An excerpt from
in the Post-Heroic Era
History and Memory in Late Twentieth-Century America
Ascension: Lincoln in the Great Depression
“Ascension,” the title of this chapter, is a fair but inexact account of Lincoln in the Depression. His prestige had been rising for twenty years before Wall Street crashed, but if every era sees itself in Abraham Lincoln and reveals itself in what it says about him, the Lincoln of the Depression and World War II was unique. This Lincoln was the last of its kind, taking American history’s heroic genre as far as it would ever go. He must be the benchmark against which imaginations of subsequent Lincolns are gauged.
If Abraham Lincoln had never been born, the Depression would have felt the same to those who lived through it—although its deprivations, for many, would have been felt differently. If the Depression had never happened, however, Lincoln today would be a different man. The mold of the Lincoln we know today was cast during the 1930s; yet Lincoln could never have been portrayed and perceived then as he is now. One must accept this contradiction in order to grasp what Lincoln meant to the people of that time. If we can penetrate Depression culture, the contradiction will resolve itself.
After two decades of Progressive Reform, the1920s seemed ruthless to some, liberating to others. Theodore Roosevelt’s and Woodrow Wilson’s Progressive presidencies had made their mark, but it was time for new presidents—Warren Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Herbert Hoover—to champion new ideals. The business of America, Coolidge meant to say, was not just business in the sense of making money, but business as a model for moral virtue and accomplishment. “No longer was the statesman or the priest or the philosopher the spokesman for American society,” added author Edmund Stillman, “the businessman… became the self-assured seer.” Henry Ford’s strong showing in “most admired American” polls, the serious characterization of Moses by Metropolitan Casualty Insurance Company as “one of the greatest salesmen and real-estate promoters that ever lived,” and Bruce Barton’s 1925–26 bestseller, The Man Nobody Knows, depicting Jesus as “the founder of modern business,” the public relations go-getter who “recognized the basic principle that all good advertising is news,” make Stillman’s point.
Abraham Lincoln, a fusion of potential and achievement, fit this pattern nicely. In 1922, the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated as a monument to America’s greatness and a mark of what Lincoln had contributed to it. The memorial was also a sign of what he would become. Nathaniel W. Stephenson’s Lincoln and the Progress of Nationality in the North, the first biography to emphasize the Civil War’s effect on Lincoln’s personality, portrays the sixteenth president as nationalistic and authoritarian to the core. “Lincoln was not a friend of the plebiscite or of the referendum.” He ignored public clamor over his unpopular arrests. Abraham Lincoln “refused to be the mere spokesman of the people.” At the turn of the century, Ida Tarbell had portrayed Lincoln as the ultimate common man; two decades later she wanted everyone to know how uncommon he really was. Her article on “Abraham Lincoln’s Money Sense” proved that he was worth $110,000 when he died—almost a millionaire by 1923 standards. His pedigree was as distinguished as his wealth. Although George Washington’s refined background was often compared to Lincoln’s commonness, “recent historical research,” according to Massachusetts representative Frederick Dallinger, “has proved that the English progenitors of Lincoln were fully as high in the social scale as those of Washington.”
Carl Sandburg, on the other hand, wrote against the grain of the time, foreshadowing the Lincoln of the 1930s. He was intent on making him an earth god rather than a sky god. His two-volume The Prairie Years, completed in 1926, celebrated a man who could not be denied his smallness. Sandburg’s Lincoln interacted with the frontier, grew up among people like himself, some better, some worse, all trying to improve themselves. Lincoln also possessed the mind and virtues of the self-starting businessman, but that did not distinguish him. Living in a society of challenges, men on the move, and hardship, Lincoln’s vulnerabilities appealed to the struggling people of the Depression.
The 1930s were at once progressive and tradition-minded, preoccupied with immediate problems and attuned to the past. Federal programs fed the public mood. The Civilian Conservation Corps, whose projects included the reconstruction of historical places; the Works Progress Administration, which compiled local lore and produced state guidebooks; the National Park Service, which administered a wide array of historic sites—these projects democratized tradition by commemorating the lives and concerns of ordinary people.”
