Monthly Archives: January 2013

What do American college freshmen think of when someone mentions Lincoln? (An unscientific survey)

By Michael Lynch

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been teaching a section of the introductory course on Abraham Lincoln which all freshmen at Lincoln Memorial University are required to take.  On the first day, I asked the students to write down five things they think of when they hear Lincoln’s name.  I didn’t require correct answers, and I told them not to consult any books or other sources.  I was just curious to see what comes to the mind of the average American eighteen-year-old when Lincoln is mentioned.

The most common responses by far involved some aspect of the assassination, with all but five of the students mentioning Lincoln’s murder.  About one-third of them referred to the fact he was shot in a theater, and one-fifth mentioned John Wilkes Booth by name.  One of them mentioned Booth’s close proximity to Lincoln at the 1864 inauguration.

Lincoln’s height was the second most common thing that came up, followed pretty closely by references to the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln’s opposition to slavery, and his “Honest Abe” moniker.  One-quarter of the students mentioned the fact that he was the Sixteenth President of the United States, and the same number mentioned his iconic stovepipe hat.  One-sixth of them referred to Lincoln’s whiskers, his Kentucky background, his appearance on American currency, his “railsplitter” nickname, or his association with the Civil War.

The early deaths of several of Lincoln’s relatives was mentioned twice.  So was the Thirteenth Amendment, the date of his birth, his election to the presidency, and the association of his name with LMU.

Only two incorrect statements appeared in the responses.  One student claimed that Lincoln was “stern and serious,” perhaps confusing his appearance in formal portraits with his actual demeanor.  Another wrote that Lincoln got into hot water with his dad for chopping down a cherry tree, but I half suspect that this answer was an intentional joke rather than an honest mistake.

The following references each appeared once:

  • Member of the Whig Party
  • He dressed badly
  • Born in a log cabin
  • Was a Republican
  • His wife shopped a lot
  • Carried letters in his hat
  • A public speaker
  • Had many enemies
  • Was a great leader
  • Loved reading books
  • Had “defined” facial features
  • Had disturbing dreams
  • Mentioned the names of attending doctors at his deathbed
  • Gettysburg Address
  • Wrote about giant bones at Niagara Falls
  • Grew up poor

Only one student mentioned the Gettysburg Address, which came as a surprise to me.  Also surprising was the reference to Lincoln’s short meditation on Niagara Falls, one of his more obscure written works.  In addition, I expected to see more references to his humble origins and log cabin birth, since that’s been such an important aspect of the Lincoln cultural phenomenon over the years.  In fact, of the five major aspects of “Lincolnian memory” identified by historian Merrill Peterson (the savior of the Union, the great emancipator, the man of the people, the first American, and the self-made man), only the notion of Lincoln as emancipator was prominent in the students’ responses.

Finally, three students mentioned the recent “vampire hunter” meme.  I leave it to you to decide whether that number is alarmingly high or reassuringly low.

—Michael Lynch graduated from LMU with a degree in history, worked at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum as an assistant curator, and now teaches survey-level history courses on campus. He holds an M.A. in history from the University of Tennessee and blogs about historical topics at pastinthepresent.wordpress.com.

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What do we expect from our presidents?

CBS News Sunday Morning spent some time with a few notable scholars to examine this question.

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Connecting Lincoln’s story to international audiences

Spielberg’s Lincoln is getting slightly tweaked for overseas audiences who might not be as familiar with the historical background. From The Hollywood Reporter:

Instead of opening with a Civil War battle scene, onscreen messages first will contextualize the story against actual black-and-white images designed to provide insight into what was going on in America in 1865. It lasts about a minute.…Fox research showed that, while nearly everyone outside the U.S. had heard of Abraham Lincoln, most didn’t know about his role in the Civil War or ending slavery. So the studio has created a series of country-specific promotional shorts featuring political figures explaining the larger context.

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Obama will use Lincoln’s inaugural Bible again

Barack Obama will use two historic Bibles during his second inauguration this month.  One of them is the Bible used during Lincoln’s first swearing-in, and is the same volume on which Obama took his first presidential oath.  The other belonged to Martin Luther King, Jr.

Lincoln’s first inaugural Bible was an edition that was widely available at the time, provided by a clerk of the Supreme Court.  The widow of Lincoln’s son Robert gave the book to the Library of Congress in 1928.

Ironically, the man who administered the oath to Lincoln in 1861 was Roger Taney, who issued the controversial Dred Scott decision and challenged Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus.

Photo by Michaela McNichol (Library of Congress)

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Foner on Lincoln the emancipator

Prize-winning historian Eric Foner has written a short overview of Lincoln’s views on slavery and his role in bringing about its end:

Like all great historical transformations, emancipation was a process, not a single event. It arose from many causes and was the work of many individuals. It began at the outset of the Civil War, when slaves sought refuge behind Union lines. It did not end until December 1865, with the ratification of the 13th Amendment, which irrevocably abolished slavery throughout the nation.

But the Emancipation Proclamation was the crucial turning point in this story. In a sense, it embodied a double emancipation: for the slaves, since it ensured that if the Union emerged victorious, slavery would perish, and for Lincoln himself, for whom it marked the abandonment of his previous assumptions about how to abolish slavery and the role blacks would play in post-emancipation American life.

You can read the rest of Foner’s essay by clicking here.

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