U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Guest Post: Misremembered Melodies of Lincoln

Fox 1

Photo credit: Mina Carson

The following is a guest post from Steven McLain, a research assistant in and recent graduate of the department of history at Oregon State University on a recent talk given by USC intellectual history Richard Wightman Fox about his forthcoming book, Lincoln’s Body: A Cultural History.  Friend of S-USIH Christopher McKnight Nichols highly recommends McLain’s work and suggested McLain’s essay on Fox’s talk to the blog.  


I sometimes suspect that visiting speakers take their cues from the weather. When storm clouds loom, isn’t the wit just a little bit mordant? Unfortunately for my suspicion, I also have a hunch that Richard Fox is always just as giving and engaging as he was May 27th, when he came to Oregon State University and spoke on “Lincoln’s Religion and the Religion of Lincoln” as the capstone of the annual Horning Lecture Series, this year organized around the theme of “Religion and Culture in the U.S.” which has featured exciting talks by David Hollinger, Jon Butler, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen, and David Luft.

Fox happened to arrive when the Willamette Valley is no more green or energized. On days like this, we in the Pacific Northwestern tend to forget the February taunts of Chinook winds and the snaps of snowfall for which we are never prepared, and pretend that the world is never anything other than verdant; that breezes are only ever warm.

That kind of willful reimaging hung like a misremembered melody over Fox’s talk. His lecture precedes the publication of his forthcoming book Lincoln’s Body: A Cultural History (W.W. Norton & Co), which examines the way politicians and the public responded to Lincoln’s body first as a perceived object, then as an object of veneration or derision—or silver-screen Oscar-bait—and many of the book’s themes permeated the talk.

The misremembered melody is that of Lincoln himself, who, as Fox pointed out, was metamorphosed even in his life to suit the needs of popular perception. The irenic Lincoln embedded in modern American civil religion is part of a cultural apotheosis, but the tradition of reimagining Lincoln goes back well before 1860, when campaigners began to rebrand an “ugly” Lincoln as “homely.” Mary Lincoln was less politic: her husband was “not pretty.” Furthermore, Lincoln is far from photogenic; his legs are too long, his torso gawky, his forehead looms. And let’s not forget those ears. Yet photographers adapted their medium to present Lincoln in a more attractive manner, settling on portraiture as a way of surmounting his misproportions. Paintings of Lincoln—which allowed for representation rather than presentation of the subject—created a more beatific vision of Lincoln. As Fox points out, you can track how well Lincoln was doing politically by how attractive his portraits became.

Yet those who met Lincoln discovered that he was greater than the sum of his parts. Like later presidents (Eisenhower comes quickly to mind), Lincoln possessed an ineffable quality that transcended photography or painting; Fox recounted that those who experienced his radiant smile, or heard the passion of his speeches realized that they were in the presence of greatness.

Fox 3

Photo credit: Mina Carson

The appropriation of Lincoln’s physicality continued in the months following Lincoln’s death—literally, in the case of Lincoln’s funeral procession throughout the nation—as Lincoln was folded into American mythology. The “homely” figure was reinterpreted as Christ himself in a pietà depicting Washington as Mary and translating the halo of glory as a Republican laurel crown.[i]

Adopting and adapting Lincoln’s image in this way, according to Fox, seemed to provide people a settled hope in their own beliefs. Working through the myriad ways that Lincoln crafted meaning in his own life, the American public worked to enfold the tragedy of his death into a transcendent American myth. The beliefs Lincoln held were coterminous with the beliefs that soon arose about Lincoln, and Fox divided his talk accordingly. His religious beliefs can be broken into four main camps:

First, Lincoln believed in a sovereign God, whose purposes were nevertheless hidden. This allowed Lincoln to act freely, and empowered him to make the difficult decisions regarding war, disunion, and emancipation.

Second, Lincoln seemed inattentive to Jesus. Lincoln was disinterested in the idea of a personal savior and had little interest in redemption or salvation. He was not, as Fox noted, a “Jesus-believer.”

His disinterest left Lincoln open to a view of the world suffused with supernatural marvels. This third point is worth highlighting, since Lincoln ascribed weight to his faith in omens that was particularly unsettling to his Cabinet. Dreaming of a ship the night before his assassination, he told his Cabinet that dreams of this type often preceded “great” news. Greatness is an ambivalent term, Fox reminded the audience, and can equally describe calamity or triumph. Standing in as Lincoln’s last words, this prophetic announcement offered a bereaved nation solace and shifted him from Jeremiah to Isaiah’s voice of one calling in the wilderness.

Finally, Lincoln had a religious intensity to his commitment to equality. Fox points to Lincoln’s response to the Dred Scott decisions:

 All the powers of earth seem rapidly combining against him [the negro]. Mammon is after him; ambition follows, and philosophy follows, and the Theology of the day is fast joining the cry. They have him in his prison house; they have searched his person, and left no prying instrument with him. One after another they have closed the heavy iron doors upon him, and now they have him, as it were, bolted in with a lock of a hundred keys, which can never be unlocked without the concurrence of every key; the keys in the hands of a hundred different men, and they scattered to a hundred different and distant places; and they stand musing as to what invention, in all the dominions of mind and matter, can be produced to make the impossibility of his escape more complete than it is.[ii]

Following these observations of Lincoln’s religion, Fox turned back to the religious furor that developed around Lincoln. Exemplifying a Republican commitment that leaders were not superior to those they led, the civic faith of Lincoln created a worry about monarchic habits of mind resurging. Lincoln’s election in 1860 carried with it a kind of anticipation; black slaves realized his election was a good thing because their masters so vehemently opposed it. Fox uses the telling anecdote, detailing the famous events of 1864 as a throng of freed slaves greeted his arrival to Richmond and escorted him to the steps of the CSA capital.

