Review: Lincoln’s Body

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Lincolns BodyBack in the 1990s when I was a starving graduate student, I had the good fortune to spend some time with Professor Merrill Peterson who was recently retired from the University of Virginia. I was working on a seminar paper on American historiography and had chosen Peterson’s work as the subject. I chose him because one of his books had played a significant role in my decision to become a professional historian – The Great Triumvirate: Webster, Clay, and Calhoun (1987). As I explored Peterson’s published works, I became a bigger and bigger devotee. Among the many wonderful books he authored were two that examined how individuals were remembered in American culture: The Jefferson Image in the American Mind (1960) and Lincoln in American Memory (1994). Though the two were written more than thirty years apart, they quickly secured a hold on imagination and nearly derailed my project because I could not put them away. I was transfixed by Peterson’s study of how America used and abused the reputations of Jefferson and Lincoln. Over and over I read these words:

“The public remembrance of the past, as differentiated from the historical scholars’, is concerned less with establishing its truth than with appropriating it for the present. It relies on written records, but it draws as well upon oral tradition and personal reminiscence, upon stories endlessly repeated, and upon the meanings conveyed by pictorial images, patriotic rituals and sanctified sites. While heightening consciousness of the nation’s heritage, it restages the past and manipulates it for ongoing public purposes. History, as a critical science, is only a later phase of the enterprise (Peterson, Lincoln 35).”

All of this came back to me as I read Richard Wightman Fox’s newest work, Lincoln’s Body: A Cultural History. At first I wondered if this was essentially Fox’s update of the Peterson examination down to today. But just as the title suggests – and I apparently glossed over – this book really was looking at Lincoln’s body in American memory, as opposed to his reputation and memory. In his preface, Fox clarifies what he means. After the president’s funeral, “Lincoln’s body was no longer just a symbol. It was an actual physical bestowal, one that metamorphosed, in the decades to come, into a virtual embodiment of national purpose and glory – still a symbol, but for many people more charged and real than other icons. Uncle Sam was a symbol standing for the nation. Lincoln was a man dying for the nation (Fox xiv).”

From a perusal of the preface, Fox’s approach sounded interesting, but he nearly caused me to put the book down for good with his praise of Doris Kearns Goodwin and her book Team of Rivals. While I admit that I like the book, I am not a fan of Goodwin herself, whom I have always found arrogant and condescending. Still, the book won the Pulitzer Prize and you have to respect that. Fox suggested that it was even more important as the inspiration for Spielberg’s magnificent film Lincoln. It may have been the inspiration, but I would suggest that Tony Kushner’s screenplay is more important to the making of that great film. So, in my opinion Fox goes too far when he says that “without Goodwin the historian – the creator, in Team of Rivals, of a gripping story and a carefully chiseled verbal monument to her hero – the movie never would have happened (Fox xii).”

Fox divides his book into three parts – the first, “The Public Body”, discusses Lincoln’s life and death. The second, “The Enshrined Body”, looks at the early efforts to memorialize. The last, “The National Body”, examines the Lincoln cult and popular culture.

One of the most memorable college lectures that I ever heard was delivered by Professor John Milligan at the University of Buffalo. On the very first day of class – it was the second half of the U.S. history survey – Milligan’s topic was the electability of Abraham Lincoln in the twentieth century. His conclusion was that in the age of television Lincoln would not have a chance of winning. I had never considered it, but there is little doubt that Milligan was right. It is a sad testament to the shallowness of the American electorate. I was reminded of Milligan’s great lecture when Fox started off his book by examining the raw physical specimen of Abraham Lincoln and how people viewed him at the time.

Judged awkward, ugly, even grotesque, Lincoln nonetheless developed the personality – not really charisma – and oratorical talents to allow people to see beyond the physical specimen. The key to this, according to Fox, was Lincoln’s “perfect ordinariness,” which appealed to democratic sensibilities. With that as a “foundation,” Lincoln “got busy commanding one hall after another with verbal dexterity, lawyerly logic, self-depreciation, and physical humor.” Upon his election, Lincoln became part of the “republic body politic” – mingling with the public freely and frequently, despite concerns for his safety (Fox 10).

