Sunday, February 15, 2009

Lincoln: the Ultimate American Icon/Myth

W.E.B. Dubois once remarked that Lincoln was "brave enough to be inconsistent." Fredrick Douglas once said that Lincoln “began by playing Pharaoh” but “ended by playing Moses.” In 1922 H.L. Mencken remarked "Lincoln becomes the American solar myth, the chief butt of American credulity and sentimentality." He later wrote "But meanwhile the varnishers and veneerers have been busily converting Abe into a plaster saint, thus marking hum fit for adoration in the Y.M.C.A.’s. All the popular pictures of him show him in his robes of state, and wearing an expression fit for a man about to be hanged. There is, so far as I know, not a single portrait of him showing him smiling—and yet he must have cackled a good deal, first and last: who ever heard of a storyteller who didn’t? Worse, there is an obvious effort to pump all his human weaknesses out of him, an obvious effort to pump all his human weaknesses out of him, and so leave him a mere moral apparition, a sort of amalgam of John Wesley and the Holy Ghost." The point is that Lincoln has become that ultimate icon, the person that everybody American leader has to speak about, act like and so forth.

I noticed that President Obama gave a speech for the Lincoln Bicentennial in Springfield on Feb. 12. I once read that people claim that Lincoln is their representative for any and everything. For example, gay rights activists use Lincoln as an icon and claim that he was gay. Both Republicans and Democrats use Lincoln as they symbol but if Lincoln was living today he might be an Independent. Yes, the independents have used Lincoln as a symbol in the past. Insurance companies and even cleaning companies have used his name to evoke consumer confidence and reliability. Communist groups and other social groups that do not have a major voice in the majority have used Lincoln as their icon. After reading Obama's speech I was fascinated that he mentioned a few other Presidents when he said:

"Lincoln understood what Washington understood when he led farmers and craftsmen and shopkeepers to rise up against an empire. What Roosevelt understood when he lifted us from Depression, built an arsenal of democracy, created the largest middle-class in history with the GI Bill. It's what Kennedy understood when he sent us to the moon."

Notice that Obama doesn't mention Washington (A Federalist) or Reagan? The mere mention of other famous Presidential Democrats places Lincoln with them rather than at home with his fellow Republicans. Lincoln is an icon, a symbol that everyone wishes to use to justify that they are in the right. Too bad the old man couldn't speak up for himself. I wonder how he would feel about the past few presidents like Bush or Obama's big-time spending bill? Hey I can be biased but at least I mentioned presidents from both parties.

The full text of Obama's speech is here

Other sources:

H.L. Mencken's article on Lincoln is here

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