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The question that animates this original, insightful, disarmingly funny book is: how do Americans commemorate Lincoln, and what do our memories of him reveal about our visions of the good life? To discover the answer, Ferguson, an editor at the Weekly Standardand a Lincoln buff, made a long field trip, poking into many of the places where Americans have chosen to remember—or to forget—Honest Abe. He eavesdrops on the Lincoln Reconsidered conference, where a group of "Abephobes" aim to retrieve Lincoln's memory from the distortions of "liberal historians." He considers the "Disney aesthetic" of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill., and attends a convention of Lincoln "presenters" (otherwise known as impersonators). Ferguson is occasionally and unnecessarily snide, and a deeper examination of the changing place of Lincoln in mainstream historical scholarship would have added a great deal to the book. Still, Ferguson's conclusions are stirring. He finds Lincoln's meaning best articulated by Robert Moton, an educator whose parents were slaves. With great simplicity, Moton explained Lincoln's greatness: "...in a time of doubt and distrust... he spoke the word that gave freedom to a race and vindicated the honor of a Nation conceived in liberty...." (June)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
New books about Abraham Lincoln appear so often that the unique merits of each demand scrutiny. Ferguson's book is not so much a study of Lincoln as it is a study of modern American attitudes toward the 16th President. It is also a voyage of self-discovery by a former Lincoln buff and skilled journalist who crisscrossed America to visit museums and memorials, to observe pro- and anti-Lincoln gatherings, and to interview Lincoln impersonators, collectors, and others, all while striving to assess Lincoln's legacy. The result is an engaging and frequently witty confrontation between past and present that reveals as much about modern culture as it does about Lincoln himself. Patrick Lawlor's narration is adequate but often seems rushed. This is a book that might be better read-especially in an illustrated edition. Recommended with reservations.
—R. Kent Rasmussen
Abraham Lincoln, with his son Tad in tow, walked around Richmond, Virginia, one day in April 1865, and if you try to retrace their steps today you won't see much that they saw, which shouldn't be a surprise, of course. The street grid is the same, though, and if you're in the right mood and know what to look for, the lineaments of the earlier city begin to surface, like the outline of a scuttled old scow rising through the shallows of a pond. Among the tangle of freeway interchanges and office buildings you'll come across an overgrown park or a line of redbrick town houses, an unlikely old bell tower or a few churches scattered from block to block, dating to the decades before the Civil War and still giving off vibrations from long ago.
Richmond rests on a group of hills above a bend in the James River. Along the riverbank at the east end of town, where Lincoln began his tour that day, is a long rank of tobacco warehouses, abandoned now, and from behind them the land rises steeply through the commercial district for perhaps half a mile. The Capitol, built from a design byThomas Jefferson in the eighteenth century, sits on the crest of the hill, and back of it, seven blocks away, is a Georgian mansion that served as the White House of the Confederacy, official residence of President Jefferson Davis. Walk due west from there, past the parking lots, through the plaza surrounding the new glass-and-concrete convention center, and then head south, and before too long you're back at the riverbank, at the ruins of the Tredegar Iron Works, where the cannon and shot were forged that sustained the South through four years of rebellion.
No one knows for sure whether Lincoln and Tad visited Tredegar, or whether they passed by the ironworks during a carriage ride they took later the same day, but they're there now-so a romantic would say-in the form of a bronze statue. The statue, showing both father and son, was installed in April 2003, at the headquarters of the National Park Service's Richmond Civil War battlefield park, which is housed in Tredegar's surviving buildings. In the months leading to its unveiling, the statue created a controversy that reached far beyond Richmond, beyond the United States even, to become an object of international interest-improbably enough, during that season when the world's attention was diverted by another war looming in Iraq. One Richmond official, traveling through Barbados a few months before the statue arrived, picked up a newspaper on an excursion plane, LINCOLN COMES TO CONFEDERATE CAPITAL, read the headline on the back page.
What made the controversy newsworthy was that there should be a controversy at all. Members of the Richmond establishment-the businessmen, journalists, politicians, rich people, and other well-wired doers of public good, who unanimously supported the statue as both a tourist attraction and a statement of civic virtue-were caught unawares. It came as a surprise to them, as it had to me, that anyone should find a tribute to the sixteenth president so objectionable. Who could object to Lincoln? He seems too big even to have an opinion about. It would be like objecting to the moon.
