The American Myth


Although Lincoln enjoyed public popularity during his life, it was his death which erased all opposition and cemented his mythic identity. The sermons preached on Easter Day, 1865 painted a complex and contradictory image of Abraham Lincoln. Barely twenty-four hours after his death, Lincoln's memory was already being defined along two distinct lines. 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." 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, could be claimed not only by those individuals and groups who had supported him during his life, but by all Americans, indeed by the whole world.

His beginnings were not only of the humblest sort, but also of the most uniquely American. The idealization of his boyhood was placed firmly within the popular image of the American Frontier. Descriptions of Lincoln's youth were 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 grouping the Emancipation Proclamation and the Declaration of Independence as sacred texts, these sermons also established a link between Lincoln and the nation's first president Nowhere is the link between Washington, Lincoln, and Christianity more explicit than in J.G. Butler's The Martyr President: Our Grief and Our Duty, published in 1865, in which the author wrote, "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."

The timing and tragic nature of Lincoln's death underscored the accomplishments of his life. In his 1865 work on Lincoln, The Martyr President, Frederick Starr Jr. wrote "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.

While the association of Lincoln's image with that of Washington placed him in a category of the most exalted figures of American history, Lincoln was also something which Washington was not: a common man. Lincoln's "tall, manly form" was accessible to the average person and the loss of that model left a rend in the fabric of American consciousness. (Keeling 14) Doubtless this loss accounts in part for the strong hold Lincoln's memory still has on 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)

In Lincoln In American Memory, Merrill D. Peterson sees five themes at work in the Lincoln myth which developed immediately after his death: Savior of the Union, Great Emancipator, Man of the People, First American, and Self-Made Man.


Savior of the Union

In a letter to Horace Greeley, written in 1862, Lincoln sets forth his main objective as president, "My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others along I would also do that." For Lincoln , the essence of the struggle was the restoration of the Union; beside it all other concerns paled to insignificance. His assassination came only after this mission had been realized and did not mar the accomplishment but instead raised it to new heights. In Peterson's words, "...the first lesson taught by Lincoln's life was the inviolability of the American Union. And the lesson taught by his death was the heroic sacrifice needed to sanctify the nation." (Peterson,27.)

This myth also incorporated Christian imagery of Washington as Father and Lincoln as Savior. This is especially evident in John Sartain's 1865 engraving, Abraham Lincoln the Martyr Victorious in which George Washington, accompanied by a band of angels, escorts Abraham Lincoln to heaven.







the Great Emancipator

The title of "Great Emancipator" became Lincoln's with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in September, 1862. Although it actually freed very few slaves - because it applied only to those areas in rebellion against the United States - it earned the enthusiasm of black and white abolitionists throughout the Union.

The idea of Lincoln as Great Emancipator was embraced most enthusiastically by those who had the most invested in slavery and in emancipation: the black community. Following his assassination, former slaves together contributed a total of $17,000 for a monument of their gratitude to Lincoln. Unveiled eleven years after the shooting at the Ford Theater, the Freedmen's Monument is important as an expression of the feelings of former slaves for their "best friend." (Braden,89.) Frederick Douglass' speech on the occasion of the unveiling of the statue illustrates the conflict within this myth, the impossibility of being both Savior of the Union and Great Emancipator simultaneously.

  • The Emancipation Proclamation

  • Expression of Gratitude for Freedom
    the oration of Frederick Douglass at the unveiling of the Freedman's Monument, April 14, 1876.

  • Man of the People

    Peterson contends that Lincoln's image as Man of the People had two central aspects. He was a plain man, "a child of poverty and toil, rough-grained like the country he inhabited." (Peterson,30.) Unlike the beloved but distant Washington, in the eyes of the common men Lincoln was one of them, was the laborer, the railsplitter, the flat-boatman. The other half of this image lauded his "faith in democracy, his shrewdness as a popular leader, his uncanny reading of the public mind, and his ability to inspire trust in people." (Peterson,31.) His new definition of democracy, given in the Gettysburg Address, as "government of the people, by the people, for the people" won the hearts and imagination of people throughout the world.


    First American

    Lincoln as the First American came from the idea that the man somehow personified the very best qualities of the nation - he, like the American republic, was plain, simple, free of affectation and dishonesty. "In Lincoln, it was sometimes said, were the characteristic lineaments of each of the great sections of the country." Physically a Yankee, by birth and descent a Southerner, Lincoln was "above all...a westerner, his mind 'genial, level-lined, fruitful and friendly,' like the prairie." (Peterson,33.)


    Self-Made Man

    Of all the images of Lincoln, perhaps the most pervasive and enduring is that of him as a Self-Made Man. Lincoln's childhood studies beside the fire in his family's log cabin is the stuff of legend, and renderings in various mediums have planted it firmly in our lore. In the enormously popular 1863 book The Pioneer Boy and How He Became President author William M. Thayer posed the question "How was it done?" The story answers for itself: "Lincoln's success followed from practicing the proven virtues of honesty, kindness, temperance, industry, and pluck." (Peterson,34.)