You could call it Andy Ferguson’s “Journey to the Center of America,” but, in truth, in his new book, Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe’s America, Andrew Ferguson does much more. He leaves Washington, D.C., goes back home to Illinois, and travels to many places beyond, in between, and back again, covering Lincoln lovers and haters with a light, patriotic, and wise hand. Learn history, laugh, and plan your summer vacation with Land of Lincoln. Until you do, get a taste of Land of Lincoln here — Ferguson recently took questions from National Review Online editor Kathryn Lopez.
Governor Cuomo, if you’ve come this far, you might not want to continue.
Kathryn Jean Lopez: So…was he gay? Sorry, you hail from the Land of Lincoln, I come from Village Voice country.
Andrew Ferguson: Yes, he could be very spirited and happy sometimes! Oh wait — I forgot. In Illinois we used to use the word “gay” to refer to something different from what you mean up there in Village Voice country.
No, he wasn’t a homosexual. The book from a few years ago trying to prove that he was, The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln by C.A. Tripp, has been pretty thoroughly discredited as an exercise in special pleading from a gay-rights advocate. What I’m interested in, and what the book is partly about, is why there should be such special pleading in the first place. Why is everyone always trying to draft Lincoln into their pet causes? Americans used to say they wanted their kids to be just like Lincoln: kind, principled, resolute. But what we’ve really wanted is for Lincoln to be like us.
Just in the last few years we’ve had books proving Lincoln was a socialist (written by a socialist), a manic depressive (written by a journalist who’s wrestled with depression), an evangelical Christian (written by an evangelical Christian), a religious skeptic (written by a religious skeptic), and so on.
We’ve even had a book trying to prove that Lincoln was exactly like Mario Cuomo. Guess who wrote that one.
Lopez: You’ve traveled the country in search of Lincoln. You must have a very patient family.
Ferguson: Kiddie Valium helps. Part of the book describes my attempt to reconstruct the now-defunct Lincoln Heritage Trail, which wound through Indiana, Kentucky, and Illinois back in the early 1960s. My parents had taken my brothers and me on the Trail when I was kid, and I thought — hey! I bet my kids would just love that! I was, um, misinformed.
Lopez: What’s the most common conventional myth about Lincoln?
Ferguson: There are so many of these, and they work at such cross purposes, that it’s hard to isolate just one. And they change as time passes. When I was younger, Lincoln was commonly portrayed as a racial progressive on the contemporary model — again, someone just like us. It’s not a helpful myth, because when you learn that his racial views belonged far more to his time than to ours, it can shake your faith in him. That disillusionment has led to the contrary myth, that he was some sort of white supremacist on the contemporary model — which is equally false and far more destructive.
Lopez: What drives Lincoln hatred?
Ferguson: I think the best answer to what drives the Lincoln haters was found on a poster one of them once showed me: “You think all our problems began in the Sixties? You’re right — the 1860s!”
Lopez: Do Lincoln haters make any good points?
Ferguson: Lincoln hatred as a whole is terribly mistaken, but not everything that Lincoln haters believe about Lincoln and the Civil War is wrong, in my opinion, historically or philosophically. In researching the book I spent a fair amount of time with people who really, really hate Abraham Lincoln — particularly in Richmond, Virginia, when the city fathers down there tried to install a Lincoln statue on public property and set off a storm of protest. One of the things that sparked the book was my realization that many of these Lincoln haters knew a hell of a lot more about Lincoln than I did.
Worse, the people who were defending Lincoln down in Richmond had no explanation for why they thought he was great. The sponsors of the statue brought in outside scholars for a pro-Lincoln conference. I went to it with high hopes. Instead the scholars told us that Lincoln was great because he was “nonjudgmental,” “tolerant of ambiguity,” “rejected nationalistic triumphalism” — more baloney than you’d find at an Oscar Mayer warehouse. And I thought: These are supposed to be the guy’s friends! They’ve lost the language in which they can explain his greatness. And that can’t be good for the country.
Lopez: Even Beverly Hills respects Lincoln?
Ferguson: Well, one resident does, anyway: Louise Taper, a wealthy widow whose mansion in the Hills above Beverly (swimmin’ pools, movie stars….) houses the greatest collection of Lincolniana in private hands. She was generous enough to spend time with me, showing me around. I even got to see Abraham Lincoln’s chamber pot.
