The Use and Misuse of the Lincoln LegacySkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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I cannot use the hallowed phrase, "Here I have lived," but I can say that I am happy to be back in the Land of Lincoln, where I spent sixteen of the best years of my life. My ties to this state continue to be strong, and it is a source of great pleasure to be back among friends of many years. It is a great honor to be present on this occasion sponsored jointly by the Abraham Lincoln Association and the Illinois State Historical Society. It is a hallowed occasion, made so not only because of the giant whose birthday we celebrate, but also because of the manner in which, through the years, it has been celebrated here.
Almost all of you, if indeed not all of you, have heard speeches on the sixteenth president of the United States covering every conceivable aspect of his life and related, in one way or another, to every conceivable problem in the community, the nation and the world. I was particularly sensitive to what the members of the Abraham Lincoln Association might have heard through the years on this occasion that would surely accord them the title of the world's leading authorities on the misuse as well as the use of the Lincoln legacy. Before taking too much for granted, I decided to look at the addresses that had been delivered before this august body to make certain that I would not embarrass myself, as well as previous speakers, by choosing the announced subject for this evening's talk. If the members of the association had, indeed, been subjected to the misuse of the Lincoln legacy, I promised myself that I would notify Judge [Harlington] Wood that I had decided to speak on another topic.
When I had gone through the speeches, I reproached myself for having entertained such an apprehension. The talks were, almost without exception, admirable examples of the kind of remarks that should be made on such an occasion. There is nothing particularly remarkable about that when one is reminded that each year, with one notable exception, the association has been extremely careful in the selection of its speakers. And because, in its wisdom, the association has selected such luminaries as Paul Angle, Carl Sandburg, Benjamin P. Thomas, Andrew C. McLaugh- Page [End Page 31] lin, T. V. Smith and Allen Nevins as its speakers, one can learn from their speeches and writings about the use — not the misuse — of the Lincoln legacy.
The proper use of the Lincoln legacy was made in his address, in 1936, before this association by the distinguished philosopher, T. V. Smith of the University of Chicago. Lincoln lighted life, he said, with two great virtues, simplicity and magnanimity. "He pitied where others blamed; bowed his own shoulders with the woes of the weak; endured humanely his little day of chance power; and won through death what life disdains to bestow upon such simple souls — lasting peace and everlasting glory. How prudently we proud men compete for nameless graves, when now and then some fool of fortune forgets himself into immortality."
Lincoln early became a symbol and an inspiration to those who chose to use his legacy, as well as those who chose to misuse it. When school children were first taught the meaning of the Emancipation Proclamation or to recite the Gettysburg Address or to appreciate the sublimity of the words in the Second Inaugural, there were others who kept his memory alive for other purposes. One would have thought that Lyon G. Tyler, the fourteenth child of the tenth president of the United States, could have found more important things to do with his enormous energies than to stoke the fires of the southern hatred against Abraham Lincoln. The tasks of editing the William and Mary Quarterly and Tyler's Historical Quarterly were not sufficient to occupy his time, so he spent countless hours, days, weeks of his long life in the effort to incite southern resentment against the martyred president. Lincoln established despotism, Tyler argued, by waging a cruel and barbarous war on southern civilians. The Emancipation Proclamation was a criminal act, and because of it, Lincoln was the "true parent of Reconstruction, legislative robbery, negro supremacy, cheating at the polls, rapes of white women, lynching, and the acts of the Ku Klux Klan."  In another of his ravings, Tyler said that Lincoln was vulgar in his personal habits, weak and deceitful in character, and, in any case, dominated by the radicals of his par- Page [End Page 32] ty.  What he expected to gain by this remarkable misuse of the Lincoln legacy was a persistent southern rejection of Lincoln as a folk hero in the former Confederacy.
