Sunday, June 14, 2009

Book Review: The Best American History Essays on Lincoln


subtitle: We got the American Jesus (see him on the interstate)

Americas have long shown a predilection towards a consideration of their heroes as sort of secular saints; super human statesmen like Washington and Jefferson who, long after their deaths, have attained an aura of supernatural greatness. This expresses itself through the praise they recieve, as well as the criticism (to condemn Jefferson or Washington exists as a rebuttal to this notion of perfection and would not exist otherwise). No historian feels the need to break down the myth of James Buchanan or Warren G. Harding.

If Washington and the founders are secular saints, then Lincoln has long been the American Christ. A man of perfect honesty and integrity who literally gave his life in order to redeem the original sin of American slavery, to redeem our democracy. More praise has been heaped upon Lincoln in hagiography after hagiography than any other figure in American History. It has been said that more words have been written in English on Lincoln than any other historical figure save Shakespeare. Beyond these almost-too-easy Jesus corollaries, Lincoln's is the great American story, the proto-type of the Haratio Alger myth. Beyond its obvious falsehood and simplicity, this Lincoln-narrative is astonishingly uninteresting.

These essays, compiled by Sean Wilentz (author of American Democracy from Jefferson to Lincoln) are an excellent introduction to the reader interested in a more real Lincoln. They do not seek to tear down his image, rather to make some sense of who he truly was, a master politician and pragmatist whose principles, as Richard N. Current writes in his contribution, "...happened to coincide exactly with his ambition".

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