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Lincoln’s Body in American History— Richard Wightman Fox on His New Book (Interview)

Funeral train in Ohio with Matthew Brady 1864 photo of Lincoln at front. 
Courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

President Abraham Lincoln was mortally wounded on Good Friday, April 14, 1865, at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C., and died in a nearby rooming house at 7:22 AM the next morning.

In a nation already traumatized by civil war, most Americans were further devastated by the assassination of a leader admired and often cherished in April 1865 by African Americans and a formidable majority of northern whites. In that very different time, a vast public clamored to lay eyes on Lincoln’s corpse, to bear witness to, and honor, the ungainly, awkward man with a face that Walt Whitman—who “loved the President personally”—described as “so awful ugly it becomes beautiful, with its strange mouth, its deep cut, criss-cross lines, and its doughnut complexion.” Even Lincoln joked about how “ugly” he looked. 

More than six million people flocked to view Lincoln’s funeral train on its journey from the nation’s capital to Springfield, Illinois. And around one million people viewed the bruised and rigid corpse of the slain leader lying in state—the body of the emancipator, the unifier, and the martyr who sacrificed his body for liberty and union.

Since those days of mass mourning 150 years ago, the image of Lincoln has been captured in statues, memorials, paintings, prose, poetry, currency and films. Lincoln became an embodiment of national ideals and the model leader by which other presidents are judged. For many he still lives in memory as a self-educated politician and statesman who led the republic with compassion, humor, and wisdom.

In his groundbreaking new book, Lincoln’s Body: A Cultural History (W. W. Norton), historian Richard Wightman Fox offers a wide-ranging study of the cultural meanings of Lincoln’s image as man and myth from his day to our own. He probes the social and cultural context of interpretations of Lincoln and shows how citizens north and south, black and white, have understood his body in relation to his words and deeds.

Professor Fox’s sweeping account takes the reader from the earliest days of Lincoln’s public body (the 1840s and 1850s), through Ford’s Theatre and the bloodstained deathbed in 1865, to the evolving depictions and uses of Lincoln’s body in the industrial era and in the renewed quest for black civil rights in the mid-twentieth century. He ends with the appropriation of Lincoln by Senator Barack Obama, when he announced his candidacy for the presidency in February 2007, and Steven Spielberg’s movie Lincoln starring Daniel Day Lewis.

Professor Fox teaches history at the University of Southern California. He specializes in American cultural and intellectual history and has a particular interest in how religiosity and secularity intermingle in the United States. His books include Jesus in America: Personal Savior, Cultural Hero, National Obsession; Trials of Intimacy: Love and Loss in the Beecher-Tilton Scandal; and Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography. He lives in Venice, California.

Professor Fox recently answered questions about Lincoln’s body and his place in national memory.

Robin Lindley: What inspired you to pursue the story of Lincoln’s Body all the way from the mid-nineteenth century to the present?

Richard Wightman Fox: At first I thought I’d write only about the three-week funeral period, from April 15 to May 4, 1865. When I began my research, one could find chronicles of all the mourning events, but there was no really good scholarly account.

I thought the time had long since come for an in-depth cultural, social and intellectual history of the mourning moment. Culturally, the twelve major pageants from Washington DC to Springfield, Illinois permitted a fascinating study of nineteenth-century ritual process. Socially, the mourning exposed a range of reactions among white people, and interesting differences among black people, some of whom celebrated their first immersion in the life of the body politic even as they grieved for their lost hero.

Ironically, it was the richness of the political debate over Lincoln’s body during the three weeks of mourning that made me realize I couldn’t stop the book in 1865. Americans north and south were just getting started making sense of Lincoln’s physical sacrifice in relation to his strange appearance, his republican politics, and his inspiring oratory. So I embarked on the bigger project. Watching Barack Obama compare his body to Lincoln’s in announcing his candidacy in 2007-- and knowing that Daniel Day-Lewis would appear as Lincoln in 2012-- helped spur me on.

