying to discern the original from its countless reflections.”

This blog has covered, tongue mostly in cheek, a lot of the phenomena Hogan deflates in far more scholarly fashion, like Geico’s “Honest Abe” commercial and Lincoln as science-fiction hero. Although I confess I didn’t know that Abe has also starred in romance novels. (Irving Stone once wrote that Mary admired “the powerful muscles and the indestructible male strength of him” … whew, what an image.)…

Hogan is particularly good in her examination of how people have marketed Lincoln over the years, how they’ve  used Lincoln to market themselves, and how Lincoln is often appropriated for modern political purposes — there’s a whole chapter titled “What Would Lincoln Do?”

Why worry about the actual history if you can use the figure for your own marketing ends?

This sort of work on collective memory can be quite fascinating. Of course, we are far removed from Lincoln’s life so there is a lot of room for distortions and various interpretations. What is important today is not just what Lincoln actually did but what we think he actually did. For example, our current president has used Abraham Lincoln as an example numerous times in order to help get his points across. This is probably a fairly good tactic for a leader from Illinois: is there another figure that comes anywhere close to matching Lincoln’s stature? (Michael Jordan probably has a broader popularity around the world but it is of a different kind.)

This reminds of a local story that involves Lincoln. For years, the suburb of West Chicago was thought to be a site of an unplanned Lincoln-Douglas debate. This story went that Lincoln and Douglas were nearby to each other because of some train difficulties and the two decided to debate in West Chicago on property just southeast of the corner of modern-day Route 59 and Washington Street. This story was corroborated by a number of eyewitnesses who submitted their testimony in affidavits to prove their veracity. Alas, the story is not true:

Bombard says Lincoln and Douglas probably did come to The Junction, as West Chicago was known in those days, because it was a rail crossroads.

“To go anywhere, you had to come to The Junction,” she said.

In fact, Bombard said a man from Batavia remembers seeing Abraham Lincoln at The Junction, once when he was 8 years old and a second time on the funeral train.

But Lincoln experts largely agree, Bombard said, that it’s impossible that the two were together on Aug. 28, 1858, the day the debate supposedly took place, because the places Lincoln was known to have been on Aug. 27 and Aug. 29 would have made it impossible for him to be in West Chicago on Aug. 28.

Still, the story featured prominently in the history of the community for a number of years.

0 thoughts on “Interpreting Abraham Lincoln through a 21st century lens

  1. Pingback: Could Abraham Lincoln secure Republican nomination today? | Legally Sociable

  2. Pingback: Sociologist is host of “History Detectives” | Legally Sociable

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