America’s democratic tradition joined the mystique of the land to the memory of the Civil War. By 1920 only half of Americans still lived on rural lands; only a quarter still engaged in agriculture. As urban populations grew, the symbolism of farm life became more prominent. Thoughts of young Lincoln splitting logs on the frontier piqued nostalgia for a lost and seemingly better way of life, a self-reliant life free of futile job hunting and breadlines. Frontier and Civil War nostalgia were interconnected. Because more than half the 1930 population had been born during the nineteenth century, Civil War survivors constituted unique carriers of memory, and they were accorded special significance, no matter what their experience or rank. Lincoln Day issues of Northern newspapers carried stories of these living relics: here, a photograph of two men who had cast their first votes for Lincoln; there, a veteran recalling the Lincoln-Douglas debates at Quincy, Illinois; elsewhere, a gentleman who had witnessed Lincoln speaking against Douglas in Chicago, another who knew Lincoln when he practiced law in Springfield; another who met Lincoln at a White House reception; and yet another whose father had fought with Lincoln during the Blackhawk War. Lincoln remained a living memory.
Alfred Kazin included “the passionate addiction to Lincoln” among “the most moving aspects” of the 1930s. For Bernard de Voto, Lincoln was still the nation’s savior: at a time when “American democracy has reached a crisis, the American people have invoked the man who… in an earlier crisis, best embodied the strength of our democracy.” “Crisis,” an abstract concept, cannot itself capture Depression realities. Between 1929 and 1932, the year Franklin D. Roosevelt gained the presidency, manufacturing output fell 54 percent; the automobile industry operated at 20 percent of its 1929 capacity; steel plants, at 12 percent capacity. Railroads lost half their freight shipments. As the total volume of American business and wage rates fell 50 percent, national income declined from 85 to 37 billion dollars. More than 5,000 banks closed. A half million families lost their homes. Construction ceased. Many cities and counties could not pay their employees. Unemployment quadrupled. In Cleveland, 50 percent of the workforce was unemployed; in Toledo, 80 percent. In 1931, the Soviet Union advertised in the United States for 6,000 skilled workers and received 100,000 applications. Roosevelt was serious in 1933 when he told reporters “I shall be either America’s greatest President or its last.”
The Depression crisis meant failure, dislocation, self-contempt, grief. Great disturbances befalling a culturally stable nation, however, can sometimes rouse patriotism and solidarity. The problem that nationalism seeks to resolve is not how to avoid distress but how to make it comprehensible and bearable, to enable the hurt and defeated to relate their personal loss to the pain of the country. The Depression stirred an “upsurge of national awareness,” as Harvey Swados called it, a recognition that America was one country; its problems, national problems. That solutions would have to be national was a new idea that stirred the people. “The country is alive again,” Louis Adamic said, “painfully so, but alive.” Government projects contributed to this rebirth by fusing populism and patriotism, stimulating interest in national achievements and inducing intellectuals, including men of the left, like John Dos Passos, to celebrate The Ground We Stand On. Our “sense of continuity with generations gone before,” he wrote, “can stretch like a lifeline across the scary present.” The Progressive Era, from which Lincoln emerged as a national idol, provided the basis for New Deal reforms by introducing a progressive income tax, workplace regulations, and measures to prevent monopolies and preserve competition. The New Deal, however, was revolutionary in its provision of direct support—food, housing, jobs, old age financial security—to individual citizens. Declaring their countrymen to be entitled to help, New Deal elites conferred upon them a dignity they had never before possessed. Inequalities in wealth, refinement, and achievement remained, but now within an environment of diminished distance between the state and the masses, an environment in which the privileged felt themselves less entitled to deference, indeed rarely demanded it. The least of men, in turn, were freer to express their resentment toward their leaders and their respect for themselves. Although never fully realized, this egalitarian trend made America hospitable to revised memories of Abraham Lincoln.
