The Humanity of Heroes: Abe Lincoln Edition


When one compiles history there is a natural tendency to abridge its content; reasonably so, this is because in the grand scheme of things it is just not important knowing that T. Roosevelt drank a gallon of coffee a day or that Thomas Jefferson had women problems in his youth. Yet even so these little trivialities allow one to pull history off of its pedestal and make it relevant to one’s own life and world. Instead of viewing certain individuals as gods-among-men destined for greatness, of intellects and acts far superior than anything you or I could aspire for, we are able to view these figures in a more humanizing context.

Take for example the Abraham Lincoln mythos and it’s easy to imagine him as more than a man – a sharp wit, debilitatingly honest, an orator in the stead of Cicero, the prairie boy who built houses, an intellect who saved the union. And if one looks to Lincoln only in these terms, the man quickly becomes an idea and not a reality; he becomes no different than the “Livestrong” or “WWJD” bracelets that sit on the wrist as a reminder of what we should do but feel as though we are powerless to actually accomplish. While we require the proverbial carrot-on-a-stick to guide us and move us forward, we also need the belief that it is within our reach. Without it we look to our bracelets, let out a sigh, and carry on slightly guiltier.

But what if we were able to tie together both the great virtues of the individual with the qualities that make him seem human? I fancy it could be the kind of inspiration we need to move forward and out of the debilitating shadows of the greats.

The historian Harold Holzer (who is working with Steven Spielberg on the upcoming biopic about the president starring Daniel Day-Lewis) has brought up before the contrast between the few Lincoln photographs we have and how he may have carried himself as a living, breathing human being. Because the photography of the era required its subjects to sit still as the film captured the light it was near-impossible to smile due to the muscles weakening and looking awkward (try it – hold a smile for two minutes without looking like you park your van in the school parking lot every day at 3:15). This is one of the reasons why Lincoln always looks stoic, dour, melancholic.

Holzer said that Lincoln was thought to have had some particular traits that are often lost in popular portrayals or caricatures of the president, and that a meticulous actor like Lewis might explore.

On that illusive smile, Holzer said Lincoln was “supposedly a big smiler, with brilliant white teeth that would have been rare for the time.”

“When he told a story, it was almost childlike. Apparently he would turn from person to person to gauge their responses. And he was known to have hugged his knees to his chest in delight at his own stories. And to giggle when he laughed” [Underlining mine].

Adorable!

The New York Times recently put a short scene from history that some may find enjoyable. It’s a story of Prince Napoleon J. C. P. Bonaparte’s visit to America in 1861 and his perceptions of our 16th president. Though generally insignificant in its details, it is notable only for only two reasons:

  1. Being the cousin of Emperor Napoleon III of France, the prince’s report back could easily throw the support of the European powers to the North or the South. To put this in context, the last time there was a revolution on American soil the colonists won only because France was willing to contribute its naval fleet to their side.
  2. It’s an embarrassing, uncomfortable mess.

After being made to wait fifteen minutes and then seeing the president’s “large, hairy hands” and beard whose cut “would make Jupiter himself look vulgar,” they try to force conversation. Historian Adam Goodheart writes:

“Mr. Lincoln gained a few more minutes by asking the prince to sit down and by sitting himself, the whole affair being done amidst a great movement of chairs,” wrote one of the French aides, Camille Auguste Anatole Ferri-Pisani. “But, once these new positions were acquired, the two parties sat opposite each other silently, without troubling to go any further. Mr. Lincoln was visibly uncomfortable; the prince, unhappy because he had been made to wait, took a cruel pleasure in remaining silent.”

Then Lincoln came up with a way to break the ice: he asked kindly after the health of his guest’s father, Lucien Bonaparte. Unfortunately, the president’s handlers had not briefed him well: Lucien was actually Prince Napoleon’s uncle — and, worse, had been dead for more than 20 years. Swiftly corrected by the Frenchmen, Lincoln fumbled for more pleasantries: Had they had a pleasant journey? Wasn’t the weather hot today? Napoleon, in heavily accented English, replied monosyllabically. At last, mercifully, the president began shaking everyone’s hands again, allowing them to depart.

Nearly a half-century later the prince’s own private journals would be printed and his impression of Lincoln is one in stark contrast than our own.

As for the president himself, the prince described him as “badly put together, in a black suit,” with “the appearance of a bootmaker.” (In fairness, it must be noted that the middle-aged prince himself was pudgy, dumpy and dour.) Napoleon continued ruefully: “What a difference between this sad representative of the great republic and her founding fathers!” Lincoln, he concluded, was “a good man, but one without greatness nor very much knowledge.”

This man “without greatness nor very much knowledge” who would pull his knees to his chest and giggle would soon become one of the most revered Americans of all time.

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