The Lincoln myth

February 11, 1991|By Paul Greenberg

PINE BLUFF, ARK — IN THE TREASURE trove called the Federal Writers Project in Washington, one section is devoted to the recollections of ex-slaves who were interviewed during the 1930s. Again and again a similar story surfaces, like a myth common to the species. Here is how it appears in the words of Fanny Burdock of Valdosta, Ga., age 91 when the interview was conducted: "We been picking in the field when my brother he point to the road and then we see Marse Abe coming all dusty and on foot. We run right to the fence and had the oak bucket and the dipper. When he draw up to us, he so tall, black eyes so sad. Didn't say not one word, just looked hard at all us, every one us crying. We give him nice cool water from the dipper. Then he nodded and set off and we just stood there till he get to being dust then nothing. After, didn't our owner or nobody credit it, but me and all my kin, we knowed. I still got the dipper to prove it."

The power of the story lies precisely in that it could not have happened in any realm save that of the spirit. The proof that Abe Lincoln came walking down a dusty road in Georgia or Alabama or Louisiana is right there in the dipper -- as in the Great Dipper, the Drinkin Gourd that slaves followed to the North Star and freedom. Symbol upon symbol.

Here is the very definition of myth: a truth greater than fact. Its force need not be, cannot be, explained to those without a capacity for belief. But for those who would believe, who have known slavery of the soul if not the body, who have yearned for deliverance, the story still holds and overpowers, and excites an involuntary nod of affirmation. Yes! "After, didn't our owner or nobody credit it, but me and all my kin we knowed. I got the dipper to prove it."

An American historian back in that same Depression decade dissected "The Lincoln Legend: A Study in Changing Conceptions." Roy Basler's work took up where an earlier book DTC had left off -- "Myths After Lincoln" by Lloyd Lewis. Myth is not static. Like ritual, it is invested with new meaning with every repetition.

Many an earnest scholar by now has gone through one Lincoln legend after another, parsing and piercing with impartial fact. Their observations have become the grist of Civil War round tables and tendentious debates over the "real" Lincoln, the "real" cause of the war, the "real" story -- as if anything could be more real than a common myth that binds and elevates a nation. The historians and debaters can hope to persuade; Lincoln still convinces. From within.

Yes, the Emancipation Proclamation did not free any slaves immediately, for it applied only to Confederate territory. Yes, though Lincoln's hatred of slavery was doubtless sincere, he also made it clear that, if he could have saved the Union without freeing a single slave, or by freeing them all, or by freeing only some and leaving others in bondage, he would have done so. The great proclamation was a war measure.

All of that is beyond technical doubt, yet the moral significance and the inevitable effect of the Proclamation was as well understood then as it is now. It was not only a war measure.

Just as the war, that rock from which all Americans are hewn, was more than a war. The nation understood what was being proclaimed. Else, Lincoln would not have been so hated for it, and so well loved. In her 92nd year, Fanny Burdock of Valdosta, Ga., understood. Even if scholars would not.

Abraham Lincoln was that rarity in any age: a moral realist. He would not only oppose evil but, more impressive, do so effectively. His whole, uncertain career is a thesis against simple fanaticism and for resilient principle.

In place of moral realism, politicians have learned to offer fear or sentimentality; in place of a single truth, the American people may now choose from an assortment of unconvincing rationales. Lincoln trudged forward in the faith that, if he could explain his course to himself, nothing else would matter.

"I desire so to conduct the affairs of this administration," he wrote a group of supporters who had asked for favors in 1864, "that if at the end, when I come to lay down the reins of power, I have lost every other friend on Earth, I shall at least have one friend left, and that friend shall be deep inside me."

That is where faith lives, where faith lives, waiting to be summoned again to become the power of myth.

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