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Remembering Lincoln

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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Lincoln was not in favor of civil rights.  His idea was that blacks should be set free and then deported to a colony.  He did not think that blacks should have the right to vote or to serve on juries or to enjoy the privileges and responsibilities of the whites in society.  He was explicitly opposed to the idea of racial equality, in no small measure because he believed (in his words) that there was a “physical difference” between blacks and whites that would make it impossible.

That seems incredible to us today, but it is easy to document from Lincolns own speeches and writings.   As he says quite plainly, and somewhat shockingly, in one place:

I am not, nor ever have been, favor of bringing about in any way the social and political equality of the white and black races…and I will say in addition to this that there is a physical difference between the white and black races which I believe will forever forbid the two races living together on terms of social and political equality.” [3]

If Lincoln had such views – which would be seen as hideously racist by us today – why is he so widely seen today as a champion of civil rights?   As Schwartz demonstrates, it is because during the civil rights movement in the early 1960s, Lincoln was latched onto as a voice from the past who could provide a rationale and moral justification for the push to provide full equality under the law for African Americans, a push that almost all of us ealize came many, many years too late.

When we remember the past, whether we are thinking simply our individual thoughts or when we are reconstructing our previous history as a collective whole, as a society, we do so, always and necessarily, in light of our present situation.   The past is not a fixed entity back there in time.  It is always being transformed in our minds, depending what our minds are occupied with in the here and now.   As Schwartz claims, the somewhat ironic portrayal of Abraham Lincoln as a civil rights prophet “demonstrates the malleability of the past and justifies Maurice Halbwachs’s claim that ‘collective memory is essentially a reconstruction of the past that adapts the image of historical facts to the beliefs and spiritual needs of the present.”[4]

The Maurice Halbwachs that Schwartz invokes here is one of the truly great pioneers in the study of memory – specifically, memory as held by social groups, “collective memory.”  We will meet him again in chapter 6.  Halbwachs had a rather extreme view of how we remember.  He thought that literally all of our memories are social memories, that we can’t actually have any personal, private memories, but that every memory we have is necessarily influenced by, shaped, and provided by our various social contexts.  Not everyone agrees with that view, but on one point there is much wider consensus.   We – whether as individuals or as members of a collective – “remember” the past because of its value in the present.  Otherwise we have no reason even to think about the past – whether it is our own past lives and experiences or the lives and experiences of our society.  And (this is the key point I am tryng to make), sometimes, often, or always our memories of the past are distorted precisely because of the demands of the present.

Schwartz in particular wants to emphasize that this reality of memory does not mean that what we remember about our past – as individuals or as social groups – is simply fabricated and unreliable.  On the contrary, most of what we remember is accurate and historical.  But the way we remember it is highly selective and sometimes distorted by the reasons we choose to remember in the first place.  Our memories relish and celebrate the past, but do so in ways that are highly selective.  In Schwartz’s words, our modern way of remembering Lincoln “valuates history by lifting the morally significant elements of Lincoln’s life above the mundane.”[5]


[1] See http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/monkey-cage/wp/2015/02/16/new-ranking-of-u-s-presidents-puts-lincoln-1-obama-18-kennedy-judged-most-over-rated/


[2] Abraham Lincoln and the fore of National Memory (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), p. 31.

[3] The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, ed. Roy Basler (New Brunswick NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1953-55) vol. 3, pp. 145-46.  I owe his quotation to Barry Schwartz; see the preceding note.

[4] Schwartz, Abraham Lincoln, p. 4.

[5] Abraham Lincoln, p. 6.[/private[

Sketch of My Memory Book
Different Kinds of Memory



  1. Avatar
    Judith  April 3, 2015

    What a book your new book is going to be.

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    Clayton  April 4, 2015

    A very nice article.

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    jgranade  April 4, 2015

    If we hear or read a somewhat inaccurate portrayal of Lincoln (and believe that view to be true), and then remember that inaccurate portrayal exactly as we learned it, isn’t that more of an error in the source of our information rather than a problem of collective memory? Or is there no practical difference between these two options? On an unrelated note, this topic reminded me of the Cormac McCarthy quote, “Scars have the strange power to remind us that our past is real.”

    • Bart
      Bart  April 4, 2015

      It doesn’t really matter how we got the memory — it’s still our memory!