Not all white Southerners, however, shared the view of Lincoln that Lyon G. Tyler expressed. Indeed, some embraced him fully and sought to claim him as a patriot, standing in the finest traditions of the South. That is what J. K. Vardaman did in 1914 when he declared in Congress that he had made a "very careful study of Mr. Lincoln's ideas on this question [racial equality] and I have often said, and I repeat here that my views and his on the race question are substantially identical."  This was uttered by the man who had said that the Negro was an industrial stumbling block, a political ulcer, a social scab, "a lazy, lying, lustful animal which no conceivable amount of training can transform into a tolerable citizen." He would not be deterred, Vardaman said, if lynch law occasionally resulted in the punishment of an innocent Negro. "We would be justified in slaughtering every Ethiop on the earth to preserve unsullied the honor of one Caucasian home."  For Vardaman to indicate that he and Lincoln shared "substantially identical" views on the race question was to sully both the name and memory of one who would certainly have been outraged to have been associated in any way with such wild and irresponsible views as those expressed by Vardaman.
Thomas Dixon, Jr., whose novels formed the basis for the epic film, Birth of a Nation, did all that he could to claim Lincoln as a Southerner fully in sympathy with the Lost Cause. In one of his several works dealing with the era of Reconstruction, The Clansman, the following scene is described: When a Southern lady told President Lincoln that she was delighted he was a southern man, he asked her how did she know:
"By your looks, your manner of speech, your easy, kindly ways, your tenderness and humor, your firmness in the right as you see it, and, above all, the way you rose and bowed to a woman in an old faded black dress, who you knew to be an enemy."
"No, madam, not an enemy now," he said softly. Page [End Page 33] "That word is out of date."
"If we had only known you in time." 
For Dixon, it was not Lincoln's humanitarianism or humility or belief in democracy that elevated him to greatness. Rather, as in the case of Vardaman, it was the racism they thought they saw in Lincoln that ennobled him and made him a Southerner. This is what the White Citizens Councils thought they saw in Lincoln when they placed a large advertisement in the New York Times and other newspapers on his birthday in 1968. Under the caption "Lincoln's Hopes for the Negro," the organization gave selected quotations from Lincoln calling for the separation of the white and black races and for the colonization of blacks outside the United States.
If the perceived racism of Lincoln endeared him to the Vardamans, the Dixons and the White Citizens Councils of the South, that same perceived racism repelled some black Americans in more recent times. Malcolm X declared that Lincoln did more to "trick Negroes than any other man in history." He was not at all clear on what the trick was. Julius Lester, the author of Look Out Whitey, Black Power's Gon' Get Your Mama, called Lincoln a colonizationist and "hesitant emancipator." Blacks, he declared, "have no reason to feel grateful to Abraham Lincoln. Rather they should be angry at him," presumably for not doing more for them. In 1968, Lerone Bennett, the historian and senior editor of Ebony, asked the question, "Was Abe Lincoln a White Supremacist?" and answered with an emphatic "Yes." Lincoln must be seen, Bennett argued, "as the embodiment, not the transcendence of the American tradition, which is, as we all know, a racist tradition." 
In seizing on statements and even policies pursued by Lincoln at a given time in history, neither Malcolm X nor Lester nor Bennett recognized the flexibility of Lincoln and his capacity for growth. Beginning with his simple revulsion to slavery when he Page [End Page 34]
In defining the role of government in society, persons of varied views and philosophies have enlisted the aid of Lincoln to advocate the neutrality of government or the increased role or, indeed, the restriction of that role. During the Great Depression, when the needy, the unemployed and powerless appealed to government to rescue them from their misery, there were those who insisted that Lincoln would be opposed to such action. "The voice of Lincoln speaks today," said Dr. Joseph R. Sizoo. "Could he walk the paths of life it would be to make a plea for lowliness. What we shall eat and drink and wherewithal shall we be clothed has become to many people their only concern in life. Take material things away from them and their very motive for living seems lost.... We have come to say that poverty breeds crime and have apparently forgotten that out of poverty God has brought the leaders, the thinkers, the poets, and the saviors of the world.... Do not be afraid of hard times. Through these the rebirth of our better selves will come." This voice of Lincoln spoke out in February, 1932! It is difficult to believe that Lincoln at any time in his life would argue that poverty was a precondition for becoming a leader, thinker, poet or savior of the world. It was not terribly courageous of Dr. Sizoo to summon Lincoln and use him as his mouthpiece to express views that he did not care to utter as his and his alone.
