Harold Holzer: Five Myths About Abraham Lincoln





[Harold Holzer, the senior vice president for external relations at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, was co-chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission and is author of "Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter, 1860-1861."]

No American hero, with the possible exception of George "I Cannot Tell a Lie" Washington, has been more encrusted with myth than Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln did boast virtues that required little embellishment. He rose from obscurity through hard work, self-education and honesty. He endured venomous criticism to save the Union and end slavery. He died shortly after his greatest triumph at the hands of an assassin. But tall-tale-tellers have never hesitated to rewrite Lincoln's biography. On Presidents' Day, it's well worth dispelling some perennial misconceptions about the man on the $5 bill.

1. Lincoln was a simple country lawyer.

This durable legend, personified by laconic Henry Fonda in John Ford's film "Young Mr. Lincoln," dies hard. Lincoln's law partner William H. Herndon, looking to boost his own reputation, introduced the canard that Lincoln cared little about his legal practice, did scant research, joked around with juries and judges, and sometimes failed to collect fees. Lincoln himself may have compromised his legal reputation with his oft-quoted admonition "Discourage litigation."

True, politics became lawyer Lincoln's chief ambition. Still, in the 1850s he ably (and profitably) represented the Illinois Central Railroad and the Rock Island Bridge Co. - the company that built the first railroad bridge over the Mississippi River - and earned a solid reputation as one of his home state's top appeals lawyers.

Lincoln's legal papers testify to a diverse and profitable practice. Had he not been "aroused," as he put it, to speak out in 1854 against the pro-slavery Kansas-Nebraska Act before seeking a Senate seat, he likely would have remained a full-time lawyer and earned fame and fortune at the bar....



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