Lincoln, from a British Perspective

Roundup: Talking About History

Richard Carwardine, a professor of American history at Oxford University, who received the 2004 Lincoln Prize for his 2003 biography, in the WSJ (April 14, 2004):

Abraham Lincoln has long fascinated the British. Indeed, a century ago there was something of a cult of Lincoln. As a tribute, a copy of Augustus Saint-Gaudens's statue of a deeply contemplative Civil War president was erected in 1920 in London's Parliament Square. At almost the same time, a replica of George Barnard's Cincinnati statue was placed in Manchester, England. Known as the "stomach ache statue," since Lincoln's hands unfortunately suggest a man troubled with colic, it commemorates the president's tribute to suffering Lancashire mill-operatives during the wartime cotton famine. When David Lloyd George, by then an ex-prime minister, made a triumphal tour of North America in 1923, he spent what he called the most memorable day of his life visiting the Kentucky birthplace of the man who was his greatest, lifelong hero.

George Bernard Shaw attributed this cult of Lincoln to the influence of one of the best and most durable of all the biographies of the 16th president: Lord Charnwood's "Abraham Lincoln," which appeared in 1916. Oxford-educated and--like Lloyd George--a Liberal in politics, Charnwood helped many of his contemporaries to admire Lincoln's single-minded defense of the Union and, even more important, his showing that democracy could work as a philosophy and a political system. During World War I and its aftermath, when Britons and Americans saw themselves engaged in a kindred defense of progressive government, and in making the world "safe for democracy," they seized on Lincoln as an example of what wise and noble leadership might achieve.

That heyday of popular admiration for Lincoln is forever lost. When antiwar crowds gathered in Parliament Square in March 2003, crews of workmen boxed in Lincoln's statue to protect it from possible attack. "Do these people know nothing of history?" one voice lamented. "Do they know nothing of what people like Lincoln stood for?" In a skeptical age, many call into question Lincoln's role and motivation as the Great Emancipator.
Yet for some Lincoln has remained a political talisman. Margaret Thatcher has seen fit to read and record on CD the Gettysburg Address. In a determined attempt to survive as the leader of his Conservative Party, Iain Duncan Smith (aided by inaccurate and tendentious quotation) last year presented himself as a latter-day Lincolnian. The effort may have helped stay his execution, though it did not prevent his later summary removal. Lincoln the master of prose and humor retains a more potent and broader-based appeal. Entries under his name in the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations continue to outstrip those of other American presidents.

My own interest has been prompted less by current popular British conceptions, or misconceptions, of Lincoln than by membership in a trans-Atlantic community of historians of the U.S. engaged in a common scholarly debate largely blind to their nationality. Indeed, I take particular pleasure in winning the Lincoln Prize because of its implied tribute to the maturity of British scholarship....

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