Andrew Ferguson is the writer most esteemed by his colleagues at the Weekly Standard, and it’s easy to see why. He writes with ease and humor while covering offbeat or difficult stories with real depth. These qualities are on display in the more than 150 articles Ferguson has written for the Standard, such as last month’s article on Darwin and conservatism.
Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America is Ferguson’s new book, and it is the first book he has written as a book. His 1996 book — Fools’ Names, Fools’ Places — collected previously published articles. In the new book Ferguson explores a subject close to my heart. John and I wrote about Lincoln for lawyers in “A genius for friendship,” for example, and about Lincoln as a war leader in “Thinking about the Great Liberator.”
Ferguson approaches Lincoln mostly indirectly through his presence in American life. In the second chapter of the book Ferguson summarizes the best modern scholarship regarding “the inner Mr. L.,” as Lincoln’s law partner and biographer Billy Herndon called it. He then sets off “to spend time instead in the places that are dedicated to preserving Lincoln the public man — the outer Mr. L.” He approaches Lincoln from one or two removes with unerring taste, respect and, of course, good humor.
I asked Ferguson if he would offer a message to Power Line readers about what he is up to in the new book. He has graciously responded:
I was a Lincoln buff as a kid, and I always retained a residual interest in him. But over the last several years I sensed that the Lincoln I’d read about when I was younger — the large, iconic Lincoln, the inspirational Lincoln — had started to fade. He’d shrunk, been subdivided almost, cut to fit people’s individual needs and preconceptions. It’s as though this great national possession, this indispensable part of our patrimony, had been privatized. Just in the last few years there were books trying to prove he was gay (written by a gay activist), a manic depressive (written by a recovered manic depressive), a fundamentalist Christian (written by a fundamentalist Christian). There was even a book trying to prove that if Lincoln were alive today his political opinions would be identical to Mario Cuomo’s. Guess who wrote that one.
I thought one new way to try to get at Lincoln, and try to understand what he’s meant to the country, would be through the people who have made him a part of their lives: buffs, scholars, collectors, enthusiasts of all kinds. The book is about them almost as much as it’s about Lincoln. I went to a convention of Lincoln haters in Richmond, Virginia, and to a convention of Lincoln impersonators in Santa Claus, Indiana. I followed a pair of motivational business gurus during their Lincoln Leadership Seminar, where Lincoln was held out as, of all things, a business sage. I spent time with the greatest Lincoln collectors, and got to hold in my own two hands Lincoln’s handwritten copy of the Gettysburg Address.
By the end of it — thanks in part to a concentration camp survivor from Czechoslovakia I discovered when I was almost done with the book — I thought I’d found something close to the original Lincoln that had inspired me as a kid, me and most of the country. He’s still there, still available, still ready to educate and inspire.
Lincoln was America’s indispensable teacher of the moral ground of political freedom at the moment when the country was on the threshold of abandoning what he called its “ancient faith” that all men are created equal. Ferguson’s journey ends “in defense of the icon” at the Lincoln Memorial with the reaffirmation, if not the rediscovery, of the reason why we were inculcated with Lincoln as kids, and why we need to return to him now.
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