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The Center for Democratic Deliberation proudly supports the Rhetoric and Democratic Deliberation Series at Penn State Press. The series publishes books on the character and quality of public discourse in politics and culture.

Memories of Lincoln and the Splintering of American Political Thought
Shawn J. Parry-Giles and David S. Kaufer
Penn State University Press, 2017

Scholars have studied and written about Abraham Lincoln extensively, including as a prominent figure in U.S. historical memory. How does your book—either in its focus or methods—differ from previous works about the historical and political significance of Lincoln?

Lincoln reminiscences were issued by those who knew him. They generally make their way into Lincoln scholarship as primary source material used to glimpse the living Lincoln and to provide eyewitness evidence of Lincoln’s life. Other scholars view them as expressions of Lincoln memory. We too treat Lincoln reminiscences as a source of Lincoln memory but we also construe the category of Lincoln reminiscence as a rhetorical genre and art form that grew into a cottage industry after Lincoln’s death. We historicize Lincoln reminiscences, and we also study their language, the ethos of those who issued them, the controversies that swirled about them, the various constructions of Lincoln they make, and, most significantly to our project, the competing theories of citizenship (republicanism vs. democracy) they exemplify.

We examine Lincoln reminiscences as a rhetorical form that not only helped Americans remember a leader they had lost but also directed the meaning of how American citizens were to relate to the American presidency. In this regard, we found it informative to contrast reminiscences with classic biographies and eulogies. Classic biographies and eulogies were historically presented by learned people who had a gift of writing or speaking and capturing public greatness. Reminiscences by contrast could be issued by anyone with fleeting or vast knowledge of Lincoln and from any standing of life. More than classic biography and eulogy, reminiscences valued the mundane along with the momentous. They captured Lincoln as an exalted wartime president but also his telling stories by the fire on the legal circuit or saving wounded animals on the road when others looked the other way.

You define a “Lincoln reminiscence as a complete text containing a first-person memory (or memories) of Lincoln after his death.” Were such reminiscences—either in volume or style—a relatively rare phenomenon in U.S. history? Or do they suggest patterns by which U.S. citizens commonly interpret and deliberate over the meaning of important historical events?

Reminiscences as a literary form were part of American life before Lincoln. Reminiscences form a branch of biography that trace back to Plutarch, who stressed that persons should be remembered for their public deeds, admirable or contemptible, as examples for youth. In the late eighteen century, James Boswell helped popularize an alternative form of biography that made the private person as much fair game as the public one. Parson Weems’ famous biography of George Washington included reminiscences. And reminiscences gained popularity as a wartime relic where soldiers returning from war penned their memories of battle after the War of 1812 and the Civil War. Despite the presence of a reminiscence market before Lincoln’s death, the marketplace for reminiscences and the schism between Plutarchian and Boswellian assumptions expanded and intensified in frequency and ferocity thereafter. Some reminiscence writers came under critical attack because their approach to remembering Lincoln was judged too personal, too “Boswellian.” But Lincoln reminiscences also addressed larger political disputes after the Civil War, with some using Lincoln’s memory to quell the national tensions and strive toward a more harmonious future.

The first-person aspect of Lincoln reminiscences suggest rhetorical techniques that individuals use to express personal, and even intimate, connections to historical figures and events. Based on your research, do such first-person connections to historical figures and events contribute positively to the quality of civic discourse?

Claiming an intimate relationship with Lincoln represented a defining rhetorical expectation of Lincoln memoirists. Claims of intimacy with a U.S. president helped flatten the relationship between the people and their president. Reminiscences in their modest way opened the public sphere to a diverse population of Lincoln acquaintances who were normally blocked from public deliberation (women, former slaves, the poor). That Lincoln was remembered as a “common man” accountable to “common people” raised expectations that subsequent presidents would be responsive to the common constituents they served. Lincoln reminiscences in this sense were democratizing. But the chains of memory that saw Lincoln as an icon “above the common” also persisted.

You place Lincoln reminiscences in historical context, showing how those who reminisced about Lincoln drew on the language of speeches, books, sermons, or political debates to do so. Did you find any references to popular or political texts especially interesting or surprising?

In many ways, the study of Lincoln reminiscences represents a study in the history of the media. Depending on where reminiscences were published (literary magazines or the penny press), they could be treated as low-brow gossip or high-brow art. Some viewed them as that day’s equivalent to National Enquirer, grappling with the sordid details of Lincoln’s love life or his raunchy humor. Lincoln relatives became featured spectacles at county fairs, sharing insight into Lincoln’s antics as a young boy or his storytelling before tobacco-chewing loungers at the country store. Yet, they also took up a lot of space in outlets like the esteemed North American Review, where generals remembered Lincoln’s valiant wartime leadership. Their popularity is shown in how Lincoln reminiscence volumes were also used to sell subscriptions to magazines; magazines in turn routinely featured ads for Lincoln reminiscences. And creating scrapbooks of Lincoln reminiscences also became the rage—scrapbooks that have made their way into the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield. In studying reminiscences, one is also studying the rise of print culture and the desire to preserve the people’s memories for future generations.

You conclude that Lincoln reminiscences provided a way for members of the public to mediate political tensions and divisions. Does your study suggest lessons for how U.S. citizens today might remember notable figures and events in order to mediate contemporary political tensions and divisions?

Lincoln reminiscences can serve unifying purposes in times of national fissure. Certainly Lincoln memories at the time of his death were issued to bring the people together in the aftermath of war. And even today, presidential candidates must try to get on the right side of Lincoln memory when seeking office. But, the point of our book is to show that Lincoln’s memory could just as easily be used for partisan purposes. FDR Democrats used Lincoln’s memory to exalt common men and women and to justify public policies that gave them a helping hand. Herbert Hoover Republicans by contrast used Lincoln’s memory to promote self-madeness so that Americans would rely on their own grit and determination and reject government handouts. Lincoln reminiscences were issued during a period of great turmoil and remembering him reflected the struggle of many to see their way through that turmoil.

Shawn J. Parry-Giles is Professor and Chair of Communication at the University of Maryland

David Kaufer is a Mellon Distinguished Professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University


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