  4. Avatar
    toejam  April 4, 2015

    Wow. I had heard that Lincoln was not as nice a guy as he is often portrayed, but I never knew he was *that* bad!!

  5. gmatthews
    gmatthews  April 4, 2015

    Your description of Lincoln is an excellent example of memory also in the opposite of how you describe it here. I’ve long known all this stuff you mentioned about Lincoln. I read years ago how he was anti-slavery because of political expediency. Lincoln would have sold his soul for politics just the same as politicians on both sides of the aisle will today. The only reason he signed the Emancipation Proclamation was because of the turmoil he hoped it would cause in the South. There are also many documented examples in his private letters of his pejorative descriptions of blacks.

    Where it concerns me and my memory is that I don’t know anyone else who knows these things about Lincoln so I rarely hear any of this mentioned, not even by the neo-Confederate crowd. As I started reading your post today I didn’t know which direction you were going with your description of Lincoln and I was thinking to myself about how I had started to doubt these things I had read about Lincoln a dozen years ago or so to the point that I thought I was misremembering all of it or had taken what I had read out of context! At the very least thanks for reaffirming what I (thought) I already knew!

    • Avatar
      Jim Steed  April 22, 2015

      Whoa! Let’s get a few things straightened out here. Lincoln was a convinced foe of slavery all his life. He also thought that white people were innately superior to black people, as did nearly every other white person then alive. The only exception who comes readily to mind is Rep. Thaddeus Stevens,and he was RARE. What Lincoln came to see was that slavery’s continuance and the American Union were incompatible. Other white Americans also got that far. Many of the more “enlightened” ones did in fact assume that former slaves would prefer to return to Africa, to Liberia, for instance. There was a recolonization thread as part of American abolitionism reaching back into the early 19th century. Of course, no one asked African Americans what THEY wanted. Frederick Douglass, for one, made it clear: We have worked and died in this country. It is ours as much as it is anyone’s. We are not going “back” to Africa.

      The bitter truth is that in 1865 no one who had political power had given any thought to what came AFTER the destruction of slavery. There were a few attempts, like the Freedman’s Bureau, to get an economic footing set up for ex-slaves, but they were inadequate. The white South was not reconciled to the outcome of the Civil War and ran what I grudgingly admit was a brilliant campaign of disinformation, linked to bloody force–the States Rights theory that was in fact done in by the Supreme Court’s opinion in Texas v. White but is still with us today– to maintain social control of the Southern states. The Civil War over, the victorious element did indeed go about its business. It is a painful thing to acknowledge, but in 1865 there was no agreement about the place of newly freed Africn Americans in Amerian society. In a very real sense it took from 1865 to 1964 to accomplish what “should” have been the outcome of the struggle of 1861-1865, This is a fact none of us who are white can take any pride in. But to say that Abraham Lincoln did not, and does not, deserve the reputation he now enjoys is a conclusion born of rankest ignorance of the circumstances at work in our country up to the time of his murder. He paid with his life for his convictions. If his foresight was not perfect, well, it was for certain better than anyone else’s in the power structure of his day.

      Jim Steed

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    Jana  April 4, 2015

    “But the way we remember it is highly selective and sometimes distorted by the reasons we choose to remember in the first place. Our memories relish and celebrate the past, but do so in ways that are highly selective.”

    As I commented previously the concept of selective memory is right down traditional yogic philosophical alley (studies and practices I’ve been engaged for decades). Selective memory dependent upon not only senses and how they individually function (clarity) but also emotional preferences and mental interpretations of those preferences as well as sensory input. A simple example, if we view ourselves as victims, again and again we’ll recall those events that support this perception and omit events that support the contrary. If the sense of hearing is more developed than the sense of sight, the sense of hearing will override what is seen especially when sight does not conform to what is heard or interpreted as being heard. Tibetan Buddhists have a spiritual exercise called a Straight Walk which has been adopted in Yoga to Straight Walk to a Table. The purpose is to mirror back what is seen and what is not seen in a controlled simplified situation. Then self investigation ensues as to the various filters in place which more often than not skew what is seen. Given this is a small intimate example, it speaks to what takes place in a larger arena. I am fascinated by what you are embarking upon and look forward eagerly to purchasing your book!!!