Lincoln disliked the need for protection. After all, much of his life he had been willing to take up a challenge – even when it meant wrestling the local bully. As president he was continually pressed to accept an escort when he went out. But the president believed that a determined murderer would get by any protection. He seemed to liken it to a matter of fate. Moreover, as Fox convincingly argues, “All American politicians claimed to favor an open interchange between the leader and the led, but none matched Lincoln in making his body a republican insignia (Fox 18).” He would ride to the Soldier’s Home without escort, he would go off the theater without protection, he would even walk down the streets of Richmond at the end of the war with the slimmest of guards. Surely, he was pressing his luck.

In the end, Lincoln’s life came down to competing understandings of what was right for the republic. He and John Wilkes Booth “wished to get serious about defending the Republic. Each of them wished to restore the body politic to health – Booth by returning black people to their proper place in the social order, Lincoln by extending citizen rights to qualified African Americans (Fox 22).” Booth determined, as we know, that in order to restore the republic he had to remove Lincoln from the national stage.

Lincoln was cut down just days after the surrender of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee at Appomattox Court House. The north was reverberating with celebration even as the lanky president went to the theater for some relaxation. He was regarded as a hero by many. So, when he was assassinated on Good Friday people immediately felt that it was no coincidence. As Fox demonstrates, Lincoln was “no longer merely a hero of the Union or a champion of self-making, the deceased president emerged from the Peterson house as a nascent religious martyr too – shot down and deprived of consciousness, unbelievably, on Good Friday, the very day of Christ’s crucifixion (Fox 49).”

Even before Lincoln’s remains started on their long train-ride to Springfield, Illinois, the politicians began to utilize the president’s death and the sympathy that it occasioned, to chart a path toward a vengeful reconstruction of the country. “God had entrusted Lincoln to save the Union,” Fox explains, “but with the postwar rebirth of the Republic in mind, God had now saved the nation from Lincoln, ironically enlisting his own saintliness to remove him (Fox 58).” It was a savvy ploy for the radical Republicans, who had always lamented Lincoln’s softness and willingness to forgive. They could show the politically proper amount of sympathy for the fallen leader before the public, while at the same time arguing that he was too kind for the work now at hand. Their program of retribution against the South now seemed like part of a divine plan.

No mere sculpture could ever do the same justice to Lincoln as Whitman could with his words, though many tried. As Fox points out, “Lincoln the man compensated for his physical flaws with “grandeur of soul” that artists working in metal or stone could never capture (Fox 154).” It was not until 1887 that a statue of Lincoln gave satisfaction. In that year Augustus Saint-Gaudens installed his Standing Lincoln in Lincoln Park in Chicago. In an interesting twist, Standing Lincoln was not the image of the wartime commander-in-chief, but a prewar prairie lawyer. “Twenty- two years after his death, Lincoln the person had finally arrived in American sculpture, standing for Christian and republican self-giving as much as American self-making (Fox 161).”

African Americans, especially former slaves, who remembered Lincoln as the Great Emancipator, were ever mindful of the idea that Lincoln had sacrificed himself for them and for the country. His martyrdom was a central tenet of their memory of the man. According to Fox, “Blacks didn’t much care about Lincoln’s physical appearance…Blacks cared about what Lincoln had done with his body (Fox 169).” Still, African Americans gave generously to the various monument funds in the late 19th century, including $17,000 toward Thomas Ball’s famous Emancipation sculpture in Lincoln Park, Washington, DC.

