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Lincoln is America

By Howard Fast

It is something to remember--and to be proud of--that we have never had, for a national hero, a bad man; and if you look at them, reaching back through our history, Washington, Jefferson, Monroe, Jackson, even Black Daniel, and Abe Lincoln, Wilson and a hundred more, you can be reassured about the instinct of our people in choosing men to serve them. And if you were to pick from the group one whom the people loved more than any other, it would easily and naturally be Abe Lincoln, for reasons you know as well as I.

Along about this time of the year there is, in every periodical, a piece about Lincoln, the old stories retold, perhaps one or two new ones, dug up and published for the first time, the editorials rewritten for the forty-fourth time, the photographs, steel-engravings, and the statements from the so-few people left alive who knew him and spoke to him; and that is as it should be. The publishers bring out their Lincoln books--no year with fewer than a dozen--and there is, for them, the comfortable assurance that almost no book about Lincoln, no matter how bad, can prove a financial failure. In the radio studios there's a sudden demand for character actors with hard, midwestern Rs, and there's hardly a pastor who wouldn't include at least a reference in a February sermon. At that too is as it should be, I think; the whole of it adding up to the incredible and wonderful "Lincoln legend," an ever-increasing national love for the man, who more than any other represented the people of this country.

Perhaps no man in all our history, not even Washington, has been so constantly and minutely chronicled as Abraham Lincoln. The effort has been made to recall every word he spoke, every day he lived, every action he took; no secret service, investigating a man, could compile a dossier as complete as the people's memory of Lincoln, and we are fortunate enough to have his photographs and his death mask, so that we know every line in his care-worn face, every fold of the flesh over the bony crags of his skull. And the amazing thing is that with all of this, there is no dread failing to make us ashamed. Learning about him, his faults as well as his virtues, we are as gently and understandingly brought to him as the average American is to his father.

Looking at it in another way, the "Lincoln legend" is a sure and firm rock, upon which we stand as solidly as our fathers did, and upon which our children will stand too. It is an old homily--yet a true one--that in a free state when the people need a leader they will find him, and that he will come from the people with the strength of the people behind him. How shameful and sickening are the Gerald L.K. Smiths, the Coughlins, the Peglers and all the rest of our native fascist scum--when measured against this man who became the lasting symbol for American leadership. Indeed, to speak of such measurement becomes almost blasphemous, and only a pathological blindness on the part of this infamous crew would lead them even to aspire to it.

If there is one failing in regard to the "Lincoln legend," I would say it is this--that we have lived with it for so long and so constantly that we have come to take it somewhat for granted. From the time our eyes could comprehend, there was on some wall, on some desk, a picture of that age-old, splendidly-ugly face; from the time we entered school, Lincoln was in the classroom, stiff at first, cardboard of the professional patrioteers, but then, as the years passed, unbending, rounding out into three human dimensions. He became a part of our lives, present, reassuring, and integral. But the man is not to be taken for granted; he is an answer to too many questions, too many doubts.

Of late, it has become an unpleasant habit of many to generalize about this nation of a hundred and thirty-five millions, and very often the generalizations are as vicious and false as the people who make them. The poll-takers, the traveling Congressmen, the roaming reporters, and even a foreign visitor or two will, at the drop of a hat, tell us what this nation is, what it thinks, what it will do, what it won't do. That's a tall order, and just as no one has the right to speak for many millions of soldiers overseas, I think that no one, except possibly the elected leader, has the right to speak for our millions at home.

But, if sincerely a man wants to feel this land, its people, its way of thought and its hopes and dreams, he might do worse than to go to the "Lincoln legend." He might find in Lincoln as much of the American people as was ever gathered into one man, and he might find, too, in the "Lincoln legend," a warm indication of the direction this country will take in the future.