Along the same line, Lincoln has been used to bolster up our economic system. There could hardly be any debate that he stood for free enterprise, its supporters insist. Ralph McGinnis of Eastern Illinois University made the classic case for Lincoln's support of the free enterprise system by recalling that Lincoln had said, "In all that the people can individually do for themselves, the Page [End Page 36] government ought not to interfere."  It is to be doubted that this places Lincoln firmly in the camp of those who were purists when it came to the free enterprise system. Had he been in that camp, it would have been difficult for him to justify his employment by the Illinois Central Railroad, which had come into existence as a result of a munificent grant of land and other perquisites by the United States, and had prospered because the state of Illinois exempted it from taxation for six years. Indeed, the largest fee that Lincoln ever earned — five thousand dollars — was paid by the Illinois Central in a case, which Lincoln won for the railroad, that successfully resisted the claim of McClean County that it could tax the railroad.  One can cheer the prosperity and success of the Illinois Central but when a corporation was as heavily subsidized by the federal and state governments as it was, it cannot claim that its success was due to free enterprise. If Lincoln stood for free enterprise, it was the kind of free enterprise that many
The anti-communists insist that Lincoln has always been one of their strongest supporters. At the height of the cold war, a leading editor of a western newspaper went so far as to bring Lincoln into the anti-communist fold. Were he alive today he would be no appeaser of "imperial communism," he insisted. "As a world figure, whose significance for all nations and all peoples has steadily grown, Lincoln's greatness arises out of his role as a secular prophet of democracy. There were many timid, frightened men in Lincoln's day. That cowering breed is still with us. In the face of the Soviet menace, they would have us scurry to cover." He quoted Lincoln as saying, "Our reliance is in the love of liberty, which God has planted in our bosoms. Our defense is in the preservation of the spirit which prizes liberty as the heritage of all men, in all lands everywhere." This may all be quite true, but Lincoln was not called upon to focus his attention primarily on foreign affairs. His experience and his activities in that field were, indeed, quite limited. It is not possible to know how he would have functioned during, say, the Napoleonic period or during either of the great world wars. To cast him in the role of a sophisticated internationalist of whatever views is to engage in playacting and to obscure his remarkable achievements in the arena where he was called upon to function.
If the anti-communists claimed him as their very own, can anyone blame the women if they enlist his aid in seeking passage of the Equal Rights Amendment? As one of the leaders said in her speech at Gettysburg a decade ago: "I am pretty sure he liked women. He neither put them on a pedestal nor condescended to them." She repeated a story she said she had recently heard, which I suspect this audience heard not so recently. The story is not the most tasteful, but since she told it at the shrine at Gettysburg, I may be indulged in relating it here. Lincoln once left his hat in a chair, and a lady of considerable proportions sat on it. When she arose, Abe surveyed the wreckage and said, very mildly, "Madam, I could have told you that my hat would not fit before you tried it on."  The speaker went on to say that it was a Page [End Page 38] matter of record that Lincoln was not surprised when a woman asked to be appointed chaplain to a Wisconsin Regiment. He passed the request to the secretary of war with the notation that he had no objection to it. Lincoln would have appreciated a speech, she said, that had been given by the president of Chatham College which undertook to deal with the pseudo-argument advanced by opponents of equal rights for women in business. Among them were the claims that women would not remain in a job because they would marry and leave, that a woman simply could not wear two hats and do a decent job even in one role, and that the independent, self-directed woman is the kind who would wreck her own home and perhaps someone else's as well. She said, "I can almost hear Abraham Lincoln making short work of these myths because in so many ways he was ahead of his time."  On the face of it, they were myths that were as absurd as they were spurious, especially as we view them through the prism of the greatly improved status of women today. But if that speaker could almost hear Lincoln advocating women's rights or the Equal Rights Amendment, I can only say that her aural sensitivity is remarkable to the point of being downright miraculous.
