Published Humanitas, Volume VII, No. 2, 1994

Lincoln in American Memory, by Merrill D. Peterson. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. 482 pp. + x. $30.00.

The inscription above Daniel C. French’s statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial in Washington states that “IN THIS TEMPLE As In The Hearts Of The People For Whom He Saved The Union The Memory of Abraham Lincoln Is Enshrined Forever.” Merrill D. Peterson’s chronicle of that memory, replete with the various tributes that have been rendered it, as well as the vicious attempts to suppress dissenters from the chorus of praise, is a fascinating look at the hold that Lincoln has upon American culture.

In tracing the various uses to which the memory of Lincoln has been put in American political culture, Merrill Peterson has taken a critically important step towards establishing the contrast, denied by his plethora of admirers, between the Lincoln of history and the Lincoln of memory. And by the latter I mean the Lincoln that has shaped our national consciousness, the symbol of the pietistic pursuit of equality. It should come as no surprise that, in politics, such present-day admirers of Lincoln as Jack Kemp press ever more unrealistic plans for achieving racial and ethnic harmony, or that, in academia, Straussian would-be philosopher kings extolling Lincoln should be willing to join the chorus of equality at home and to expend American blood to advance this abstract ideal around the world. This spreading equalitarian fervor necessitates a more careful examination of the chief American inspiration behind these deeds of domestic and international derring-do. We might otherwise suffer another reign of questionable “virtue” in tune with that self-righteous millenarian anthem “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Lincoln in American Memory is a step in the right direction for this kind of urgently needed scholarship, albeit not a step to the tune of “Dixie.”

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