At the end of the recent remake of Planet of the Apes—turn the page now if you still plan to see it—the hero escapes from said planet and its monstrous chimp-tyrant, General Thade. Returning to Earth at night, his spacecraft crashes in, of all places, the Reflecting Pool at the Washington Mall, and he solemnly marches up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. There, he finds that Lincoln’s face has been replaced by the image of the evil Thade. Just then, squad cars screech up, and the cops who jump out to arrest our hero are all gorillas! The simians have somehow taken over Tellus.
Subbing Thade for Abe is a bit of secular blasphemy, since Lincoln has been as surely deified as any Roman emperor. Even in the year 2001, when the word “irreverent” has become the movie reviewer’s highest encomium, when we’ve been inured to rock bands called The Dead Kennedys and subsidized sacrileges in art museums, it’s shocking to see liberties taken with the Great Emancipator.
I laughed alone. Nobody else in the theater seemed to think it was funny, but I felt this movie had been made just for me. I was finishing my own book on Lincoln, in which I try to explain why control of the United States government, if not the entire planet (there’s always Switzerland), has fallen into simian hands. And I blame Lincoln. If, one day, his image on penny and sawbuck is replaced by that of a chimpanzee, he can thank himself.
Idolatry of Lincoln—himself often derided as a “gorilla” or “baboon” in the hostile press of his day—began the moment John Wilkes Booth fired his derringer. It was Good Friday, perhaps an unseemly time to be at the theater; but by Easter morning, sermons across the land were likening the fallen president to Christ. In Lincoln in American Memory, Merrill D. Peterson tells of a Detroit church in 1929 that featured a stained glass window portraying Lincoln unshackling a Negro boy. A Southern woman visiting the church one Sunday nudged her son and cried out: “Oh my soul! Yes! Look! Abe Lincoln in a church window!”
Abe-worship is surely odd, considering that Lincoln was not a worshiper—”not a technical Christian,” as his wife admitted. His law partner, Billy Herndon, recounts that, as a young man, Lincoln—having imbibed infidelity from Voltaire and Tom Paine—wrote a book attacking the tenets of Christianity, including the truth of the Bible and the divinity of Christ. A well-meaning friend burned it, hoping to save Lincoln’s future—and he probably did. From then on, Lincoln maintained a careful ambiguity about religion. He could always cite Scripture for his purpose, but he never really said he believed it himself. As long as the public accepted it, he could use it rhetorically for his purposes.
Lincoln even sounds like the Bible—the King James one, anyway. His ear for the archaic was marvelous: house divided, charity, memory, hallow, dedicate, consecrate, devotion, scourge, etc. His vocabulary was purposely quaint. He knew enough Scripture and Shakespeare to create the impression that he was speaking with the ancestral voice of “our fathers.”
He wasn’t, though. Lincoln’s self-education had serious gaps. Other lawyers marveled at his courtroom prowess in swaying juries, but he was also covering up his deficiencies in technical knowledge of the law. He performed a parallel feat in his political career: seeming to embody a tradition of which he was actually ignorant.
It was only gradually, while writing my book, that I came to realize how seldom Lincoln appealed to the Founding Fathers. In fact, he rarely quoted them, except for his obsessive citation of the “proposition” to which he said the “new nation” of 1776 had been “dedicated.” And he even got this wrong: What the Declaration of Independence declared was not a monolithic “nation” or “Union,” but 15 distinct “free and independent states.” For Lincoln, it was crucial to deny that the states had ever enjoyed sovereignty; otherwise, their right to secede was plausible. He even contended that the Articles of Confederation had “further matured” the (unbreakable) Union; he forgot—or pretended to forget—that the Articles began by asserting: “Each state retains its sovereignty, freedom, and independence.” For an antisecessionist president, crushing what he pleased to call “rebellion,” that would never do.
In Lincoln’s writings, I have found only three fleeting mentions of Madison and Hamilton; even his references to Jefferson, his favorite Founding Father, are few and superficial. He shows no acquaintance with the formative debate over “consolidation” and “confederation” in the 1780’s, or with Jefferson’s Kentucky Resolutions of 1798. The subtleties of dividing power and separating departments seem alien to him; he reasoned from a handful of snippets. By contrast, Jefferson Davis was steeped in the thinking of the founding period. Unlike Lincoln, Davis could have held his own in a conversation with Madison and company.
The most impressive thing about Lincoln is how impressive he could make himself sound. He still impresses by dint of sheer eloquence. Nobody can deny that his words are memorable: We all remember them.
