Below is H. L. Mencken's very insightful essay bursting some of the Lincoln myths that have been told to generations of school children in the United States. Mencken was born in 1880 in Baltimore, Maryland and died there in 1956. He was one of the most influential American journalists, authors, columnists and essayists of the first half of the 20th Century and was famous for his iconoclastic viewpoints, one of which was challenging the Lincoln legend. In don't agree with many of his views on other subjects, particularly his anti-religious views, but I think he was right on target with his views about Lincoln. I especially like his take on The Gettysburg Address, contained in the last two paragraphs. This essay was first printed, in part, in the Smart Set, May, 1920, and then "Five Men at Random," Prejudices: Third Series, 1922.
Some time ago a publisher told me that there are four kinds of books that seldom, if ever, lose money in the United States—first, murder stories; secondly, novels in which the heroine is forcibly overcome by the hero; thirdly, volumes on spiritualism, occultism and other such claptrap, and fourthly, books on Lincoln. But despite all the vast mass of Lincolniana and the constant discussion of old Abe in other ways, even so elemental a problem as that of his religious ideas—surely an important matter in any competent biography—is yet but half solved. Was he a Christian? Did he believe in the Divinity of Jesus? I am left in doubt. He was very polite about it, and very cautious, as befitted a politician in need of Christian votes, but how much genuine conviction was in that politeness? And if his occasional references to Jesus were thus open to question, what of his rather vague avowals of belief in a personal God and in the immortality of the soul? Herndon and some of his other early friends always maintained that he was an atheist, but the Rev. Willian E. Barton, one of the best of later Lincolnologists, argues that this atheism was simply disbelief in the idiotic Methodist and Baptist dogmas of his time—that nine Christian churches out of ten, if he were live today, would admit him to their high privileges and prerogatives without anything worse than a few warning coughs.
As for me, I still wonder.
Lincoln becomes the American solar myth, the chief butt of American credulity and sentimentality. Washington, of late years, has been perceptibly humanized; every schoolboy now knows that he used to swear a good deal, and was a sharp trader, and had a quick eye for a pretty ankle. But meanwhile the varnishers and veneerers have been busily converting Abe into a plaster saint, thus marking him fit for adoration in the Y.M.C.A.’s. All the popular pictures of him show him in his robes of state, and wearing an expression fit for a man about to be hanged. There is, so far as I know, not a single portrait of him showing him smiling—and yet he must have cackled a good deal, first and last: who ever heard of a storyteller who didn’t? Worse, there is an obvious effort to pump all his human weaknesses out of him, an obvious effort to pump all his human weaknesses out of him, and so leave him a mere moral apparition, a sort of amalgam of John Wesley and the Holy Ghost. What could be more absurd? Lincoln, in point of fact, was a practical politician of long experience and high talents, and by no means cursed with idealistic superstitions. Until he emerged from Illinois they always put the women, children and clergy to bed when he got a few gourds of corn aboard, and it is a matter of unescapable record that his career in the State Legislature was indistinguishable from that of a Tammany Nietzsche. Even his handling of the slavery question was that of a politician, not that of a messiah. Nothing alarmed him more than the suspicion that he was an Abolitionist, and Barton tells of an occasion when he actually fled town to avoid meeting the issue squarely. An Abolitionist would have published the Emancipation Proclamation the day after the first battle of Bull Run. But Lincoln waited until the time was more favorable—until Lee had been hurled out of Pennsylvania, and more important still, until the political currents were safely funning his way. Even so, he freed the slaves in only a part of the country: all the rest continued to clank their chains until he himself was an angel in Heaven.
Like William Jennings Bryan, he was a dark horse made suddenly formidable by fortunate rhetoric. The Douglas debate launched him, and the Cooper Union Speech got him the Presidency. His talent for emotional utterance was an accomplishment of late growth. His early speeches were mere empty fire-works—the hollow rodomontades of the era. But in the middle life he purged his style of ornament and it became almost badly simple—and it is for that simplicity that he is remembered today. The Gettysburg speech is at once the shortest and the most famous oration in American history. Put beside it, all the whoopings of the Websters, Sumners and Everetts seem gaudy and silly, it is eloquence brought to a pellucid and almost gem-like perfection—the highest emotion reduced to a few poetical phrases. Nothing else precisely like it is to be found in the whole range of oratory. Lincoln himself never even remotely approached
it. It is genuinely stupendous.
But let us not forget that it is poetry, not logic; beauty, not sense. Think of the argument in it. Put it into the cold words of everyday. The doctrine is simply this: that the Union soldiers who died at Gettysburg sacrificed their lives to the cause of self-determination—"that government of the people, by the people, for the people," should not perish from the earth. It is difficult to imagine anything more untrue. The Union soldiers in that battle actually fought against self-determination; it was the Confederates who fought for the right of their people to govern themselves. What was the practical effect of the battle of Gettysburg? What else than the destruction of the old sovereignty of the States, i.e., of the people of the States? The Confederates went into battle free; they came out with their freedom subject to the supervision and veto of the rest of the country—and for nearly twenty years that veto was so effective that they enjoyed scarcely more liberty, in the political sense, than so many convicts in the penitentiary.