Cover image for Memories of Lincoln and the Splintering of American Political Thought By Shawn J. Parry-Giles and David S. Kaufer

Memories of Lincoln and the Splintering of American Political Thought

Shawn J. Parry-Giles and David S. Kaufer


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Rhetoric and Democratic Deliberation

Memories of Lincoln and the Splintering of American Political Thought

Shawn J. Parry-Giles and David S. Kaufer

“This well-written and interesting book develops a new way of looking at citizenship and how it is constructed and enacted in the United States, making a valuable and potentially important contribution to the history of the era, to the conversations on citizenship, and to the methods of rhetorical criticism more broadly.”


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In the aftermath of the Civil War, Republicans and Democrats who advocated conflicting visions of American citizenship could agree on one thing: the rhetorical power of Abraham Lincoln’s life. This volume examines the debates over his legacy and their impact on America’s future.

In the thirty-five years following Lincoln’s assassination, acquaintances of Lincoln published their memories of him in newspapers, biographies, and edited collections in order to gain fame, promote partisan aims, champion his hardscrabble past and exalted rise, and define his legacy. Shawn Parry-Giles and David Kaufer explore how style, class, and character affected these reminiscences. They also analyze the ways people used these writings to reinforce their beliefs about citizenship and presidential leadership in the United States, with specific attention to the fissure between republicanism and democracy that still exists today. Their study employs rhetorical and corpus research methods to assess more than five hundred reminiscences.

A novel look at how memories of Lincoln became an important form of political rhetoric, this book sheds light on how divergent schools of U.S. political thought came to recruit Lincoln as their standard-bearer.

“This well-written and interesting book develops a new way of looking at citizenship and how it is constructed and enacted in the United States, making a valuable and potentially important contribution to the history of the era, to the conversations on citizenship, and to the methods of rhetorical criticism more broadly.”
“This book is a welcome contribution to the literature on Abraham Lincoln’s public memory. It establishes a historical ground that scholars can use for future studies, and offers a distinctive contribution by framing its interpretations within the broader horizon of the tension between republicanism and democratic populism. It is ambitious in its scope and conclusion.”
“Offers an extensive compilation that adds significant value to the scholarship on Lincoln, on presidential memory, and on citizen ideals. This book can be used to trace these same themes through subsequent texts to assess consistencies and changes across generations, specifically uncovering contemporary notions about Republican and Democratic U.S. citizenship. Scholars will greatly appreciate the extensive notes and detailed index. Recommended.”
“Shawn Parry-Giles and David Kaufer give colleagues in the fıelds of rhetoric and communication, history, and collective memory tools to widen and deepen their understanding of any historical person, whatever his or her renown and reputation. For these scholars and for anyone seriously interested in the life of any historical person, this book does not merely deserve to be read; it is one that must be read.”
“A large portion of what we know about Abraham Lincoln derives from these reminiscences, and the sheer variety of memories—from those of fellow politicians to common folk—democratizes his memory like no president before him.”
“This diverse assemblage [of ‘Lincoln reminiscences’] affords the authors a range of critical vantages on how the representation of Abraham Lincoln via personal memories published after his death shaped conceptions of US citizenship and the US presidency in ways that remain influential to contemporary experience.”

Shawn J. Parry-Giles is Professor of Communication at the University of Maryland. Her most recent book is Hillary Clinton in the News: Gender and Authenticity in American Politics.

David S. Kaufer is Paul C. Mellon Distinguished Professor of English at Carnegie Mellon University and coauthor of Arab Women in Arab News: Old Stereotypes and New Media.


Introduction: Lincoln Memories and the Clash of Republican and Democratic Principles

