Abraham Lincoln in the Post-Heroic EraHistory and Memory in Late Twentieth-Century America

Abraham Lincoln in the Post-Heroic EraHistory and Memory in Late Twentieth-Century America

Barry Schwartz

Print publication date: 2013

ISBN: 9780226741888

Publisher: University of Chicago Press

Abstract

By the 1920s, Abraham Lincoln had transcended the lingering controversies of the Civil War to become a secular saint, honored in North and South alike for his steadfast leadership in crisis. Throughout the Great Depression and World War II, he was invoked countless times as a reminder of America's strength and wisdom, a commanding ideal against which weary citizens could see their own hardships in perspective. But as revealed in this book, those years represent the apogee of Lincoln's prestige. The decades following World War II brought radical changes to American culture, changes that led to the diminishing of all heroes. As the author explains, growing sympathy for the plight of racial minorities, disenchantment with the American state, the lessening of patriotism in the wake of the Vietnam War, and an intensifying celebration of diversity all contributed to a culture in which neither Lincoln nor any single person could be a heroic symbol for all Americans. Paradoxically, however, the very culture that made Lincoln an object of indifference, questioning, criticism, and even ridicule was a culture of unprecedented beneficence and inclusion, where racial, ethnic, and religious groups treated one another more fairly and justly than ever before. Thus, as the prestige of the Great Emancipator shrank, his legacy of equality continued to flourish. Drawing on a wide range of sources, the book documents the decline of Lincoln's public standing, asking throughout whether there is any path back from this post-heroic era. Can a new generation of Americans embrace again their epic past, including great leaders whom they know to be flawed?