    • Avatar
      Jana  April 4, 2015

      It seems to me and you’ve continued to prove(at least according to what I’ve begun reading here) that if someone is emotionally and also intellectually invested in a perception, then that which is perceived will be interpreted and skewed .. sometimes deliberately and sometimes not to support that perception. Fascinating stuff Dr. Ehrman …

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    Tmanns  April 4, 2015

    I wished I could read more right now. Very interesting to me. Can’t wait to read the book Dr. Ehrman. Two thumbs up!

  8. Bethany
    Bethany  April 4, 2015

    Seems like it’s an even bigger issue when one CAN’T go back and look at the historical records — we can look back at what Lincoln wrote, but Luke couldn’t just dig into the collected writings of Jesus.

    (Something that I think about when discussions of the historical accuracy of the Hebrew Bible come up. No, the Pentateuch isn’t historically accurate. But writing, what, at least 700 years after the fact, with no historical records and without modern archeology, how could it have been? Maybe the authors of e.g. Joshua did genuinely think they were reporting accurate history — if that’s what was passed down to them, how could they have known otherwise? They didn’t have any techniques that would let them determine what year the walls of Jericho actually fell.)

  9. Gary
    Gary  April 4, 2015

    I’m ready to pre-order. Hope its lots of pages!

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    greenbuttonuplift  April 4, 2015

    Can’t wait to read your book, any title thoughts Bart?
    There was a UK TV series called ‘Reputations’ whose approach was to remember the ‘whole life’ of British legends such as Churchill. Like your example above it was always a surprising and fuller account. Will you examine the psychological ‘halo’ effect in your book. No religious pun intended.

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    Kevin Nelson  April 4, 2015

    Lincoln’s views changed over time, on more than one subject. As far as racial equality is concerned, I think most historians would agree he was moving in the right direction towards the end of his life. To me, that ability to change is one of the more admirable things about him.

    Also, I don’t think he ever wanted blacks forcibly deported as you seem to imply. He apparently believed they would want to go back to Africa themselves if only they were given the chance.

  12. gmatthews
    gmatthews  April 4, 2015

    Either someone at NPR or Yahoo News really likes you. For the second day in a row NPR interviews (and text excerpts) with you about two of your books have been at the top of Yahoo News. Yesterday I noticed it was How Jesus Became God and this morning they have the interview for Jesus, Interrupted. I guess it’s because of the Easter weekend….

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    John  April 4, 2015

    I would like to thank you for examining and writing about this crucial aspect of Christianity. I am very curious about how the stories of the gospels were remembered, translated orally, then finally written years later. Looking forward to reading the finished product. One question: do you think a person’s state of mind at the moment of an incident has any bearing on the memory? For example, the disciples may have been in a state of shock and/or depression at the death of Jesus which gave them false memories. How does state of mind affect memory? Thanks.

  14. Avatar
    SelfAwarePatterns  April 4, 2015

    Every generation rethinks history within the framework of their own values, and often risks projecting those values on previous times. But, from most history and biographies that I’ve read, I think by implying that Lincoln’s place in civil rights history is entirely, or even primarily, a creation of 60s activism, Schwartz is getting carried away and engaging in his own revisionism.

    Lincoln, as a practical politician, did exist between the reactionaries who wanted to preserve slavery, and the (then) radicals who wanted complete equality. But all indications were that he was passionately and genuinely opposed to slavery, dismantling that institution at every opportunity, even when it was risky. By the measure of his own times, he was a civil rights hero.

    • Avatar
      webattorney  April 5, 2015

      I agree with you SelfAwarePatterns. Too often we tend to judge by today’s standards. I rather take Lincoln any day over Thomas Jefferson, the hypocrite.

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    spiker  April 4, 2015

    Interesting Stuff ! I for one had that sort of impression of Lincoln. Just as much as we are selective in memory, we are also selective in what we say(Nothing new for you) I don’t doubt your selection, but am curious about the context. Again nothing new to you here, but if Lincoln is writing to a campaign contributor as opposed to say his cousin, we might form a different opinion.
    However, Lincoln’s sentiments don’t seem all that surprising considering the general sentiment of the time. Tocqueville is very good on this count. Not only on what most people in the North thought at the time, but where it slavery was taking the country. With 20/20 hindsight, his remarks seem prescient, not to say prophetic. The Lincoln quote sounds like it fits with the general consensus. I couldn’t find the quote I remember where he talks about slavery tearing the country apart, but rereading his lucid discussion of slavery is a bit depressing if not sobering.