Chapter One: Lincoln Memories and the Press

Chapter Two: Lincoln Memories and Character

Chapter Three: Lincoln Memories and Style

Chapter Four: Lincoln Memories and Class Mobility

Conclusion: Lincoln Memories and the Presidency


Works Cited


Memories of Lincoln and the Clash of Republican and Democratic Principles

The sudden death of a U.S. president at the hands of an assassin’s bullet stunned the nation. On the night of April 14, 1865, Washington, D.C., turned raucous and near riotous, with northerners wanting to exact revenge against anyone connected with the South. Senator William M. Smith of Nevada, a close acquaintance of Abraham Lincoln’s, recounted the night’s chaotic moments in a New York Times article, calling it the “most awful night I ever experienced.” As news spread of the assassination attempts against Lincoln and Secretary of State William Seward, Smith recounted how the streets filled with over “[s]eventy thousand” angry and grieving people “wild with excitement . . . all wrought up to the highest pitch.” A sense of fear gripped the nation’s capital because at that moment, Smith relayed, “[n]o one knew how far the conspiracy extended.” Shouts could be heard throughout the mayhem: “Let’s kill every one of them; no loyal man is safe with these traitors in the city!” That significant “bloodshed” did not take place, Smith believed, was out of deep respect for Lincoln. Countering the call for revenge, Smith also heard the calls for mercy: “What would Lincoln do?”—an epitaph that helped curb the appetite for northern vengeance. As Smith observed, “Those words uttered to surging masses of excited men quelled the rising storm.”1

Smith’s memories of Lincoln’s assassination were published by the New York Times nearly thirty-two years after Lincoln died. His memories joined the thousands of reminiscences published in the aftermath of Lincoln’s death by those who knew the man and the president. This study takes seriously the linkage between firsthand reminiscences of Lincoln and Lincoln’s lasting influence on American political thought and the presidency. Every chapter provides different yet convergent scholarly and stylistic evidence for this linkage. As a prelude to the arguments to come, we adduce four reasons for the importance of Lincoln reminiscences to Lincoln scholarship, presidential memory, and citizen ideals.

First, in the absence of Lincoln’s own diaries and memoirs, much of what we know about his private and public life comes from reminiscences. Ascending in popularity from Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 until the turn of the twentieth century, this so-called period of reminiscences, or what we refer to as the reminiscence generation, influenced the earliest postmortem biographies written about Lincoln, some of the more enduring public memories of him, and the scholarship produced about his life and presidency. A market for the literary reminiscence that had segmented off from biography preceded Lincoln. Yet Lincoln’s death powered that market in the United States as never previously experienced. Remembering Lincoln became a national pastime. For profit, posterity, and, not least, heartfelt love and admiration, close acquaintances and distant strangers alike who made sustained or random contact with Lincoln were all too happy to submit their Lincoln memories for public consumption. And profit-minded newspapers and publishers were eager to solicit these submissions because of their popularity among a burgeoning reading public.2

Second, Lincoln reminiscences matter because they represent a unique rhetorical art open to the cultured and uncultured, the learned and the unlearned. Part biography, part eulogy, part memoir, part political portrait, and part day-in-the-life memories, they covered an array of content, from the most public to the most private, even venturing into Lincoln’s inner thoughts and insecurities. And Lincoln reminiscences integrated a diversity of rhetorical styles and topics that democratized his memory because of their diversity of authorship. Lincoln acquaintances represented virtually every walk of life that mirrored Lincoln’s biography from his early years on the frontier through his later years as president. Lincoln acquaintances of high and low station produced an assortment of memories that revealed Lincoln through a wider prism than had ever before been amassed to remember a president. There were the “official” memories from politicians and military officers representing revered institutions. There were the “vernacular” memories of those who had been enslaved on southern plantations or who had steered flatboats up and down the Sangamon River for a livelihood.3 Such cross-currents of Lincoln memories addressed topics proper and prurient, laudable and lewd, inspiring interest and inviting scorn.

Third, Lincoln reminiscences matter because of the competing conceptions of republican and democratic citizenship they upheld. In this book, unless indicated (see conclusion), we do not associate republican and democratic forms of government with contemporary political parties. As the founders debated the Constitution and the first generations of Americans institutionalized it, debates broke out over how much power to invest in the people versus the leaders selected to represent them. Many republican founders feared that democracy would lead to “mob-rule” and called for awarding power, particularly the power of the presidency, to those of advanced means, birthright standing, educational achievement, and cultural refinement. They favored constitutional protections of minorities as well as rulers who practiced beneficence over the people from on high. Those advocating a more democratic vision in nineteenth-century America typically saw beneficence as an excuse for indifferent and aloof rulers and advocated for more inclusive and engaged assumptions for the presidency (see next section).4 In this book we focus on a specific aspect of republican-democratic tensions: conceptions of America’s presidency and the people’s say in defining the ideals of character, citizenship, and presidential leadership. Lincoln reminiscences were caught in the vortex of these tensions, and both camps provide insight into the period’s assumptions of “citizenship and ethics” and their relationship to the presidency.5

Fourth, Lincoln reminiscences matter because they strengthened a bond between the people and a single president lasting beyond living memory. In newspapers, magazines, books, and speeches, reminiscence authors sketched vivid tapestries of themselves in proximity to Lincoln, keeping him intimately “alive” over generations as no president before him. Lincoln reminiscences reflected shifts in presidential character that both anticipated and helped accelerate the rise of the rhetorical presidency. Future presidents inherited the expectation of creating similar bonds with their constituencies.