Lopez: Getting to know Lincoln as you have, are there shrines or books that outright offend you?
Ferguson: Not shrines. Anyone who’s gone to the trouble of building a shrine to Lincoln has his heart in the right place, most likely. I write about an amazing shrine in the back of a Thai restaurant in Chicago, for example, set up by the immigrant owners as an expression of gratitude to Lincoln. But I also saw a lot of Lincoln statuary around the country, and I’m not at all comfortable with the contemporary trend: Just about every Lincoln statue today is anti-heroic, set on ground level, life-sized, designed so tourists can gather around for pictures while the kiddies stick their fingers in the great emancipator’s ear. I’m a fuddy-duddy, but I strongly believe there’s much more of the real Lincoln, the truest Lincoln, in the heroic depictions of him.
Books are another matter. There are a lot of atrocious Lincoln books. Did I mention Mario Cuomo?
Lopez: Being commander-in-chief is, of course, a heavy burden. Did you come upon any intimate Lincoln insights along the way about how he handled it?
Ferguson: From this distance, the burden seems almost intolerable: He’s waging a savage war with uncooperative or even seditious subordinates, his wife is a huge pain in the neck and maybe going nuts, his favorite son is dying an agonizing death in the bedroom down the hall, he sincerely believes the fate of constitutional self-government, maybe even of human liberty, is at stake in whether he succeeds or not … it’s unimaginable. It’s why people found comfort, after his “martyrdom,” in depicting him as the Man of Sorrows, and it made him a poignant symbol for his fellow Victorians, who were rather better acquainted with death and suffering than most of us are today.
Lopez: What’s your all-purpose dinner-party show-stopping Lincoln story?
Ferguson: Have me to dinner and I’ll tell you. But then I’ll have to shoot you.
Lopez: Any practical advice for readers who want to use Land of Lincoln as a guide to their summer vacation?
Ferguson: As a matter of fact, yes. It’s on pages 205-206, and it’s extremely clever, though probably not original to my wife and me. It involves bargaining with your children when you are about to drag them on long car trips to historical sites. And it almost works!
Lopez: Do you have a favorite Lincoln shrine? Family friendly or not.
Ferguson: There’s an out-of-the-way alcove at the National Cathedral in Washington with a fine Lincoln statue and behind it, an engraving of his farewell speech to the people of Springfield, delivered in 1861 as he left his home and friends, never to return. It’s not Lincoln’s most profound speech but it may be his most touching, and this is an appropriately understated rendering of it.
Is it family friendly? My kids would blow a gasket if I forced them to stand there and read it.
Lopez: Abraham Lincoln had a son named Tad. Mitt Romney has a son named Tagg. Coincidence?
Ferguson: No. Why would you, of all people, think it’s a coincidence? When it comes to all these increasingly unavoidable Lincoln-Romney comparisons, however, historians agree on at least one thing: Mitt looks much more like Bob Barker than Lincoln did.
Lopez: Supposedly everyone on the Right is pining for Reagan resurrected. How about Lincoln? Do you hear echoes of Lincoln in any of those running for president?
Ferguson: The two candidates I’ve paid the most attention to are Giuliani and Obama, and it’s interesting that both of them include in their standard stump speeches extended references to Lincoln. We cannot escape history, Lincoln said, and politicians, especially if they want to be president, cannot escape Lincoln. Which is good. They shouldn’t want to.
Lopez: Congress will be debating our future in Iraq come September. Does Lincoln offer guidance here?
Ferguson: One firm conviction I ended up with, after all the research and interviewing and traveling around, was that it’s a fool’s errand, to say the least, to try to discern what Lincoln’s position might be on contemporary political issues. Have I mentioned Mario Cuomo? Allow me to mention him again. Anyone who hears Cuomo discourse on Lincoln the liberal Democrat will think twice before trying to enlist him (Lincoln) in determining what the proper tax rate is for capital gains, or whether he’d support mandatory state testing under the No Child Left Behind law, or blah blah blah.
Iraq may be a slightly different case, because it involves America’s conception of itself and its place in the world. I have no idea — and neither does anyone else — whether Lincoln would have supported the invasion. But he never wavered from his belief in the providential and exceptional role the country was destined to play in human history. How he would apply that belief in particular cases — who knows? You’ll have to ask Mario.