Abraham Lincoln has always loomed large in the American consciousness, as martyr president’s have a tendency to do. Interest has peaked in recent years, however, with a number of major insertions of Lincoln into the popular culture. Bill O’Reilly’s best selling book stands out, as does the Oscar-winning Spielberg film Lincoln. Better than both of those, as far as I’m concerned, is the highly plausible revisionist history film, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. In each case, and throughout history, there has been a tendency to glorify the dead president, a pull that even historians have trouble resisting. While there is no need to disparage Lincoln, contrary voices needed to be heard and praise needs to be qualified by critical analysis. Consider, for example, the following quote from the New York Evangelist written in the midst of Lincoln’s first term:
A year and a half of very difficult administration has shown our President to be a plain, good man, honest in heart, pure in intention, but certainly not those rare geniuses, who are born to “ride in the whirlwind and direct the storm.” We have taken a plain country lawyer out of his village and placed him at the head of the Government, and imagined him to be a great man, and because he does not quite measure to the character, were ready to censure and complain. Might we not rather reprove ourselves for our unreasonable expectations?
Here we have a laudatory account of the “good,” “honest,” and “pure” president from a friendly source, but consider how great a leap it is for the mind in 2013 to transport into a context in which Lincoln would need to be defended against detractors not by stressing his monumental works but by emphasizing his mediocrity. We should not be so enamored for Lincoln that we forget that even his friends did not perceive him to be one of “those rare geniuses,” a status he would assume indelibly after his death.