Lincoln Reminiscences in Context

We define a Lincoln reminiscence as a complete text containing a first-person memory (or memories) of Lincoln after his death. The author of the text, in other words, was identical to the author of the memory. Some memories were preserved in book-length monographs of twenty thousand words or more and others in newspaper articles of two hundred words or less. Our focus is on first-person remembrances published in newspapers, magazines, and pamphlets or included in reminiscence biographies, edited collections, and public lectures.

This study of Lincoln reminiscences combines rhetorical with corpus research methods. A rhetorical approach allows us to consider how public discourse “shapes human understanding and action.”6 By situating this rhetorical art form in a nineteenth-century context, we examine Lincoln reminiscences through the period’s competing conceptions of U.S. citizenship, character, style, and class. Studying texts in context, Kirt H. Wilson argues, helps us “make sense of the decisions, actions, and values of the [past and] present.”7 Such an approach reflects the rhetorical traditions of Ernest Wrage, who argues that reading a collection of texts from a particular era offers insight into “prevailing social ideas and attitudes.” By understanding texts (Lincoln reminiscences and the debates they inspired) in their historical context (1865–1900 United States), we can interpret the “ideational themes” and the “dissonance” that dominated the political culture at the time of their issuance.8 We can then trace those ideas and conflicts through future texts and contexts to assess their consistencies and changes across generations.9

Using corpus methods, we also seek to understand the stylistic differences of more than three hundred reminiscences across a wide spectrum of stylistic features tagged by a corpus stylistic analysis tool called DocuScope. DocuScope relies on stylistic tagging software that has been widely used to analyze the styles of pre-twentieth-century corpora, including nineteenth-century fiction and Shakespeare. The tag counts and frequencies produced from the DocuScope analysis are statistically analyzed to determine which stylistic features in a collection of texts stand out most. Our stylistic analysis of leading remembrances of Lincoln reveals that divisions over Lincoln memory that had been splitting the nation politically and ideologically were also splitting it stylistically.10 Style becomes a salient component of politics, Robert Hariman contends, because it offers a lens for “understanding social reality,” particularly “the social reality of politics.”11 For this project, studying the language of reminiscences contributes to our understanding of the social reality that inspired and divided Lincoln memoirists.

We use corpus methods in tandem with interpretive analysis—thereby integrating quantitative and humanistic methods—because they provide another layer of validation to help us distill “relevant from . . . irrelevant” scholarly claims.12 They further help ensure that our claims about the rhetorical makeup and variation of the Lincoln reminiscences are empirically grounded in actually occurring linguistic patterns and not the sole result of speculative musing or casual assertions. Yet, overreliance on corpus methods can inadvertently introduce an ahistorical myopia by regarding language as an aggregation of isolated patterns bereft of historical context and rhetorical strategy. Here we seek to overcome that potential myopia through an overarching rhetorical framework that countenances language as embedded in historical context and in pursuit of material rhetorical strategies.13

Republican Versus Democratic Visions of U.S. Citizenship

Contextually, we ground Lincoln reminiscences in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century political divide among leaders envisioning a nation cut from republican cloth and others championing its more democratic threads. This divide laid out clear philosophical differences playing out time and again in American political practice and public discourse.14 Although traceable to antiquity, the meanings of republicanism and democracy were fluid and adapted to U.S. politics in the late eighteenth century. Imagining a new nation born of war and prone to faction, the framers of the U.S. Constitution appealed to republican values. Republicanism placed a premium on public virtue—the idea of prioritizing the “public good” over the interests of the individual.15 A republic depended on a system of representing the people by men of good character. In outlining the features of a “republic” in Federalist Papers 10 and 39, James Madison wrote of a “scheme of representation” that derived “all its powers directly or indirectly from the great body of the people.” The ideal representatives, Madison argued, exacted a level of “wisdom” to “discern the true interest of their country” as “proper guardians of the public weal.” Madison and many other founders favored republicanism over democracy as the superior form of government because true equality, they feared, resulted in factionalization. As Madison argued, “democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention” that hold minimal “cure for the mischiefs of faction.”16

