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Obama Honors Lincoln’s 200th Birthday, Draws Parallels

February 12, 2009 at 6:40 PM EDT
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President Obama spoke at the Lincoln Memorial Thursday to celebrate the former president's 200th birthday, praising his ability to bridge deep divides and bring unity to a fractured nation. Historians mull Lincoln's legacy and its relevance today.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Now, honoring Abraham Lincoln on his 200th birthday. Earlier today in the Capitol Building’s Rotunda, President Obama spoke at a ceremony marking Lincoln’s bicentennial.

Mr. Obama compared the crises of Lincoln’s age to the struggles of today.

U.S. PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: With victory at hand, Lincoln could have sought revenge. He could have forced the South to pay a steep price for their rebellion.

But despite all the bloodshed and all the misery that each side had exacted upon the other, and despite his absolute certainty in the rightness of the cause of ending slavery, no Confederate soldier was to be punished, Lincoln ordered.

That was the only way, Lincoln knew, to repair the rifts that had torn this country apart. It was the only way to begin the healing that our nation so desperately needed.

What Lincoln never forgot — not even in the midst of Civil War — was that, despite all that divides us — North and South, black and white — we were, at heart, one nation and one people, sharing a bond as Americans that could bend but would not break.

And so, even as we meet here today, at a moment when we are far less divided than in Lincoln’s day, but when we are once again debating the critical issues of our time, and debating them sometimes fiercely, let us remember that we are doing so as servants of the same flag, as representatives of the same people, and as stakeholders in a common future.

That is the most fitting tribute we can pay, the most lasting monument we can build to that most remarkable of men, Abraham Lincoln.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Jeffrey Brown has more on Lincoln’s life and legacy.

Lincoln was a 'contemporary figure'

JEFFREY BROWN: He's the subject of more books than any other person in American history, 16,000 by one estimate. He was regularly invoked on the campaign trail by Barack Obama, but then he's always been regularly invoked by politicians of all stripes.

As manifest in so many ways, Abraham Lincoln is an endlessly fascinating figure. And we've gathered three scholars to ask, why? And what does the man mean to us today?

James McPherson is a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian who has two new books on the 16th president. A biography titled "Abraham Lincoln" was released this week, and "Tried By War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander-in-Chief" came out last fall. Today it was announced that book will share the Lincoln Prize awarded for outstanding Civil War scholarship.

Adele Alexander is a professor of African-American history at George Washington University. Her research focuses on the changing African-American family in the 19th century.

And NewsHour regular Richard Norton Smith is a scholar-in-residence at George Mason University and founding director of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois.

Richard, I'll start with you and that very simple question: Why Lincoln? Why is he forever being written about?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH, George Mason University: Well, he is an astonishingly contemporary figure for someone who died 150 years ago. He embodies so many of the things that we Americans like to think of as quintessentially ours: the fact of humble origins, the meager formal education, and yet someone who went on to write imperishable prose, someone who is at the center of the American passion play, which is the Civil War, the great defining experience of our history, and someone whose evolution, whose growth, particularly on the subject of race, is one of the reasons why he is so contemporary.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. James McPherson, as I just said, you've written some of those many books and on the Civil War itself. What's your answer to the "Why Lincoln?" question?

JAMES MCPHERSON, Author: Well, I would agree with all of the points that Richard made. Another part of the answer, I think, is that, because the Civil War itself is the most-written-about event in American history and Lincoln towers over all of the other figures connected with the American Civil War, clearly that has an impact on the continuing and persistent fascination with Lincoln.

The fact that he rose from humble origins, a log cabin to the White House, faced the greatest crisis this country has ever encountered and managed to master that crisis, managed to preserve the United States as one nation indivisible, and also slavery was the divisive issue that tore the country apart, and the Civil War resolved that issue.

The Emancipation Proclamation is the most highly visible symbol of that great accomplishment in American history. And as a consequence, I think, Lincoln is identified as the great emancipator, and that is also part of our eternal fascination with him.

JEFFREY BROWN: Adele Alexander, you come at this from a slightly different angle, looking at the social history of that time.

ADELE ALEXANDER, George Washington University: Looking at the social history, indeed, but we also have the extraordinary personal tragedy, this larger-than-life tragedy that was played out before so many people and continues to be played out before so many people. Obviously, everything that Richard and Jim have said is totally correct.

Another thing that happened in the Civil War and happened, I think, largely as a result of the Lincoln presidency is that the role of government, what we think of as government, in terms of government changing, playing an increasingly important role in American life, that changed, I would say, as much as it changed at any other time up until the New Deal.

JEFFREY BROWN: Another area that's pertinent today, right?

ADELE ALEXANDER: Very pertinent today, yes.

New information surfaces

JEFFREY BROWN: Richard, the things like that and the kind of constant revisions and debates about Lincoln, how has our portrait of him been filled in, in recent years?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: Well, it's fascinating. You wouldn't think that there is new information out there still to be discovered, but there is.

In recent years, something called the Lincoln Legal Papers Project, for example, based in Illinois, collected thousands of pages to document Lincoln's legal career, which is something we didn't know a whole lot about.

On the other hand, it's also true -- Lincoln's one of those figures -- maybe Jefferson, I can't think of many others -- who gets rediscovered with every generation. And inevitably, that means each generation projects on to Lincoln many of its own cultural preoccupations, for example.