Robin Lindley: How did secularity and religiosity interact in the initial mourning period?

Richard Wightman Fox: Immediately the assassination brought to mind, for most Americans, the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. How could it not, since Lincoln was shot on the very day—Good Friday—when Jesus was crucified? Inevitably, religious meanings impinged on the republican story built up by Lincoln ever since he entered politics in the 1830s.

In 1865, few people suspected any possible conflict between secular republican and Christian republican approaches to Lincoln. But the Christianization of Lincoln—turning him into a saintly hero chosen by God for special service as a martyr—tended in the long run to cancel out his merely republican virtues of self-improvement, political judgment, service to the people, and defense of equality for all men in what he liked to call “the race for life.”

Robin Lindley: How did Lincoln’s physical appearance intersect with his political career and his future legacy?

Richard Wightman Fox: Nearly everyone agreed he was homely at best, hideous at worst. Lincoln concurred, with a broad smile, and turned what might have been a serious political liability into an asset: he blew off external appearance, and asked voters to look at what lay within.

We usually think that his celebrated words—especially the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural-- were responsible for making him a lasting icon. We’ve forgotten that in 1865, his body was elementally important in driving his fame. He demonstrated that in a culture committed to self-making for rising young men, an individual that started out with nothing—no money, no breeding, no education, no true military service, no good looks—could rise to the top. He was “nature’s nobleman,” as eulogist Josiah Holland called him in 1865. He single-handedly suggested that American reality approached the American ideal.

In the 20th century, his body continued to carry weight, but usually in league with his words. In 1887, Augustus Saint-Gaudens gave us the beautiful Standing Lincoln statue in Chicago, where Lincoln embodies the self-made man of mid-19th century America. When Daniel Chester French’s sculptures of him were put up in Lincoln, Nebraska, in 1912 and Washington DC in 1922 (the Lincoln Memorial), he produced a president who shared the limelight with his virtually sacred words, chiseled into the granite placed next to him.

The linkage of body and words cemented him in 20th century memory as the face of the American nation.. To this day, many people all over the world see the meaning of the United States inscribed in the body and words of Abraham Lincoln.

Robin Lindley: That demonstrates the power of art. During his life, Lincoln was often caricatured as apelike in posture with simian facial features. It seems those impressions of Lincoln softened after his death.

Richard Wightman Fox: I think that’s true, but I’d add the caveats that he was still called “ugly and grotesque” after his death, by friends and foes alike. And he and others tried to beautify his image during his life. The use of photography to take away some of the rough edges was very conscious on the part of him, his advisors, and the photographers.

So many people calling Lincoln ugly even after he died really surprised me. His own ease with his strange looks seems to have made them part of his accepted “brand” as a public figure. By the time he had become president, his supporters would often describe his appearance in two steps: he started out looking awful, they would say, but then his face brightened in conversation until he positively glowed. At that point he became arrestingly attractive.

When Matthew Brady photographed Lincoln in 1860 before his famous speech at the Cooper Institute (the photo and speech that made him a viable presidential candidate), he consciously shot him from the waist up. That angle concealed his body’s asymmetry: short trunk and endless legs. Having Lincoln look directly at the camera minimized his big ears and big nose, and giving him a high collar hid his long, scrawny neck. The scarecrow frame—captured in the virtually unknown photo on my book cover—gave way to an apparently symmetrical physique.

Robin Lindley: And you describe the assassination in detail.

Richard Wightman Fox: The most surprising thing I discovered about the assassination was that during Lincoln’s presidency everyone talked endlessly about the possibility of assassination, but few took it seriously as a real threat. Lincoln certainly didn’t. All the talk seems ironically to have reassured people that assassination couldn’t happen in the United States, where all white men could vote to throw out any elected official they didn’t like. Assassination was only a real prospect, they thought, in an autocracy.

