The selling of the 16th president
If you had to make a Lincoln from scratch, what would you toss in?
You got your Basic Honesty, the Law and Politics, the Great Emancipator Business, Fighter of the War, and so forth. You would likely add his Frontier Humor and his Humble Origins – the whole Horatio Alger stuff.
Our Lincoln is boxed and packaged for us. So goes the premise of Lincoln, Inc.: Selling the Sixteenth President in Contemporary America (Rowman & Littlefield), a recent offering from Jackie Hogan of Bradley University in Peoria. Hogan tours the Lincoln trail, sees the exhibits, talks to sightseers, sees the commercial Lincoln trinkets and reads the textbooks and biographies, to show how Abraham Lincoln is really not Abraham Lincoln but is. . . the “Abraham Lincoln” brand! – courtesy of well-placed elites and businessmen all manipulating the facts in order to fit Lincoln into their particular shoeboxes.
Tour site operators, store owners, the National Park Service, textbook publishers, politicians, academics, etc., all work to present corporate “Lincoln” images. The images they present are digestible images of President 16 that can make money and can help justify the existing arrangement of society, so that no one’s peaceful slumber is disturbed. Hogan’s work examines much of the 2009 Lincoln Bicentennial fanfare, and she visits the Freeport debate site, the Lincoln birthplace and Springfield.
The assertions she makes about a commercialized version of Lincoln are accurate. Lincoln sells! We like the idea of an Avuncular Honest Abe. We also like the idea of a serious politician working for democracy. It is worth noting that there was a fierce battle over Lincoln’s body immediately after his death, with Springfieldians eager to cash in on the many Lincoln pilgrimages they knew were sure to follow. The corpse brings cash.
For Hogan, a sanitized official “Abraham Lincoln” image helps maintain social power in the hands of a few, justifies and continues the oppression of the oppressed, etc., etc. You’ve heard this kind of academic angst before. But the author’s analysis gets sketchy and simple and relies on anecdotes at times. In her endnotes she recognizes that one could pick real methodological quibbles here.
But at the end of the day, image is not everything. Individuals are more than just their general class or race or gender categories. Much of Lincoln’s life story flies against the idea that our upbringing and social condition make us all that we are. The more Abe is studied, the faster the images and stereotypes shatter. To a large extent, we ourselves push the focus onto areas of Lincoln’s life that we really care about. We ourselves are co-creators of the Lincoln image.
Todd Volker never met Lincoln but has seen many a Lincoln statue and site. He lives in a little cabin in Ottawa, Ill.