Centennials and bicentennials always inspire a strange fever. Abraham Lincoln’s 200th, however, has prompted more madness than usual.
I wish I were referring to Lincoln impersonators, or mass recitals of the Gettysburg Address, or those Plexiglas trees around the faux-log cabin on display at the new Lincoln museum. But I’m actually talking about something weirder: our current President’s unblushing abuse of Lincoln iconography.
For a while, we were with him. His campaign kick-off at Springfield’s Old State Capitol, where Lincoln once spoke of a “house divided,” was meaningful enough. His rhetoric throughout the campaign was strong and clear, if lacking Lincoln’s occasional subversion and dry humor. All in all, Obama’s admiration of Lincoln reflected well on Obama.
But things have changed. In January, we watched as Obama waved from a bright blue train car, exaggeratedly and anachronistically retracing Lincoln’s former route, heading for an inaugural luncheon featuring Lincoln-themed foods (“brace of birds,” apparently, was a dish Lincoln “favored”) served up on replicas of Lincoln’s White House china. Yes, it was embarrassing. And it made me wonder who was doing more to cheapen Lincoln’s legacy: professional actors in stovepipe hats and polyester beards, or former professor Barack Obama?
Current professors are doing what they can to combat the cheapening forces. Today, the Whitney Humanities Center will present “The Legacy of Lincoln,” an all-day faculty colloquium organized by David Bromwich, Sterling professor of English. The panel will include David Blight, professor of American history; Bromwich himself; Stephen Skowronek, professor of political and social science; Caleb Smith, assistant professor of English; and Steven Smith, professor of philosophy and master of Branford College. The morning session will address Lincoln as a figure in American history; in the afternoon, Lincoln’s relationship to language will come to the fore.
“The event is supposed to deal with Lincoln as a historical actor and an original and persuasive writer and speaker; two different but only partly distinguishable things,” said Bromwich in an e-mail on Tuesday.
This fall, as they have done before, Bromwich and Smith are co-teaching a course on Lincoln. In a nod to the bicentennial, the course is called “Lincoln at 200.” It has expanded from a seminar to a lecture, to accommodate heightened interest in a man who has prompted almost as many books as Jesus Christ.
“Everybody comes in having heard something about Lincoln,” Smith told me in his office on Wednesday. “I hope people are going to take from the course that a political leader can be a deep and profound thinker. There is a general thought that American politics is an anti-intellectual enterprise. We want to show that this was a time—well, a time when giants walked the earth.”
The course has been well received, consistently filling Linsley-Chittenden Hall’s largest lecture room on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. Lincoln’s own letters and speeches are at the heart of the course, with historiography playing only a minor role. On the whole, students have been earnestly appreciative of this approach.
“I think Lincoln is a particularly interesting character because he’s not technically a founding father,” said River Clegg ’11, “but he becomes one several generations after, by ultimately reconciling the Constitution with the Declaration of Independence. That’s sort of a simplistic way to put Lincoln’s contribution to American history, but not a bad one.”
When asked about insights he’s gained from the class, Geoff Shaw ’10 said, “I find one strain particularly relevant: the idea that social change has to come from the bottom up. Lincoln knew that. Manners, then morals, and then politics on top of that. There’s no point trying to change people’s prejudices by changing the law—you go the other way around.”
It’s debatable whether Lincoln’s depth of thought helped or hindered his political efficacy. Smith is ambivalent on the issue, but recognizes the divide: “It’s hard to know. I don’t think being a great thinker is a guarantee that you are a great leader, which requires character and strength of will, which are independent of thinking.”
And how about that Obama-Lincoln connection? I asked Smith, who visibly shuddered before intoning, “National health care is not equivalent to a civil war.”