The 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth in 1909 was an occasion to commemorate the lanky president, but all too often it also meant appropriating Lincoln for political purposes.   In the struggle for African American rights both Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois employed Lincoln to sustain their very different views. In his centennial address in Chicago, Woodrow Wilson spoke of Lincoln’s character but wished to reshape public opinion and memory of him. As Fox shows, “Wilson…plainly felt bedeviled by a pervasive traditionalism unwilling even to identify, much less solve, the quandaries of modern America. The civil religion of Lincoln…had become an opiate. Living vicariously in a vanished era of war to the death over slavery and state rights let people ignore the true problems of 1909 (Fox 201).”

In the wake of the 1909 observances, more and more the Gettysburg Address was being singled out as “the hero’s holy text (Fox 213).” Nationwide school children were required to memorize and recite the speech that Lincoln regarded as a failure after delivering it in November 1863. Remarkably, by 1909 “the Gettysburg Address [was regarded] as an emanation of his simple, unaccountable genius (Fox 213).” These were the words that would forever be associated with Lincoln more than any other.

In Fox’s view, two early twentieth-century Lincoln monuments would solidify the Lincoln cult – the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC and Carl Sandburg’s six-volume biography. Designed and built by Henry Bacon, he likened the finished building to the Greek Parthenon. Really three monuments under one roof, the gigantic statue of a seated Lincoln was flanked by tablets featuring the president’s two greatest speeches – the Gettysburg Address and second inaugural. Bacon envisioned “an interacting force field created by the statue and the tablets: Each of the three memorials would exert their “greatest influence” by being “secluded and isolated” from the other two, yet visitors would reconnect them as they went from hall to hall, sealing Lincoln’s body and words in a single experience (Fox 217).”

The design of the Lincoln Memorial was brilliant, Fox contends, because “Bacon’s Greek-inspired elevation of Lincoln fit the northern Protestant majority’s sensibility to a tee: raising Lincoln to the heights of republican fame and evoking religious overtones that could be justified as secular (Fox 218).” To be sure, the Lincoln Memorial seems timeless. It fit the sensibilities of 1909 and does the same today. The same cannot be said for Sandburg’s biography. The six volume ode, which was overly romantic and sentimental according to some critics at the time, took many liberties with the historic record. While it was a good read, folks desiring accuracy might have read Ida Tarbell’s multi-volume biography – published about the same time – for a more realistic view of Lincoln.

Today it seems inevitable that Hollywood would take up Sandburg’s wildly successful biography and develop it for motion pictures. Already Lincoln had made a number of appearances in silent films before the studios began to work from Sandburg’s Prairie Years. In the 1930s four films appeared – D.W. Griffith’s Abraham Lincoln, John Ford’s Young Mr. Lincoln, John Cromwell’s Abe Lincoln in Illinois, and Frank Capra’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The last, Mr. Smith, actually did not depict Lincoln the man – but Lincoln in the monument gets star billing. “All four films,” Fox argues, “followed Sandburg in exuding heartfelt love for the hero. They embody the Lincoln cult so fully that even the one that appears initially to mock it (Mr. Smith) ends up reaffirming it (Fox 240).”

Just as the film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington used the Lincoln Memorial as a back drop for advancing it’s story, Fox demonstrates that so too did the civil rights movement. In 1939 the famous Marion Anderson sang in front of the memorial after she has been barred from the Washington DAR hall because she was black. President Franklin Roosevelt and wife Eleanor were delighted that the performance would strike a blow against segregation. In August, 1963, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech to a crowd of over two-hundred thousand in nearly the same place. There “King shrewdly summoned the memory of Lincoln, “Fox says, “to give the movement some vestigial historic resonance, while stretching the campaign to include a social equality never contemplated by Lincoln (Fox 263).”

When John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas in 1963, there were immediate and sustained comparisons to the Lincoln assassination. Jackie Kennedy recognized the similarities immediately and sought to make them evident to all by ordering that as many elements from Lincoln’s funeral used for JFK’s. Many regarded the fallen president a martyr like Lincoln. But Fox argues that this designation does not work. “What cause had he espoused and then willingly fallen for? Like James Garfield and William McKinley, he was in the strictest sense a victim, not a martyr. A special grief gripped Kennedy’s mourners not because of his sacrifice for some ideal, but because of his youth. He’d been snuffed out at the age of forty-six, deprived of the chance to reach for the greatness Lincoln had achieved before his death at age fifty-six,” Fox contends, “Kennedy stood for potential denied; Lincoln, for promise fulfilled (Fox 267).”