Under a republican vision, a representative government depended on electing noble leaders modeling ideal character traits for the nation’s citizens to emulate. These traits, according to republican logic, could help mold the rabble into harmonious citizens. Biographies became an important purveyor of this inspiration.17 Parson (Mason Locke) Weems’s biography of George Washington, The Life of Washington, celebrated Washington’s personification of republicanism, which, according to Weems, accounted for Washington’s ability to inspire “his countrymen with the profoundest veneration . . . as the best of men.” Washington’s republican virtue, in Weems’s words, “naturally smoothed his way to supreme command.”18 In the process of defending a republic and Washington as its first iconic leader, Weems and other Washington biographers seeded the expectation that citizens of a republic had the right to know their leaders as human beings.19

In contrast to life under the British monarchy, the founders conceived republicanism as a “popular” form of government grounded in the “consent of the governed.” Even as many founders denounced the patrimonial lineages of monarchies, their notion of a republic retained hierarchies valuing leaders of birthright standing.20 Under “republicanism,” Jay Fliegelman argues, citizens had a “double identity as sovereign (part of the authorizing People) and as subject (one of the governed).”21 Republicanism among the founders depended on an assumption of a “deferential public” with “enough confidence in elected officials to let them govern unquestioned.”22 Many Federalist founders in particular believed that “distinctions in birth” mattered and that a small percentage of the population—part of the “gentlemen” class—was equipped to lead.23 Madison’s Federalist Paper 58 reflected these elitist sentiments; he fretted that if a “representative assembly” became too large, “the greater will be the proportion of members of limited information and of weak capacities.”24

Not surprisingly, Federalist elitism met with resistance. Anti-Federalists saw no comfortable distinction between republican leadership and monarchical rule. An anti-Federalist writing under the pseudonym “Brutus” challenged the idea that “[o]ne man, or a few men” could “represent the feelings, opinions, and characters of the great multitude.”25 Anti-Federalists placed governance in the virtues of “‘middling’ Americans” and called for a system where the people “supervised their public servants.”26 This strain of democratic thinking in the founding generation was palpable but remained a minority strain. In the early years of the nation, the prevailing view was that democracies led to “mob rule,” and few countenanced republicanism’s “self-rule” transitioning for the better into truly democratic government.27

The power of the executive also divided the constitutional framers. Jeffrey Leigh Sedgwick explains that the framers grappled with “how to promote a strong yet responsible executive” who did not become an American impersonator of a British king.28 In Federalist Paper 70, Alexander Hamilton supported a strong executive, correlating the strength of the executive with the strength of the government: “Energy in the executive is a leading character in the definition of good government” that protected “the community against foreign attacks.” “A feeble executive,” Hamilton cautioned, “implies a feeble execution of the government.”29 The Anti-Federalists fired back, expressing deep-seated suspicions over the force of the executive’s “energy.” Cato, for example, equated the “president” with the “establishment of monarchy in Great Britain,” known for governing by “favorites and flatterers” and leading to “oppression and ruin.” Cato’s famous phrase captured the fear: “to live by one’s man will became the cause of all men’s misery.”30 Anti-Federalists did accept the need for a single executive. The Federal Farmer acknowledged on January 17, 1788, that “a single man seems to be peculiarly well circumstanced” to serve in the executive’s capacity. But fearing that a sovereign would be “constantly aiming at power and importance,” Anti-Federalists worked to limit the power of the president, with the Federal Farmer concluding that “our security must be in limiting, defining, and guarding the exercise of them [powers], so that those given shall not be abused, or made use of for openly or secretly seizing more.” Beyond the checks and balances embedded in the Constitution, the Federal Farmer saw the screening of character as an important curb on presidential abuse. The Farmer insisted that the president be a “great and good man, governed by superior motives.”31

