Abe and Me

08I‘ve never quite understood the vehement anger expressed by some for Abraham Lincoln. Yes, I get the libertarian concern that Lincoln’s policies reflect a fundamental shift in the size and scope of the federal government. Funny that they rarely express the same concern for Jefferson Davis who went just as far in suspending civil liberties as well as increasing the size of the federal government in Richmond. More prevalent, however is the view that has been shaped by generations of white Southerners who see Lincoln as the man who unleashed the likes of Grant, Sherman, and Sheridan on an innocent southern populace that only wanted to be left alone to govern themselves and preserve their “way of life.” The agendas of both constituencies – one economic and the other emotional/scar-ridden – end up with an interpretation of Lincoln that resonates very little with me as a historian and as a citizen.

One of the first books I read when I first discovered the Civil War back in the mid-1990s was David Donald’s Lincoln. Lincoln had never appeared on my radar screen before, but he has occupied a central place in my reading on the war and nineteenth-century America ever since. I’ve devoured well over 100 books on Lincoln and even with everything I’ve read I can still read more. No other historical figure comes close to challenging my appetite for Lincoln studies. There were a number of things that stood out in those first few books that caught my attention. I was fascinated with his early life, his apparent ambition and concern for his own future, which revealed itself early on, and most importantly, his struggle with depression. At the time I was struggling with it myself along with a lack of direction in my life. I don’t remember learning anything about Lincoln’s personal life in high school, but this aspect of his personal profile struck a chord with me and perhaps even provided me with a little strength. In short, I felt I had a connection with the man.

That said, my interest in Lincoln has never come close to hero worship. The realm of history has never provided me with a forum for developing those kinds of connections. [The only person in my life who deserves that kind of respect and admiration is my own father.] Rather, I’ve embraced the study of history as an intellectual exercise, one that involves bringing to bear my limited analytical abilities and love for a good story. I am not trying to protect or defend a preferred interpretation of any one aspect of the past nor do I see it as a stage where good battles evil. Those who do “take sides” inevitably simplify and cherry pick their narrative to suit their own personal agenda. There is very little that I believe about the Civil War compared to when I first started reading about it fifteen years ago. I hope that fifteen years from now my understanding of Lincoln and the Civil War have progressed to a similar point. There is nothing sacred in my understanding of the past; it’s all open to reinterpretation and it is something that I actively pursue.

That being said, it would be dishonest to suggest that my view of Lincoln is entirely objective – whatever that might mean. In the end, I approve of the outcome of the war, including Lincoln’s decision as commander-in-chief to begin the process of emancipation, which eventually led to the end of slavery. That said, I am under no illusions regarding Lincoln’s racial outlook, though I am struck by the difficulty of so many in distinguishing between his moral view and the specific policies he supported as president during a civil war.

More importantly, however, my outlook on Lincoln and the war stems from my pride as a citizen of this country. The union that Lincoln helped preserve is the nation that I live in and call home. I must assume that this is what undergirds most people’s understanding of Lincoln at some level. With this in mind, it seems strange to ask why Jefferson Davis or Robert E. Lee’s recent bicentennial failed to attract the same level of enthusiasm around the country. Even in the South you will find plenty of programs to honor the memory of Lincoln throughout the remainder of this year. If we accept the assumption that the South is one of the more patriotic regions of this country than it should come as no surprise that Lincoln’s life and legacy would be honored this year. The bicentennial celebrations of Lincoln seem fitting as a celebration of the history of this great nation, even if I tend to look on more as an observer rather than as a participant when it comes to its more emotional and hagiographic moments.

For me, Abraham Lincoln will always be a subject open to further study and contemplation as well as the president who helped bring an end to slavery and worked to secure the future of this nation – warts and all. And yes, I find myself falling deeply in love with the man.

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11 comments… add one
  • Dan Wright Mar 6, 2009 @ 5:01

    I think the “vehement anger” expressed toward Lincoln comes mostly from the Southern Heritage crowd that wears blinders toward the shortcomings of Confederacy. To continue to celebrate the Southern cause in light of its military, economic, social and moral failures is much simpler if Lincoln, Grant, etc. are villains.
    What I find compelling about Lincoln is that he was a man with human limitations who served as president during an extraordinary time and at times he rose to the occasion.

  • Kevin Levin Mar 6, 2009 @ 4:13


    Thanks for the comment. I agree that it is the attention to our shortcomings that have the potential to humanize us the most. It is indeed what the best teachers do.


    I deleted the little exchange with Richard Williams. It was pointless and detracted from the point of the post.

    Note: Williams has decided to make a big deal out of this on his own blog: http://oldvirginiablog.blogspot.com/2009/02/objective-balanced-view.html [go to the 15th comment]. I deleted two of Richard’s comments, but what he conveniently overlooks is that I also deleted two of my own. He interprets this as censorship, but it should be clear to anyone who read them that we were just taking childish pop shots at one another that had nothing to do with the post. I tried to explain to Richard that it is because I value his voice on this blog that I deleted our silly little exchange. My goal was to keep the discussion focused on the content of the blog and that is all. I was not trying to censor Richard. Still, he felt a need to respond, which is fine.

    You will notice that his first and most substantial comment was left.

