Uncancelled History: Abraham Lincoln

I have a happy memory of taking my two youngest daughters to hear Andrew Ferguson read from his then new book Land of Lincoln at Magers & Quinn Booksellers in the Uptown neighborhood of Minneapolis back in June 2007. Andy greeted us warmly and we all greatly enjoyed the reading. (To that happy memory I can join the current observation that Magers & Quinn is with us yet. It is a beautiful bookstore that has defied the odds.)

The late actor Hal Holbrook originally became famous impersonating Mark Twain in Mark Twain Tonight. Andy devotes a funny section of Land of Lincoln to Lincoln impersonators. Watching him up close in Minneapolis when he came through town on his book tour, I thought he could make a living as a successor to Hal Holbrook. The thought made me wonder what Mark Twain himself thought of Lincoln.

Looking around online, I found that at Carnegie Hall on February 12, 1901, Twain recalled:

The hearts of this whole nation, North and South, were in the war. We of the South were not ashamed of the part we took. We believed in those days we were fighting for the right – and it was a noble fight, for we were fighting for our sweethearts, our homes, and our lives. Today we no longer regret the result, today we are glad that it came out as it did, but we of the South are not ashamed that we made an endeavor. And you, too, are proud of the record we made.

We are here to honor the noblest and the best man after Washington that this land, or any other land, has yet produced. When the great conflict began the soldiers from the North and South swung into line to the tune of that same old melody, “We are coming. Father Abraham, three hundred thousand strong.” The choicest of the young and brave went forth to fight and shed their blood under the flag and for what they thought was right. They endured hardships equivalent to circumnavigating the globe four or five times in the olden days. They suffered untold hardships and fought battles night and day.

The old wounds are healed, and you of the North and we of the South are brothers yet. We consider it to be an honor to be of the soldiers who fought for the Lost Cause, and now we consider it a high privilege to be here tonight and assist in laying our humble homage at the feet of Abraham Lincoln. And we do not forget that you of the North and we of the South, one-time enemies, can now unite in singing that great hymn, “America.”

In 1907 Twain wrote in support of making the Lincoln Birthplace Farm a national park:

There is a natural human instinct that is gratified by the sight of anything hallowed by association with a great man or with great deeds. So many people make pilgrimages to the town whose streets were once trodden by Shakespeare, and Hartford guarded her Charter Oak for centuries because it had once had a hole in it that helped to save the liberties of a Colony. But in most cases the connection between the great man or the great event and the relic we revere is accidental. Shakespeare might have lived in any other town as well as in Stratford, and Connecticut’s charter might have been hidden in a woodchuck hole as well as in the Charter Oak. But it was no accident that planted Lincoln on a Kentucky farm, half way between the lakes and the Gulf. The association there had substance in it. Lincoln belonged just where he was put. If the Union was to be saved, it had to be a man of such an origin that should save it. No wintry New England Brahmin could have done it, or any torrid cotton planter, regarding the distant Yankee as a species of obnoxious foreigner. It needed a man of the border, where civil war meant the grapple of brother and brother and disunion a raw and gaping wound. It needed one who knew slavery not from books only, but as a living thing, knew the good that was mixed with its evil, and knew the evil not merely as it affected the negroes, but in its hardly less baneful influence upon the poor whites. It needed one who knew how human all the parties to the quarrel were, how much alike they were at bottom, who saw them all reflected in himself, and felt their dissensions like the tearing apart of his own soul. When the war came Georgia sent an army in gray and Massachusetts an army in blue, but Kentucky raised armies for both sides. And this man, sprung from Southern poor whites, born on a Kentucky farm and transplanted to an Illinois village, this man, in whose heart knowledge and charity had left no room for malice, was marked by Providence as the one to “bind up the Nation’s wounds.” His birthplace is worth saving.

One can disagree with this or that point in Twain’s observations. Indeed, one may find this or that point jarring. I think that the spirit is nevertheless mostly right and that Andrew Ferguson shares the right part of the spirit, as one might observe in this most recent episode of Uncancelled History with Douglas Murray. What a pass of ignorance and malice we have come to that a rescue mission is necessary.

Quotable quote: “Discrediting Lincoln is a way of discrediting America.”

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