Weekly Feature

Associated Press

Why Is Lincoln So Popular?

April 07, 2009
by Colleen Brondou
Ask people to name the greatest American president, or their favorite president, and you’re likely to get the same answer: Abraham Lincoln. The Great Emancipator is remembered as a charismatic orator and an honest man, and has become a symbol of quality and reliability. But the actual details of his policies are often forgotten.

“Abe-o-mania” Sweeps the Nation

Many have praised Lincoln as America’s greatest president. He’s revered as a common man who not only found success, but also inspired hope—a true embodiment of the American dream.

But what has prompted all the current fuss about Lincoln? Sure, it’s the 200th anniversary of his birthday this year. President Barack Obama has made no secret of his admiration for the Great Emancipator and has drawn comparisons between himself and the 16th president.
So it comes as no surprise that 2009 will see scores of new books published, elaborate celebrations planned, and numerous library and museum exhibitions unveiled in Lincoln’s honor. What is surprising, at least to some, is the emergence of Lincoln as a pop-culture icon.

21st Century Abe, a new Web site sponsored by Philadelphia’s Rosenbach Museum & Library, plans to spend six months examining this phenomenon. The homepage of the site asks, “[W]hy are we in the 21st century still obsessed with this 19th-century man? We find Abe everywhere from advertising to political punditry. What does this popular Abe have to do with the historical Abe?” The site intends to answer these questions using historical documents, artwork, music compositions, even short “webisodes” on Lincoln, all submitted by scholars, artists and site visitors.

The Lincoln Brand

A 2008 article in The New Yorker points out that Lincoln’s image has been used to shill products for almost as long as he’s been dead: “The American craving for Lincoln soon led to the use of his likeness and name to sell life insurance, cholera remedies, and lead (‘By Its Purity & Excellent Qualities This Lead Deserves The Name Bestowed Upon It’).”

Aside from advertising, Lincoln’s face has been a fixture in our daily lives—and in our wallets—for 100 years: His profile has graced the lowliest of American currency, the humble penny, since 1909. But as the U.S. Treasury Web site explains, this was “a radical departure” from the usual style of U.S. coins: “A strong feeling had prevailed against using portraits on our coins, but public sentiment stemming from the 100th anniversary celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s birth proved stronger than the long-standing prejudice.”

Lincoln the Celebrity

Pop Culture Examiner saw the current Lincoln buzz coming and included him in its Jan. 2 post, “2009 in Preview—Your Pop Culture Bookmarks for the New Year.” Lincoln grabbed the number-three spot, trailing “The Man” (Obama), and “Unfriending” (getting dumped on social networking sites). Not bad for a man who’s been dead for nearly 150 years.

As if on cue, Lincoln has appeared in numerous commercials on primetime TV over the past few months. Look for him in a commercial for TD Bank with Regis and Kelly, lamenting the decreased worth of the penny. A two-year-old Rozerem sleep aid commercial that features Lincoln in company with a talking beaver and an astronaut is back on the air again. Perhaps strangest of all is Lincoln’s role in a commercial for Diet Mountain Dew. Engaged in a public debate with Stephen Douglas, Lincoln rips off his shirt, revealing tattoos, and throws people off the stage as if he were a professional wrestler.

His image isn’t confined to TV; popular Web sites have their fair share of Lincoln, too. Lincoln has his own YouTube channel, and searching on the tag “abrahamlincoln” on Flickr turns up a wide variety of images, including children’s drawings and tattoos. There’s even a Google map of places associated with him around the world.

What Makes Lincoln Relevant Today?

In February, the Star Tribune remarked that the “Abe-o-mania” that surrounded Lincoln’s birthday demonstrated “the kind of fervor usually reserved for rock stars and royalty.”

The newspaper reported that Joe Martin, a 25-year-old graduate student at the University of Minnesota, said that “the qualities Lincoln stood for resonate deeply with those of his generation.” Bryce Stenzel, a Mankato, Minn. educator, remarked, "It's a testimony to the American dream that people are still fascinated with him." Ronald White, author of “A. Lincoln: A Biography,” told the paper that Lincoln’s words “still sound contemporary” and people are attracted to “his humble attitude.”

Michael Beschloss, a presidential historian and author, apparently agrees with these sentiments. In “Why Lincoln matters,” Beschloss listed seven reasons why “Lincoln remains the greatest of our presidents.” One of the reasons listed is “He remains a pop culture favorite,” which raises the question: Is Lincoln a pop culture icon because he still matters, or does Lincoln still matter because he is a pop culture icon?

“Even those Americans most ignorant of presidential history will encounter Lincoln cars, Lincoln Logs, companies, schools and cities named for Lincoln,” Beschloss wrote. But what do most of us really know about Lincoln the man or the policies he enacted as president?

Paul Escott, a Southern historian and professor of history at Wake Forest University, argues that the ignorance about the true Abraham Lincoln “does a disservice to our country’s history.” In his new book, “‘What Shall We Do with the Negro?’: Lincoln, White Racism, and Civil War America,” he takes a provocative look at a president who was unpopular during his presidency—a man who, though progressive for his time, “was more willing to be conciliatory to Southern whites to get them back into the union. That often came at the expense of African-Americans in the South.”

Escott cautions that “[o]ur popular culture oversimplifies and distorts” the era of Lincoln’s presidency and its aftermath. “Lincoln especially has become an icon, used as a symbol of everything that is good and virtuous about the United States.”

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