  • John Mar 5, 2009 @ 23:04

    Hi Kevin,

    My interest in Lincoln and the Civil War began early when my sixth grade social studies teacher Mrs. Halleck, bless her, inspired me to read everything I could about about Lincoln and the Civil War. The following summer my family took a trip to Washington D.C. The most memorable moment for me was the Lincoln Memorial. Looking up at old Abe, the look on his face suggested to my young mind that he was going to bear this burden even if it killed him, which it eventually did. Having said all that, I’ve never viewed Lincoln as anything more than a man who overcame his human limitations the best way he could. Mrs. Halleck would have been horrified if I had thought otherwise. To me, Lincoln’s flaws make him all the more interesting: just another human being like ourselves although far more talented than most. Just wanted to put in a plug for a teacher who steered my life in an unexpected direction. Isn’t that what the best teachers do, or at least hope to do?


  • Tom Thompson Mar 5, 2009 @ 19:22

    I find the Kalman piece truly delightful. I think many here reach too far to find meaning in it. I saw it as a person coming to terms with Lincoln over a lifetime of piecing together what she knows of him. As a child Lincoln was the martyr who she studied in grade school, the family vacation took her to the gravesite where she collected and saved the oak leaves from the cemetery. Typical middle school stuff.

    At the Rosenberg Museum in Philly, she studied the archives more deeply…came to terms with who the man was and decided she liked him…she really liked him. How would life with Lincoln be for her…just as she described – sleeping on the cot in the corner of the Lincoln Memorial embroidering his great words into fabric.

    Kalman’s piece is compelling. How else could she have told that story and hooked so many of us into it. I loved the story and thank her creating such a beautiful sentiment.

    Thank you Kevin for bringing it to us.

  • Crystal Marshall Mar 5, 2009 @ 9:07

    In examining great historical figures, it’s interesting how our culture forces us to either one of two extremes–love ’em or hate ’em, unquestioned worship or vehement bashing–and how, if you take the middle ground, you’re attacked from both ends as indecisive and hypocritical. (My view is, if you’re only being attacked by one side, you’re too far on the other side; but if you’re attacked by both sides, you know your position is right on track!) In fact, having arrived at a reasoned conclusion that takes the best from both sides is the most enlightened option. You can relate with and respect and appreciate someone and still recognize their flaws, keeping you from engaging in hero worship; and in fact, I think that understanding that even the greatest men and women had flaws, and recognized those flaws and yet strove to overcome them and do good in spite of them, inspires me and makes me respect and appreciate them all the more–or in other words, falling even more “deeply in love with them” :0)

    • Kevin Levin Mar 5, 2009 @ 9:22


      Thanks for getting us back on track and for your thoughtful comment. I pretty much agree with you.

  • Kevin Levin Mar 5, 2009 @ 6:59


    I am quite familiar with D. Wilson’s book and highly recommend it as the best study of his early life and political career. You should also check out his more recent book on Lincoln’s speeches, which is quite good. Thanks for the Dodds quote – super.


    Sorry about that…I mean…glad you enjoyed it…uh 🙂

    Chris W.,

    Gerry’s book is, indeed, a nice synthesis of recent scholarship. It’s been quite helpful as my students make their way through a Lincoln biography.

    Richard Williams,

    Once again you choose to read what you will into my words. So be it, but I did not intend that last statement as one of affection or as simple hero worship. I was trying to build off of Karlman’s piece in the NYTs, which you have also reduced to a simple statement of affection. Apparently, you didn’t get it or you have no interest in getting beyond the simply morality play that colors your view of most things. Once again, I can’t control how you interpret my words, but I guess that won’t stop you from blogging about my hypocrisy.

  • Richard G. Williams, Jr. Mar 5, 2009 @ 6:50

    “The agendas of both constituencies – one economic and the other emotional/scar-ridden – end up with an interpretation of Lincoln that resonates very little with me as a historian and as a citizen.”

    But then you conclude your post with a very emotional and affectionate statement about Lincoln – which is fine, I fully understand that connection and why some feel that way. Yet you mock Southerners who see admirable qualities in certain Southern heroes. And herein is the disconnect and why you are seen as biased and accused of “Southern bashing.”

  • Chris Evans Mar 5, 2009 @ 6:47

    I find Lincoln a very fascinating figure to study also. I have greatly enjoyed reading Donald’s, Oates, and Benjamin Thomas’s one volume histories of the man and have greatly enjoyed them. I found ‘Did Lincoln own Slaves’ by Gerald J. Prokopowicz a wonderful synthesis of info on Lincoln. Have you read ‘Abe’ by Richard Slotkin? It’s a very fascinating novel on the young Lincoln by someone who wrote one of the great Civil War novels ‘The Crater.’

  • Chris Mar 5, 2009 @ 5:49

    I’m at school getting ready for my first hour class, but had to read your entire post. Thanks, now I’ve got 3 minutes less time to get ready! Great post. Lincoln did a lot for our country.


  • Richard Mar 5, 2009 @ 5:17

    What a well done post! I must say that my own studies of Lincoln, much more limited in scope that yours, have led me to similar conclusions. What I appreciate most is your staying away from making any aspect of history sacred to the point of never being open for review and newer understanding. I recently received Donald’s book on Lincoln as a gift and am now looking forward to reading it even more knowing your history with the book.
    If you have not read it yet I recommend “Honor’s Voice” by Douglas L. Wilson. If you have read it I would be interested to know your reaction.
    On a side note; in a class I am taking at the University of Dayton I came across a quote you might like (or not). E.R. Dodds once observed that “there are no periods in history; only in historians.”

    Happy Purim – Make a joyful noise.

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