As the founders aged and a new generation came to power, leaders from the Jacksonian era changed the landscape of American politics. By the 1820s and 1830s, suffrage rights began to expand and immigration was on the rise as white males beyond the propertied class were granted citizenship rights. State legislatures came under greater control of middle-class leaders, and volatile issues took center stage; a broader cross-current of the population debated slavery practices, suffrage rights, and capitalism’s rise. The overreach of presidential power divided the political class.32 And a new rhetoric of democracy—one that molded enfranchisement into an emerging middle class—began to compete with the classic discourse of republicanism and its deference to a gentrified class. With regard to this new democratic surge in American politics of the time, Sedgwick observed, “Gone [were] the rules of gentlemen and the deferential politics of the founding era.”33

Certain leaders started to recalibrate the political landscape to accommodate the new democratic thinking.34 The writings of Davy Crockett, among others, crystallized this changing tenor of American politics. In 1834 Crockett argued that the era consisted of two kinds of people—the “gentlemen” class and those who labored on their own behalf. A “gentleman,” Crockett derided, was “not constructed in any useful pursuit by which he could obtain a livelihood.” Crockett chose to praise instead those of “noble ancestry” who may have been “poor but . . . honest.”35

The growing ideological divide between republicanism and democracy did not neatly split along party lines but instead crossed lines of education, class, and geography. Lincoln’s own life and his presidential campaign brought these political tensions to the forefront. Two newspapers aligned with the Republican Party—the New York Times and the New-York Daily Tribune—skirmished over whether Lincoln’s life as a rail-splitter prepared him for the highest office of government.36 The Times editors, touting the need for elite leaders in traditional republican fashion, argued that rail splitting was no presidential qualification at all: “It is not worthwhile to make the mistake of supposing that the fact of splitting rails . . . in early life constitute reasons for electing any man President.” If “Mr. Lincoln were still a mere splitter-of-rails,” the Times reasoned, no one would dream of making him president.37 The more populist Tribune rebuked the Times’ diatribe, arguing that “the highest offices of the government are open to all, however humble their origin.”38 From such humble origins, the Tribune insisted, “the mass of the voters” could be more assured of electing “a man who can be trusted to uphold the great interest of free labor. He must know and understand those interests; he must sympathize with them, for he once was a laborer himself.”39

In some respects the debate between the Times and the Tribune echoed the old arguments between republican and democratic thinking. In other respects, both sides had moved beyond a notion of republicanism that associated leadership with birthright.40 The Times advocated for an updated version of republicanism focusing on self-made men rising from humble origins. It was a republicanism allowing for social and class mobility based on individual achievement. This view represented the idea, as old as Pericles, that republics become more democratic when they include every strata of society in competition for upward mobility into the leadership class.41 The Tribune, by contrast, championed a mushrooming form of democracy that put less attention on individual achievement than on a seismic shift of power away from the privileged to the common classes, from the East to the West, from the city to the country, from elites to nonelites.

The ongoing ideological debate between republicanism and democracy grew more pronounced in the years following Lincoln’s death.42 As the words of Crockett and the Tribune foretold, democratic advocates increasingly associated republicanism with “aristocratic pretentions” as well as “snobbery and class interests.”43 Republican sympathizers remonstrated that the age-old provenance of leadership, based on blood and heredity, were being eroded by the forces of mass democracy.44

The tensions between these schools of thought mounted, as industrial growth, railroad expansion, and economic uncertainty produced unprecedented prosperity and economic inequality. The gap between the wealthy and the poor widened along with the animosities between the privileged and the underprivileged. Race politics divided a revengeful and emboldened North against a resentful and embattled South. The country faced economic depressions in each decade from the 1870s through the 1910s, creating in their wake angry and hungry workers and some of the most violent labor strikes in American history. Homelessness grew, family farms folded, and unemployment became a harsh reality for many Americans.45 Henry George, writing in the “progress and poverty” of the 1870s and 1880s, captured the sentiment of those on the bottom of the economic ladder: “amid the greatest accumulations of wealth, men die of starvation.” George described this class divide as “an immense wedge . . . being forced . . . through society.” Those on top, George argued, were “elevated” by the economic circumstances. “[T]hose who” found themselves “below” the weight of wealth, however, were “crushed” underneath.46