By the 1970’s the Lincoln Cult was deteriorating. Celebrations and commemorations of Lincoln were drawing small crowds. When asked to portray Lincoln for a television mini-series, actor Hal Holbrook decided he needed to “humanize” Lincoln. Fox takes exception to this approach, in his chapter entitled “Reviving the Emancipator.” Holbrook’s Lincoln “removed the president from his writing desk and made him such a chatterbox that he never found the time to mull over his country’s destiny…It denied him his particular way of being human. It unwittingly sacrificed him to the anti-ideals atmosphere of the early 1970’s (Fox 282).” Moreover, the TV series bypassed emancipation entirely – glossing over one of Lincoln’s signature achievements. The series “had preserved a nostalgic interest in the humble man from the provinces, but it had surrendered the century-old northern and African American understanding of Lincoln’s body as a voluntarily surrendered gift (Fox 283).”

Surveying later Lincoln works, Fox examines Gore Vidal’s Lincoln, James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom and Eric Foner’s masterful Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution. Vidal’s book was a conscious effort to pull Lincoln from his pedestal. According to Fox, “Vidal thought Lincoln would have to be reconfigured from the ground up, reimagined as the mere mortal whose political wizardry laid the groundwork for the imperial American nation of the twentieth century.” The most obvious way to “reimagine” Lincoln was to expose his flaws and weaknesses. This Vidal did by picking up an old rumor, never substantiated, that Lincoln picked up syphilis as a young man and may have passed it to his family.

Fox was more impressed with the work of McPherson and Foner, as they dealt in facts and solid research. They also revived Lincoln as the emancipator of old. Probably the greatest single volume on the Civil War, McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom became a sensation. Foner’s book on Reconstruction, likewise dominates the scholarship of that ugly era. “Acting independently of one another,” Fox states, “McPherson and Foner created a new line of defense for the emancipator. Without directly seeking to discredit Vidal, they both helped render is views passé (Fox 291).”

In his final chapter, Fox explored the Obama/Lincoln connection during the 2008 presidential election, Disney’s efforts to revitalize Lincoln with Eric Foner’s help, and Steven Spielburg’s magnificent film Lincoln. In each case Lincoln was reclaimed from his ill-treatment during the sixties and seventies, and his role of liberator restored. Naturally skeptical when it comes to Hollywood’s portrayal of historical subjects, I must agree with Fox’s whole-hearted endorsement of the film Lincoln – especially Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal, which was nothing less than eerie. It truly can be said, as Fox does, that “rarely [does an actor] command a role so masterfully, with every turn of phrase and every gesture. Day-Lewis created a Lincoln that future generations may take as a treasured cultural inheritance (Fox 324).”

It should be apparent that this is a book that has captured my attention. Fox has done well treading in the footsteps of Merrill Peterson. By focusing on the cultural construction of Lincoln’s body in American memory, Fox makes an original contribution to the genre. It made for a truly intriguing read. Overall, Lincoln’s Body is a thoughtful, well-reasoned tome that deserves careful attention. It is a book that makes you THINK and maybe even ponder the relationship between memory and how history is written. It deserves a place on every bookshelf.


Fox, Richard Wightman. Lincoln’s Body: A Cultural History. New York: W.W. Norton, 2015.

Peterson, Merrill. The Jefferson Image in the American Mind. New York: Oxford University Press, 1960.

Peterson, Merrill. The Great Triumvirate: Webster, Clay, and Calhoun. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Peterson, Merrill. Lincoln in American Memory. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

About Derek Maxfield

Associate Professor of History Genesee Community College
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