C. Building the Memorial: Savior
||Lincoln as a national unifier was the guiding theme for the design of the
Lincoln Memorial, constructed between 1912 and 1921.
Even its Potomac River
site opposite Robert E. Lee's former Virginia home bespoke sectional reunion. The
final design would feature an exterior with a single message, with columns
and festoons embodying the states as a symbol of union.
|The inscription inside
reads: "In this temple as
in the hearts of the people for whom he saved the Union
the memory of Abraham Lincoln is enshrined forever."
Commentators at the time applauded the fact that the Memorial made
no mention of slavery - which only would have rubbed old sores.
Only one speaker of many at the commemoration ceremony referred to Lincoln
as the Great Emancipator. All
others stressed the saving of the Union.
as the Great Emancipator
||How did our historical
interpretation of Lincoln change? As the century
progressed and black Americans fought for civil rights, historians and
politicians reshaped the mythological image of Lincoln. Today in
we are more sensitive to the issues of race than we ever were, and the
symbol of Lincoln
as emancipator gained currency. Today,
we equate Lincoln mostly with the freeing of the slaves rather than the saving of the Union. Ironically we still shroud Lincoln in myth. In fact, he
signed the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863 less out of any
great passion to free the slaves (though he did abhor slavery) and more as
a military tactic to put pressure on the South by possibly instigating a
slave rebellion (or at least the fear of one in the minds of Southern
point in all of this is to show you that history written today is affected
by the events and beliefs of today.
For example, prior to the mid-1950s, historians described slavery
as either a necessary evil of the times or a benevolent institution which
served to civilize black-Africans. At
the foundation of this interpretation was a belief in white superiority.
the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, however, historical
interpretations of slavery largely turned to its brutality and moral
injustice. No serious
historian today would argue that slavery served any beneficial good.
Likewise, historians today argue that Reconstruction was a tragedy
- but for Southern blacks, not whites.
The promise initially held out of equal rights for African
Americans was dashed by racism in both the North and South.
An Interpretation without end
- what is history? It is an
interpretation without end - always subject to reinterpretation based on
new evidence and new ways at looking at the past. That doesn't mean
that history is whatever you make it. There is still a difference
between "good" history and "bad" or
"incorrect" history. Hitler tried to use history to
justify German domination of Europe and the extermination of the Jews, but
his analysis of history was obviously faulty. Good history is
determined by good and solid evidence to support an argument.
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