BY HAROLD HOLZER
The Civil War had been over for twenty years, five postwar presidents had come and gone, and one of them had fallen victim to another assassin’s bullet by the time poet Walt Whitman looked back, took the measure of history, and pronounced Abraham Lincoln still “the grand- est figure yet, on all the crowded canvas of the Nineteenth Century.” So he surely seemed to the vast majority of his countrymen, after leading the convulsive struggle to save the Union and destroy slavery.
To Whitman, whose own life and work seemed to one contemporary “imbued with the spirit of democracy,” the explanation for Lincoln’s unwavering appeal was obvious. He had been “Dear to Democracy, to the very last!” Still, Whitman wondered: “Who knows what the future may decide?”
In fact, the future has not substantially revised Whitman’s generous appraisal. For more than a century and a quarter, Lincoln’s enduring spirit has animated the American experience. The sobriquets attached to him in life and the tributes that greeted his death have all been fixed in our nomenclature so firmly for so long that they nearly constitute biography. To many, Lincoln is still Honest Abe, Father Abraham, the Great Emancipator, the Martyr of Liberty. His rise from log cabin to White House, from prairie lawyer to master statesman, justifiably re- mains the most famous and inspiring of all the validations of American opportunity. His face alone, homely yet intrinsically noble—“so awful ugly it becomes beautiful,” in Whitman’s words—remains indelibly inscribed on the national consciousness, whether one pictures it gazing down from the lofty heights of Mount Rushmore or staring out from