On Lincoln and Historical Canonization

The iconic portrait of Lincoln, begun from life in 1864, completed by George Peter Alexander Healy (1869)

“When Americans cease to admire Abraham Lincoln the Union which he perpetuated will be no more. The strongest proof of the continuance of this admiration is the ceaseless publication of books about him. His greatness increases with each exploration. It has not yet been bounded. The authority of his word grows with time. He spoke and lived the truth. 

“The practice of canonization is inherent in the human mind. Men of the past grow into giants, history takes the form of the good old days, all deeds become heroic. This has advantages, it is inspiring; but it is not human experience, and it is not true. There is too much written of what men think of Lincoln in proportion to that which tells what he was. He does not need to be glorified. That but degrades. To idealize him destroys him. The greatest inspiration his life can give is in the whole truth about him. Leave him as he is. He came from the soil, he was born of the people, he lived their life. To make it all heroic, like giving him drawing-room airs, destroys the mighty strength of his example…

“No man in American history, not even Washington, compares with Lincoln in dealing with the practical affairs of his day. He employed no magic. He was no visionary. He was no child of fortune. He was the creation of an adversity that walked hand in hand with him from the cradle to the grave. In that struggle he found his strength. He too grew in stature and in wisdom. Out of an experience of sorrow and pain he gained the power to look into the heart of things.

“For our burdens which he bore, for our sorrows which he comforted, for that character of surpassing strength and beauty, for the courage he showed, for the devotion to duty, for the patience, the hope, the steadfastness, for the new glory that his life revealed, for the immortal example of all that which we call Abraham Lincoln, men well may continue to study him, to love and praise him, and to give thanks for him to the Source of all power.” 

Calvin Coolidge, excerpt from The Preface to Carl Schurz’s Abraham Lincoln, An Essay (1920, Houghton Mifflin)

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