The National Park Service’s Lincoln: A Response to Professor Schaefer

Professor of Political Science David Lewis Schaefer just published an online article over at the National Review titled, “Deconstructing the Lincoln Memorial.”  He is apparently upset with what he discovered about Lincoln and his legacy on the National Park Service’s website for the Lincoln Memorial.  His concern centers specifically on a link that provides a very brief explanation of why and under what conditions the memorial was built.  I will leave it to you to read the full entry, but here is a brief passage:

The period between 1865-1909 was a period marked as a time of incredible technological advances, rapid industrial growth, and imperialistic expansionism; of enflamed patriotism during and after the Spanish-American War; and a continuance of Jim Crow laws, the exploitation of the working class, and Tammany Hall-style politics. Perhaps it should come as little surprise that the predominately white, classically minded and university educated, upper-middle class generation of architects and engineers that built the Lincoln Memorial would stress the theme of National Unity over that of Social Justice.

Schaefer takes this brief passage and characterizes the NPS’s website as anti-Lincoln and politically tainted with a “liberal” bias.  According to the author: “What we really need to know, according to the National Park Service, is that the United States was nearly as evil, in its own way, as the anti-liberal forces it defeated, from the Confederate States to the Soviet Union.”  The problem with Schaefer’s argument is that he takes a rather brief overview of the motivation behind the design, construction and 1922 dedication of the memorial and makes a sweeping generalization about the content of the site as a whole.  I have no problem if Schaefer wants to argue that the historical explanation of the memorial is problematic; unfortunately, he provides no such explanation.  His article betrays a lack of any serious understanding of what public history involves or why it is sometimes important to distinguish between a memorial and the event/ideal/individual it represents.  Even worse, Schaefer’s piece is intellectually dishonest.

Does the website provide an overall negative view of Lincoln as suggested by Schaefer?  On the opening page of the site there is a passage that reads: “In this temple, as in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union, the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever.” Beneath these words, the 16th President of the United States—the Great Emancipator and preserver of the nation during the Civil War—sits immortalized in marble. As an enduring symbol of Freedom, the Lincoln Memorial attracts anyone who seeks inspiration and hope.”

Click the link for “Lincoln the Man” and you will find the following: “For many Americans the Lincoln Memorial is a secular sacred space or temple commemorating the nation’s savior and first assassinated president. Having led the country through the long night of civil war, Abraham Lincoln would not live to see the dawn of “a new birth of freedom” he spoke of so eloquently. This freedom would take two tangible forms: freedom for the thousands of emancipated slaves or the legacy of Social Justice and the freedom found in a reunited country or the legacy of National Unity, with a fully restored federal government under the Constitution, ensuring the continuance of participatory democracy.”

And finally, here is a short passage from “The War Years“: “During his term in office, his thinking evolved from reestablishing the Union as it was, to remolding the Union into what it could be. His evolution, some have argued, signaled a true revolution within the American Republic. Abraham Lincoln-war president-miraculously transformed this nation during its most “fiery trial,” preserving the integrity of the Federal Union while accelerating within it the extirpation of antebellum culture, society, and thought.”

Perhaps Professor Schaefer had to meet a deadline for the National Review and didn’t have time to do an extensive survey of the material on the site.  I tend to think, however, that Professor Schaefer went in with a conclusion about the politics of the National Park Service and looked for those passages that would support his assumptions.

5 thoughts on “The National Park Service’s Lincoln: A Response to Professor Schaefer

  1. matthew mckeon

    American culture has proved a sore disappointment to Prof. Schaefer and the National Review. Reading his article, it looks like he’s sort of given up rationality too.
    Shorter version: OuruselessschoolseggheadparkrangersignoringgreatamericansdefeatingNaziGermanykaiserbillendingslaveryweakening ourgreatcountry.

    A thought, as the Republican party is more and more based in the old Confederacy, will new National Review begin to complain about memorializing Lincoln at all?

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  2. Kevin Levin

    Matthew, — I was actually disappointed to see this connected with National Review as I am a regular reader and value the overall quality of the magazine. Fellow blogger John Maass sent the electronic version of the article so perhaps there is a difference between the online and printed versions.

    Mannie, — Thanks for the inspiration; very thoughtful.

    Reply
  3. matthew mckeon

    I’m not a regular NR reader, so maybe I’m off base, but this type of article, and its a type, follows a plot as fixed as the Lost Cause.
    1. Our useless educational system. It doesn’t teach patriotism, it undermines it.
    2. American heroes besmirched!
    3. We defeated the Nazis(insert others).
    4. The American people are too weak not to be fed the most heroic version of the past.
    The only thing missing was a reference to 9/11.

    Reply
  4. Kevin Levin

    Matthew, — I agree entirely. In reference to #3 Schaefer through in defeating the Nazis and that happened obviously after the dedication of the memorial. In reference to #4 it is disturbing to think how overly simplistic many of us are to think that a rich and complex narrative that integrates the positive and negative is somehow “liberal” and “un-American.” Alot of silliness if you ask me.

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