Abraham Lincoln Birthplace
Historic Resource Study
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Chapter Two:


The growing veneration of Lincoln in the half century after his death, which resulted in the 1911 dedication of a memorial at his birthplace, had a number of sources. The first assassination of an American president, coming on the heels of a bloody Civil War, shocked the American public. In the highly emotional atmosphere of spring 1865, Americans began the apotheosis of Lincoln. The martyred president personified the self-sacrifice, idealism, and resoluteness that had preserved the republic through four years of war. The postwar decades then brought sweeping changes—Reconstruction of the South, industrialization, mechanization, urbanization, and increased immigration—that profoundly altered traditional patterns of American life. One response to this torrent of change was a romantic idealization of the past, especially the supposedly simpler, purer agrarian life. Lincoln's frontier upbringing exemplified this largely bygone rural way of life. Additionally, the self-reliant, self-made man was an idol of the postbellum age, and Lincoln was an example in politics as much as Andrew Carnegie was in industry. Finally, the years between 1875 and 1890 brought numerous centennial celebrations of the nation's founding. [1] These centennials helped engender an enhanced regard for the past and resulted in efforts to create memorials to, and preserve sites associated with, famous Americans.


The near deification of Lincoln began almost immediately after his death. [2] Already exhausted by the trials of the Civil War, Americans vented their emotions following Lincoln's assassination in an "orgy of grief." [3] Lincoln quickly became the symbol of the nation's sacrifices during the war. The controversies surrounding Lincoln's conduct of the war and the virulent personal attacks on him were forgotten, and Americans celebrated his idealism, fairness, compassion, devotion to duty, and vision of the future. Lincoln was compared to George Washington and praised as the second savior of the republic. Clergymen and others stressed Lincoln's Christ-like attributes; details of Lincoln's life an obscure birth, a carpenter father, and assassination on Good Friday inevitably reinforced the connection. [4]

Linked by telegraph, newspapers, and mass-circulation weeklies, millions across the North participated in the protracted mourning over Lincoln that included thousands of local memorial services featuring orations and eulogies, commemorative poetry, and a ceremonial funeral trip. After lying in state in Washington, Lincoln's remains were carried on a special train on a two-week journey back to Springfield. As a symbolic gesture, the train reversed the route Lincoln took to Washington in 1861. In Baltimore, Harrisburg, Philadelphia, New York, Albany, Buffalo, Cleveland, Columbus, Indianapolis, and Chicago, Lincoln's casket was removed from the train and placed on a black-draped catafalque. Hundreds of thousands filed past the casket while choirs sang hymns and church bells tolled. The train slowed to five miles per hour at dozens of smaller places to allow assembled citizens to pay their respects. [5]

Figure 8: Engraving entitled Abraham Lincoln the Martyr Victorious by John Sartain, 1865

Walt Whitman's 1865 poem, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," which lauded Lincoln as "the sweetest, wisest soul of all my days and lands," was one of hundreds of verse tributes. [6] Herman Melville, Julia Ward Howe, William Cullen Bryant, James Russell Lowell, and Oliver Wendell Holmes also wrote memorial poems. An entire volume of Poetical Tributes (1865) included the work of poets from all the northern states, seven southern states, and three foreign countries. Letters of the period routinely referred to Lincoln as the "Great Emancipator" or the "Great Martyr." [7]

Biographical treatments abetted the apotheosis of Lincoln. Two themes emerged in Lincoln biographies following his death. One took its cue from the eulogies and emphasized Lincoln's high principles and saintliness; the other stressed his backwoods western origins. Josiah G. Holland's depiction of Lincoln as a martyr-saint endowed with all the Christian virtues, contained in his 1866 Life of Abraham Lincoln, proved immensely popular; the book sold more than 100,000 copies. In Holland's view, Lincoln was a model youth who rose on the strength of his merit and high ideals. Holland characterized Lincoln as "savior of the republic, emancipator of a race, true Christian, true man." [8] The portrayal of Lincoln as a combination of Christ and George Washington was echoed in dozens of other nineteenth-century biographies. [9]

Disgusted by the popularity of a sentimental, idealized view of Lincoln, William H. Herndon, Lincoln's friend and his law partner from 1844 to 1861, devoted himself to presenting a more down-to-earth portrait. Herndon did a vast amount of research to supplement his personal recollections, combing court records and interviewing and corresponding with dozens of persons in Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky. Herndon leased his research materials to Lincoln's friend and sometime bodyguard Ward H. Lamon for Lamon's 1872 Life of Abraham Lincoln, largely ghost written by Chauncey Black. After many delays, Herndon's Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life, written in collaboration with Jesse Weik, appeared in 1889. Both Lamon and Herndon emphasized the ambitious, folksy, irreverent, story-telling Lincoln: a true son of the western prairie. Herndon was most reliable on events he witnessed; he did not critically evaluate material supplied by others. Although Herndon's book sold poorly, his portrait had a lasting impact on the popular conception of Lincoln. [10] Toward the end of the nineteenth century the two images of Lincoln began to merge into a composite. Lincoln became the embodiment of an American ideal that combined frontier earthiness and Christian virtue, shrewdness and saintliness, ambition and nobility of soul. [11]

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Last Updated: 22-Jan-2003