The American Myth


The sermons preached on Easter Day, 1865 painted a complex and contradictory image of Abraham Lincoln. Barely 24 hours after his death, Lincoln's memory was already being defined into two separate aspects. He was both the representative man -- common and average in every way, and the exemplary man -- larger and stronger and wiser than any mere mortal. As one pastor put it, "great and distinguished persons" become, through association of their characters to those institutions and communities to which they were a part, "representative men." And where "such arise, they are especially the property of the individuals whom they represent; and generally of the country producing them." (Starr 11) Lincoln, as a symbolic figure, was claimed not only as representative of the American people who had followed him during his life, but also of the character of the country as a whole.

His beginnings were not only of the humblest sort, but also of the most uniquely American. His boyhood was placed firmly within the popular image of the American Frontier. Descriptions of Lincoln's youth are interspersed with the hyperbole of the West's tradition of tall tales. A scholarly Paul Bunyun, Lincoln grew to an "unusual height" and "could outrun, outlift, outwrestle" any of his companions and "chop faster, split more rails in a day, carry a heavier log...or excel the neighborhood champion in any feat of frontier athletics." (Nicolay 24) His childhood, as seen through campaign biographies and newspaper stories, was the stuff of American legend.

After his death the association of Lincoln's character with American tradition grew. The clergy, alongside their biblical images of Moses and martyrdom, also invoked the images of the founding fathers. In addition to placing the Emancipation Proclamation "with the Declaration of Independence," these sermons also established a link between Lincoln and the nation's first president. (Rankin 6) "In all future history his name will stand beside that of Washington. If he was the father of his country, under God, Abraham Lincoln was its savior." (Butler 9)

To many the timing of Lincoln's death underlined, with its injustice, the accomplishments of his life. "The great and glorious Washington was re-elected President of the United States in the time of peace. The second Father of his Country, Lincoln, in the time of war...Washington died in old age, in peace, his work completed, his service ended. Lincoln died in the full flush and prime of life" at the climax of the Civil War. (Starr 7)

If the presidency was "the highest [position] which has ever been filled by man," then Lincoln's term in office was the most important period during which the position was filled. Yet even more important was the popular characterization of Lincoln as a "Father" to the country. (Starr 4, 12) "When God raises up any man, who, in character, ability, and achievement, is accomplishing great good, his removal is a sore calamity to the people." (Starr 10) More than the leader of a "Heaven-blessed Government," however, Lincoln was seen as a role model for all Americans. (Butler 7)

Lincoln's "tall, manly form" was "accessible" to the common man and the loss of that model left a rend in the fabric of American consciousness. (Keeling 14) It is perhaps for that reason that his memory has lived on in American iconography. When the sermons of April 16, 1865 asked the American people "pledge [themselves] not only to the affectionate memory of our MARTYR but to the imitation of his character and the perpetuation of his principles" a place was created for Lincoln in the American mind which existed ever since. (Edgar 2)


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