From the perspective of the wealthy, the images of destitute and violent masses created a culture of fear that necessitated efforts to curb democratic excesses and emotional outbursts. As John F. Kasson explains, “[t]he bourgeois code of manners deflected the pressures and inequities of the society back on the individual” in hopes of enhancing “civility” and promoting “self-discipline.”47 From a view atop the economic ladder, images of poverty exposed a “moral depravity” threatening the nation’s stability.48 National stability rested on people of strong character emulating the private virtues of “piety, respectability, and self-cultivation.”49 Etiquette books flooded the reading market to socialize the middling and lower classes on proper cultural and social comportment. Ward McAllister, adviser to the wealthy of New York, suggested in his 1890 booklet, Society as I Have Found It, that “[t]he highest cultivation in social manners enables a person to conceal from the world his real feelings.”50 Such words were meant to curb rowdy behavior during vaudeville performances, raucous skirmishes at baseball games, and riotous crowds in city streets.51 Class distinctions were hardened in the writings of those such as Alfred Ayres, who observed in The Mentor from 1894 that “[t]o get angry with an inferior is degrading; with an equal dangerous; with a superior, ridiculous.” Ayres concluded, “Few things are more impressive than to see calmness opposed to violence, refinement to vulgarity, and decorum to ruffianism.”52

Language registers during this period represented character indices and sharpened distinctions between refined, middling, and vulgar linguistic styles. In his turn-of-the-century Slips of Speech book, John H. Bechtel compared “slang” to “chicken pox.” Like chicken pox, he analogized, slang spread easily in areas of poor “sanitary conditions” that lacked the “culture to counteract its influence” over “words . . . of a more serious character.”53 On matters of style and class, Kenneth Cmiel explains, “Americans were pulled in contradictory directions” that juxtaposed “informal speech” versus “elegant prose” and that deepened class antagonisms.54

In the decades following the Civil War, few could ignore the ideological rift between republicanism and democracy. Self-help books, political biographies, campaign speeches, literary masterpieces, Sunday sermons, news stories, and magazine exposés debated the clashes of citizenship, character, style, and class. Some news and literary writers adapted to the vulgar interests of mass readers, while others saw themselves contributing to the cultural uplift of the many. Some politicians venerated the class of common men while others commemorated men of high achievement. Between 1865 and 1901, Heather Cox Richardson contends, “a new definition of what it meant to be an American developed from a heated debate over the proper relationship of the government to its citizens.”55 The Lincoln reminiscences emerged from and actively participated in these contests over the proper relationship between the American citizen and the American president.

Studying Lincoln Reminiscences

Mid- to late nineteenth-century debates over citizenship, character, style, and class overlapped in time and space almost exactly with the exploding market of Lincoln reminiscences. As Robert Hariman contends, political philosophies such as “civic republicanism only occurs when its doctrines are filled out rhetorically.”56 Partisans on both sides appealed to the life of Abraham Lincoln to make their political philosophies heard. Lincoln’s life provided strong evidence for both visions. Home and heart for Lincoln was the rustic frontier, yet his ascendancy from poverty to the presidency placed him among the eastern political elite. Through remembering Lincoln’s life, individuals from a cross-section of the nation—rich and poor, refined and vulgar, educated and illiterate—battled over Lincoln’s legacy and the legacy of American citizenship in the aftermath of his death. This battle—a battle over proper rhetorical practices—brings us to the major argument of this book. Because Lincoln’s life spanned class, geographic, educational, and stylistic boundaries, Lincoln memories served as a synecdoche of the larger national controversy over the model American president as a common man or as a self-made man whose gifts and sweat managed to leave his commonness behind. The debate also offered insight into who was allowed to remember a president and the stylistic requirements for having their memories matter. Lincoln certainly was not the first common-man president—Andrew Jackson was celebrated for his self-made life before rising to the gentleman status of the presidency.57 Yet Lincoln reminiscences offered the image of a president who could remain common and self-made throughout his presidency, an image provoking an ideological splintering in the understanding and appraisal of upward mobility and presidential self-madeness. Was a self-made president to be celebrated for escaping commonness or for doggedly insisting that his secure grounding in everyday things and values supplied the favored lever for his rise? Each chapter of this book explores these themes from complementary perspectives.