And that was what Lincoln wanted most: to be remembered. In his 1838 speech to Springfield’s Young Men’s Lyceum, he foresaw the rise of a tyrant who would seek immortality in destroying the free institutions the Founding Fathers had won immortality by building. During the depths of his depression a few years later, as his friend Joshua Speed later recalled, Lincoln was despondent that “he had done nothing to make any human being remember that he had lived.” When he signed the Emancipation Proclamation, he remarked: “If my name goes into history, it will be for this act.” His ambition was finally fulfilled.
Lincoln’s speeches are memorable in large part because they are about memory itself: “The mystic chords of memory . . . The world will little note, nor long remember . . . My fellow citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves . . . The world will not forget . . . “
But Lincoln had haunting memories closer to home, which he preferred to forget. He spoke of his own father rarely and with faint contempt, never with warmth; he loved the memory of his mother, who died when he was nine, but he once confided to Herndon that “my mother was a bastard” and never spoke of her to him again. In 1850, Thomas Lincoln lay dying and asked to see his only son, who declined to visit and didn’t attend the funeral a few weeks later. Abe had never introduced his father to his wife and children.
Why was Lincoln so strangely remote from his father? Was it just because he was moving up in the world and was ashamed of the coarse and illiterate Thomas? We can only guess. My own surmise is that the old man was a brutal drunkard. We have testimony that Thomas sometimes hit little Abe for minor provocations, after which Abe would never wail, but shed a silent tear. But I find it suggestive that Lincoln became a teetotaler and joined a temperance society. And he never disciplined his own children, whose wildness became an acute annoyance to everyone, including Lincoln’s Cabinet. Throughout his adult life, Lincoln seemed to want to be the opposite of everything his father was. He idealized the long-dead national “fathers,” but not the actual man who had begotten him. If he was an assiduously self-made man, it was probably because he dreaded becoming the man Thomas would have made him.
If Lincoln seems devoted to abstract principles, it may be because he wasn’t defined by concrete loyalties. He was quick to forget old friends and allies who had boosted his career. He was always markedly reserved in his affections. Yes, he was “Honest Abe,” in the sense that he paid his debts and spoke accurately, when he spoke at all; but his honesty was far from confessional candor. His inner life remains a mystery. He almost never spoke of his personal experiences in public; to a temperance society, he could speak eloquently on the evils of drunkenness, without alluding to anything in his own life that might have enlisted his passion on the subject. Ambition drove him forward; he didn’t look backward.
The impression he leaves is one of personal deracination. He had no ancestors to speak of, except “our fathers”—themselves rather abstract entities, dedicated to propositions. His friends described him as “reticent” and “secretive.” When, between his election in November and his inauguration in March, the whole country was writhing over whether there would be civil war, he kept his own counsel for four months, refusing to disclose his intentions. Even his first inaugural address was Delphic in its evasion of the war question.
He did love Shakespeare, especially Macbeth—a play that revolves around two Lincolnian themes, ambition and equivocation. Like the Weird Sisters, Lincoln had a lawyer’s gift for saying things that were literally true but actually misleading. “I han’t been caught lyin’ yet,” he once told Billy Herndon, “and I don’t mean to be.” He excelled at not being caught lyin’. For weeks, he let William Seward and Ward Lamon assure the Confederates that Fort Sumter would be evacuated; the Confederates felt betrayed when Lincoln sent reinforcements instead, but nobody could pin the deceit on him. He had personally said nothing.
Throughout the war, Lincoln contrived to interpret the Constitution as ambiguous where others found it quite clear. The separation of powers, in his reading, became remarkably porous; in wartime, the president could assume powers normally belonging to Congress, or to nobody. In peace, the Emancipation Proclamation would have been unconstitutional, but this was wartime, and the Commander in Chief could seize “rebel” property if necessary—meaning if he deemed it necessary.
“Perception is reality,” as we now say. Lincoln was peerless in creating “perception,” in that sense. Even posthumously, he defines himself, through his command of a language—a pastiche of King James English—that only he ever really spoke. It certainly wasn’t the political idiom of “our fathers.”
Still, Lincoln managed to upstage—even supersede—the remarkable generation that had won American independence and forged a federal union. With a few finely turned phrases, he drastically abridged their thought, creating, if not a “new nation” or a “new birth of freedom,” then a new tradition of nationalism and centralization. The real American past was obscured and mostly forgotten. Lincoln’s words have become a legacy in themselves, a substitute for a repudiated body of serious political philosophy.
Lincoln is indeed the founder—and perfect symbol—of an amnesiac America that remembers even less of its origins than he did.