Hero, Standing

Allan Guelzo
Professor, Gettysburg College

Allan GuelzoAllen C. Guelzo is the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era and Director of Civil War Era Studies at Gettysburg College. A two-time winner of the Lincoln Prize, his books include Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America and Lincoln and Douglas: The Debates That Defined America.

The following are excerpts from a speech delivered at Hillsdale College on May 8, 2009, at the dedication of a statue of Abraham Lincoln by Hillsdale College Associate Professor of Art Anthony Frudakis.

What we do here today, in dedicating Tony Frudakis’s statue of Abraham Lincoln, flies so finely in the face of this age of post-heroism that somewhere, we can be sure some voice will fix on this event to tell us that this is all farce—that Lincoln cannot be a hero because he was a racist, or that he cannot be the savior of the Union because the Union was rotten to its exploitative, capitalist, war-mongering, imperialist, Christ-loving, minority-massacring, little-Eichmann core and couldn’t deserve a savior.

For six decades after his death, this was not so. Lincoln was the quintessential, the indispensable, American hero. Of the 600 or so statues dedicated to American presidents, fully one third are of Abraham Lincoln; one of them, Daniel Chester French’s seated Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial, may be the most famous American statue ever created. But the post-World War One cultural malaise, which inaugurated an era of literary debunking and political minimalism, curved the arc of other Lincoln statuary downwards, away from the wise, heroic statesman and in the direction of a more folksy, proletarian Lincoln. Even in Lincoln’s Illinois, statuary of Lincoln continues to bring him off pedestals, closer to the earth, sitting on park benches, in the fashion of Jeff Garland’s 2001 Just Don’t Sit There, Do Something, a park-bench Lincoln whose head was decapitated in 2007 as a wedding prank…Rick Harney’s 2006 Lincoln at Leisure, which captures a shirt-sleeved Lincoln leaning on a fence…and, in Springfield, John W. McClarey’s A Greater Task, which is supposed to depict Lincoln grasping his coat around him as he delivers his farewell speech in 1861, but which ends up making him look like a derelict panhandling for spare quarters.

The statues, however, only reflect a larger decline in our estimate of Lincoln. In a multicultural perspective, no triumphal, Union-saving Lincoln is allowed to emerge; multiculturalism is the celebration of ordinariness, information, and egalitarianism. Which is why most people today are interested in knowing whether Lincoln was gay rather than knowing whether he was right. . . .