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The Image of Lincoln as an Instrument throughout History

By Lauren Hochman, with comment by Taara Ness-Cochinwala

[1] Melvyn Stokes' "Griffith's View of History" discusses the role of the Lincoln image in history as well as its context in D. W. Griffith's film play Birth of a Nation. Stokes explores the historical roots of the Lincoln image and traces its lineage through particular writers who have contributed to the molding and crafting of the vision we recall, even today, when the name Lincoln comes to mind. Surprisingly, Stokes proves that our present-day opinions of Lincoln are not consistent with the nation's thoughts of him immediately after his assassination. Our country's love of Lincoln has grown from seeds planted by writers in biography sections of magazines and sprouted through our personal encounters via film. Our historical love and accreditation of Lincoln, however, has been used to manipulate audiences. This method is employed by Griffith to establish historical grounds in his film Birth of a Nation. In this essay, I intend to discuss the historical image of Lincoln created by numerous authors, its application and importance in D.W Griffith's film, and why the public was willing to accept this image.

[2] The historical image of Lincoln is a manufactured product of journalists created to inspire positive political morale. Stokes' article explores the evolution of Lincoln's now popularized image today. Before we thought of Lincoln as a kind, gentle-hearted man, we did not think much of him at all: "He did not become the unassailable Abraham Lincoln of the schoolbooks until two decades after his murder" (186). The first spark of interest in the image of Lincoln resulted from John Nicolay and John Hays' series of biographies on Lincoln. Nicolay, Lincoln's former secretary, provided an interesting perspective on the life and reputation of Lincoln: "Not only was the Nicolay and Hay study of monumental size, but it encapsulated a particular view of Lincoln as an ideal hero and semi-mythical character" (186). These biographies -- published throughout the 1880's/ 1890's in a series of ten volumes -- revived and glorified Lincoln. The timing of these biographies was crucial to the success and following they hoped to gather. This time period, known as the Gilded age of politics, is characterized by bad politics, confusion, and corruption. Lincoln's positive image was easy to create and gain a following because people were desperate for positive political associations in a time in which corruption and scandal were prevalent. Also, this image of Lincoln was easily relatable to both the North and South. The biographies portrayed Lincoln as everyone's ally; he was on the side of the North yet willing to be friendly to the South during the time of his presidency. Despite the decades separating the Civil War and the release of the biographies, the wounds were still fresh to some.

[3] The next attempt to mold the Lincoln image, by William Henry Herndon, proved unsuccessful. In 1889, Herndon released a series of biographies on Lincoln entitled "Life of Lincoln" (187). Herndon took a harsher look at Lincoln's politics, time spent in office, and personal life. He "projected a realistic image of a man who was plain, frank, and at times crude," rather than a warm hero (187). In the overshadowing presence of the massive Hay and Nicolay study, "Herndon's debunking of the now-expanding Lincoln myth did not attract many readers" (187). The previous biographies had spread so rapidly that people were unwilling to accept Herndon's new, less grandiose vision of Lincoln. In terms of the historic period occurring, it is understandable that the public was unwilling to accept yet another negative political association at a time when they were surrounded by political corruption. An already positive image of Lincoln existed in people's minds and therefore made them unwilling to change their views. Also, the willingness to cling to this view may stem from invigorated hope that the political sphere would once again return to its old self, rooted in pure American ideals rather than corruption and wealth. Herndon's slightly negative portrayal of Lincoln never gained a following simply because of bad timing: people were more likely to cling to the positive portrayal of Lincoln because of the current political sphere.

[4] Lincoln's warm image created by Hay and Nicolay morphed into a superman image when Ida Tarbell took a turn at the spinner. Around the turn of the 2oth century, literary magazines and other forms of media were becoming more and more popular and accessible to the public. "Monthlies" became cheap and easy ways to spread information and political ideology to large groups of people. Popular magazines of the time were The Century, Harper's Monthly, Atlantic Monthly, Scribner's, and McClure's, to name a few (187). Among the most popular sections was the Biography section. Tarbell, popular because of her previous biography of Napoleon in McClure's, was easily able to further the mythical image of Lincoln to her large following when she published a series of biographies, also in McClure's magazine. In her biography, "Tarbell presented him as a great man not so much despite his background but because of it. . . . Tarbell created a folk myth of Lincoln as the conscious descendant of generations of pioneers" (187).Tarbell portrayed him as a Westerner and a typical man rather than solely as a politician. Tarbell's image of Lincoln went beyond the typical and made him relatable to every American on the fundamental basis of pride in one's country. Through seeking this common ground, Lincoln was relatable to all and a friend to everyone. His portrayed love of his country translated to love of every citizen -- North or South. Tarbell gave Lincoln, and in turn politics, a softer image. Between magazines and a newer media form, film, distribution of this manufactured image was made easy. Movies followed the form of earlier magazines and biographies, similarly depicting a kind-hearted Lincoln. These synonymous images of past representations were now available and distributed to audiences of all classes. Film helped further the Lincoln image created by Hay and Nicolay and later enhanced by Tarbell. Griffith's film Birth of a Nation employed this image of Lincoln and further shaped and spread it to audiences.

