Lincoln Gains Status of Myth in Death

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), December 4, 2004 | Go to article overview

Lincoln Gains Status of Myth in Death


Byline: Harold Holzer, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The following is an excerpt from Harold Holzer's Heroes of History lecture presented at Ford's Theatre on Oct. 18. Mr. Holzer, co-chairman of the United States Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission and author of the recently released "Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech That Made Abraham Lincoln President," was chosen by the National Endowment for the Humanities to give the 2nd annual Heroes of History lecture.

Standing here tonight on this historic stage, at the scene of Abraham Lincoln's murder and martyrdom - a shrine so evocatively frozen in time - one cannot help but be poignantly and powerfully reminded of the sacrifices often made by our heroes. And we cannot help thinking, too, of the transformative impact such sacrifices have on their reputations.

Abraham Lincoln entered this building on Good Friday, 1865, as president. He left as a national myth. At widely attended worship services two days later on Easter Sunday - a day that also brought synagogue congregations together for the Jewish festival of Passover - ministers and rabbis preached sermons comparing Lincoln to both Christ and Moses.

He had died for the American sin of slavery, a sacrifice for national resurrection; as in Leviticus, he had proclaimed liberty throughout the land, leading "all the inhabitants thereof" from bondage into the promised land of freedom. To other eulogists, he was a second George Washington, until then America's undisputed secular saint; the savior of the sacred union that Washington had created. As both pictures and poems declared: "Heroes and saints with fadeless stars have crowned him - And Washington's dear arms are clasped around him."

Here at Ford's Theatre, Abraham Lincoln not only found his last few moments of relief from the crushing burdens of the presidency; he found immortality.

There is nothing wrong with this calculus. Lincoln was the first president to be assassinated, and his murder, just a week after the Civil War ended, ignited an emotional upheaval that for half the country saw triumph spiral into tragedy overnight, and for the other half brought fears that "malice toward none" would yield to retribution. Magnified by the lost promise of what Lincoln at Gettysburg had called his "unfinished work," his death inspired a powerful outpouring of grief that vaulted Lincoln into the realm of folklore even before his funeral train reached Illinois.

From this place, America carried a slain national saint. But in a way, it lost - or at least lost sight of - the hero who had entered its doors.

I would like to propose tonight that well before April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln had already, decisively earned the status of American hero. Legendary modesty notwithstanding, Lincoln worked as hard as any post-assassination mythmaker to reach that pinnacle. …

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