[August 11th marks the birthday of AmericanStudier pére, as well as one of the very best digital humanists, scholarly writers, and grandfathers I know, Steve Railton. In his honor, a series on some noteworthy cultural and historical American fathers! Share your paternal responses and reflections for the father of all crowd-sourced posts!]
On the clear and relatively consistent but also complex images of two beloved leaders.
By a variety of measures, from the educated opinions of historians and political scientists to broader popular polls and rankings, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln have long been our two most popular presidents. Given the contemporary partisan attitudes and divisions that heavily influence not only current politics but also assessments of every 20th century president, these two much less controversial (in our own era—they engendered plenty of controversies in theirs) historical leaders are likely to remain at the top of the list. Moreover, while of course scholars and historians try to engage with the complex realities of each man and his leadership, our popular narratives and images of both tend to connect to more personal and mythic traits: specific characteristics, such as each man’s famous honesty; and overall symbolic roles, such as Washington’s image as “The Father of Our Country” and Lincoln’s as “Father Abraham.”
It’s important to note that those kinds of symbolic and often paternal images aren’t just subsequent additions to the men’s legacies, nor simply the province of children’s books. In a 1799 eulogy to Washington, Richard Henry Lee, one of Washington’s co-framers and one of the era’s most prominent politicians, famously described him as "First in war, first in peace, and first in the hearts of his countrymen,” and Parson Weems’ 1800 biography likewise embraced, and indeed helped develop and popularize, all of the mythic narratives and images. With Lincoln, similarly, the phrase “Father Abraham” was apparently coined by Union troops and used frequently in their letters and writings to describe their attitudes toward the president, and Walt Whitman’s 1865 poem “O Captain! My Captain!” illustrates just how fully the mythic images of Lincoln had come to define the man for many Americans by the time of his assassination. Which is to say, whatever communal and psychological reasons we might have to turn these military and political leaders into familial and paternal figures, those reasons (or at least some of them) were present in the men’s own moments, and have only continued and grown in the centuries since.
So why have we so consistently paternalized these two presidents? Obviously there are specific circumstances and contexts for each, but I would point to one pretty shared context: that of a nation torn apart internally. The images of the Civil War as pitting brother against brother are well known (and often accurate), and it was Lincoln himself who characterized the moment with the familial phrase “a house divided against itself.” And the Revolutionary era similarly split Americans and families—Ben Franklin, for example, famously split from his beloved son William when the young Franklin remained loyal to England. While of course both Washington and Lincoln chose and led one side in those internal battles (and it’s fair to say that neither the English nor the Confederates bought into the paternal images as a result), it’s nonetheless true that both men came to embody, during and even more so after their respective wars, the possibility of a once-more united nation, of an American family that could move forward rather than dwell on the past divisions and antagonisms. That’s perhaps especially true for Lincoln, since his assassination meant that his images and legacies could exist outside of the continuing bitterness and hostility of Reconstruction. But in both cases, these fatherly images greatly oversimplify and mythologize both the men’s own perspectives and roles and the national community in and after their eras.
Next father tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Fatherly texts or figures you’d highlight?
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