- The Washington Times - Friday, December 3, 2004

The following is an excerpt from Harold Holzer’s Heroes of History lecture presented at Ford’s Theatre on Oct. 18. Mr. Holzer, co-chairman of the United States Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission and author of the recently released “Lincoln at Cooper Union: The Speech That Made Abraham Lincoln President,” was chosen by the National Endowment for the Humanities to give the 2nd annual Heroes of History lecture.

Standing here tonight on this historic stage, at the scene of Abraham Lincoln’s murder and martyrdom — a shrine so evocatively frozen in time — one cannot help but be poignantly and powerfully reminded of the sacrifices often made by our heroes. And we cannot help thinking, too, of the transformative impact such sacrifices have on their reputations.

Abraham Lincoln entered this building on Good Friday, 1865, as president. He left as a national myth. At widely attended worship services two days later on Easter Sunday — a day that also brought synagogue congregations together for the Jewish festival of Passover — ministers and rabbis preached sermons comparing Lincoln to both Christ and Moses.

He had died for the American sin of slavery, a sacrifice for national resurrection; as in Leviticus, he had proclaimed liberty throughout the land, leading “all the inhabitants thereof” from bondage into the promised land of freedom. To other eulogists, he was a second George Washington, until then America’s undisputed secular saint; the savior of the sacred union that Washington had created. As both pictures and poems declared: “Heroes and saints with fadeless stars have crowned him — And Washington’s dear arms are clasped around him.”

Here at Ford’s Theatre, Abraham Lincoln not only found his last few moments of relief from the crushing burdens of the presidency; he found immortality.

There is nothing wrong with this calculus. Lincoln was the first president to be assassinated, and his murder, just a week after the Civil War ended, ignited an emotional upheaval that for half the country saw triumph spiral into tragedy overnight, and for the other half brought fears that “malice toward none” would yield to retribution. Magnified by the lost promise of what Lincoln at Gettysburg had called his “unfinished work,” his death inspired a powerful outpouring of grief that vaulted Lincoln into the realm of folklore even before his funeral train reached Illinois.

From this place, America carried a slain national saint. But in a way, it lost — or at least lost sight of — the hero who had entered its doors.

I would like to propose tonight that well before April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln had already, decisively earned the status of American hero. Legendary modesty notwithstanding, Lincoln worked as hard as any post-assassination mythmaker to reach that pinnacle.

For years, his eyes were clearly focused on the arc of history — and on the example of earlier American heroes whose commitment to freedom he treasured, but whose defense of slavery he abhorred. Death did not make Lincoln a hero. His life did. By the time he was murdered here, Lincoln had already dominated the most society-altering four years in American history — not only testing whether the American nation would endure, but presiding over the destruction of its greatest shame: slavery.

Consider the eyewitness reports of his arrival here on April 14. Actors onstage stopped their scene in midsentence, the orchestra struck up “Hail to the Chief,” and the audience rose and greeted the president with “deafening cheers.” Before the fatal shot rang out, he already seemed to one audience member “like a father watching what interests his children, for their pleasure rather than his own.”

“Father Abraham,” or “Uncle Abe,” as he had come to be known — like the reigning elder of the American family, albeit a dysfunctional one — had proven his appeal to his “children” just a few months before in hard numbers, handily winning re-election and earning four out of every five votes cast by the Federal soldiers risking their lives in the field.

Just days before he lost his life here, Lincoln entered the devastated Confederate capital of Richmond, not to act the conquering hero, it should be noted, but to visibly, personally “bind up the nation’s wounds.” He was greeted with such impassioned reverence by liberated slaves that, overcome with emotion, Lincoln had to beg them to kneel not to him, but only to God. He drew bitter criticism that day merely for placing his hand on a black man’s shoulder in public. “It was the great deliverer meeting the delivered,” marveled an eyewitness. Lincoln “heard the Thanksgivings” that day for himself. He knew what he had become.

We live in a cynical age today, counting more heroes in sports and entertainment than in government. Our 24-hour news cycles and relentless World Wide Web giddily tell us when celebrities grow feet of clay. The “gotcha” age tempts us to scrutinize the heroes of the past as well, and in recent years even Lincoln has not escaped doubts: Was he a visionary or a cunning politician?

Was he an enthusiastic or reluctant emancipator? Were his wartime powers excessive, indeed was his war even necessary? We need to go back to the 1830s — to the culture that produced and inspired him — to really understand what he meant in his time, and should continue to mean in ours.

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