Lincoln Legends: Myths, Hoaxes, and Confabulations Associated with Our Greatest President

Lincoln Legends: Myths, Hoaxes, and Confabulations Associated with Our Greatest President

Lincoln Legends: Myths, Hoaxes, and Confabulations Associated with Our Greatest President

Lincoln Legends: Myths, Hoaxes, and Confabulations Associated with Our Greatest President


In the more than 140 years since his death, Abraham Lincoln has become America's most revered president. The mythmaking about this self-made man began early, some of it starting during his campaign for the presidency in 1860. As an American icon, Lincoln has been the subject of speculation and inquiry as authors and researchers have examined every aspect- personal and professional -of the president's life. In Lincoln Legends, noted historian and Lincoln expert Edward Steers Jr. carefully scrutinizes some of the most notorious tall tales and distorted ideas about America's sixteenth president. These inaccuracies and speculations about Lincoln's personal and professional life abound. Did he write his greatest speech on the back of an envelope on the way to Gettysburg? Did Lincoln appear before a congressional committee to defend his wife against charges of treason? Was he an illegitimate child? Did Lincoln have romantic encounters with women other than his wife? Did he have love affairs with men? What really happened in the weeks leading up to April 14, 1865, and in the aftermath of Lincoln's tragic assassination? Lincoln Legends evaluates the evidence on all sides of the many heated debates about the Great Emancipator. Not only does Steers weigh the merits of all relevant arguments and interpretations, but he also traces the often fascinating evolution of flawed theories about Lincoln and uncovers the motivations of the individuals-occasionally sincere but more often cynical, self-serving, and nefarious-who are responsible for their dispersal. Based on extensive primary research, the conclusions in Lincoln Legends will settle many of the enduring questions and persistent myths about Lincoln's life once and for all. Steers leaves us with a clearer image of Abraham Lincoln as a man, as an exceptionally effective president, and as a deserving recipient of the nation's admiration.


Harold Holzer

It is probably true that no other American life has been as exhaustively chronicled and, concurrently, as recklessly mythologized as that of Abraham Lincoln. As if the true story of his rise from obscurity to immortality were not inspiring enough, fabulists began early in Lincoln’s national political career to add the patina of exaggeration to burnish his emerging legend. A two-mile walk to and from school became four; an acre of self-made rail fencing became a hectare; an occasional bout with melancholy became suicidal depression; a reputation for honesty became a mania; an abundance of strength became Herculean. His impoverished, illiterate birth mother, who died young, and about whom little was ever learned, emerged as his inspirational patron saint—wise, “remarkable,” and “godly.”

Lincoln claimed none of these virtues for himself or his ancestors when writing about himself. (His parents were “of undistinguished families—second families, perhaps I should say,” he confessed.) “There is not much of it,” he self-effacingly asserted of his first attempt at an autobiographical sketch, “for the reason, I suppose, that there is not much of me.” And then he cautioned: “If any thing be made out of it, I wish it to be modest, and not to go beyond the material.” Mythmakers ignored his request. They felt compelled to fill in the gaps with hyperbole—as if he needed it.

The mythmaking began early, and before Lincoln’s very own eyes, at the Republican State Convention at Decatur in May 1860. To wild applause from the assembled delegates, Lincoln’s cousin John Hanks—ironically a Democrat in politics—marched down the aisle toting two of the walnut rails his famous relative had allegedly split as a youth on the frontier. Attached to the old fencing or flooring . . .

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