Early biographers, informed by Lincoln’s former Springfield law partner William Herndon, wrote first takes of the president that would be unrecognizable to the heroic image that Americans know today from books like Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals and Daniel Day-Lewis’ Oscar-winning performance.
And the public made Josiah Holland’s Life of Lincoln, which erroneously portrayed the president who was gunned down on Good Friday as “an eminently Christian president,” an instant best seller. Other early depictions portray Lincoln as bumbling and deeply flawed.
With his new dual biography, Lincoln’s Boys: John Hay, John Nicolay, and the War for Lincoln’s Image, Joshua Zeitz explains how the two men who served as Lincoln’s secretaries shaped the perception Americans have of the 16th president.
Being a lifelong U.S. History reader I am very aware of how our heroes are portrayed.
I have read William Herndon’s Lincoln and it is indeed very different from many that came after. It painted Lincoln as a somewhat ordinary man with his own likes and jealousies. I look forward to reading this latest account in Lincoln’s Boys.
I can see similarities between this constant revision of our heroes even in our bibles. It is kind of like the Gospel accounts of Jesus. The first account was Mark and he didn’t mention much about Jesus’ miracles or had any insight into his early life. He just stayed on what he knew or was told to him (whoever Mark was). When the other gospels came out years later they were flooded with miracles and such. The authors seemed to want to make sure that everyone would know that Jesus was the Messiah so they added, factually or not, a myriad of miracles and new quotes.
People tend to remake their idols into what they want to believe about them. I greatly admired the person of George Washington. He was exactly what was needed as our first president. We all know of the story of chopping down the cherry tree which is now widely acknowledged at a total myth. We do this sort of thing to all our heroes. We invent things to highlight their best sides and tend to bury as deeply as possible their darker sides.
Of course we all now know that most if not all our heroes have a darker side, but don’t we all?
Henry Ford, who basically created the middle class in the U.S. was one of the most important men of the 20th century. He was also an avowed anti-Semite and to some degree a racist.
Thomas Jefferson created our most valuable national document. He was a slave owner and frequently bedded his slaves while at the same time declared all men equal.
Mark Twain was considered America’s first great author and humorist. He also became an extreme pessimist in his later years. He could see not good or humor in life. Many of his words from that period were very spiteful, depressing and uncivil.
Everyone has skeletons in their closets, even our heroes. As long as we recognize that fact there is nothing wrong with looking up to and even trying to emulate some of the qualities our personal heroes. But, don’t be totally disappointed with you find a skeleton along the way.