History 17B Lecture 1 What is History? Page 3

II.  Case Study:  The Lincoln Memorial

       A.  The Mythology of Abraham Lincoln

Question:  What is Abraham Lincoln best remembered for?

You probably answered "Freeing the slaves."

But if that question had been asked to a class at the turn of the twentieth century, most of the students would answer something different:  "Saving the Union."

We can know this not just by studying the textbooks of the times, but also by studying the documents and public accounts of the period in which the Lincoln Memorial was designed and constructed.  These documents show us the changing perceptions as to how Lincoln has been remembered in American history:  either as the Great Emancipator who freed the slaves, or the Christ-like savior who fought and died to keep the American Republic unified.

B.  The Tragedy of Reconstruction

Lincoln's sudden death in April 1865 - less than a week after Southern General Robert E. Lee's surrender and the end of the Civil War - greatly shook the nation and had lasting scars.  His death was perceived as all the more tragic coupled with the frustration and violence that plagued the Reconstruction years after the war. Lincoln_shot_color.jpg (33539 bytes)

Southern whites cried out against the carpet baggers and "Black" Republicans that overran and exploited the defeated South - and most Americans, guided by their own racism, believed these stories.  Click on the cartoon to the left to see a depiction of Reconstruction from the famous 19th century Harper's cartoonist Thomas Nast.  From what you have read in the textbook, do you feel this is a fair portrayal of Reconstruction?  In what way can we say it is racist?

Movies in the early 20th Century such as D.W. Griffith's 1915 epic film Birth of a Nation also promoted this myth that former slaves made a mockery of the political process as they gained their freedom and took over Southern state legislatures.  The film climaxes with the Ku Klux Klan saving the South from African Americans gone wild.  Shown a private screening of the film at the White House, President Woodrow Wilson is reported to have said, "It's like writing history with lightning.  And my only regret is that it is all terribly true."  Watch the three YouTube clips below from this controversial film.



Did you notice the racial-sexual undertones here?  The predominantly black legislature passes a bill to allow for interracial marriage; the white woman being molested by Lynch (who, viewers are told, is a mulatto, making him even more monstrous and unnatural); and in the cabin, the father is ready to kill his own daughter (rather than let the black soldiers outside the door have their way with here).  It's also worth mentioning that the Southern family takes shelter in a cabin occupied by two former Northern soldiers who promise to help them, now united with their former enemies in "common defence of their Aryan birthright."  We're going to come back to a further discussion these themes in the next lecture.

Of course, both the Nast and Griffith portrayals of Reconstruction and Black Americans is utterly false.  Yet it is important to remember that the perception among most Americans remained that Reconstruction was a failure and that perhaps things would have been different had Lincoln not been assassinated.

The image of Lincoln as emancipator began to fade as politicians and historians portrayed him as a pro-Southern Conservative honored on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line.  Lincoln assumed the role of Christ in American Civil Religion, signifying national redemption.  He was promoted as a symbol of America as "one nation."  To portray him as the Great Emancipator at the turn of the century - when America was still trying to overcome the divisions of the Civil War - was too controversial; too divisive.

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