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Lincoln eulogies:
fascinating though faulty


Waldo W. Braden, editor. Building the Myth: Selected Speeches Memorializing Abraham Lincoln. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press. 1990. Pp. 259 with biographical notes, selected bibliography and index. $34.95 (cloth).

The editor of this volume was, until his retirement, a professor of speech at Louisiana State University, and it is a book that is probably better suited to speech students than to Lincoln students.


Illinois State Historical Library

Abraham Lincoln Novembers, 1863

Building the Myth. edited by Waldo W. Braden, is an effort to analyze Lincoln eulogies and fit them both into the genre of political oratory and into the larger context of the developing Lincoln myth. But students of Abraham Lincoln and students of American history will find that the book contains errors of commission as well as omission.

As an example of the book's inaccuracies there is a reference to Senator Joseph G. Cannon. Of course, Joe Cannon was never in the Senate. He spent more than 45 years in the House of Representatives and became speaker of that body.

In Braden's list of criteria for his selection of eulogies, he mentions seven characteristics, the first being that the speech has to be "created by an important person recognized as eloquent." Yet the contribution by William Howard Taft, who as the chief justice of the Supreme Court gave the Lincoln Memorial's dedication address on May 30, 1922, does not seem to completely fit the stated standard of eloquence. Nor does the inclusion of Taft's address meet some of the other criteria Braden lists. In fact, in his introduction, Braden describes the Taft presentation as giving "little more than an account of the planning and construction" of the Lincoln Memorial. Furthermore, Braden does not mention that the crowd of 50,000 gathered there on that occasion was a segregated audience, nor does he note that one of the principal speakers, the president of the Tuskegee Institute, was not permitted to sit on the speakers' platform because he was black.

Also missing from many of the brief introductions to the various eulogies is appropriate biographical information on the speakers. Frederick Douglass, who spoke at the unveiling of the Freedmen's Monument in Lincoln Park, Washington, D.C., on April 14, 1876, is described simply as a "former slave and well-known orator." This would have been an excellent opportunity to give some of his fascinating background. Douglass escaped from slavery, bought his freedom and became an author, newspaper editor and spokesman for African Americans in the 19th century.

So there are significant deficiencies to the volume. But having said all that, it is still interesting reading, both for those who appreciate the varying styles of the eulogies and for all of us who continue to be fascinated by the life of Abraham Lincoln.

I am pleased that Professor Braden chose to include three eulogies by former Illinois Gov. Adiai E. Stevenson: a radio address delivered in Springfield on February 12, 1949; a speech presented at the Gettysburg battlefield on November 19, 1951, on the occasion of the 88th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address; and an address given at the Lincoln Memorial on September 18, 1962, to commemorate the Emancipation Proclamation.

And it is fitting to end the book with the eloquent address by New York Gov. Mario Cuomo at the annual dinner of the Abraham Lincoln Association in Springfield on February 12, 1986. I was privileged to be there to hear Gov. Cuomo. The following passage from his speech provides an appropriate conclusion to a book that examines the building of the Lincoln myth.

'It would be a terrible shame to lose Lincoln that way, to make of him a celebration but not an instruction; a memory but not a model; a legend but not a lesson'

"In Washington, Lincoln towers far above us, presiding magisterially, in a marble temple. His stony composure, the hugeness of him there, gives him and his whole life a grandeur that places him so far above and beyond us that it's difficult to remember the reality of him. We have lifted Lincoln to the very pinnacle of our national memory, enlarged him to gargantuan proportions in white stone recreations. We have chiseled his face on the side of a mountain, making him appear as a voice in the heavens.

"There is a danger when we enshrine our heroes,when we lift them on to pedestals and lay wreaths at their feet. We can, by the very process of elevating them, strain the sense of connection between them and the palpable, fleshy, sometimes mean concerns of our own lives. It would be a terrible shame to lose Lincoln that way, to make of him a celebration but not an instruction; a memory but not a model; a legend but not a lesson."

Lincoln scholars would agree with that conclusion.

Paul Simon is serving his second term in the U.S. Senate. He is the author of 12 books, including Lincoln's Preparation For Greatness: The Illinois Legislative Years, originally published in 1965 and re-issued in paperback in 1989 by the University of Illinois Press.

August & September 1991/Illinois Issues /55

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