Abraham Lincoln’s sustained popularity
With the release of Spielberg’s Lincoln biopic, it’s clear the 16th President’s legacy shall not perish from the earth.
Four score and 67 years after his assassination, Abraham Lincoln long endures. Late last month, in the spirit of election mania, the History Channel sponsored a poll asking which of five historical leaders Americans would want to be commander-in-chief today. Sixty-seven percent of the 1,000 respondents put ol’ Abe back in the White House.
Here in the Land of Lincoln, the ghost of the Great Emancipator haunts. Lincoln Park contains one of the five public statues in Chicago dedicated to the 16th President. Along Lincoln Avenue, businesses invoke the spirit of Father Abraham. The menu of Lincoln Restaurant—and its adjacent comedy club, the Lincoln Lodge—offers the Honest Abe Burger. And when the toilet is being as obstinate as the Confederacy, there’s Lincoln Sewerage in the Irving Park neighborhood.
Over the past few weeks, new Lincolnalia has popped up around the city: ads promoting the Friday 9 release of Lincoln, the biopic directed by Steven Spielberg. Alone on the austere posters is Daniel Day-Lewis, appropriately gaunt and sunken-eyed, utterly dissolved in the character. The procedural film centers on Lincoln’s complex push for the 13th Amendment—and the back-room deal making it took to secure the necessary votes.
Coinciding with the approach of the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation in January, the movie could be the apex of the most recent Lincoln boom that began with the 2009 bicentennial of Abe’s birth, says Daniel Stowell, director and editor of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln at the Presidential Library in Springfield. The surge has included everything from an ’09 Chicago History Museum exhibit to this year’s Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, the fantasy horror flick based on a 2010 novel—one of an estimated 18,000 books about Lincoln.
“If you put Lincoln in the title of a book, it’s a hit—or at least it gets published,” says Daniel Weinberg, owner of the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop (357 W Chicago Ave, 312-944-3085), which has hosted talks by historians such as Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, the 2006 book on which Spielberg’s film is based. Apart from the monumental events of Lincoln’s presidency, Weinberg chalks up the man’s sustained popularity to the circumstances of his death, which gave rise to comparisons of Abe’s nation-saving sacrifice to Christ’s soul-saving crucifixion. “Martyrdom embedded him in the culture,” Weinberg says. “Without John Wilkes Booth, there probably wouldn’t be an Abraham Lincoln Book Shop—or a Spielberg movie.” Not just a book retailer, his 75-year-old River North storefront also cashes in on Lincoln devotion through the sale of historic documents, paintings and photos.
“Lincoln is an American brand every bit as recognizable as Mickey Mouse or the Golden Arches,” says Jackie Hogan, a sociology professor at Bradley University and the author of last year’s Lincoln, Inc.: Selling the Sixteenth President in Contemporary America. “People from very different sides of the political and social spectrum use Lincoln for their own purposes: socialists and corporate executives, opponents of abortion and abortion-rights activists, the civil-rights movement and the KKK.” With a little selective history, Hogan says, Lincoln easily becomes “a Rorschach test onto which we can project our own ideals.”
The GOP still projects itself as the “Party of Lincoln,” perhaps overlooking that Abe’s ideals, arguably, align more with those of today’s Democrats. Young Mr. Obama certainly sees himself in his stovepipe-hat-wearing predecessor: Both lawyers cut a path from the Illinois legislature to Washington by advocating compromise; both had their pragmatism tested by divisive times. The President has even admitted to taking leadership notes from Team of Rivals.
“The comparisons are inevitable,” says Stowell, whose Presidential Library expects an attendance spike after the release of Lincoln. “Obama is the exclamation point on the sentence that begins with the Emancipation Proclamation.”