Looking For Lincoln: The Man, The Symbol

Abraham Lincoln, photographed by Anthony Berger in 1864.
National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution Anthony Berger at the Mathew Brady Studio Modern albumen print from 1864 wet-plate collodion negative For more about Lincoln, read "Team of Rivals" by Doris Kearns Goodwin with "CTM Reads."
National Portrait Gallery

More than 10,000 books have been written about Abraham Lincoln since his death in 1865. And as we approach his 200th birthday this Thursday, the search for the real Lincoln continues. Our Cover Story is reported now by Martha Teichner:

If you want to know Abraham Lincoln - the man he was, the symbol he is - go to the Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg.

Cast in bronze, he stares pensively out over what would have been the terrible aftermath of three monstrous days of fighting and killing - seven thousand soldiers died here between July 1 and 3, 1863.

About a mile away, Lincoln presides over the place where the Union dead were reburied later that year.

"There were coffins stacked off to the side," remarked James McPherson, a Pulitzer Prize-winning Lincoln scholar. "The smell of death was still in the air because they were still in the process of disinterring some of the soldiers.

"And on the high ground at that hillside you would have seen a large speaker stand with all kinds of dignitaries sitting up there."

Lincoln, invited to say a few words at the dedication of the cemetery, delivered the Gettysburg Address.

"Only 272 words, and the testimony is that the crowd was actually quite surprised, when, after two minutes, he sat down," McPherson said.

"Fourscore and seven years ago," it began, "our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal."

The Civil War, he said, was a test of whether a nation so conceived could survive.

"It's one of his two best writings, the other being the second Inaugural Address," said McPherson. "And I wouldn't necessarily want to choose between the two, but certainly the Gettysburg Address is one of the two best things he ever did - and the two best things that any American ever did."

Teichner examined one of only five existing copies of the Gettysburg Address that Lincoln wrote out by hand, an amazing enough sight by itself.

But Sunday Morning was invited by John Sellers, Lincoln curator at the Library of Congress, to see it laid out alongside the Bible Lincoln and Barack Obama both used to be sworn in as President, along with letters Lincoln wrote to his generals, and more of what the Library of Congress calls its "top treasures": The Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln's first Inaugural Address, and his famous Second.

"This is what Indiana Jones would feel like if he found the Holy Grail - this is the Holy Grail," said historian Harold Holzer, co-chairman of the U.S. Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. He showed us the very copy Lincoln is believed to have held in his hand at that sublime moment, delivering what Holzer called "arguably the greatest, most stunning inaugural address in American history."

"He actually cut and pasted all these sentences as you can see," said Sellers. Yes, little strips of paper.

With all Lincoln's telling corrections, it is included in a book of his papers and an exhibition that opens at the Library of Congress on Thursday, one of many commemorations of his 200th birthday around the country.

The Abraham Lincoln that emerges was a man who grew profoundly during his presidency. Between his election in November 1860 and his inauguration in March 1861, seven Southern states seceded from the Union. He'd been in office a month when Confederate troops fired on Ft. Sumter, beginning the Civil War.

"Lincoln had no experience to be commander in chief, he had no military experience to speak of at all," said McPherson.

And yet, writes McPherson in his latest book, "Tried by War," Lincoln really created the job as we understand it today.

"Congress did not declare war in the case of the Civil War," he said. "And that gave the president enormous powers and responsibilities to put down this insurrection and to guarantee the continued existence of the United States."

He took power because he believed he had to, in part because his top generals resisted taking on the Confederates, especially general-in-chief George B. McClellan.

His favorite excuse: that he was outnumbered (even when the opposite was true). Lincoln replaced McClellan and a succession of other generals, before appointing Ulysses S. Grant.

It was only as commander-in-chief that President Lincoln was able to issue the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in rebel-held Southern states, on January 1, 1863.

"The stated rationale and justification and legal basis for the proclamation was military, the right of the commander in chief to seize enemy property," McPherson said.

Lincoln gave blacks the right to join the Union Army and Navy. Two hundred thousand did, most of them freed slaves. It was to weaken the enemy, Lincoln argued, but like everything else concerning slavery, his motives were complicated.

In a PBS documentary, "Looking for Lincoln," and a new book, Henry Louis Gates, Jr, a longtime Harvard professor, comes to terms with a three-dimensional Abraham Lincoln.

"He was flawed," Gates said. "He was a human being just like we were. He was a recovering racist."

He told darkie jokes and used the "n" word. He wanted slavery ended but actually proposed shipping the freed slaves back to Africa. He was ambivalent about equal rights for blacks.

"He did change; the fact of the matter is that Lincoln did change," Gates said.

"Would it be correct to say that it's how he evolved in his position toward black people that you admire most?" Teichner asked.

"Oh, that he evolved at all, that he was willing to confront himself and overcome his prejudices and do the right thing." Gates said.

Abraham Lincoln arrived in Richmond, Va., on April 4, 1865. The Confederate capital had fallen. The war was all but over.

When Lincoln stepped off onto the wharf, the now freed slaves saw him. They recognized him, and they ran to him saying. 'There's father Abraham.'"

David Ward, curator of an exhibition of Lincoln images at the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, remarked about how Lincoln was the first president who was frequently photographed. He showed images of the president just before the Gettysburg Address (November 8, 1863), and just over a year later.

There are also life masks. One, originally cast in 1860, and the other, two months before he died in 1865, say it all.

"He's internalizing all the deaths on the Battlefield," Ward said. "He's suffering along with the Union."

Who hasn't heard the story about the Lincolns at Ford's Theatre on April 14?

"The orchestra started playing 'Hail to the Chief,'" said Paul Tetrault, director of Ford's Theatre. "The entire audience stood in unison, applauding. Of course, it was only nine days after Appomatox and the end of the Civil War, so people were elated."

Not John Wilkes Booth. He'd heard the president announce he would give the vote to his black warriors, the 200,000 who had fought for the Union, and Booth vowed to shoot Lincoln.

"It was a little pop, and then the screams could be heard from the box," Tetrault said. "Mary Todd Lincoln was saying, 'They've shot my husband!'" John Wilkes Booth jumped from the box to the stage, about 12 feet. "And of course, he raised his knife to the audience and declared 'Sic semper tyrannus!' 'Thus always to tyrants.'"

Tonight, Ford's Theatre re-opens after an extensive renovation with "The Heavens Are Hung in Black." A new play commissioned to mark Lincoln's bicentennial, it revisits his struggle over slavery.

"Lincoln is a man for all seasons in a way that's unique in American History," said Gates.

"Why do we need him?" Teichner asked.

"Well, we need him, I think to paraphrase Lincoln, to evoke the better angels of our nature."

To know what that means, go to the battlefield at Gettysburg where on that November day in 1863 Lincoln explained in these words: "That this nation shall have a new birth of freedom, and that this government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth."

For more info:

  • Gettysburg Foundation
  • Gettysburg Battlefield
  • "Tried by War" - James McPherson
  • "Abraham Lincoln" - James McPherson
  • Library of Congress
  • "In Lincoln's Hand" - edited by Harold Holzer & Joshua Wolf Shenk
  • "A. Lincoln: A Biography" - Ronald White
  • "Lincoln, President-Elect" - Harold Holzer
  • "Lincoln on Race & Slavery" - edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
  • Ford's Theater: "The Heavens are Hung in Black"
  • National Portrait Gallery Exhibition: The Mask of Lincoln
  • National Museum of American History: "Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life"
  • Illinois Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission
  • Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, Springfield, Ill.
  • "Looking for Lincoln" (PBS)
  • New York Historical Society