I thought I would take a post to give you a taste of one of my early chapters in my book on Memory.  It is in very rough draft, so don’t expect much.   But this passage deals with the topic of my last post, “collective” memory.   Here I use the example of how we remember, or misremember, the life and views of Abraham Lincoln.


In 2014 a poll was taken of 162 members of the American Political Science Association, asking them to rank all the past presidents of the United States, from best to worst.[1]   Probably to no one’s great surprise, the top-ranked president was Abraham Lincoln.    Most of us – though certainly not all of us! – remember Lincoln as a truly great and noble man who did remarkable things for his country.  But it was not always that way.  In his own day, Lincoln in fact was not seen as a great president – and not only in the southern states, whose inhabitants, as a rule, truly despised him and what he stood for.  But even among his supporters he was not wildly popular.   As social historian Barry Schwartz indicates, in his pivotal book Abraham Lincoln and the fore of National Memory, “When Abraham Lincoln awoke on the last day of his life, almost everyone could find something about him to dislike.” [2]

Schwartz’s book tries to show that Lincoln did not come to be considered “great” until after his death, and even then his fortunes in memory rose and fell depending on what was happening more broadly in the country as a whole.   Every turning point in American history led to a revised image of Lincoln, both who he was as a human being and what he tried to accomplish (and did accomplish).

I think it is fair to say that most of us today remember Lincoln as one of the first great heroes of civil rights, as one who aggressively promoted the idea that “all people are created equal,” that whites and blacks deserve to be treated the same before the law, that black slaves should be set free and allowed to have the same rights and freedoms as their white owners.

It turns out that even though this is how Lincoln is widely remembered today, it is not true, historically.

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