I was also surprised by the great differences demographically in the reactions of people. Almost all northerners and southern blacks were shocked and devastated by Lincoln’s death. But on the Republican side, blacks and whites diverged: blacks thought Lincoln was irreplaceable; most whites believed that no leader was indispensable. On the Democratic side, Irish Catholics often applauded Lincoln’s killing, while northern Protestant Democrats bemoaned the loss of the leader who lately had seemed the “best friend” of vanquished rebels. Amazingly, Radical Republicans often came close to applauding Lincoln’s death, seeing it as a providential opportunity to punish the rebels and bring social revolution to the South: voting for black men, land redistribution for black families. Radical Republicans took the lead, on the very day Lincoln died, in claiming his martyrdom was mandated by God.

Robin Lindley: Why didn’t Irish Catholics see Lincoln as a martyr?

Richard Wightman Fox: When the Protestant president was martyred, Irish Catholics reacted much the same way as white southerners: we have our own martyrs, so we’re not going to start calling Lincoln a martyr. Over the late nineteenth century, Catholics in the North and white Protestants in the South came more and more to appreciate Lincoln, but not to venerate him as a martyr the way that northern Protestants and black southerners did. They liked him because they thought he’d have resisted the stringent Reconstruction sought by the Radical Republicans.

Robin Lindley: You mentioned that a few people did worry about actual assassination in the case of Lincoln. Who, for example?

Richard Wightman Fox: My favorite example is Henry Raymond, editor of The New York Times and a moderate Republican admirer of Lincoln. Ever since 1861 he’d been worried about Lincoln’s lackadaisical approach to personal security. In an article published on April 24, 1865, the very day that Lincoln’s body arrived in New York City, he said Lincoln was “culpably remiss” in repeatedly roaming around in public. This was a huge surprise to me: Henry Raymond said Lincoln had helped cause his own assassination. He had selfishly preferred to go about his daily practice of republicanism—mixing freely with the people—than to protect the head of the body politic.

Of course, Lincoln took a different view of his public responsibility as a republican leader. He thought his job required showing, on the ground, that republicans disavowed the monarchs’ habit of holding themselves apart. Lincoln was going to show that all citizens were essentially alike; the leader was in no way superior to the led.

Robin Lindley: Another religious twist in your story fascinated me. You mentioned Lincoln’s trip to Richmond and I thought of how he was embraced by blacks there and was seen by them as a Moses figure, leading them eventually out of bondage.

Richard Wightman Fox: You’re right about Lincoln as a Moses-type figure for African Americans since 1860. But when Lincoln entered Richmond on April 4, 1865, the immediate analogy in the minds of blacks was the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem.

It’s interesting that by 1865, Frederick Douglass and others around him saw the Moses analogy as less relevant, and less useful, than it had been before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. After 1863, Douglass began to realize that the idea of an “exodus” to some better place was antithetical to the needs of African-Americans. They should stay wherever they were and fight for their full citizenship in that location. As David Blight showed in Race and Reunion, Douglass and Lincoln ultimately shared that same commitment to universal republican citizenship. In a republic, the body politic could not survive if some citizens were denied the liberties that other citizens could take for granted.

Robin Lindley: You detail many aspects of the cultural ritual aspects of the Lincoln funeral period.

Richard Wightman Fox: About a third of the northern population laid eyes on either the funeral train or the corpse itself. Mary Lincoln, the president’s widow, had tried to argue for a shorter funeral-train route so that the body would not be exposed to the air and dust for almost two weeks. But she had to settle for deciding only the question of where to put the body once the train got to Springfield, Illinois. She inadvertently gave the American population a great gift by letting Secretary of War Edwin Stanton manage this vast, rolling public funeral —under military control from start to finish-- rather than a private, familial one.