Yet many people do object, as Richmond's big shots discovered, and these Abephobes, it turns out, are almost always well spoken and well read and, in percentage terms, not much crazier than the general population that tends to accept Lincoln's presence as a fact of life. When I first visited Richmond, a month before the statue's unveiling and two months after I read the story in the Washington Post, I went to see Bragdon Bowling, who had been stoking the controversy like a steam engine. Bowling popped up in every story I read. He was gathering petitions, setting up Web sites, pestering politicians with mail and phone calls, and encouraging others to do the same. He had enlisted Thomas DiLorenzo, the author of a recently published anti-Lincoln book called The Real Lincoln, to help him gather scholars and authors for a public conference, with the title "Lincoln Reconsidered," to lay out his case as soberly and comprehensively as possible.
This was his sworn duty. Bowling is division commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, Sons of Confederate Veterans, and at those moments when he decides that the heritage of the South is being abused, as it was with the placement of a Lincoln statue in the former capital of the Confederacy, he becomes an agitator ex officio. "It's a responsibility you have," he said. "You've got to try to stop it."
He's a tall man with a scholarly air, due largely to an unruly shock of white hair and the wire spectacles that are always slipping down his nose. I met him in the stripped-down living room of one of the rental properties he owns, in a working-class suburb north of Richmond. He had to repaint the place and it was covered in tarps. "Sometimes you end up renting to people who simply do not know how to keep house," he said. He turned a paint tub upside down and sat on it, and gestured for me to sit on a butt-sprung couch across from him.
Bowling said he was a native of Virginia-but of Arlington, Virginia, which many native Virginians consider less a part of the commonwealth than a satellite of Washington, D.C., or worse, liberal Maryland, with all its inevitable corruptions.
"It's a zoo now, but it wasn't so bad then," he said of his hometown. "I got a good education. See, you could still do that in those days. I got taught the usual liberal history, but my teachers were smart people who had high standards. They taught me to think for myself, and that's what I've done.
"Ten years ago I started to learn about my family. I read intensively, everything I could-not just politically correct history but also other history that's been suppressed. That's the way this learning process often starts. My great-grandfather served in the Army of Northern Virginia as a private under General Robert E. Lee. He was at Sharpsburg-Yankees call it Antietam-at Chancellorsville, other places. And like ninety percent of the soldiers who fought for and served the South, he never owned a slave. So-just to show you how the thought process works, for people who are still capable of thinking for themselves-so I thought, well, why is that? If the war is all about slavery, why's he fighting so hard? It didn't fit, you see, with everything I'd been taught about the Civil War. Like all his comrades, my great-grandfather gave everything he had. Why? He did it for his country. The South had bad everything-bad munitions, bad clothing, bad food. But they had the best men. They gave everything they had. And they did not do that to defend slavery."
The war wasn't about slavery for Lincoln, either, Bowling explained. He ticked off the particulars of his indictment of Lincoln. With his generals he invented the concept of Total War, and waged campaigns of unprecedented savagery against noncombatants and private property in the Shenandoah Valley, Sherman's March through Georgia, and elsewhere. He was the father of Big Government, vastly expanding the reach of Imperial Washington in ways unthinkable to the country's founders. The Northern victory was therefore the triumph of a cosmopolitan, commercial culture, controlled by Big Business, over a Southern culture of farms and small towns that asked only to be let alone.
"It was all about power," he said. "Six hundred thousand dead. All so Lincoln and his friends could consolidate their power to tell other people how to live their lives."
What Bowling learned inspired him to join the Sons of Conferderate Veterans. He rose through the ranks, and it was in his capacity as division commander that he received a phone call one winter evening from a reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch.
"This reporter says to me, he wants a comment on the statue of Lincoln they're going to put up in Richmond.
"I said, 'Huh?'
"He said, 'Yeah, a fellow named Bob Kline has donated a statue of Lincoln and they're going to put it up down at the visitor center at Tredegar. You got a comment?'
"Well, I knew right away what was going on here. And I told him so. This is the latest move in a scheme to demonize the Confederate soldier. The Park Service, the politicians, the politically correct historians, they've been doing this all across the country, and now they're doing it right here in Richmond."
I said a statue of Lincoln didn't sound to me like it was demonizing anybody.
"To worship Lincoln, right here, is an insult to the Confederate soldier," he said. "There are forty thousand graves of Confederate soldiers in this city and I will defend their honor. You see, unlike the politicians and these others, I'm a student of history. I know what this man Lincoln did to this country. I know what the army under his command did to the South. You ever wonder why there are no statues of Abraham Lincoln in the entire southern half of the United States? It's pretty simple: people here remember what he did. Used to be, everybody here remembered. Now only some of us do."
