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You Don't Know Abraham Lincoln

What happens when you and a Lincoln expert stand next to the Lincoln Memorial and ask questions of visiting tourists?
Lincoln Memorial. (Photo: stevehdc/Flickr)

Lincoln Memorial. (Photo: stevehdc/Flickr)

The Lincoln Memorial is a secular temple, a shrine to a dead human. These aren’t the ramblings of a disillusioned anarchist; those words are literally inscribed above Abraham Lincoln’s white marble head: “IN THIS TEMPLE / AS IN THE HEARTS OF THE PEOPLE / FOR WHOM HE SAVED THE UNION / THE MEMORY OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN / IS ENSHRINED FOREVER.”

Despite this promise, time can alter collective memories. Some things still get taught in schools while others don’t. Some details fall by the wayside. After almost 150 years and several feature films, the memory of Abraham Lincoln may be getting blurred with fiction.

Forgive me for stating the obvious, but it seems important to know some basic facts about the man we’ve enshrined and what his accomplishments actually were beyond vague oversimplifications. For people living a century-and-a-half after this dead person, we should know what he did rather than feel it in our hearts.

Few people know when the Civil War was, and I now know at least five college-educated Americans who could be easily persuaded Abraham Lincoln owned a Model T.

On an unusually frigid afternoon in D.C., I asked people—college-aged or older—at the Lincoln Memorial a series of questions about Abraham Lincoln. I was accompanied by professor Phil Magness, author of Colonization After Emancipation: Lincoln and the Movement for Black Resettlement, thinking I might need his expertise to evaluate answers. As it turned out, a middle school social studies teacher would have sufficed. With the shrine itself looking over us, few demonstrated any knowledge of what he did beyond the elementary.

Question 1: What are the two speeches on the walls of the Lincoln Memorial?

(Everyone was either standing within sight of the speeches or was invited to go read them.)

Two Brigham Young students visiting relatives: “The one on the left is the Gettysburg, and the one on the right is the Second Inaugural Address.”

A family visiting from California: “One of them is like the Gettysburg Address. What’s the other one? Anybody? Any guesses? Is it the inauguration speech or something?”

A middle-aged man leaning against a pillar wearing thick Oakley sunglasses: “There’s the Gettysburg Address and there’s the ... I can’t remember the other one. They’re great though, I actually read ‘em once and I was really impressed. Maybe it’ll come to me.”

A group of five female college students: “The one that starts like, Four Score and Seven Years Ago? What was that called ... I have no clue.” “He gave that at some, like, battle. Or after it? Or something.”

College-aged male who bragged about being a history major and knowing a lot about Lincoln: “Four score and seven ... just by math that’s the ... that’s the Emancipation Proclamation. I don’t know the other one.”

Two twenty-something men: “I know one’s the Gettysburg address....”

Family with three twenty-something children: “Gettysburg and Second Inaugural.”

Answer: the Gettysburg Address and the Second Inaugural Address.

Question 2: What was the purpose of the Emancipation Proclamation?

BYU Students: “It was a declaration that was supposed to free the slaves. It was an entirely different deal. But it was, as Lincoln said, no one could enslave someone else.”

California family: “Freed the slaves.”

Man with Oakleys: “Oh yeah, that’s the other [speech]!” (It wasn’t) “Freedom of the slaves, yeah yeah.”

Five college girls:  “That’s like, freeing the slaves.”

History major: “Technically it freed all the slaves, but it was really only a wartime proposal. It freed all the slaves in the north, but there weren’t any slaves in the north. It was really a political move to help sway public opinion.”

Two men: “Freed the slaves.”

Family: “All men are created equal. Freed the slaves.”

Answer: “Free the slaves” implies it freed all the slaves, which isn’t true. Magness’ explanation:

The Emancipation Proclamation had two immediate effects:

1. It declared the slaves of the portions of Confederate states still deemed in rebellion to be free by military action. While the overwhelming majority of them were still beyond Confederate lines and therefore outside the enforcement reach of the proclamation, it did immediately free perhaps as many as 50,000 slaves who fell behind Union lines in still-rebellious territory and therefore were immediately subject to its jurisdiction. It was then gradually expanded to the remaining Confederate territory as the Union gained ground militarily.

2. It formalized the process of arming ex-slaves and encouraged or enticed them to do so. This process had been informally under way since roughly the previous August, but it had previously been official policy that blacks were not allowed to be armed as soldiers in the army.

The proclamation did NOT free the slaves in states that were not deemed in rebellion (Missouri, Maryland, Kentucky, Delaware, West Virginia). And it was adopted concurrently with plans to begin the colonization of slaves abroad, as well as an attempt to gradually free the slaves of the aforementioned non-rebellious states through compensation of their owners.

As Magness’ explanation makes clear, since several states were allowed to keep their slaves, it never stated no man could enslave someone else. Likewise, it never said anything about all men being created equal.

Question 3: What year was Lincoln assassinated?

BYU Students: “18 ... sixty something? I don’t know the exact year though.”

California family: Girl: “That one was like 1884. Er, wait.” Guy: “We were just looking at his hat at the Smithsonian.” Girl: “I don’t know.”

Man with Oakleys:  “Uh, no.”

Five college girls: “19 ... no, 18....” “It was not in the 1900s, right?” “He didn’t live at all in the 1900s right?” “I wanna say 1860-something.” “I wanna say 1811.” “No, it was the '40s.” “Maybe it is the '30s. Or '40s.” “I would say '40s.” “I feel like one of those people on the street who don’t know who Hitler is.”

History major: “1865.”

Two men: “18 ... trying to think of the Civil War. I just watched the movie so I should know. 18 ... 40?”

Family: “1863 was the Civil War so I’m going to say 18 sixty ... four? five?”

Answer: 1865.

We clearly aren’t very good with dates. Few people know when the Civil War was, and I now know at least five college-educated Americans who could be easily persuaded Abraham Lincoln owned a Model T. At least they know who Hitler is.

When I asked Magness if he’s ever encountered this level of historical ignorance in the classroom, he told me “the tourists were slightly more ignorant, but not significantly so.” Perhaps more tellingly, he recognized the complete apathy when confronted with their own ignorance. None of them seemed to care how little they knew.