Although Lincoln’s reputation is currently quite elevated, he wasn’t so popular while in office. The caliber of insults leveled at him was shocking both in tone and intensity. As President Nixon noted at Lincoln’s birthday ceremony in 1974:
No President in history was more vilified during his time in the presidency than Lincoln.”
Upon Lincoln’s election, for example, the most esteemed orator in America, Edward Everett, wrote in his diary:
He is evidently a person of very inferior cast of character, wholly unequal to the crisis.”
[Two years later, Everett spoke right before Lincoln did at Gettysburg. No one remembers what Everett said.]
Lincoln was jeered at for his accent, his clothes, his voice, his story-telling, and his appearance, not to mention, most importantly and subject to the most vituperation, his policies. He was called imbecilic (per Edwin Stanton); idiotic, a coward, and a gorilla (per General McClellan), and newspapers in both the North and the South showed him no respect whatsoever. They condemned him as a traitor, a dictator, “Massa Linkums,” a weakling, pusillanimous, and a murderer.
It is only with his assassination that his popularity ascended.
And now, 204 years later, he is our hero.
One must feel happy for the young man of thirty-one, who, profoundly depressed and even suicidal, made a confession to his friend Joshua Speed. Years later, in 1866, Speed recalled:
He said to me that he had done nothing to make any human being remember that he had lived — and that to connect his name with the events transpiring in his day & generation and so impress himself upon them as to link his name with something that would redound to the interest of his fellow man was what he desired to live for…”
Now, Lincoln’s likeness is everywhere: there are around 200 statues and sculptures of Lincoln in America, which amounts to almost one third of the more than 600 memorials and statues of American presidents. The number of books about him is legion. In fact, a stack of over 15,000 titles was erected in the lobby of the Ford’s Theatre Center for Education and Leadership, and reaches some 34 feet in height.
He may even, this year, win an Oscar….