Reexamining the life, and death, of Lincoln

Lincoln's bicentennial will be marked by documentaries, one of which focuses on his assassination by John Wilkes Booth. Lincoln's bicentennial will be marked by documentaries, one of which focuses on his assassination by John Wilkes Booth.
By Sam Allis
Globe Staff / February 9, 2009
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You can never have too much Abraham Lincoln. Adams, yes, Jefferson, yes, but not Lincoln. He remains the most elusive of presidents. If Jefferson was the Sage of Monticello, Lincoln was the Sphinx of Springfield.

It is no surprise that the bicentennial of his Feb. 12 birth this week brings us fresh offerings on the man. There are new books, joining more than 14,000 already written about him. Steven Spielberg is making a movie about Lincoln. Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner is writing the screenplay for it. PBS has produced a pair of documentaries about him. It goes on.

The first documentary, which airs tonight, is "The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln," a solid "American Experience" piece that expands our knowledge about the infamous event.

On Wednesday comes the more interesting of the two, "Looking for Lincoln," hosted by Henry Louis Gates, the celebrity Harvard professor and one-man multimedia engine. (He has formed his own production company, Inkwell, to produce films about the African-American experience.)

Gates attempts to deconstruct for himself the myth of Lincoln, rail-splitter and great emancipator. He displays his gift as a synthesizer of history, collecting a roster of superb historians along with Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, who emit air.

At issue is the gap between the myth and the man. Gates does a good job presenting to us the whole man - the crafty politician exquisitely aware of his image, the man of his times ambivalent about the roles of blacks in America.

Gates finds a busload of Lincoln impersonators traveling the country giving speeches, much as Elvis imitators do, from the great man. He visits an auction where a Lincoln letter sells for $3 million. What he learns is that most Americans are in no mood to dismantle their unsullied hero.

The Lincoln myth began at his deathbed, when Secretary of War Edwin Stanton famously uttered, "Now he belongs to the ages." (The exact wording is still in question.) But it truly blossomed two days later, when in Easter sermons preachers made parallels between Lincoln and Jesus. Both lived with a sacred purpose, congregations were told, and both were killed on Good Friday.

Today even Lincoln's critics find him to be a man of extraordinary complexity who, while falling short of today's enlightened views on race, wrenched the country forward in game-changing ways.

Nonetheless, Gates faults Lincoln on race: "My urge to judge Lincoln outside of his times is a strong one."

In Washington, the professor visits the Emancipation Memorial - also known as the Freedman's Memorial - that has infuriated many in the black community since it went up in 1876. The statue includes the Great Emancipator standing tall, with a freed slave kneeling below. Today, blacks and whites alike are stunned by it. What, they ask, is the freed slave doing on his knees?

While Gates breaks no new ground, he does a solid job in separating fact from myth. He simply couldn't resist taking his own shot at the challenge, as historians like Richard Hofstadter have done for decades. (Hofstadter's brilliant 1948 essay, in which he says the Emancipation Proclamation had "all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading" is included in "The Best American History Essays on Lincoln," a must-read for Lincoln addicts.)

Lincoln, we learn from Gates, was also involved in his own myth-making. He loved to sit for photographs and paintings. His private secretary John Hay wrote of an "an intellectual arrogance" hidden under the guise of humble simplicity.

Lincoln abhorred slavery on moral grounds, but his sharpest critics charge that Lincoln was a white supremacist who did not consider blacks his equal. This is a shocking word to level against Lincoln but Lerone Bennett, for one, stands by it in "Looking for Lincoln." Bennett, a black writer who has been brutal on the 16th president for years, maintains that Lincoln opposed slavery but was not an abolitionist. He was a colonizer who wanted to send freed slaves to Liberia or Panama.

Bennett argues that Lincoln wrote the Emancipation Proclamation as much as a weapon to wreck the Confederate economy as a moral statement. So what, answer Lincoln's defenders on the program; he also wanted to win the war.

We see the birth of the Lincoln myth tonight in "The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln," which presents a strong narrative of how the murder took place and what happened after it. This is well-trod territory, but a compelling visual narrative draws us into the tension even though we know the ending. Rich reenactments are buttressed by acute on-air comments from noted Lincoln historians. So we hide with John Wilkes Booth in the Virginia pines. We are with him when he is shot and killed by a Union soldier.

Booth's original plan was to kidnap Lincoln, with the help of his coconspirators, and spirit him to Richmond, Va., the Confederate capital, where he would be ransomed to free thousands of Confederate soldiers. An attempt was scheduled for March 17, but nothing came of it.

In the end, Booth killed the president himself and escaped into the night. Before he was tracked down and killed, he was stunned to find in newspapers universal revulsion toward him. He expected to be hailed as a new Brutus who had slain a dictator. Only then did he realize he was a complete failure.

Lincoln, by contrast, is still Lincoln. He has weathered attacks on his character just fine. Some of them are valid and must be digested along with his manifest gifts. We can then see him in his right size - an extraordinary, occasionally disappointing president of flesh and blood, not marble.

Sam Allis can be reached at

Correction: Because of a reporting error, a review of two documentaries about Abraham Lincoln in yesterday's G section incorrectly attributed a written quote by historian Richard Hofstadter. In his essay, Hofstadter described the Emancipation Proclamation as having "all the moral grandeur of a bill of lading.


On: WGBH (Channel 2)

Time: Tonight, 9:30


Time: Wednesday, 9-11 p.m.

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