On the Road, Searching for Abe

Wall Street Journal | Published on

By Ernest W. Lefever

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Land of Lincoln, by Andrew Ferguson
Atlantic Monthly Press, 279 pages, $24.

There are at least 14,000 books on Abraham Lincoln, and even his greatest enthusiasts won’t claim to have read a tenth of them. Do we need another? Yes, indeed. What Andrew Ferguson offers in Land of Lincoln is the geography of enthusiasm itself.

In recent years, Lincoln has been subjected to a kind of pseudo-scholarly debunking, in which we have been asked to revise (mostly downward) our understanding of his marital relations, his sexual preferences, his political skills, his religious beliefs and, not least, his racial views. It often doesn’t matter whether the case for such revision is well made: Something is lost in the process, and yet another icon of American history is diminished.

What has happened to the man who was the revered subject of Carl Sandburg’s biography, the man who spoke those enduring words at Gettysburg that high-schoolers used to memorize, the man who won the Civil War and was martyred by it? “That earlier Lincoln, that large Lincoln,” Mr. Ferguson writes, “seems to be slipping away, a misty figure, incapable of rousing a reaction from anyone but buffs.”

Land of Lincoln is an attempt to recover our earlier sense Lincoln by traveling among those who never lost it. As a young Lincoln buff himself, Mr. Ferguson confesses to having “walked where he’d walked” whenever it was possible. In this vivid, beautifully written book he updates his personal pilgrimages and extends them, going to places where Lincoln worked, spoke and lived and where he is now, for the most part, honored. Mr. Ferguson engages in leisurely conversations with historians, boosters, memorabilia collectors — and meets a few Lincoln haters along the way. (If only the book had an index.) He visits memorials, educational centers, theme parks and kitschy shops. In short, he pursues Lincoln by sounding out the Lincoln in American lives.

One of the most compelling scenes in his travels is Richmond, Va., the capital of the Confederacy, where in 2003 a life-size bronze sculpture of Lincoln was dedicated on Monument Avenue. It was a controversial choice, as one might imagine. The avenue was otherwise mostly devoted to statues of Confederate heroes. Mr. Ferguson dubs it the “Via Dolorosa for Southern nostalgists.” But Richmond is part of the New South now and found itself, however reluctantly, paying tribute to the man who fought its city forefathers and dissolved slavery.

After Richmond, Mr. Ferguson heads for Chicago, an early center of Lincoln lovers, perhaps because Illinois was where Lincoln practiced law, entered politics and, in 1858, famously competed with Stephen Douglas for a Senate seat. One Lincoln lover was Jane Addams of Hull House, who taught neighborhood boys about the “greatest American,” a man who sought “charity for both sides.” In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Mr. Ferguson notes, immigrant leaders often cited Lincoln admiringly. Some established institutions to pay tribute to his memory and to celebrate his character. One was a museum that offered, in Mr. Ferguson’s words, “part showmanship, part edification — half P.T. Barnum, half Horace Mann.” WPA dioramas in Chicago traced Lincoln’s “tragic arc from poverty to martyrdom.”

Disney ‘Imagineers’
Eventually, Chicago’s tributes yielded pride of place to those of Springfield, the state capital. (Lincoln is buried there, in Oak Ridge Cemetery.) In 2005, the city opened a $150 million Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library & Museum. Disney “imagineers” advised the founders on installing “virtual” exhibitions like those to be found at Disneyland. Planners were briefly taken with the idea of a Lincoln roller-coaster to illustrate his mood swings. Said one adviser: “He was bipolar, right?” (The idea was abandoned.) The museum decided against showing any guns — not even the derringer used by assassin John Wilkes Booth. It went to great lengths to include more female figures than history seemingly justified. “That’s why we show the White House kitchen,” Mr. Ferguson was told. When the complex opened, President Bush was the principal speaker. One visitor dubbed the event the “Second Coming of the Lord.”

In a chapter called “The Magic of Stuff,” Mr. Ferguson sorts through the souvenirs, trinkets and occasional jewels that commemorate Lincoln’s life and legacy. They are everywhere, it seems. Lincoln’s visage and words have been twisted into all manner of kitsch, from tobacco pouches and liquor bottles to plastic banks and tasteless mugs. For Mr. Ferguson, they are more a source of amusement than a cause for woe.

The gulf between trash and treasure is wide. Among the deep-pocket Lincoln collectors are the late Malcolm Forbes and the Texas billionaire Ross Perot. With them in the bidding, top Lincoln items (especially letters and documents signed by Lincoln) rose beyond the grasp of ordinary mortals. One serious collector has accumulated 22,000 Lincoln pieces, including a copy of the flyer announcing the Lincoln-Douglas debates, signed by Douglas. Another has Lincoln’s chamber pot.

A wealthy woman showed Mr. Ferguson the coat Lincoln wore that fateful evening a Ford’s Theatre. She also owns a handbill advertising “Our American Cousin,” the play Lincoln was watching. Soon after he died in Petersen House, a boarding house across the street from the theater, souvenir hunters grabbed scraps of linen stained with Lincoln’s blood. The National Museum of Health and Medicine has bits of Lincoln’s skull taken after Booth’s bullet was removed. Mr. Ferguson’s travels take him across the country. He sketches portraits of Gettysburg, Pa., and of Lincoln’s birthplace in Kentucky. He ponders the fake log cabin meant to illustrate Lincoln’s humble origins. He walks along the Lincoln Heritage Trail, which winds through Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois. And after all his journeys, what does Mr. Ferguson conclude? Among other things, that Lincoln is alive and well despite the skepticism of our skeptical age.

In a Dream
Mr. Ferguson tells the story of an elderly man from Czechoslovakia who came alone to Springfield, Ill., to see where Lincoln was laid to rest. In broken English he told a Hilton Hotel manager that, years ago, in his concentration-camp cell, Lincoln had come to him in a dream and said: “You never forget: All men are created equal.” He then vowed to visit Lincoln’s tomb. A local man took him to the mausoleum. He walked inside, tears welling up in his eyes, and laid three flowers on the tomb. “Now it’s over,” he sobbed. “I can go back to Czechoslovakia and live in peace.”

– Mr. Lefever is a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington, D.C.