One of the rather remarkable and perverse ways in which the Lincoln legacy has been associated with many of the disorders of our society was suggested in remarks by Professor Melvin E. Bradford of the University of Texas at Dallas. Until he was mentioned in 1981 for a possible appointment as chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Bradford was a rather obscure English professor known more for his critical comments on southern writers like William Faulkner and Eudora Welty than for his views on the great public policy issues of our time. Overnight, as a result of the scrutiny of his background, he achieved a measure of notoriety by insisting that Abraham Lincoln had contributed significantly to the unrest in contemporary America. His appointment to the Endowment was blocked, but he continued to reiterate his views on Lincoln's contributions to our present confusion. Lincoln, he stated, was the first Puritan president who "recited as a litany the general terms of his regard for universal human rights," while intending all along to go no further than the "rigid racism of the Northern electorate" and his own feelings would allow. Then, in his delineation of the power of the Lincoln legacy, Bradford made a quantum jump in reasoning and evaluation. In Bradford's view Lincoln's political religion derived from the Declaration of Independence and elevated equality into a fundamental axiom of our political culture. In so doing, said Bradford, Lincoln produced a recipe for continuing turmoil, since "the Northern habit has become national" and anger is to be expected from those who have received "a promissory note that contains ... the condition that it need never be paid." Following the course that Lincoln charted, he concluded, "we are more likely to arrive at the final plain of desolation than to a happy port in the New Zion of the Puritan vision."
One can understand although not necessarily admire those who, in celebrating Lincoln's birthday, undertake to associate him with whatever causes they espouse or views they seek to promulgate. It is as though on this special occasion one expects to be forgiven for making extravagant statements regarding the Great Emancipator. There have been many who should seek such amnesty. A favorite Lincoln birthday orator a generation ago was Senator Edward Martin of Pennsylvania. As he went about the country speaking and then reproducing his speeches in the Congressional Record, one cannot be certain whether his distaste for the Page [End Page 40] Truman administration exceeded his love for Lincoln. The important thing was that Lincoln also abhorred the travesty of government that the Truman administration represented. "Abraham Lincoln trusted the people of the United States," Martin declared in 1951. "One of his outstanding characteristics was his undeviating faith in the capacity of freemen to govern themselves. Government that is not responsive to the people must degenerate into dictatorship." Then, forgetting Lincoln for the moment, Martin launched into a full-scale indictment of the Truman administration. It had lost the confidence of the American people, was riddled with corruption, and was characterized by communist infiltration and appeasement of the Soviet Union. Then toward the end, remembering the occasion, he made his peroration as Lincolnesque as he could: "For the survival of freedom we must renew our allegiance to the fundamental principles that have come to us from the founders of our Republic. And then, God willing, we shall bind up the nation's wounds and do all which may achieve a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations." Instead of saying, "Consider the source," one is inclined to say, "Consider the occasion."
It would be difficult to find an occasion when a greater effort was made to associate Abraham Lincoln with an unpopular cause than the effort made by a recent president of the United States. In the winter of 1974 the Watergate revelations had implicated President Richard Nixon himself, and he was a very troubled man who found it more and more difficult to maintain his equanimity. On the morning of February 12, 1974, he turned up unannounced at the Lincoln Memorial and delivered a speech to the few hundred people who happened to be there to pay tribute to Lincoln on his birthday. "Why, why is Lincoln, of all the American Presidents, more revered not only in America but in the world," Nixon asked. "He freed the slaves, saved the Union, died of an assassin's bullet just at the height of his career. He had humility, humor, feeling and kindness, and perhaps more than anything else the strength, the poise under pressure."
Warming to his subject and seeking to draw a parallel, Nixon continued, "When we examine the American Presidents, it is quite clear that no President in history has been more vilified, or was more vilified during the time than Lincoln. Those who knew him ... have written that he was deeply hurt by what was said Page [End Page 41] about him and drawn about him, but on the other hand, Lincoln had the great strength of character never to display it, always to stand tall and strong and firm no matter how harsh or unfair the criticism might be." In concluding his remarks, Nixon said, "Even Lincoln would have marvelled if he were living today. This nation now the strongest nation in the world, the richest nation by far in the world, and a nation greatly respected all over the world, and the question he would have asked, as we must ask ourselves, is how will history look back on our time."
