On this day in 1809, in a log cabin in Kentucky, Thomas and Nancy Lincoln's second child was born. In the years since Abraham Lincoln's death, the nation's admiration for him has never dimmed—and as we mark his 205th birthday, amid Civil War sesquicentennial celebrations and with a celebrated biopic still in recent memory, his stature may be near its peak. Yet the passage of time makes it harder to imagine and understand Lincoln as he was, rather than as a quasi-mythical figure carved in stone, looming over the National Mall or the South Dakota hills.
This is why it's so important and worthwhile to consider contemporary recollections and to read accounts from the years since, to see how our understanding of who Lincoln was, what he wanted to achieve, and his role the nation's history has changed over time. The archives of The Atlantic, stretching back to 1857 when Lincoln was just an Illinois lawyer and failed congressman—before his famous debates with Stephen Douglas—provide a tour. As a magazine founded on abolitionism, The Atlantic had common cause with Lincoln and supported his campaign for president; and as a magazine founded on abolitionism, it sometimes grew exasperated at the pace with which Lincoln pursued the end of slavery and the methods he used. Here's a brief tour through of Lincoln's life and legacy as viewed through the ages at The Atlantic.
Though the magazine's stance was officially nonpartisan, editor James Russell Lowell decided the stakes were so high as to demand an endorsement in the 1860 presidential election. Lincoln himself is almost a fleeting presence in Lowell's stemwinder of a polemic. The editor voices skepticism that Lincoln will abolish slavery; in fact, he writes, the Republican is likely to govern as a conservative:
We are persuaded that the election of Mr. Lincoln will do more than anything else to appease the excitement of the country. He has proved both his ability and his integrity; he has had experience enough in public affairs to make him a statesman, and not enough to make him a politician. That he has not had more will be no objection to him in the eyes of those who have seen the administration of the experienced public functionary whose term of office is just drawing to a close. He represents a party who know that true policy is gradual in its advances, that it is conditional and not absolute, that it must deal with fact and not with sentiments, but who know also that it is wiser to stamp out evil in the spark than to wait till there is no help but in fighting fire with fire. They are the only conservative party, because they are the only one based on an enduring principle, the only one that is not willing to pawn tomorrow for the means to gamble with today. They have no hostility to the South, but a determined one to doctrines of whose ruinous tendency every day more and more convinces them.
Lowell's assurances aside, Ralph Waldo Emerson—one of the magazine's founders—was calling on Lincoln to adopt emancipation within two years. After a lengthy plea in that direction, Emerson closed with a paragraph displaying the cheerful improvisation of a writer who didn't have the time or will to completely rework an essay when late news broke. Lincoln had not gone as far as Emerson would have liked, perhaps, but he was happy to enthusiastically celebrate what progress there was:
Since the above pages were written, President Lincoln has proposed to Congress that the Government shall cooperate with any State that shall enact a gradual abolishment of Slavery. In the recent series of national successes, this Message is the best. It marks the happiest day in the political year. The American Executive ranges itself for the first time on the side of freedom. If Congress has been backward, the President has advanced. This state-paper is the more interesting that it appears to be the President's individual act, done under a strong sense of duty. He speaks his own thought in his own style. All thanks and honor to the Head of the State! The Message has been received throughout the country with praise, and, we doubt not, with more pleasure than has been spoken. If Congress accords with the President, it is not yet too late to begin the emancipation; but we think it will always be too late to make it gradual. All experience agrees that it should be immediate. More and better than the President has spoken shall, perhaps, the effect of this Message be,—but, we are sure, not more or better than he hoped in his heart, when, thoughtful of all the complexities of his position, he penned these cautious words.
Emerson had more to celebrate later that year. In the November 1862 issue of the magazine, the Sage of Concord wrote about the Emancipation Proclamation:
A day which most of us dared not hope to see, an event worth the dreadful war, worth its costs and uncertainties, seems now to be close before us. October, November, December will have passed over beating hearts and plotting brains: then the hour will strike, and all men of African descent who have faculty enough to find their way to our lines are assured of the protection of American law ....
We confide that Mr. Lincoln is in earnest, and, as he has been slow in making up his mind, has resisted the importunacy of parties and of events to the latest moment, he will be as absolute in his adhesion.
By the time the June 1865 issue arrived, the president would be dead, one of the last casualties of the war. But a dispatch—presumably sent to the printer before his assassination—from the vanquished Confederate capital captured the brief euphoria between the moment when the war was nearing its close and before Lincoln's death. Charles Carleton Coffin's almost minstrel-show depiction of the demeanor and language of the freed slaves who greeted Lincoln is jarring and uncomfortable to modern ears, but the image of the president's arrival remains powerful:
There was no committee of reception, no guard of honor, no grand display of troops, no assembling of an eager multitude to welcome him ....
There were forty or fifty freedmen, who had been sole possessors of themselves for twenty-four hours, at work on the bank of the canal, securing some floating timber, under the direction of a Lieutenant. Somehow they obtained the information that the man who was head and shoulders taller than all others around him, with features large and irregular, with a mild eye and pleasant countenance, was President Lincoln.
"God bless you, Sah!" said one, taking off his cap and bowing very low.
"Hurrah! hurrah! President Linkum hab come!" was the shout which rang through the street.
The Lieutenant found himself without a command. What cared those freedmen, fresh from the house of bondage, for floating timber or military commands? Their deliverer had come,—he who, next to the Lord Jesus, was their best friend! It was not an hurrah that they gave, but a wild, jubilant cry of inexpressible joy.