[5] Griffith combines the "conventional view of a humane and merciful Lincoln" with a "strangely androgynous" portrayal (188). Griffith depicts Lincoln as the kind westerner Tarbell made him known as but also as a character appealing to both sexes: "He combines masculine and feminine qualities. He is a bearded man, but is sensitive to his own feelings and those of others. He is ready to make war on the South, but he cries after signing the proclamation calling for volunteers" (188). Griffith furthers the image of a kind-hearted politician, associating politics as a whole with warm feelings and a strong American spirit. Birth of a Nation also goes further and "depicts Lincoln as a Moses figure: he will never reach the promised land of the ‘coming nation' he has done so much to create" (189). This depiction links Lincoln to the Bible and roots him not only in history but also as a positive biblical figure. This link adds further appeal and draws a greater audience. Griffith uses this molded view of Lincoln in his film to entice viewers.

[6] Including the publicly favored Lincoln figure in Birth of a Nation secured the film as a hit. Public knowledge of Lincoln's favored depiction throughout the first half of the film drew an audience and enticed viewers. However, inclusion of Lincoln and his assassination served a greater purpose in the scheme of Griffith's film. Inclusion of "Lincoln's assassination at Ford's theatre . . . ties the film's fictional story line effectively to a major historical event" (189). The reputation of Griffith's film revolved solely around its historical accuracy. After its release, Griffith argued vigorously that the film was historically accurate, while many critics argued in opposition. "If Birth of a Nation could be established as ‘history' through the re-creation of historical incidents in the first part, the credibility of the second part, largely based on Dixon's extravagant fiction, would be greatly enhanced" (177). Inclusion of the popularized Lincoln image and an accurate simulation of his assassination created historical grounds on which the audience could base the film as a whole. Lincoln's image, presented early on in the first half of the film, established this relationship of truth between the audience and the film at an early point, crucial for belief in the latter events of the film. Stokes writes, "what Griffith was doing was in essence displacing the notion of Lincoln as a unifying national figure" (190). Griffith uses Lincoln's image because recent exposure and media popularized him as an easily relatable character, with a good reputation. Griffith desired these positive qualities to be associated with his film; therefore, by associating the image and the film together this relationship could be established. (see comment by Taara Ness-Cochinwala)

[7] The image of Lincoln was created mainly because of media representations rather than public associations, yet people were willing to accept the mastered product. Stokes makes note that "many native-born Americans saw the character of Lincoln (as constructed by Ida Tarbell) as a reaffirmation of the values of an older America at a time when those values seemed very much under attack" (188). The Lincoln image portrayed in the film brought to mind the Uncle Abe association of Lincoln that links politicians and citizens who truly care about our country. As portrayed in the film, Lincoln signs the petition for soldiers with a hard fist because he knows that war is what is best for the country at the time. However, he cries after doing so at the thought of sending soldiers into battle. Lincoln places a high value on both the country and its citizens. Griffith's portrayal of this in his film brings a feeling of comfort to the audience and with that, a reminder of the American ideals upon which our country was founded.

[8] Further, Griffith's film also portrayed the popular notion that Lincoln was a friend to the South. Stokes writes, "Griffith (like Dixon) admired Lincoln for his magnanimity and believed that if he had not been murdered, Reconstruction generally (and the radical Reconstruction after 1867 in particular) would not have happened" (189). The South genuinely believed that if Lincoln had been in charge of the Reconstruction process succeeding the Civil War, he would have laid a gentle hand on them. They believed the radical Reconstruction and the blunt integration/forced acceptance of the ex- slaves would not have occurred, or occurred on a lesser scale. The South saw Lincoln as their ally and a man who would help them through the process of reconstruction rather than force them to adapt and accept the changes. However, the South's viewpoint is slightly skewed. Stokes reminds the reader that "while Lincoln did indeed hope to treat the South with considerable leniency, he never had the time to develop a truly coherent policy" (189). Lincoln was not alive long enough to articulate his plan to deal with the South. Through the existence of his 10% plan, which made it considerably easy for the South to re-enter the Nation, we can assume he wanted nothing more than a peaceful, easy, and friendly re-integration and re-formation of the nation. However, the events in history as they fell leave this hypothesis with too many undefined variables.

[9] The historical image of Lincoln created by numerous authors held large significance in Griffith's film play Birth of a Nation. Through the previous molding of the Lincoln image by several such biographical magazine authors as John Hay, John Nicolay, and Ida Tarbell, the public embraced a warm super-hero Lincoln. Griffith took this image and further sculpted it for use in his film. Inclusion of this Lincoln in the film added an historical basis to the later portrayed views of Griffith. Intertwining these concepts enticed a greater audience and created wider acceptance of the film, allowing Griffith to spread his views across the nation. Public acceptance of the icon stemmed from the current political sphere weighted down by corruption and scandal. This Lincoln representation inspires heartfelt feelings and awe in many Americans. Griffith utilizes the Lincoln image with knowledge of the feelings it creates, in hopes that these feelings can be translated to his film.


Taara Ness-Cochinwala 2/28/11

I understand Hochman's argument about Lincoln's role in the film; however I think its success is overestimated. While much of the audience believed the film to be historically accurate, I think this occurred because this was a form of mass media that was becoming increasingly popular at the time. It was the most complex and lengthy film created up to this point. I think the excitement and impressiveness of the film in a creative sense was what audiences appreciated, enjoyed, and which created an aura of awe and truth surrounding the movie. Still today there are numerous people who watch shows on television and take them as truthful -- for example the Sally Hemings series, simply because that is all they have been exposed to about the subject. Personally, I thought that Lincoln's character was in no way the most memorable or influential part of the film. In our class discussion, we barely discussed his character or role in the movie, supporting my opinion that his character was not impactful to audiences. So, while I understand Hochman's argument, and this indeed may have been the director's intent with Lincoln's character, I think that the film would have been seen as historically accurate by many people either way.