Monday, January 07, 2008

"If Abe don't fool away all his time on his books, he may make something yet."

Some days, you write a long, organized post that builds towards a point; other days you just hop in your boat and troll your trot line to see what’s turned up. Today what’s turned up is a bit of Honest Abe Lincoln, with a late appearance by Barack Obama.

1 A reminder last week, from the great new history blog the Edge of the American West, of the anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation put me in the mood to read about Abraham Lincoln, so as I headed off on my travels I packed Douglas L. Wilson’s account of Lincoln’s early years, Honor’s Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln (1998).

In chronicling the transformation of Abraham Lincoln from a sharp-witted but uncultured and uneducated rube in 1831 to a young congressman and frontier leader in 1842, Wilson must rely on the testimony of Lincoln’s friends and neighbors of that period—testimony that, because it was collected during and after Lincoln’s presidency, is notoriously unreliable, suffering as it does not only from the natural defects of decades-old memory but also from elisions caused by a Victorian delicacy bordering on hagiography. Wilson therefore makes the smart decision to open the book with a chapter demonstrating the process by which he has sifted overlapping or conflicting accounts; it serves both as a marker of the rigor of his method and as a reminder of the basic fallibility of memory.

The incident Wilson chooses for his demonstration is a well-known wrestling match between the young Lincoln, newly arrived in the frontier town of New Salem, and local tough Jack Armstrong. To Lincoln’s nineteenth-century biographers, the incident—in which, to the best that Wilson can determine, Lincoln, who abided by the strict (and boring) rules of scientific wrestling, is thrown by his opponent’s use of an illegal move, which Lincoln takes in good spirits while still demonstrating his willingness to fight for his honor if necessary—was the turning point in Lincoln's life. From our perspective, that seems a stretch, but regardless it seems indisputable that Lincoln emerged from the match in a stronger position—no longer a stranger, but one of the guys, worthy of respect and forbearance.

This is all by way of leading up to the fun of a firsthand account of the bout from Jack Armstrong’s brother-in-law Henry McHenry, as reported later to Lincoln's law partner and eventual biographer William H. Herndon:
I was present at the wrestle of Lincoln & Armstrong--: We tried to get Lincoln to tussel & scuffle with Armstrong. L refused—saying—I never tussled & scuffled & will not—don’t like this wooling--& pulling--. Jack Armstrong was a powerful twister. At last we got them to wrestle: they took side holts.
I just love the phrasing there: wooling and pulling, tussled and scuffled, powerful twister. That's some good backwoods dialect.

2 Given that I've always taken joy in the proper name of the Christian Scientists—the First Church of Christ, Scientist—do you think I would get anywhere trying to start a church along the lines of the First Church of Lincoln, Scientific Wrestler?

3 Having written about the late George MacDonald Fraser yesterday, I can't help but note that he does a good job of depicting a fictional Lincoln (rendering him far more alive and believable than Gore Vidal does, for example). Flashman encounters Lincoln twice, first as a young Congressman in 1849 and later during the Civil War. His first meeting with Lincoln, in Flash for Freedom (1971) prompts Flashman to deliver the following description:
He was an unusually tall man, with the ugliest face you ever saw, deep dark eye sockets and a chin like a coffin, and ab lack cow's lick of hair smeared across his forehead. When he spoke it was with the slow, deliberate drawl of the American back-countryman.
Flash goes on to say,
I liked Abe Lincoln from the moment I first noticed him, leaning back in his chair with that hidden smile at the back of his eyes, gently cracking his knuckles. Just why I liked him I can't say; I suppose in his way he had the makings of as big a scoundrel as I am myself, but his appetites were different, and his talents infinitely greater. I can't think of him as good man, yet as history measures these things I suppose he did great good. Not that that excites my admiration unduly, nor do I put my liking down to the fact that he had a sardonic humour akin to my own. I think I liked him because, for some reason which God alone knows, he liked me. And not many men who knew me as well as he did, have done that.
Fraser presents Lincoln as sharply perceptive--a trait he shares in Fraser's account with Disraeli (whom Flashman, in his infinite genius for offensiveness, insists on calling "D'Israeli"). Lincoln is the only one in America who instantly sees through Flashman's lies, yet his appreciation of a scoundrel and good story causes him to let Flashman slide a bit, which allows Flashman to sneak away, only to encounter Lincoln once again months later when being chased by a backwoods Kentucky slave-hunter. Fraser presents Lincoln--angered as much by the slave hunter's Kentucky-style bullying as his horrible occupation--stopping the man cold with a strongly legalistic argument; for a Lincoln fan, it's a fully convincing scene.

4 All of which leads me, a few days after the stunning results of the Iowa Caucuses, to Barack Obama. Though Obama has been relatively subtle in his invocations of Abraham Lincoln, at the same time he hasn't exactly shied away from comparisons. (He has, however, sensibly, avoided mentioning such failed Illinois presidential aspirants as Adlai Stevenson and Paul Simon.) And while Lincoln's views on race were complicated--and discussing them is still a good way to find yourself in an argument--it's hard to imagine that Lincoln wouldn't take some joy in the fact that, 145 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, a black man has a very real chance to assume the office he once held.

Lincoln of course wouldn't be the only one; as Brad DeLong puts it:
This is also a day which makes Thaddeus Stevens and Frederick Douglass kiss the sky and shout hosannas—a day for which they worked but did not believe would ever come. A day when the corn-fed white voters of a state—or at least the Democratic Party's enthusiastic faithful of a state—choose a Black man, Barack Obama, as the one whom they think is most qualified to be President of the United States of America.

This is a sign that our longest and deepest national nightmare may finally be coming to an end.
To be honest, I think DeLong's being a bit too sanguine about our progress as a nation. He's not yet reckoning with the campaign we're sure to see should Obama secure the nomination, a campaign whose breathtaking racism is liable to make the Willie Horton ads look as decorous and proper as, well, scientific wrestling. But it's a start—and if there's a candidate who can deftly show the sickness of those brutal appeals while rising above them, it's Obama.

5 Having worked for years in Hyde Park, the neighborhood that Obama represented in the Illinois legislature, I knew he was impressive. But what fully won me to his bandwagon was hearing my parents tell about a town meeting he held in Carmi, their tiny southern Illinois town, as a sitting senator.

That part of the state is culturally Republican; it was one of the few counties in Illinois to plump for the reliably bat-shit insane Alan Keyes in 2004. Yet for more than an hour, Obama spoke and took questions from a crowd consisting largely of farmers and miners, actually answering questions rather than rattling off prepared positions—and, according to my parents—frequently telling the audience not what he thought they wanted to hear, but what he thought was right.

It wasn't clear that Obama won a lot of new votes that night, but he did seem to win a lot of respect. He didn't stay overnight in Carmi like Lincoln did in the 1840s; whether he left as indelible an impression remains to be seen.

6 Finally, to bring this full circle: since last summer I created, with rocketlass's help, a LOL Lincoln, here, just in time for New Hampshire, is a LOL Obama:

{Photo and LOL Obama by rocketlass.}

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