Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe's America
By Andrew Ferguson. New York, NY: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2007; 304 pp., cloth, $24.00; paper, $14.00.
As the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth in February 2009 approaches, Americans can expect even more than the usual large number of volumes dedicated to the nation's 16th president. Andrew Ferguson, a senior editor at The Weekly Standard and writer for many other national publications, acknowledges as much in the opening paragraph of his contribution to Lincolnography, Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe's America. "More books," he writes, "have been written about Abraham Lincoln than about any other American—nearly fourteen thousand in all—and at least half of those books begin by saying that more books have been written about Abraham Lincoln than about any other American. This book, you'll notice, is one of them." Typical of Ferguson's breezy tone and guileless approach, this statement launches the reader on a cheerfully opinionated and often incisive tour of the Land of Lincoln, which it turns out is both a state and a state of mind—or rather, many of them.
Ferguson introduces himself as a partially lapsed Lincoln buff from childhood, a native of Illinois. The book jumps immediately into the heart of today's preoccupation with Lincoln's legacy, as Ferguson visits Richmond, Virginia, the site of a controversial statue of Lincoln that was installed in 2003. He talks to a number of Lincoln detractors who feel the Emancipation Proclamation was a "cynical, empty act." Ferguson sets out on a combination research project and road trip to discover "how we know what we think we know about Lincoln." In this he reveals a cheerfully accessible historical sensibility that a number of professional historians would envy.
After briskly summarizing the effects of the Missouri Compromise, Kansas-Nebraska Act, and the Dred Scott decision, Ferguson focuses on the reality that "Lincoln's political view of slavery, and his personal views on race, were not nearly so simple as most buffs would prefer. They don't fit into the historical categories we're used to dealing with: Lincoln was neither a supporter of slavery nor an abolitionist." That has stopped virtually no one from trying to use Lincoln's words or imputed history to support their own views of everything from the mundane to the mystical. The second chapter, in which Ferguson examines Herndon's Lincoln, its sources, and the often creative uses to which it has been put, is a tour de force of historiography, and entertaining to boot. He adopts the phrase "scholars differ" as an amusing but correct mantra, a constant reminder of what we just do not know. His discussion of "the case of young Billy Thompson," an amusing example of the selective use and misuse of source material, brings the chapter to an exciting finish.
Ferguson then takes the reader along as he revisits the places that fueled his enthusiasm as a youth, starting with the Chicago History Museum (formerly the Chicago Historical Society). Mostly, Ferguson is dismayed and irritated by the loss of the heroic in today's museums' dedication to social history that has supplanted things like the hand-crafted dioramas that dramatically, and memorably, recounted the legend of Lincoln's life to generations of children. He deconstructs the philosophy and the contradictions of modern museum practices and disputes the claim that traditional history museums have lost their relevance and that today's diverse population requires a different paradigm. Time will tell if the next generation of curators agrees with him.
Those who followed the development of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum (ALPLM) in Springfield, Illinois, which opened in 2005, will already have some idea of what to expect from the chapter entitled "The Kingmaker's Wife, the Emotional Engineer, and the Triumph of Fun." The result is a priceless, if subversive, oral history of its origins, philosophy, and overwhelming presence. If the Chicago History Museum is a bit dry, the ALPLM is nonstop entertainment. Ferguson interviews Julie Cellini, a major force in the creation of the museum, as well as Bob Rogers of BRC Imagination Arts, the former Disney man who designed the new Lincoln museum by "lead[ing] with the emotions rather than the intellect [and] the visual rather than the verbal." He boasted to Ferguson that, "after six years of living with Abraham Lincoln, I can give him to you any way you want, cold or hot, jazz or classical. I can give you scandalous Lincoln, conservative Lincoln, liberal Lincoln, racist Lincoln, Lincoln over easy or Lincoln scrambled." The museum is almost too easy a target for people like Ferguson who prefer their heroes heroic. He laments all of its over-the-top aspects but does not mention the areas where it succeeds in conveying real information in innovative ways, such as the astonishing "Civil War in Four Minutes" presentation. Here we start to see a drift to glibness in Ferguson's tone and an occasional tendency towards cynical generalizations based on limited firsthand information.
In the ensuing chapters, on the strange worlds of Lincoln collectors, Lincoln "presenters" (the many, many dedicated people with beards and stovepipe hats who appear at events, parades, and programs), and management coaches who use Lincoln to motivate middle managers, the book's energy flags a bit and veers off into less interesting directions. Pretty much anybody who is anybody in the Lincoln world, and is willing to talk, shows up in this book. Ferguson does succeed in demonstrating the wild variety of ways in which Americans view Lincoln, from Lincoln as proto-Bolshevik to Lincoln as business guru.
In the last chapters, Ferguson recounts an attempt to retrace his childhood experiences on the 1960s Lincoln Heritage Trail through Illinois, Indiana, and Kentucky with his wife and children. He visits the Lincoln Home National Historic Site in Springfield and makes some trenchant observations about the visitor experience in a somewhat predictably cantankerous fashion. The family tours the Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial in Indiana, sees a performance of Young Abe Lincoln, and ends up at the Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site in Hodgenville, Kentucky, with stops along the way at other Lincoln sites large and small. The tone wavers at times between critique and awe.
Ultimately, the bemused attitude gives way to Ferguson's more serious purpose of lamenting the fall from fashion of the historical hero in American society. The title of his last chapter, "In Defense of the Icon," needs no explanation. He finds the icon in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, recounting with admiration the serious thought and purpose that went into its design by architect Henry Bacon and sculptor Daniel Chester French, and the mature understanding in the dedicatory remarks by President Warren G. Harding and Robert Moton, then president of the Tuskegee Institute. Here Ferguson finds, to his satisfaction, a Lincoln for adults rather than children, a Lincoln to be admired rather than dissected.
Phyllis M. Ellin
National Park Service