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    walstrom  April 4, 2015

    The idea presented to me by Christian apologists centers on a supernatural means of recall detached entirely from human memory. Holy Spirit is the get-out-of-jail-free card rescuing Gospel details through divine intervention. And yet, in for a penny, in for a pound–errors were not prevented! So, that argument falls by its own two-edged sword.
    The lifespan of the Apostles and disciples in no way stifled aberrant and anomalous corruption of teaching due to the fact those men couldn’t be everywhere at once, nor could they know who was saying what and how far afield such inaccuracies had been carried. Look how quickly Gnosticism spread!
    We live in an age of technology which affords the skeptic the availability of instant research capability unknown to the people in Jesus’ day. Yea verily, there were no iPhone videos, photography or voice recordings. News was spread by merchants who traveled for a living from one harbor to another harbor, land to land, nation to nation. Word of mouth was untestable and rumor ruled. The levels and standards of ill-education and cultural superstition created a crucible of naive gullibility.
    What may have been ‘believable’ back then might well have been driven less by fact and verification than by emotion and persuasion. Today we have Bigfoot, Loch Ness, UFO’s and Elvis sightings, alas! Technology hasn’t really eliminated those–so, the more things change the more they appear to stay the same.

  17. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  April 4, 2015

    The Lincoln example is very powerful and persuasive. If we can’t get something straight that happened 150 years ago how can we get something straight that happened 2,000 years ago?

    Wasn’t this idea about memory Schweitzer’s main point when he contended that we make or “remember” Jesus in our own image?

    Confirmation bias leads us to remember the way we are biased to remember. There is no better example than Fox News.

  18. Avatar
    daviskent  April 4, 2015

    I agree with Kevin Nelson’s comments concerning Lincoln’s changing views over time regarding former slaves and the equality of African Americans. Did Lincoln, trying to get elected to the US Senate, in debates against Douglas want formers slaves deported. Yes. However read the debates and all manner of what would now be considered vile comments were made, especially by Douglas. However, Lincoln’s viewpoints evolved as opposed to most of his fellow Americans. The man in 1865 was a different man then that of 1858 and selectively quoting the man and then ignoring the totality of the evidence leads one to a false impression of the man’s beliefs. I would hope that readers wouldn’t base their beliefs on Lincoln based on reading one book any more than basing their beliefs regarding the historical Jesus after reading one book.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 6, 2015

      Thanks. My point is less about the historical Lincoln on the day of his death than about memories of Lincoln and all he stood for all these years later.

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    Jacobus  April 5, 2015

    Prof. Ehrman, I think that by now you might be aware that you have an International audience also – especially in the “Barnes and Noble” crowd. I know of quite a few people in South Africa reading at least some of your books. “Jesus Interrupted” was even explicitly referred to by Dr. Jurie van den Heever, an palaeontologist of the University of Stellenbosch (and often heard on Afrikaans radio) in 2011 in an open letter to the reformed churches in South Africa imploring the churches to formulate a more rational science based and honest stance on faith (specifically the Christian Faith). (If my memory serves me well this was the issue.) Your books have also been translated into German and some other languages. My humble request is to consider your international audience more when writing. By that I am not saying that you are not doing so. I am also not trying to be mean-spirited. I am pleading you to help me overcome my own ignorance about American history. I know as little of Abraham Lincoln as I presume you know of the presidents of the Zuid-Afrikaansche Republiek, TF Burgers or Paul Kruger. That said, Abraham Lincoln was obviously a more important and influential man. Nelson Mandela is probably the nearest South Africa can come to such a figure. Her e is my confession, I don’t know enough of Abraham Lincoln to be drawn into the book. Help me, if you feel it is worthwhile, to be part of the readership engrossed by your books.

    • Bart
      Bart  April 6, 2015

      Thanks — that’s helpful. The problem is that my books have been translated into 27 languages: I can’t think of any example that is going to make sense to everyone!!

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    paxman2  April 6, 2015

    Lincoln like many of his contempories was challenged to rethink their views on race because of Frederick Douglas’ bright shining intellect. Not to claim that Lincoln had transformed completely with regard to race but, he seems to have moved forward. It also seems that Lincoln and others were pleasantly suprised by the noted bravery of black men fighting for the Union. April 14,2015 150 years since Lincoln’s death.

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