New Deal egalitarian culture reflected the way intellectuals conceived the nation’s problems, but some intellectual currents bore more force than others. Carl Becker was among the first in a field of historians to appreciate the relativity of historical perception. James G. Randall, reflecting his generation’s disillusionment with World War I and reacting against the “national” tradition of Civil War history, professionalized Lincoln scholarship and led a Revisionist school to counter the Civil War’s romantic legacy. The impact of these new perspectives, however, was accompanied by the emergence of broader, neo-Marxian concepts which influenced the content of high school and university history textbooks. When a California professor of American government asked a class in 1936 to appraise his assignments, one student replied: “Why do you not stress more the economic interpretation of history and politics? After all, you certainly know that entrenched wealth has always ruled this country.…” The professor noted that many students were asking this question. Meanwhile, social scientists, already under the influence of economics and sociology, were attributing human actions to impersonal, structural causes. Lincoln’s confession—“I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me”—resonated perfectly with this worldview. Ensconced in American soil, social determinism infused young people with optimism rather than resignation. By knowing the iron laws of history, they could manage them. Henry Farnham May, student of American intellectual history, exemplified their ebullient vision of the future as he recalled his undergraduate days at the University of California, Berkeley, noting that “cynicism was regarded as old-fashioned, associated with the bygone and self-indulgent twenties. Hope and even—without its old religious supports—morality were part of being truly modern.”
The hopes and moral consciousness of the 1930s caused blacks and whites, men and women, natives and immigrants to draw different but comparable conclusions from what they learned about Abraham Lincoln. Mainline media—magazines, newspapers, films, and drama—presented Lincoln as a means for seeing the world’s disappointments, for making its sufferings not so much explicable as meaningful, an aspect of a larger scheme of which one’s personal experience was a part. Abraham Lincoln, more urgently than ever before, was “good for thinking,” a guide for living in a troubled world.
Society of Deference
During the 1930s, as during every preceding decade, hierarchy and deference marked the American experience. Societies of deference, in the eighteen-century sense, are “usually conceived of as consisting of an elite and a nonelite, in which the nonelite regard the elite, without too much resentment, as being of superior status and culture to their own, and consider elite leadership in political matters something normal and natural.” In England, America, and other societies where power was decentralized, however, recipients of deference maintained their positions not by reducing subordinates to servile roles but by acknowledging their independence and self respect. In such societies, deference was the response of self-reliant men and women to effective and respectful leadership.
The best way to distinguish between deference in traditional and modern societies is to conceive a continuum. In traditional societies, hierarchy is rigid; administration of power is legitimated by custom, behavior is prescribed by status, which is maintained through ritual etiquette and symbolism. In egalitarian societies, hierarchical distinctions are loosely defined, power is legitimated in terms of legal criteria, and deference is attenuated—in some situations almost absent. The Depression generation was located somewhere between these poles: inequalities were economic but not social; power was legitimated by law superimposed upon tradition. The distance between elites and the mass was greatly reduced from what it had been in the late nineteenth century, but not fully bridged. Up to and including World War II, social distance was tutelary and motivating. The great men of the past would remain sources of moral character and guidance only while that distance was preserved.
“What Would Lincoln Do?”
If the rich and poor, powerful and weak, enlightened and ignorant are moved by forces beyond their control, their inequality loses moral significance; success and failure become matters inviting explanation rather than judgment. The hero then becomes the man of compassion rather than the rugged individualist; the protector rather than exploiter of the weak. Given this new conception of man and society, further elevation of Abraham Lincoln seemed inevitable. “A deeper appreciation than mere hero worship was bound to come,” Robert Sherwood believed, “when the American people, under the stress of contemporary events, came to a fuller understanding of the ideals for which [Lincoln] fought and died.”
