From "Legends, Lies
& Cherished Myths of American History" by Richard Shenkman:
Lincoln has inspired so many myths that Americans may be surprised to learn
some of the most delightful stories about the sixteenth President are
a defense lawyer Lincoln
used a common almanac to show that his client had been framed for a murder. In
a dramatic scene, replayed in a popular movie about the President, Lincoln proved that a key
prosecution witness, who claimed to have seen the murder by the light of a full
moon, couldn't have. The almanac showed the moon wasn't full that night.
once peered into an old mirror and, seeing two images of himself,
took the incident to mean he would be elected to a second term but would not
live to complete it.
did indeed keep important letters and documents inside his hat.
he grew his beard at the suggestion of an eleven-year-old girl.
more, he was tall. He really liked to crack jokes. He had been a rail splitter.
He didn't like slavery. He didn't like to be called Abe, and nobody called him
Abe. According to biographer Stephen Oates, "he loathed the
nick-name." His wife, Mary, called him Mr. Lincoln or Father. Friends
called him Mr. Lincoln or simply Lincoln. When writing to friends, Lincoln routinely signed
off "A. Lincoln."
famous failed love affair he is said to have had with Ann Rutledge - the
"only woman" Lincoln
ever loved - never happened. And he never said afterward, "My heart lies
buried there." Oates says: "There is no evidence whatever that Lincoln and she ever had
a romantic attachment. There is no evidence that theirs was anything more than
a platonic relationship." He did have a relationship with one Mary Owens
and in 1836 indicated he wanted to marry her. But in 1837 he backed out, saying
he wasn't sure he could provide for her properly.
Lincoln's train trip to Washington for his first
inaugural is shrouded in myth. At the time journalists reported that because of
assassination rumors, he sneaked into the capital wearing a Scottish plaid cap
and a long military coat. One cartoonist featured Lincoln doing a dance dressed in Scottish
kilts; the cartoon was headlined "The Mac Lincoln Harrisburg Highland
Fling." In the 1940's the Chicago Sun and the Chicago Tribune said that Lincoln had ridden into Washington hidden by "eye-shields"
and armed with "iron fighting knuckles."
actuality, Lincoln was smuggled into Washington aboard a
special sleeping car which had been deceptively reserved in the name of his
guard's invalid brother. The story about the Scottish cap was mischievously
invented by a New York
reporter, Joseph Howard.
hurriedly composed the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope while on
his way to deliver the speech is not true. Nice as it might be for this most
impressive of speeches to have been dashed off in a moment of inspiration, it
seems rather to have been the result of more mundane efforts of writing and
rewriting. Several drafts of the speech have been discovered; one draft is
written in Lincoln's
own hand on executive stationary.
Lincoln was a
great orator, he gave far fewer speeches as President than is popularly
believed. While his critics frequently and loudly bemoaned his handling of the
war, he reacted usually by silence. As he explained to a Maryland crowd in 1862, "In my present
position, it is hardly proper for me to make speeches." He seemed
particularly afraid of saying something offensive in an off-the-cuff remark.
When a crowd gathered to greet him at the Gettysburg
train station, he refused to say anything lest he say something
the years immediately after he was killed, Lincoln became enmeshed in dozens of
religious myths. In the most famous one preachers
ascribed significance to the fact that Lincoln
died on Good Friday. A Connecticut
clergyman declared that it was not "blasphemy against the Son of God"
to announce "the fitness of the slaying of the Second Father of our
Republic on the anniversary of the day on which He was slain. Jesus Christ died
for the world, Abraham Lincoln died for his country."
Lincoln stories have become
less apocalyptic. No one now would probably go so far as to describe Lincoln as
a kind of George Washington-Moses-Christ figure all rolled into one the way
people used to do. Today the main error is to regard Lincoln as something of a frontier folk hero.
he did tell jokes to relieve the burdens of his office, and he was a bit raw
around the edges in a frontier kind of way, he was nothing like the sentimental
character most people imagine. Friends like William Herndon reported that he
was fiercely ambitious, that he appeared homely rather than heroic, and was,
unlike the stereotypical westerner, subject to bouts of extreme hopelessness.
Though he is remembered vaguely as a "people's lawyer," representing
widows and orphans, he also defended corporations, including the Illinois
there's the question of his attitude toward blacks. He disliked slavery, but he
wasn't an abolitionist. Although he opposed the extension of slavery, he
believed that to save the Union, slavery ought to be left untouched where it
was, and although he is known as the Great Emancipator, his Emancipation
Proclamation didn't end slavery since it applied only to the states that had rebelled,
where Lincoln didn't have any authority. Moreover, though he had the support of
many radicals, he was critical of radical abolitionists like John Brown and
supported Brown's execution. After Elijah Lovejoy, the antislavery editor, had
been killed by a proslavery mob, Lincoln made a
little joke out of his death in an insensitive speech to a Worcester, Massachusetts,
audience: "I have heard you have abolitionists here. We have a few in Illinois and we shot one
the other day."