Americans quickly forgot the triumphal entry of Lincoln the emancipator. The historical record, however, is clear. Thousands cheered him on, and gathered around Lincoln with the zealous intensity of true believers following him across the city, but when Steven Spielberg reimagined Lincoln’s triumph for contemporary audiences, he offered theatergoers the quiet moment between Lincoln and Grant watching Lee’s forces peter over the horizon. Asking why, Fox muses that the image of “Lincoln the emancipator” stands in sharp contrast to the more culturally acceptable image of “Lincoln the unifier.”

With that insight, gracefully if casually tossed to the audience, Fox interceded with the wider historiographic conversations. Historians as diverse as Jill Lepore and Andrew Preston have recently grappled with the problem of deciphering meaning from marginalized actors, or using oblique lenses of analysis.

Jill Lepore’s Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin offers a tantalizing glimpse at the silences in the archive, reconstructing the lives (and opinions) of historical actors by aggregating historical experience. Her prose is filled with examples of how things “must have been” as a way of filling in what actors themselves don’t say to recreate lived experience, much as a geneticist might use frog DNA to fill in the missing pieces of recovered dinosaur DNA.

Andrew Preston’s Sword of the Spirit, Shield of Faith: Religion in American War and Diplomacy raises the question of whether worldview can be used as a means of understanding specific historical actions. While economic determinism still rears its head, a subtler analysis places economic interests alongside ideological concerns, religious obligations, social constraints, and cultural norms. George Herring has ably shown that domestic concerns drove foreign policy in his magisterial From Colony to Superpower: US Foreign Relations Since 1776 and Preston takes the challenge to show how religion convictions molded those domestic concerns.

Each of these authors are carefully intervening in a much older question, of course. Benedict Anderson asks how people can be made to kill and die for what is essentially an idea. Preston answers that the idea is the point. Lepore then instructs historians in the ways archives can yield answers from intangible sources.

Fox 2

Photo credit: Mina Carson

Fox enters the conversation by pulling those strands together, offering insight into how Lincoln’s worldview and religious understanding helped shape and fuel his commitments to equality. His talk was a powerhouse because his deft interweaving of questions crafted a novel approach. Namely, that meaning is a function of belief and perception.

Sight dominates cultural discourse, probably because it dominates our own senses; we organize the world around what we see far more than through our other senses. I have the feeling that this lends vision undeserved legitimacy. If you have children you know that seeing is important to dispelling fear—look in the closet, look under the bed, look, look, look—just as it is important to establishing concrete reality. “Look at the dog,” she commands, but also seems to be asking, “Is that really a dog?” As Michael Kammen suggests in Mystic Chords of Memory, seeing gives meaning—especially the communal act of seeing.

As we increasingly come to live our lives through various hierarchies of mediation, most dominant is that of exhibitionist/voyeur. The selfie has been around as long as cameras, and before photography, painters were fond of self-portraiture, so it’s not exactly a novel form of self-expression. What is novel, though, is the increasing way in which meaning is ascribed not to an internal process but through that affirmation of those who look upon us. The American sociologist Charles Horton Cooley called it a “looking glass self:” our identities are shaped by how we believe others perceive us. What makes our current narcissism truly exceptional is that the looking glass has become global and elevated above the self; the act of looking is the germination of the self, and the picture substitutes the reality.

Historians, and particularly those devoted to an intensive study of the unfolding of mind in time, have the added burden of sifting through these various perspectives, especially as we attempt to make whole what is essentially representative.

What made Fox’s lecture a tour de force was the way he juxtaposed a part of Lincoln’s being—his religious faith—with its cultural approximation. Lincoln’s quintessence was impossible to translate to a photograph, yet his body—both real and imagined—served as the focal point between the divergence of narrative and reality. Ultimately, Fox’s talk reminds us of the necessary humility needed to understand the world and recognize that meaning is interwoven with myth.

[i] http://tinyurl.com/khzsgtz

[ii] http://www.virginia.edu/woodson/courses/aas-hius366a/lincoln.html

Steven McLain is a research assistant at Oregon State University, having received his Bachelor’s in History in 2013.  His undergraduate thesis was entitled “L’Amérique Latine: French Imperialism in Mexico, 1861-1867,” which opened his research interests to the ways in which the United States has engaged the world diplomatically, intellectually, and through the use of arms to become a nation among nations.

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  1. Steven –

    Nice essay.

    You may find this helpful – Howard Schuman, Amy Corning, and Barry Schwartz, “Framing Variations and Collective Memory: ‘Honest Abe’ versus ‘the Great Emancipator,’” Social Science History 36:4, Winter 2012. .

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