That is the first part of the mourning story: the magnitude of this pageant. The second part is the ways people engaged in ritual goodbyes to Lincoln. Blacks and whites alike wanted their children to see his body, to pass this moment on to the next generation. For instance, a father in Albany, New York, afraid that if he waited in line with his young son they would never make it into the State House in time for the viewing, walked up to the entrance and hoisted his son over a fence. A perfect stranger had agreed to shepherd the boy past the president’s corpse.

Robin Lindley: I was struck by this need to see the body. Embalming was new to the U. S. at the time. Were there any photographs of Lincoln’s body during the funeral period?

Richard Wightman Fox: There is one surviving photograph of Lincoln’s body, taken in New York’s City Hall, but it was made public only in the 1950s. When Edwin Stanton found out about the photo in April 1865, he was furious. He thought it should have been obvious to the military men standing by the body at City Hall that any commercializing of the corpse was abhorrent. Stanton confiscated the photo, but luckily for us, he kept a copy, and a researcher accidentally rediscovered it sixty years ago.

Robin Lindley: Your book delves into the African-American perspective on Lincoln and how that evolved. While most whites saw Lincoln as the reunifier of the Union, black Americans remembered him as the Great Emancipator.

Richard Wightman Fox: Yes. David Blight’s Race and Reunion laid out the broad contours of this story, permitting me to extend his story about Civil War memory to the cultural legacy of Lincoln’s body. In the late nineteenth century, northern whites lost interest in promoting further emancipation for African Americans, in allowing them to become full citizens. But black people kept that goal alive, and used the Lincoln symbol to underwrite it. White liberals in the mid-twentieth century have African Americans to thank for keeping emancipation alive as an ideal, and Lincoln alive as the emancipator It’s a historical calamity that generations of African Americans had to wait for a century after the Civil War for the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Robin Lindley: There was a definite lack of interest in racial justice at white-dominated events such as the Centenary of Lincoln’s Birth in 1909 and the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in 1922—with its segregated seating arrangements.

Richard Wightman Fox: I started my chapter on the centenary celebrations of 1909 with the effort by W. E. B. DuBois and others to revive the idea of Lincoln as Emancipator. They got nowhere in 1909, but their organizing led to the founding of the NAACP in 1910.

The dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in 1922 showed how difficult a struggle black and white liberals would face. The main speakers, William Howard Taft and President Harding, made a point of minimizing Lincoln’s stature as emancipator. A generation later, under the New Deal, progress accelerated after Marian Anderson’s magnificent concert at the Memorial on Easter Sunday, 1939. Lincoln would ably serve the civil rights movement for another quarter-century.

Robin Lindley: You mention that some right-wing commentators have recently seen Lincoln as a dictator and opponent of states’ rights. It seems also that the Republican Party has abandoned their long-time slogan “The party of Lincoln” in recent decades.

Professor Richard Wightman Fox: That’s right. The Republican Party’s apparent aversion to Lincoln in recent years may well change as more moderate candidates arrive on the scene. Barack Obama’s evident love for Lincoln may have discouraged Republicans from embracing him since 2008. But many in the party’s Right Wing continue to believe that Lincoln inaugurated big government and the welfare state, and cared nothing for states’ rights or habeas corpus. Many of them suppose that the Civil War wasn’t really about slavery at all— an institution that would have died out on its own for economic reasons, and didn’t require a war to get rid of it. In their view, Lincoln claimed the war was caused by the specter of slavery extension so that he could divert attention from his dictatorial designs.

Robin Lindley: How do you believe President Obama views Lincoln? It seems a perspective that goes beyond the Great Emancipator.

Richard Wightman Fox: I agree. I think Obama’s embrace of Lincoln marks the end of the tradition of black people believing that Lincoln established a special relationship with them as a group. The first black president affirms that Lincoln is available for any individual of any race to follow as a model of leadership and a model of character-building. In Obama’s estimation, anyone can learn from Lincoln as an ethical teacher too: he’s a preacher of humility as well as an advocate of using power and law to bring about justice for all.