Understanding Lincoln required appreciation of a new culture of equality. The political left, preoccupied as always with class struggle and its victims, grew in prominence. Depression media contemporized Lincoln by its stories about his affinity with Franklin Roosevelt, his constituencies, and their values. “How much of Lincoln does Roosevelt have in him?” asked Max Lerner. The answer: plenty. President Roosevelt’s own speechwriter, Robert Sherwood, won a Pulitzer Prize for his drama Abe Lincoln in Illinois. “Before the end of Franklin Roosevelt’s second term,” Alfred Haworth Jones recalls, “the image of Abraham Lincoln had emerged as the fulfillment of the search for a usable American past.” To assert that Abraham Lincoln somehow “reflected” or “embodied” the Depression generation’s consciousness is to express too ambiguous a correspondence between the present condition of a nation and its citizens’ perception of the past. Many have made this assertion but never demonstrated precisely how historians, artists, and writers go about the work of making the present historically meaningful. Grasping the perspectives of a generation different from our own, however, is difficult. Without surveys or interviews, we must rely on indirect evidence of how ordinary Americans felt and what they believed.
Titles in major libraries, indicating what Americans read, are one source of evidence. The New York Public Library added 68 new Lincoln books from 1910 to 1919; 84 during the 1920s; and 82 during the 1930s. The Illinois Historical Collection, which includes publications of three pages or more, added 530 new titles from 1910 to 1919; 725 during the 1920s; and 539 during the 1930s.
Citation counts in popular media furnish further evidence of growing interest in Lincoln. The New York Times reflected its readers’ tastes through the 82 articles it printed in the 1890s, the first full decade prior to the 1909 centennial preparatory activities. During the 1920s and 1930s, the Times published 470 and 580 articles respectively. Like other city newspapers, the Times included special Lincoln Day sections and well-illustrated Sunday magazine articles on Lincoln. The Reader’s Guide to Periodic Literature listed 90 articles between 1890 and 1899. From 1922 to 1928, a seven-year period, 141 articles appeared; during the seven and a half years between 1929 and June 1935, there were 135 articles—and this latter figure reflects publishing company failures and downsizing. No one except George Washington, however, even approached this lower volume. The Congressional Record’s Lincoln entries numbered 47 during the nineteenth-century’s last decade, then increased from 125 to 173 during the 1920s and 1930s. Because every member of the House and Senate had been born in the nineteenth century, they were disposed toward the heroes with whom they had grown up, and their panegyric for Lincoln was dramatic and prolonged. These articles and entries concentrated around the February 12 observance of Lincoln’s birth, and they were read in the context of celebration.
“Formative” and “normative” elements comprised the stories that newspapers, magazines, and commemorative symbols communicated about Abraham Lincoln’s life. The formative aspect of the stories, as German historian Jan Assman would tell us, consists of their narrative structure; the normative aspect, moral models that connect readers to the history of the nation. To designate Lincoln the greatest American, however, meant something different during the 1930s from what it means today. Ordinary people then believed in greatness and could imagine a Lincoln or Washington in their own time (fig. 1.1). The immediately striking feature of the cartoon in figure 1.1 is the size of the great men and the almost ant-like smallness of their admirers. Among these men, only three, Lincoln, Washington, and Grant, are identified. Behind each statue is a curved enclosure, a niche, corresponding to the figure’s permanent place in history. The ceiling is high and curved, suggestive of a classic pantheon. The cartoon’s focus is on the empty pedestal, expressly reserved for the great man, not yet apparent, who will seize the day and end the nation’s strife. In front of this pedestal, ordinary men assemble for a close-up view. Because the hero remains unknown, their hats remain in place, but their very presence at the hall of fame suggests a future when present troubles will be solved and the man responsible for the solution, canonized. The people of the 1930s saw the great man not as a name invoked in speeches, but as a tool for living, an exemplar of what it takes to solve great problems and overcome great obstacles.
Figure 1.1. “Awaiting The Man,” February 12, 1932, Chicago Tribune.
