Abraham Lincoln has long dominated the pantheon of American presidents. From his lavish memorial in Washington and immortalization on Mount Rushmore, one might assume he was a national hero rather than a controversial president who came close to losing his 1864 bid for reelection. Drawing on a wide array of materials - painting and sculpture, popular magazines and school textbooks, newspaper accounts and oratory - Barry Schwartz aims at this sort of contradiction in his study of the role Lincoln's reputation and memory has played in American life. Schwartz explains, for example, how dramatic funeral rites elevated Lincoln's reputation even while funeral eulogists questioned his presidential actions and how his reputation, over the next four decades, diminished and grew. Schwartz links the vagaries of Lincoln's image to broad transformations of the nation, arguing that Lincoln's life symbolized America's development from a rural republic to an industrial democracy and articulated the roles of economic and political reform, military power and nationalism in the country's self-conception.
Lincoln's memory assumed a double aspect of "mirror" and "lamp", acting as a reflection of the nation's concerns and an illumination of its ideals, and Schwartz offers a fascinating view of these two functions as they were realized in the commemorative symbols of an ever-widening circle of ethnic, religious, political and regional communities. The first part of the study that will continue through the present, "Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory" is the story of how America has shaped its past selectivey and imaginatively, but around a real person whose character and achievements symbolized his country's ideals.