Chapter 1 argues for the profound connection between the Lincoln reminiscences and the expanding publishing market that circulated them. An expanding and increasingly diversified media market put an array of contested Lincoln images in circulation as editors targeted particular publishing niches, from high literature to dime novels, for profit and celebrity. Some periodicals employed a eulogistic style designed to memorialize Lincoln from boundaries of distance and decorum reflective of the republican style. Others captured him in everyday moments—more pedestrian than presidential, more intimate than deferential, and more prone to encroach republican boundaries of propriety. By claiming an intimate relationship with a president, Lincoln memoirists helped level the hierarchy between the presidency and the people.

Chapter 2 argues that the reminiscence generation split over competing conceptions of Lincoln’s political character and the character required of those remembering him. Lincoln acquaintances crossed every class, educational, and regional boundary and mirrored the larger national debate between democratic versus republican models of citizenship. Where Lincoln acquaintances hailed was highly predictive of the character attributes they praised about Lincoln. Acquaintances from the eastern elite typically remembered a dignified Lincoln befitting republican ideals. Acquaintances from the West recalled a more earthy man free of pretension, exemplifying democratic standards. Regardless of where they lived, many built off of claims of intimacy with Lincoln to suggest they aided him in his ascent to the presidency.

Chapter 3 argues that memories of Lincoln reflected not only competing class, educational, and regional understandings of the model character behind the American presidency but also competing rhetorical understandings. It was not just a matter of what to remember about Lincoln or how to remember him. It was a matter of the preferred rhetorical style through which to remember him. Was he best remembered in the vulgar or middling style of ordinary people or in a more refined and elevated style championed for centuries by republican doctrine? Lincoln spoke in both styles, but those committed to republicanism remembered him in a predominantly formal style, while those committed to democratic principles remembered him more often in a familiar, folksy style. We support these claims through a comparative stylistic analysis of William H. Herndon and Jesse W. Weik’s 1888 biography, Abraham Lincoln (later dubbed Herndon’s Lincoln), and Allen Thorndike Rice’s 1886 edited volume, Reminiscences of Abraham Lincoln by Distinguished Men of His Time.58 Herndon and Weik and the informants they recruited routinely violated norms of republicanism by remembering Lincoln in a language that mixed everyday words with refined prose. They described the prairie Lincoln they knew up close in Illinois but became distant chroniclers of Lincoln’s presidency once Lincoln moved to Washington, D.C. By way of contrast, the essayists Rice commissioned were intimates of Lincoln’s presidency and accorded Lincoln the civil and linguistic decorum and formality that republican principles prescribed for a president.

Chapter 4 argues that in addition to contests over character and language, Lincoln reminiscences offered conflicted sentiments over class mobility and the U.S. presidency that has framed American political thought to the present day. Those remembering Lincoln from a democratic lens argued that his humble roots propelled his rise to uncommonness. Lincoln wouldn’t have been Lincoln without the springboard of his western background and the inclusive political vision it fostered. Those remembering him from a republican lens argued that Lincoln’s essence lay in his self-madeness, his ability to escape the constraints of his common roots. And still others remembered Lincoln as a bipartisan “transcendent” figure who had managed in his own person to unify all the tensions that divided the country.

The conclusion traces this fault line of primal presidential character and upward mobility into the twentieth century, when two presidents—Herbert Hoover and Franklin Roosevelt—drew lines in the sand over Lincoln’s commonness and self-madeness. Roosevelt progressives revamped the democratic lens and Lincoln’s memory for a Progressive Era that made Lincoln and his presidency the icon of the common man. The common people under Roosevelt’s stewardship diverged from Lincoln’s vision because they also needed a helping hand from the government to face the daunting economic challenges of the Depression. Hooverism, for its part, strengthened the republican lens not only by framing Lincoln as an icon of self-madeness but also by severing Lincoln’s memory from “commonness” and demoting “commonness” to a term of derision. The twentieth century also revived and popularized a “transcendent” Lincoln from the reminiscence generation, a Lincoln who mashed republican and democratic thinking and styles and became a unifying symbol of American diversity, to be hauled out and paraded on epideictic occasions.

We close the book by examining the implications of Lincoln reminiscences and the long-standing divides over American leadership and citizenship they incubated. We argue that as a form of rhetoric open to the learned and unlearned, reminiscences gave more Americans a symbolic voice in assessing the ideal of the American president and how that ideal either determined or was used to determine the shifting relationship of the American president to the people governed. In the end, we challenge republican visions of the rhetorical presidency by considering its more democratic potential.