In search of Abe

Matthew Hoy
By Matthew Hoy on January 5, 2009

Andrew Ferguson's "Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe's America," isn't so much about America's 16th president as it is about how America's views of Lincoln have changed over the decades.

Ferguson starts the book with the dedication of a statue honoring Lincoln in Richmond, Va. -- the heart of the Confederacy -- and the controversy that ensued more than 140 years Lincoln's assassination. Ferguson describes how those opposed to putting a statue commemorating Lincoln's visit to the defeated confederate capitol organized a conference with scholars who sought to debunk the popular history of a America's most popular president. The invited historians minimized the issue of slavery and focused mainly on Lincoln's "War of Northern Aggression" and the concept of state's rights.

Lincoln defenders, in the morning before the dedication of the statue, organized their own symposium. Panelists included Harold Holzer of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (a former speechwriter for Mario Cuomo), professor William Lee Miller (a former speechwriter for Adlai Stevenson and who worked for LBJ) and Ronald C. White, dean of the San Francisco Theological Seminary. While the first group sought to turn Lincoln into some sort of criminal, the latter sought to turn him into some sort of saint.

It's no surprise, then, that the Lincoln who emerged from their discussion was a cross between Adlai Stevenson and Mario Cuomo, if both had gone to San Francisco Theological Seminary.


Forget Stevenson and Cuomo. If Lincoln had been born 125 years later, he could've been Bill Moyers.

When Ferguson talks to one of the leaders of the anti-Lincoln faction about the pro-Lincoln symposium, he sums up the portrait of Lincoln that emerged as simply: "They think he was a wimp." To which the Lincoln-hater responded: "Jesus. Even I don't think he was a wimp."

From there, Ferguson takes readers on a brief trip into the past to the years following Lincoln's assassination and the first attempts at creating a historical record of the man. We quickly move back to the present and the Lincoln presented by the Lincoln museum in Chicago. Then, on to Springfield and the Illinois capitol's hit-and-miss efforts to cash in on America's most popular president. Ferguson takes the family on a vacation along the Lincoln Historic Trail -- an invention of the American Petroleum Institute in the 1950s to get people in their cars. The 1,200-mile trail was evenly divided (400 miles each) between the states of Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky (though most of Lincoln's "history" was spent in Illinois) in an effort to ensure taxpayer dollars in support of the project.

Ferguson interviews the world's foremost collector of Lincoln memorabilia -- a woman who got the Lincoln bug after reading a quasi-historical romance novel about Abe and Mary Todd. It turns out that although there are factions of the Lincoln "community" who hate each other, everyone loves this woman. Why? "Because I've got all the stuff," she tells Ferguson.

Ferguson also attends a convention of Lincoln "impersonators" and comes away with some amusing laugh lines about Abes who would prefer to be seated at tables in restaurants because they have an aversion to booths.

If you're looking for a fun read with some history tossed in for good measure, I strongly encourage you to pick it up.


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January 2009



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