So we have what I call "Brokeback Lincoln" or "Prozac Lincoln," which in some ways are successors to "Dictator Lincoln" or "Racist Lincoln," which we saw in the 1960s at the height of the civil rights revolution. It isn't so much that we learn new things about Lincoln as we learn things about ourselves through Lincoln.

JEFFREY BROWN: What do you make of that, James McPherson? I mean, some -- those things that he mentioned are still debated, aren't they?

JAMES MCPHERSON: They're very much debated, especially the question about the "Brokeback Lincoln." That was one of the most controversial aspects of the recent scholarship.

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you want to explain that? Maybe you should explain that, for those who didn't follow.

JAMES MCPHERSON: Well, the argument that Lincoln was gay, or at least had gay inclinations, has been much debated. It's been an article of faith, I think, among many in the gay community. And the book by Dr. C.A. Tripp that came out a few years ago argued that Lincoln was homosexual and had several homosexual relations.

The evidence for that is extremely thin, but, because that is such a hot-button issue in our culture today, as Richard said, we tend to approach Lincoln from the standpoint or several different standpoints of what we're most concerned about in our contemporary culture. And that's certainly one example of it.

Race is another example of it. Centralized government, the imperial presidency, the leviathan government, the libertarians tend to blame Lincoln as the first of the imperial presidents who set the country on the wrong course.

So Lincoln becomes a touchstone for different groups for everything either negative or positive that they see happening in America today and ever since Lincoln's time.

All presidents compared to Lincoln

JEFFREY BROWN: And he is also, Adele Alexander, a touchstone for comparisons with every other president, right? And now we have Barack Obama.

ADELE ALEXANDER: And now we have Barack Obama. And I think that everybody is totally intrigued by the similar kinds of arc of history that we are perhaps imposing on the Lincoln presidency to see the extent to which there might be similarities between the Obama presidency and the Lincoln presidency. Those things are just filled with symbolic things.

And, of course, Barack Obama, who is a superb craftsman in terms of shaping image, has made the most of those things. He has made us realize -- he has brought the pictures in mind by making his announcement in Springfield, by his very presence as a person of color, something that he would like people to think and that a lot of people would like people to think that is the legacy of Abraham Lincoln.

JEFFREY BROWN: And, of course, the use -- the written word, the spoken word, those kinds of connections, as well.

ADELE ALEXANDER: Yes, absolutely.

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: You think of the modern presidency. Harry Truman famously said, "The chief business of the modern president is persuasion." Well, long before Ronald Reagan, the great communicator, or FDR's fireside chats, or even Teddy Roosevelt's bully pulpit, there was Abraham Lincoln, who really reinvented the administrative presidency to make it a job about advocacy, and particularly moral advocacy.

And Lincoln's ability throughout the war to explain the war to the American people -- and that was an explanation, by the way, that evolved significantly, with race being really at the heart. If you read Lincoln's first inaugural address and then you read this extraordinary lay sermon that is his second inaugural address, you'd think it was certainly two different wars, two different presidencies.

JEFFREY BROWN: This is the growth you were talking about earlier?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: This is. Yes, but, I mean, Lincoln never stopped growing. And he ultimately outgrew, I think personally, the racist culture that produced him.

The last speech of his life, three days before he died, he tells a crowd outside the White House, he talks about suffrage for at least some African-Americans. John Wilkes Booth is in the crowd. He says, "That's the last speech he'll ever give."

'Endless interest' in great leaders

JEFFREY BROWN: James McPherson, I almost hesitate to ask a historian this question, but is there -- I sometimes wonder, when we start to make these comparisons now to the past and a huge figure like Lincoln, is there any danger of overplaying those comparisons, of spending too much time worrying about whether president "X" compares or stands up to a Lincoln or a Washington or another of the greats?

JAMES MCPHERSON: Well, that's one of the favorite games that historians play, maybe not of their own volition, but because they're constantly being asked to make these comparisons. Who was the greatest American president? Was it Lincoln? Was it Washington? Was it FDR?

Sometimes I do think that that gets overplayed. Every one of them faced very different questions at very different stages in our history.

One thing they did have in common is that they faced a significant challenge. And if they had failed to meet that challenge, failed to surmount that challenge, the country would have been very different after that and there might have been no country.

George Washington launched the American republic successfully. Lincoln led the effort to save it. FDR led the effort to save the world from evil totalitarianism.

And what they have in common is, I think, worth comparing. And I think that's why these three presidents usually are in the top three, is because they lived in times where the crisis threatened to overwhelm the United States.

JEFFREY BROWN: And as we end here, would we expect that this flood of words and feeling about Lincoln continues for another endless -- 200 or whatever?

ADELE ALEXANDER: I think that it definitely will continue. But I also think that, as Jim was saying, there are certain presidents who come along at extraordinary times of stress in our nation's history.

And if they prove to be extraordinary people -- which I think we're just learning about and will continue to learn, obviously, about our present president -- there will be endless interest in them. We're not ending the scholarship on Washington or on Lincoln or on Roosevelt, certainly.

JEFFREY BROWN: Last word, Richard?

RICHARD NORTON SMITH: As long as people debate the meaning of "A New Birth of Freedom," not only in this country but all over the world, the last word will never be written on Abraham Lincoln.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right. Richard Norton Smith, Adele Alexander, and James McPherson, thank you all three very much.

ADELE ALEXANDER: Thank you, Jeff.