Three times during our interview Bowling was interrupted with phone calls from reporters, including one from the Times of London, seeking comment on one aspect or another of the controversy. He answered them all with a patient repetition of well-rehearsed sound bites. "It is an insult to the Confederate soldier," he said. After the third call I got up to leave and he walked me outside. The pickup in the driveway had an old NRA sticker peeling from its bumper: CHARLTON HESTON IS MY PRESIDENT.
"This thing is not over yet," he said. "There are a lot of people upset over this, and they may still have a few tricks up their sleeves."
I asked him if he meant someone was planning to prevent the statue from going in.
"If there's anything violent or what have you that happens, the Sons of Confederate Veterans will have no part in that," he said. "People do feel strongly. But the statue will go in," he said. "Probably." He laughed.
"Unless it doesn't."
While he was alive, Abraham Lincoln was one of the most intensely hated public figures the country has ever known. The minute he got shot, however, things began looking up for him. Colleagues and subordinates who had considered him dithering or imperious in life fell into inconsolable and very public mourning at word of his death. Political enemies who had prayed for his demise suddenly saw a figure of inviolable moral integrity, farseeing competence, unsearchable wisdom. The historian Merrill Peterson, in his great book Lincoln in American Memory, cites the instance of Henry Ward Beecher, the abolitionist preacher in Brooklyn who for four years had lacerated Lincoln from his pulpit for timidity and hesitation in the face of Southern barbarism. Then came John Wilkes Booth, and Lincoln was dead, and when the body passed through New York on its way to the cemetery in Springfield, Illinois, the old blowhard ascended the same pulpit and became the martyred president's foremost eulogist.
"Dead-dead-dead, he yet speaketh," Beecher said. "Four years ago, O Illinois, we took from your midst an untried man, we return him to you a conqueror. Not thine anymore, but the Nation's; not ours, but the world's. Give him place, ye prairies!"
Everyone was ready to give him place. So quickly and so thoroughly did his countrymen exalt him that causists everywhere found it profitable to enlist his memory. A teetotaler in life, for instance, Lincoln became, once he was safely dead-dead-dead, an unsilenceable advocate of national temperance-or so claimed the Drys of the national temperance movement, which distributed millions of copies of a speech he had made on the subject early in his career. The Drys pressed their Lincoln association for decades, until historians employed by Adolphus Busch, partner of Anheuser and father of Budweiser, discovered a yellowing liquor license that had been issued in the 1830s to a small prairie grocer by the name of Abraham Lincoln. Busch made sure that reproductions of Lincoln's license soon hung on the wall of every tavern in America. They stayed there, consoling drinkers, until the tragic triumph of the Drys in 1919.
By that time Lincoln had been dragooned into causes far more implausible than temperance. On the centennial of his birth, in 1909, the nation's leading white supremacist, a senator from Mississippi named James K. Vardaman, made an unironical pilgrimage to Springfield and claimed "the immortal Lincoln" as his inspiration. "My views and his views," he said later on the Senate floor, "are substantially identical." He would have got an argument, probably, from the American Communist party, which throughout the 1930s put on an annual Lincoln-Lenin Day festival and festooned its Harlem headquarters with his likeness.
Americans laid claim to his spiritual life, too. To his friends, Lincoln appeared to be a man of few and ambiguous religious beliefs. He quoted the Bible often but he never joined a church, and when he ran for president every pastor in Springfield pointedly refused to endorse him. Yet when his soul took flight it was lassoed by every Protestant denomination simultaneously. Unitarians took him as their own, and so, later on, did the Christian Scientists, even though the science of divine healing was not revealed to Mary Baker Eddy until a year after Lincoln's death. In 1891, the famed (at the time) seer Nettie Colburn Maynard published a long study called Was Abraham Lincoln a Spiritualist? She answered her question with an emphatic yes, describing dinner parties during the Civil War at which the president had witnessed a grand piano rising mysteriously off the floor, with the president himself perched atop it-a rare treat for a teetotaler. One Christian publicist after another saw in Lincoln's life eerie resemblances to the life of Christ: both Jesus and Lincoln were born of carpenters and rose from lowly beginnings, both were storytellers, both were killed on Good Friday, both were saviors-of the world, in one case, of the Union, in the other. And in the days before his death each made a profound journey of mercy: Jesus to Jerusalem, Lincoln to Richmond.
