Abraham Lincoln Birthplace
Historic Resource Study
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Chapter Two:


Lincoln's heroic reputation contrasted sharply with the materialism, corruption, and generally undistinguished political leadership of the postwar decades. Characterized variously as '"The Gilded Age," "The Age of Excess," and the "Great Barbecue," the 1865-1890 period was one of great economic and social upheaval, unprecedented extremes of wealth and poverty, and widespread political corruption. Many of the changes associated with the postwar years were well underway when Lincoln died. The huge northern Civil War armies had required a rapid expansion of industry and financial institutions, and graft in wartime supply contracts foreshadowed later scandals. Rapid industrialization continued after the war, and America changed from a nation of small, isolated, rural communities to a more urban-oriented and economically and culturally unified country. This transformation was largely the result of transportation and communication advances: a transcontinental rail net, improved telegraphs, mass-circulation periodicals, and the telephone. America was also becoming more crowded; the population more than doubled from 36 million in 1865 to 76 million in 1900. [12]

Industrialization and the growing mechanization and commercialization of agriculture increased American wealth and changed the character of American life. Industrial production rose by 1200 percent between 1850 and 1900, while farmers increasingly shifted from subsistence crops to marketable staples like wheat, corn, cotton, and tobacco. Laissez-faire was the ruling economic philosophy, and most policies of the national Republican and Democrat parties on tariffs, railroads, banking, and immigration encouraged industrial expansion. Individuals amassed huge fortunes from railroads, iron and steel, textiles, food processing, petroleum, and financial manipulation. [13] Broad segments of the public lionized the self-made industrial tycoon, exemplified by Andrew Carnegie, the Scottish immigrant who rose from bobbin boy in a textile mill to presidency of the largest American steel producer. Carnegie and other millionaires combined philanthropy with lavish spending on fine houses and ostentatious entertaining. [14]

Urbanization and increased immigration accompanied industrial growth. Before the war, cities had been largely mercantile centers; postwar urban growth was tied to industrial expansion. The number of cities of 100,000 or more inhabitants rose from nine in 1860 to fifty in 1910. By 1900, one-third of the population was classified as urban, i.e., living in cities of 8,000 or more. The cities attracted millions of European immigrants. By the 1890s, the sources of immigration had largely shifted from Great Britain, Germany, and Scandinavia to southern and eastern Europe. Although some immigrants farmed, the majority congregated in urban areas, taking low-paid industrial and service jobs. Many native-born Americans found the religion, customs, and appearance of these new immigrants alien and grew anxious over the changing ethnic make-up of the country. [15]

Postwar politics were characterized by intense partisanship, an absence of idealism and strong leadership, and substantial graft. In 1905, historian Henry Adams observed that "One might search the whole list of Congress, judiciary, and executive during the twenty-five years 1870 to 1895, and find little but damaged reputation." [16] Governmental corruption reached a nadir in the 1870s. The Democrat Tweed Ring, led by New York Mayor William M. Tweed, looted as much as $100 million from the public treasury between 1868 and 1871. One scandal after another implicating cabinet secretaries and White House staff marred President Grant's administrations (1869-1877). Throughout the postwar period, some Republicans traded on the memory of Lincoln for political gain. A succession of relatively weak postwar presidents only added luster to Lincoln's image. [17]

As an antidote to the economic, social, and political upheavals of the postwar decades, many Americans sought escape in sentimental romances. Romances took many forms: there was the romance of the self-made man celebrated in Horatio Alger's many novels and the romance of exotic times and places, exemplified by the phenomenal popularity of novels like Ben-Hur (1880). In a country increasingly national, urban, industrial, and class-stratified, millions viewed the local, agrarian, seemingly egalitarian American past through the mists of sentiment. As historian Robert H. Wiebe has put it, "the peculiar ethical value of an agricultural life, long taken for granted by so many Americans, now became one of their obsessions." [18] Beginning in the 1880s, highly romanticized depictions of the antebellum South, the Colonial period, the frontier, and rural life frequently appeared in popular novels and poems. [19]

The allegedly wholesome, self-sufficient pioneer experience exemplified by Lincoln's early life was a popular theme in fiction. James Allen Lane's novel, The Choir Invisible (1897), the saga of an eighteenth-century Kentucky schoolmaster, sold more than 250,000 copies. Lincoln himself appeared as a character in historical novels as early as 1888 (The McVeys and The Graysons). As the centennial of Lincoln's birth approached, fictional treatments multiplied. Lincoln was a central character of The Crisis (1901), a historical romance by Winston Churchill that sold one million copies. Fictional depictions of Lincoln followed the biographies, emphasizing the upright backwoods lawyer and the wise wartime president. [20]

Figure 9: Painting entitled Boyhood of Lincoln by Eastman Johnson, 1868

The log cabin was an object of special veneration in romanticized depictions of frontier life. Birth in a log cabin became associated with the positive qualities of simplicity, egalitarianism, democracy, self-sufficiency, and upward mobility. The log cabin was a symbol of the unlimited possibilities for advancement considered inherent in American life. The log cabin made its first appearance as a political symbol in General William Henry Harrison's successful presidential campaign in 1840. On the Whig ticket that year were Harrison, the hero of the 1811 Battle of Tippecanoe, and John Tyler. An opposition newspaper's derogatory comment about General Harrison's alleged willingness to sit in his cabin drinking hard cider while collecting a pension was converted into a major campaign theme. Famous for the slogan, "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too," the 1840 Whig campaign adopted a populist tone and featured the image of the log cabin on floats, badges, books, quilts, and glass plates. [21]

Lincoln exhibited ambivalence about his log cabin background; he realized its political attractiveness to western voters, but almost never spoke of it to friends. In the 1860 presidential election, the Republican Party borrowed a page from the Harrison campaign, touting Lincoln as a prairie-bred man of the people. To Lincoln's embarrassment, his party promoted him as "Honest Abe, the Rail-Splitter." Campaign literature emphasized Lincoln's obscure birth in a log cabin and his pioneer upbringing, reinforcing the popular association of the log cabin with democratic virtues. [22]

Figure 10: A circa 1890 photo of the "Goose Nest Prairie Cabin" in Illinois. This was one of several log cabins associated with the early life of Abraham Lincoln.

The adulation of Lincoln in the later nineteenth century coincided with increased interest in historic preservation and commemoration. George Washington and Lincoln, linked in the public mind as, respectively, the father and savior of the nation, were the focus of a number of preservation efforts. One of the earliest American historic preservation efforts was the 1850s campaign to make a national shrine of George Washington's house, Mount Vernon. This campaign was the work of a private group, the Mount Vernon Ladies Association, which purchased the house and two hundred acres in 1858. In the same year, the State of Virginia accepted the gift of a small tract that included the former site of Wakefield, Washington's birthplace in Westmoreland County, Virginia. In 1882, the state donated the property to the Federal government, which erected a granite obelisk commemorating Washington's birth in 1895-1896. [23]

Another event that revived interest in the American past was the Centennial Exposition, held in Philadelphia from May to November 1876, to mark the one-hundredth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. The centennial year provided an occasion for Americans to re-examine their history. The events of the Revolutionary period received great attention, and a re-created Colonial house was a popular exhibit at the exposition. Many of the eight million exposition visitors went away with a new interest in, and enthusiasm for, the American past. This greater historical appreciation manifested itself in efforts to preserve Independence Hall in Philadelphia, Washington's headquarters at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, the powder magazine at Williamsburg, Virginia, and Andrew Jackson's Tennessee home, the Hermitage. [24] Campaigns to preserve historic sites associated with Lincoln's life began in the 1880s.

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Last Updated: 22-Jan-2003