This effort on Nixon's part to draw a parallel did not quite come off. The parallel was flawed, for it ignored history regarding the circumstances and events with which Lincoln coped as well as Lincoln's character and approach in dealing with them. It did not come off, moreover, because it was a tasteless and self-serving effort to make Nixon himself innocent by association. The significance of the event is that it shows the length to which desperate men will go in misusing the Lincoln legacy.
Perhaps these examples are sufficient to suggest the persistent misuse of the Lincoln legacy. One of the few pleasant results of such an exercise is to show how the bright light of Lincoln's character is a quality with which almost everyone wishes to be associated. This includes the rich and poor, the black and white, the happy and the wretched, the guilty and the innocent. Even if some tend to misuse the Lincoln legacy, that very act is an affirmation of its importance and of its enduring quality. And that misuse is instructive to all of us as how best to observe this birthday. No one said it better than [Congressman] Paul Findley said it a few years ago: "The spirit of liberty is the legacy of Lincoln. We must resolve to preserve and perpetuate this spirit.... " Page [End Page 42]
- Thomas Vernor Smith, "A Philosopher Looks at Lincoln," Abraham Lincoln Association Papers... 1936 (Springfield, Illinois: Abraham Lincoln Association, 1937), p. 67.
- Lyon Gardiner Tyler, A Confederate Catechism: The War of 1861–1865, 5th ed. (Holdcroft, Virginia: Privately published, 1930), p. 16.
- Lyon Gardiner Tyler, John Tyler and Abraham Lincoln, Who Was the Dwarf? (Richmond: Richmond Press, 1929), p. 20–21; Michael Davis, The Image of Lincoln in the South (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1971), pp. 131–132.
- U.S. Congress, 63d Congress, 2d sess., Congressional Record 51:3040.
- Albert D. Kirwan, Revolt of the Rednecks, Mississippi Politics: 1876–1925 (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 1951), pp. 146–147.
- Thomas Dixon, Jr., The Clansman (Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1970), pp. 31–32.
- "Lincoln's Hope for the Negro," New York Times 12 February 1968, sec. 1, p. 36.
- Malcom X, quoted in Robert Penn Warren, Who Speaks for the Negro? (New York: Random House, 1965), p. 262.
- Julius Lester, Look Out Whitey, Black Power's Gon' Get Your Mama (New York: Grove Press, The Dial Press, 1969), p. 58.
- Lerone Bennett, Jr., "Was Abe Lincoln a White Supremacist?" Ebony 23, (February 1968): 42.
- Dr. Joseph R. Sizoo, The Voice of Lincoln ([Washington, D.C.]: Privately published, 1932).
- Ralph Y. McGinnis, ed., Quotations from Abraham Lincoln (Chicago: Nelson-Hall, 1977), p. 41.
- See John J. Duff, A. Lincoln: Prairie Lawyer (New York: Rinehart, 1960), pp. 312–318.
- U.S. Congress, 82d Congress, 1st sess., Congressional Record 97, pt. 2, app.: 857–858.
- U.S. Congress, 93rd Congress, 2d sess., Congressional Record 120, pt. 5: 7016.
- P. M. Zall, ed., Abe Lincoln Laughing: Humorous Anecdotes from Original Sources by and about Abraham Lincoln (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1982), p. 134.
- Same as footnote 15.
- Melvin E. Bradford, Remembering Who We Are: Observations of a Southern Conservative (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985), pp. 145–156.
- U.S. Congress, 82d Congress, 1st sess., Congressional Record 97, pt. 2, app.: 906.
- "Remarks of the President at the Lincoln Memorial on the 165th Anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's Birth," Loyal Legion Historical Journal 30 (February 1974): 3.
- U.S. Congress, House, "Lincoln, Lover of Liberty," 94th Congress, 2d sess., Congressional Record 122:3010.