Want to start an argument in an online political forum? Say something nice about Abraham Lincoln.
If you buy the media line that our current political climate is the most divisive in American history, you'll get an eye-opener (though the cruel fact that the Cvil War left 600,000 dead Americans should have been enough of a clue). Although beloved by most of his countrymen and universally hailed as one of the nation's greatest presidents, Lincoln remains at the core of an underground controversy. Try to imagine 140 years from now people conducting anti-George W. Bush seminars and claiming that Karl Rove was a dastardly pioneer who crossed new frontiers in the art of dividing the country.
As Weekly Standard editor Andrew Ferguson points out in Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe's America: "While he was alive, Abraham Lincoln was one of the most intensely hated figures the country has ever known. The minute he got shot, however, things began looking up for him."
But not everyone thinks Abraham Lincoln is No. 1 — with or without a bullet; and the debate rages well into its second century.
Just when you think it's impossible for anyone to say anything new about Lincoln, Ferguson's Land of Lincoln is an invigorating and refreshing addition to the canon.
Equal parts travelogue, history lesson and sociology text (of the P.J. O'Rourke school), Land of Lincoln is relentlessly fascinating, frequently hilarious, and unexpectedly poignant. In short, it is one of the season's best surprises.
Born in Illinois, Ferguson grew up a natural-born Abe-ophile. As an editor for The Weekly Standard, he was hardly isolated from arguments among conservatives over history, political correctness and the history of Big Government.
However, he was somewhat taken aback when demonstrations broke out in Richmond, Va., over a planned statue commemorating Lincoln's 1865 visit to the war-torn former capital of the Confederacy.
Ferguson decided to investigate. While the media predictably portrayed the anti-Abe forces as racist rednecks, Ferguson decided to actually listen to them. To his dismay, while he disagreed with them, he found Lincoln's foes to be far better informed about history than Lincoln's Richmond defenders.
He met with Bragdon Bowling, a spokesman for those protesting the statue, who listed the reasons for his animus against Lincoln:
"With his generals he invented the concept of Total War, and waged campaigns of unprecedented savagery against noncombatants and private property in the Shenandoah Valley, Sherman's March through Georgia, and elsewhere. He was the father of Big Government, vastly expanding the reach of imperial Washington in ways unthinkable to the country's founders. The Northern victory was, therefore, the triumph of a cosmopolitan, commercial culture run by Big Business, over a Southern culture of small towns and farms that only asked to be let alone."
Whatever one might think of Bowling's grievances, they are at the least informed by history and worth arguing over.
Ferguson was less impressed by the pro-Lincoln forces, a befuddled group of chamber-of-commerce types who were shocked to find anyone still harbored a grudge against St. Abraham. They did nothing to pacify their opponents by inviting only leftist historians to man the panel discussion over Lincoln's greatness. In Ferguson's mind, they made the great war leader sound "like Bill Moyers."
Robert Kline, the man who established the dubious United States Historical Society to promote the Richmond statue (and sell knickknacks), gushed to Ferguson that any extra money generated by the project it would go to the Richmond Peace Center -- "a wonderful group" -- where signs are posted that say "Jail Bush, Not Saddam."
"They stand for a lot of the things that Lincoln stood for," Kline enthused to a bemused Ferguson, "Peace. Understanding. Their specialty is conflict resolution."
Somehow, the fact that Lincoln stubbornly presided over the nation's most brutal war in the face of public discontent had become a footnote to a "historical society" in the heart of the Confederacy.
Ferguson attends a "Lincoln Reconsidered" seminar featuring Dr. Thomas Dilorenzo, author of The Real Lincoln, which capitalized on the controversy to boost attendance. Ferguson once again is dismayed to learn the people in attendance are closer to him politically than the Lincoln fans.
Skipping the lunch at the seminar, Ferguson wanders around downtown Richmond and happens upon a teachers -- excuse me, "educators" -- conference on "Early Education," where the seminars boast such titles as "Banning Superhero Play." When he tells the educators why he;s in town, their eyes glaze over, and they mouth platitudes like, "History can be a good learning experience."