Robert Kline was working out of a large house on Richmond's Main Street, a brick pile built in the Federal style a decade or two before the rebellion. It lies just far enough west to have escaped the flames that leveled the old downtown in April 1865. A brass nameplate next to the front door identifies it as the headquarters of the United States Historical Society, the company Kline started thirty years ago, after a career in public relations and real estate.
Hairsplitters might complain that the name is a little misleading; Kline's society does not have members or hold conferences in the manner of more conventional historical societies. It is instead "a private nonprofit educational organization," according to its literature, "dedicated to fostering increased awareness and appreciation of America's culture and history." It does its fostering by making and selling "collectibles"-small, heavy things forged of pewter or brass, mounted on polished strips of cherry or little rectangles of marble-that bear a strong resemblance to what many in the nonprofit world call knickknacks.
A first-floor conference room, where I waited for my interview with Mr. Kline, serves as a kind of showroom for the society's handiwork. Collectibles hung from walls and stood in ranks on every available flat surface. The overflow was gathered in piles on the floor. All stages of American history were represented. There were miniatures of World War II submarines, minesweepers, destroyers, and PT boats; gilt-rimmed plates featuring famous American homes-Monticello, Graceland-dappled with sunlight in sylvan settings; reproductions of pewter tankards designed by Paul Revere. President Kennedy was there as a doll delivering his inaugural address, one hand tucked in his coat pocket, the other thrust confidently toward the future.
There were replicas of swords-one worn by George Washington at his inauguration, another surrendered by Cornwallis at Yorktown-and reproductions of famous pistols, and mounted replicas of "famous canes," and tiny cannons adorned with plaques. There was enough stained glass to fill the windows at Sainte-Chapelle, if it were suddenly taken over by Wal-Mart: familiar, multicolored scenes from Norman Rockwell and from the life of Christ, Calvary next to Valley Forge next to the parting of the Red Sea next to Tom Sawyer and the whitewashed fence, plus a spookily detailed rendering of the Elvis postage stamp, Washington on the Delaware, and cozy Christmas scenes. Dolls of Patrick Henry, FDR, Chuck Yeager, and Clara Barton queued up beside a three-dimensional tableau of the angels hovering over the stable at Bethlehem.
Excerpted from LAND OF LINCOLN by Andrew Ferguson Copyright © 2007 by Andrew Ferguson. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted January 1, 2008
You will see Lincoln from about a dozen different perspectives, a man who still excites people yet is often oversimplified or iconized. This book deepened my understanding of Lincoln's actions and inactions, how he played politics as the art of the possible. The presentation of a Southern viewpoint helped -- a fair presentation by the way since I read that author's own book later. The Land of Lincoln is an enjoyable read, combining good fun about how we Americans operate with well researched food for thought.
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Posted November 10, 2007
Andrew Ferguson's book is not a light-hearted romp through 'Abe's America' as advertised. It is a mean-spirited book with a political agenda. Ferguson eviscerates numerous well-meaning individuals, along with museums and historic sites that present a human Lincoln. This is because he wants us to embrace Lincoln as a saintly 'icon,' a spiritual presence. His book even ends with the story of a ghostly Lincoln appearing to a concentration camp inmate urging him to persevere. Was it really divine intervention? Ferguson gets chills just thinking about it. Full disclosure requires a note that Ferguson's book critiques two articles on New Salem that I co-wrote (although I think he only read one). Nobody likes bad reviews, but his comments didn't bother me (much) until I read his buddy Bill Kristol's commentary in Time magazine (June 18), which makes clear the political agenda informing 'Land of Lincoln.' Kristol plugs the book, then uses it to urge that contemporary Americans emulate Lincoln by persevering in the worldwide struggle for freedom, presumably by supporting George Bush's foreign policies. Not coincidentally, Kristol co-edits with Ferguson the Weekly Standard, a prominent neo-conservative journal. 'Land of Lincoln' is a brief on behalf of neo-conservatism's religion of imperious Americanism, an attempt to endow aggressive nationalism with transcendental validity. It was neo-conservatives like Kristol and Ferguson who most articulately and forcefully resurrected the hoary belief that America has a divine mission to use force in spreading democracy. Sadly, our president swallowed this idea whole and has used it to justify some of the most catastrophic foreign policy decisions in American history. Ferguson has denied in interviews that his political views influenced his book. Now he's finally got me laughing. Hear the Apostle Paul: 'Claiming to be wise, they became fools and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for impages resembling a mortal human being...' (Romans 1:22). Richard S. Taylor Springfield, Illinois
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