They gathered round the President, ran ahead, hovered upon the flanks of the little company, and hung like a dark cloud upon the rear. Men, women, and children joined the constantly increasing throng. They came from all the by-streets, running in breathless haste, shouting and hallooing and dancing with delight. The men threw up their hats, the women waved their bonnets and handkerchiefs, clapped their hands, and sang, "Glory to God! glory! glory! glory! "—rendering all the praise to God, who had heard their wailings in the past, their moanings for wives, husbands, children, and friends sold out of their sight, had given them freedom, and, after long years of waiting, had permitted them thus unexpectedly to behold the face of their great benefactor.
A month later, the magazine mourned the fallen leader. A report by Charles Creighton Hazewell, a frequent contributor, is notable for its tone. Though The Atlantic often took impassioned, zealous stands and did so in baroque language, the fury in Hazewell's writing is palpable and uncharacteristic—a glimpse at how deep the psychic scars caused by the assassination were:
THE ASSASSINATION OF President Lincoln threw a whole nation into mourning … Of all our Presidents since Washington, Mr. Lincoln had excited the smallest amount of that feeling which places its object in personal danger. He was a man who made a singularly favorable impression on those who approached him, resembling in that respect President Jackson, who often made warm friends of bitter foes, when circumstances had forced them to seek his presence...
Whether Booth was the agent of a band of conspirators, or was one of a few vile men who sought an odious immortality, it is impossible to say. We have the authority of a high Government official for the statement that “the President’s murder was organized in Canada and approved at Richmond”; but the evidence in support of this extraordinary announcement is, doubtless for the best of reasons, withheld at the time we write. There is nothing improbable in the supposition that the assassination plot was formed in Canada, as some of the vilest miscreants of the Secession side have been allowed to live in that country … But it is not probable that British subjects had anything to do with any conspiracy of this kind. The Canadian error was in allowing the scum of Secession to abuse the “right of hospitality” through the pursuit of hostile action against us from the territory of a neutral …
Henry Villard was an Associated Press correspondent in 1860, when he was dispatched to Springfield, Illinois, to cover the president-elect until he departed for the White House. Villard became friendly with Lincoln, and when the by-then-famed journalist published his memoirs he recounted those days nearly half a century before. An excerpt in The Atlantic is notable for its unflinching criticism of a friend and national hero. Although the film Lincoln captured the president's fondness for tall tales, the bawdiness and even raunchiness of his humor is a side of Lincoln's personality that isn't often seen today; with the passage of years and direct memory, it's hard to recall that even national heroes susceptible to gutter humor. Lincoln's unrestrained earthiness also contrasts with the hysterical reaction when a contemporary politician so much as uses a dirty word today:
The most remarkable and attractive feature of those daily “levees,” however, was his constant indulgence of his story-telling propensity. Of course, all the visitors had heard of it and were eager for the privilege of listening to a practical illustration of his preëminence in that line. He knew this, and took special delight in meeting their wishes …
I am sorry to state that he often allowed himself altogether too much license in the concoction of the stories. He seemed to be bent upon making his hit by fair means or foul. In other words, he never hesitated to tell a coarse or even outright nasty story, if it served his purpose. All his personal friends could bear testimony on this point. It was a notorious fact that this fondness for low talk clung to him even in the White House. More than once I heard him “with malice aforethought” get off purposely some repulsive fiction in order to rid himself of an uncomfortable caller. Again and again I felt disgust and humiliation that such a person should have been called upon to direct the destinies of a great nation in the direst period of its history. Yet his achievements during the next few years proved him to be one of the great leaders of mankind in adversity, in whom low leanings only set off more strikingly his better qualities …
Lincoln has remained one of the magazine's obsessions through the years. In 1992, historian Garry Wills explained the unique power of the Gettysburg Address—how the speech came to be, why it endures, and what it has meant to the nation.
Lincoln’s speech at Gettysburg worked several revolutions, beginning with one in literary style. Everett’s talk was given at the last point in history when such a performance could be appreciated without reservation. It was made obsolete within a half hour of the time when it was spoken. Lincoln’s remarks anticipated the shift to vernacular rhythms which Mark Twain would complete twenty years later. Hemingway claimed that all modern American novels are the offspring of Huckleberry Finn. It is no greater exaggeration to say that all modern political prose descends from the Gettysburg Address …
The Gettysburg Address has become an authoritative expression of the American spirit—as authoritative as the Declaration itself, and perhaps even more influential, since it determines how we read the Declaration. For most people now, the Declaration means what Lincoln told us it means, as he did to correct the Constitution without overthrowing it … By accepting the Gettysburg Address, and its concept of a single people dedicated to a proposition, we have been changed. Because of it, we live in a different America.
For a special Civil War commemorative issue (in which each of these pieces appear), President Barack Obama wrote an introduction. Obama—another lanky Illinoisan, and one whose race makes Lincoln especially relevant—has frequently spoken of his admiration for the 16th president. In a poignant mirror to Villard's portrait, Obama discusses how Lincoln can seem unreal and symbolic at our modern remove. But he says that a famous portrait by Alexander Gardner, atop this post, helps to recapture Lincoln's humanity.
LINCOLN IS A PRESIDENT I TURN TO OFTEN. From time to time, I’ll walk over to the Lincoln Bedroom and reread the handwritten Gettysburg Address encased in glass, or reflect on the Emancipation Proclamation, which hangs in the Oval Office, or pull a volume of his writings from the library in search of lessons to draw.
Always thoughtful, always eloquent, Lincoln’s writings speak to me as they speak to so many Americans, reminding us what is best about ourselves and the Union he saved: that though we may have our differences, we are one people, and we are one nation, united by a common creed.
That, I believe, is why, a century and a half after he took office, Lincoln is revered by the American people. Such reverence is richly deserved, but it comes at a cost. The Lincoln who holds a place in our national memory is less a man than an icon—a face carved in black hills, a marble giant towering over us on a mall.