Ferguson looks around the room full of warm fuzzy political correctness and realizes of the anti-Lincoln crowd, "Those guys say they don't like Lincoln, and they don't; but this is what they really hate, this right here. The country turned into something they don't like, and they think Lincoln's responsible, and they will never forgive him for it."
As Ferguson notes, from the moment of his death, Lincoln has been dragooned into causes ranging from national temperance to the Communist Party USA, which named its volunteers unit fighting in the Spanish Civil War the Abraham Lincoln Brigade.
Churches got in the act, too, despite the fact that while Lincoln liked to quote the Bible, he never joined a church and had a very ambiguous spiritual life. From the barely religious Unitarians to Evangelicals using Lincoln's life and death as a parallel to the story of Jesus to Mary Baker Eddy's claiming the martyred president for Christian Science, Lincoln lived on in American pulpits.
The Richmond experience leaves Ferguson determined to find the real Lincoln.
"What threw me…was the vehemence of the people who hated him, and — just as surprising -- the mildness of those of those who would defend him. (The scholars) came up with one of two Lincolns: a racist, warmongering totalitarian, or a sentimental old poop — Mussolini on one hand, or Mr. Rogers on the other."
So, Ferguson sets off on a journey to visit sites, seminars and individuals devoted to Lincoln, sometimes (and hilariously) with a reluctant family in tow. He visits collectors of Lincoln memorabilia, who have varied backgrounds and political outlooks but share one thing: a hem-of-his garment depth of reverence for things touched by the great man.
Handwritten copies of the Gettysburg Address top the list, of course, but there also is a huge market for items related with Ford's Theatre and Lincoln's funeral. One man Ferguson meets claims to have a fragment of Lincoln's brain matter scattered by Booth's bullet.
The shrines range from an impressive Disney-designed memorial extravaganza in Springfield, Ill., (where one of the designers takes pride in the fact the museum section contains no guns) to a statue build by a Thai immigrant restaurant owner in an Arab neighborhood who thinks Lincoln typifies all he loves about America —and is convinced the president's first name means he was Jewish.
Ferguson finds Lincoln is also an inspirational icon for many folks who would probably buy WWLD bracelets if someone were to market them.
He attends a convention of Lincoln impersonators who consider their craft a calling, not a hobby. This culminates with a laugh-out-loud sequence where a few hapless tourists stumble upon the gathering of Abes who are overly eager to perform.
Honest Abe also has been the inspiration for many self-help books, including the grandaddy of them all, Dale Carnegie's How to Win Friends and Influence People. Most people forget Carnegie's first book was a blarney-filled biography of Lincoln, Lincoln the Unknown, and how prominently Abe figures in Carnegie's anecdotes in his most famous work.
Lincoln also figures prominently as a modern business guru, a role that, at first glance, might be an awkward fit at best, Ferguson writes. As he notes, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People "do not include 'Forget to cash your paychecks,' and 'Keep your most important stuff in your hat.'"
When Ferguson attends a business seminar that looks for the secret of management success in Lincoln, he finds the business gurus — and the bestselling business management book Lincoln on Leadership — are at least far closer to the reality of Lincoln as a person than those who once celebrated Lincoln/Lenin Day.
While the "War of Northern Aggression" has certainly won the day in academia, no doubt fueling the siege mentality of many at the Lincoln Reconsidered conferences, some balance seems to be returning to popular historical writing. Such historians as Jay Winik and Thomas Fleming, along with father-and-son "novelists" Michael and Jeff Shaara, prove it is possible to love Lincoln and Robert E. Lee.
Some 14,000 books have been written about Abraham Lincoln, but Ferguson's Land of Lincoln is remarkable enough to stand out in the crowd. It's hard to imagine another book will ever explore the love/hate affair of Lincoln and the nation in such an entertaining and insightful way.