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Lincoln In American Memory (Book Analysis)

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by Merrill D. Peterson

"O Captain! My Captain! Our fearful trip is done; The ship has weather'd every rack, the prize we sought is won... The ship is anchor'd safe and sound, its voyage closed and done; From fearful trip, the victor ship, comes in with object won..." Walt Whitman's description of a ship weathering a powerful storm, and returning safe with its mission complete, perfectly illustrates the United States enduring the divisions of the Civil War. This poem is one of numerous commemorations to the sixteenth president of the United States, Abraham Lincoln. Merrill D. Peterson, author of Lincoln in American Memory, examines an interesting variety of sources, including statues and prints made of Lincoln over the years in addition to the numerous biographies written, and attributes three prominent images to the legacy of Abraham Lincoln: Savior of the Union, the Great Emancipator, and the Self-made Man. From the moment Lincoln died on Saturday, April 15, 1865, these images have developed in the hearts and minds of the American public, withstood the test of time, and still remain to this day (Peterson 1).

The day had been Good Friday on the Christian calendar when the commander in chief had been shot, and immediately his correlation to the life of Jesus Christ as an American martyr began (Peterson 1):

Both were born in forlorn hovels. Both Joseph and Thomas [their fathers] were simple carpenters. Both were humble, kind, sorrowful, and loving of their fellow man. Both spoke in parables. Both were sent to fulfill divine missions and preceded by prophets who were executed: John the Baptist and John Brown. On Palm Sunday Jesus journeyed to Jerusalem, Lincoln to (or from) Richmond; one had his Last Supper, the other his last cabinet meeting... (Peterson 218-219)

Lincoln's connection to Christ as a benevolent "savior," who gave his life to preserve the union between the North and the South, was not the lone reason the world remembers him as the Savior of the Union. Throughout his political career, Lincoln advocated the supremacy of the national government, and upheld the Constitution as an instrument for realizing the promises of the Declaration of Independence, most importantly the equality of al men (Peterson 156).

Peterson notes that "in the twentieth century several important changes occurred in this conception" of the Savior of the Union (382):

Lincoln's fundamental cause and purpose in the Civil War, many came to believe, was not to save the Union but to advance human freedom. The Union and the Constitution, as he himself put it in a biblical metaphor, composed the frame around the picture; the picture was the apple, freedom, which the frame was meant to preserve and adorn. The Civil War came to be understood less as a war to preserve the old Union than as a revolutionary refounding. James Mcpherson, whose epic history of the war, in 1988, was entitled Battle Cry of Freedom, developed the idea of the "Second American Revolution"...that the war effected a revolutionary change in southern society and in the condition of the Negro people and placed the enhanced authority of the national government behind fundamental civil rights. Preservation was not conservation for Lincoln; he sought a Union refounded on a more liberal as well as more national basis. "To understand the Constitution as Abraham Lincoln did," Harry Jaffa wrote, "must mean, primarily, and essentially, to understand the Constitution as an expression of the principles of the Declaration of Independence." And that was to understand it, with the Union, in a way none of the founders had envisioned. (qtd. in McPherson & in Jaffa 1162-1163)

Peterson also analyzes the complex responses of African Americans and their evolving view of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator, once they moved from exultation at the end of slavery to the harsh reality of free life amid deep poverty and segregation.

Blacks told stories of Lincoln actually visiting them in their bondage, seeing their distress, and returning to Washington to set them free (Peterson 171). "Any Negro orator worth his salt had in his repertoire an oration on Lincoln, which he delivered countless times. Lincoln was more than a memory, the orators said; he was a living vital force as the colored people struggled to realize the promise of emancipation (Peterson 171)." The proclamation became the Negroes' "natal day", "independence day", and "emancipation day" all in one (Peterson 171). When Congress failed to commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Black community was offended. It remained compelling among Negroes in that anniversary year to keep alive the image of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator (Peterson 175). The Emancipation Proclamation became the proverbial crown of President Lincoln's administration, and permanently associated him with the black community.

On the other hand, Whites and many historians, with direct connections to stereotypical sentiments from the Confederate South, tried to eclipse the idea of Lincoln as the Great Emancipator by pointing out that Lincoln was, in a way, forced into emancipating the slaves, and supported the idea of colonization. For, Lincoln believed that it would be impossible for whites and blacks to live in harmony (Peterson 349-351). The editor Roy P. Basler's, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Volume V, includes a letter of Lincoln's to the abolitionist Horace Greeley in which Lincoln explains his convictions on slavery and its connection, and overall importance to the preservation of the Union during the war:

"My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause." (Basler 389)

It seems that Lincoln held some reservations when it came to freeing the slaves, but eventually he saw that the effects it would have on the South in terms of loss of slave labor and production, and the Union army's potential of gaining troops would prove to be the deciding factor (Peterson 174). Peterson finally points



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