Flashbacks February 2009

Abraham Lincoln in The Atlantic

A collection of articles in honor of Lincoln's 200th birthday
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Two hundred years after he entered the world, Abraham Lincoln seems to be undergoing a rebirth. President Barack Obama, a fellow senator from Illinois, invoked Lincoln’s memory last month when he rolled into Washington on a whistle-stop tour and swore his oath of office on Lincoln’s Bible. Meanwhile, leading scholars including Harvard’s Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Pulitzer Prize–winner James M. McPherson have flooded the market with new books about Lincoln’s military judgment, his attitude toward race , his wife, and his inventions—despite the fact that Lincoln has been the subject of more biographies than any figure besides Jesus Christ. As The Atlantic’s editors put it in 1928, “If there is one life of which the American people wish to know everything, it is Abraham Lincoln’s.”

This magazine has its own long and rich relationship with America’s 16th president. During the campaign of 1860, The Atlantic threw its support behind the candidate from Illinois in a forceful editorial. Two years later, Nathaniel Hawthorne drew the editors’ ire when he poked fun at the president’s appearance and deportment in a Civil War dispatch. After Lincoln’s death, The Atlantic published numerous personal recollections, excerpts from freshly unearthed documents, and posthumous insights about everything from Lincoln’s hypothetical stance on abortion to his possible clinical depression.

The following Atlantic articles, like snapshots in a family album, capture the way America’s relationship with Lincoln has grown, evolved, and endured throughout the past two centuries.




“The Election in November,” by James Russell Lowell (October 1860)
The Atlantic’s founding editor endorses Lincoln for president.

“Chiefly About War Matters,” by Nathaniel Hawthorne (July 1862)
“Good Heavens! What liberties I have been taking with one of the potentates of the earth!” In a Civil War dispatch, the author of The Scarlet Letter poked fun at the president and clashed with the magazine’s Lincoln-worshipping editors in the process.

“Franklin, Washington, Lincoln,” by Horace Elisha Scudder (November 1889)
“Some of the incidents in this life will not be pleasant reading to those who have already constructed a Lincoln after their own imagination.” A book by Henry Cabot Lodge, written two decades after Lincoln’s death, presents an all-too-human picture of the already mythologized president.

“Recollections of Lincoln,” by Henry Villard (February 1904)
A German-born journalist shares his personal memories of Lincoln. “I must say frankly that, although I found him most approachable, good-natured, and full of wit and humor, I could not take a real personal liking to the man.”

“Lincoln,” by John Vance Cheney (February 1909)
"The sunlight shines his fame, / The winds blaze Lincoln's name." A paean.

“New Light on Lincoln’s Boyhood,” by Arthur E. Morgan (February 1920)
After journeying through the Ozark Mountains and interviewing the offspring of Lincoln’s neighbors, the author pieces together a new picture of the president’s formative years.

“The Bear Hunt: An Original Ballad Never Before Printed,” by Abraham Lincoln (January 1925)
Light verse composed by America’s 16th president.

“The Discovery,” by The Atlantic Editors (December 1928)
The Atlantic’s editors published a series based on supposedly rediscovered love letters between Lincoln and Ann Rutledge, only to realize over time that they had fallen victim to an elaborate hoax. The magazine defended the collection two months later in a lengthy editors’ note, but by April, one of the magazine’s contributors was able to demonstrate that the correspondence had been a fraud. (For more details, see the Flashback “An Atlantic Scandal.”)

“Abe Lincoln, Country Lawyer,” by Benjamin P. Thomas (February 1954)
After an unremarkable term in the Illinois legislature, Lincoln settled back the routine of a simple rural lawyer, pleading cases in seven county towns. What he learned from this experience marked a turning point in his life.

“Getting Right With Lincoln,” by by David Donald (September 1956)
A look at how Lincoln grew from an ordinary man into a mythological figure, leaving an ideological legacy that continues to be claimed by both parties.

“On Abortion: A Lincolnian Position,” by George McKenna (September 1995)
The author suggests that Lincoln’s principled yet pragmatic stand on slavery could inspire a new politics of civility that is at once anti-abortion and pro-choice.

“Lincoln Speaks,” by James M. McPherson (December 1996)
A Pulitzer Prize–winning Civil War scholar reviews The Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln.

“Lincoln’s Greatest Speech?” by Garry Wills (September 1999)
Frederick Douglass called it “a sacred effort," and Lincoln himself thought that his Second Inaugural, which offered a theodicy of the Civil War, was better than the Gettysburg Address.

“Being Abe Lincoln” by Joshua Wolf Shenk (February 2002)
Lincoln’s features and clothing are stamped on the American imagination—and imitated by “Lincoln presenters” nationwide

“Keeping Lincoln’s Secrets” by Douglas S. Wilson (May 2000)
William H. Herndon, Abraham Lincoln’s law partner and biographer, made a record of “secreat and private things” about Lincoln in two memorandum books. Now a series of diary entries, written by a woman who saw those memorandums, has come to light.

“Lincoln’s Great Depression,” by Joshua Wolf Shenk (October 2005)
Abraham Lincoln fought clinical depression all his life, and if he were alive today, his condition would be treated as a “character issue"—that is, as a political liability. The author argues that the condition was indeed a character issue: it gave him the tools to save the nation.

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