Of early twentieth-century leaders using Lincoln to solve problems there is no shortage of examples. When Franklin Roosevelt sought to pack the Supreme Court and neutralize its interference with his legislation, Democratic supporters, in all seriousness, recalled Lincoln’s reference to the dangers of judicial oligarchy. However, historical narratives were not always constructed with a view to expanding power; they were also sources of inspiration, moral frames for facing trouble. This is why Lincoln’s reference to judicial oligarchy made sense to Roosevelt’s supporters in the first place. Indeed, if any leader faced difficulties without reference to the past, he would be viewed as a rare individual, one who engaged his task alone and without experience or hindsight.
Crisis, as Charles Horton Cooley observed in 1901, “by its very difficulty, is likely to call up the thought of some person we have been used to look to as a guide, and the confronting of the two ideas, that of the person and that of the problem, compels us to answer the question, What would he have thought of it.” In an article on “Our Appalling Crisis—What Would Lincoln Do?” George Viereck (1932), an anti-Hoover Democrat, writes of falling asleep and dreaming of meeting Abraham Lincoln. He questions Lincoln on matters ranging from unemployment to Prohibition and communism, and he receives answers in Lincoln’s own words. “Every word attributed to Abraham Lincoln in this interview,” Viereck assures his readers, “is taken verbatim from his letters or speeches, and in the main these extracts are answers to questions or pertain to subjects analogous to those with which they are associated in this interview.”
Viereck looked to the past because he needed guidance not to be found in the present, and his questioning, even if partisan, was serious. W. Y. L. Davis, a Los Angeles Times commentator, explains further:
When partisans would support President Hoover for cutting red tape to feed the hungry, Lincoln is cited as the most illustrious example. When any governor or President justifies himself for exercise of the pardoning power, he falls back on the great-hearted Lincoln.… “He being dead yet speaketh.” He is yet active in the councils of the nation. He is the great contemporary!
The Chicago Tribune underscored Davis’s statement by producing a front-page image of Lincoln in contemporary dress. Beardless, with hair close-cropped and dressed in a modern business suit (fig. 1.2), Lincoln looks natural. He quits history and enters the viewer’s world, a world where he belongs and where admirers readily identify with him. He becomes literally “the great contemporary.”
Figure 1.2. “As He Would Have Looked in Modern Garb,” February 12, 1930, Chicago Tribune.
“What would Lincoln do?” is an important question because it refers not to a concrete decision or policy but to a guiding pattern defining (1) goals and purposes, (2) standards of intellectual and moral judgment, (3) values and priorities, (4) strategies of action, and (5) personal dispositions, including honesty, perseverance, resilience. The question “What would Lincoln do?” is, thus, an eminently historical question. Asking “What would Lincoln do?” becomes ahistorical only if posed as a question about specific issues and means. This is what Ida Tarbell, one of Lincoln’s most popular biographers, meant when she said: “No one can say what Lincoln would have done about unemployment, relief, war debt, prohibition, Manchuria, inflation.” The guiding pattern is what matters. Lincoln’s contribution to the solution of a problem depends upon the way Lincoln’s emulator “handles his mind and his temper in his attack.” No parallel can be drawn between the situation in 1861 and that of 1933, but the fundamental aims Lincoln sought were the same as ours, noted a New York Times commentator. “It is the Lincolnian attitude and method that are most pertinent now.”
The Depression era’s conception of greatness differed from that which most twenty-first- century Americans would understand. With an image of Abraham Lincoln on its cover, the subtitle of Alan Wolfe’s Return to Greatness (2005) tells the reader that America can recover its grandeur by articulating a meaningful sense of purpose, transforming it into a reality, then protecting it from adversaries. Seventy years earlier, Americans thought differently: they could not afford the luxury of equating greatness with abstract notions of national purpose. They thought of greatness selfishly. They revered Lincoln because he satisfied in his time a need for order they felt in theirs. They revered him not for his preserving and modifying social order as such, but because he had done so in a way that resonated with their own worries and restored their own dignity. Greatness referred to the power of individuals to transform problems into opportunities (again, see fig. 1.1) and to exploit those opportunities for the social good.