As part of the evening's events, Illinois State Historian Dr.
Samuel Wheeler did a presentation on "Searching for the Lincoln
Legacy in the Modern World." Wheeler, who works with the Abraham
Lincoln Presidential Library, highlighted the importance of Abraham
Lincoln and his many images in the twenty first century.
Wheeler said some revelation from the movie were politicing, nasty
log rolling, and deals that were made to pass an amendment. Wheeler
was struck by Lincoln's sense of humor in the movie. Director Steven
Spielberg shows how Lincoln used humor to disarm rivals, shift the
topic of conversations, and even as a leadership device.
Wheeler said the thesis of the Spielberg's fictional movie is "that
Lincoln understands just how flawed, how messy, how ugly, how
unethical, how immoral the political process can be." He said
Lincoln was able to work within that system to achieve "profoundly
just moral, ethical consequences for the nation" by ending slavery.
Wheeler said Spielberg seems to challenge us in the twenty first
century to use our political system to make it a better society. He
said others have used Lincoln to make a similar message.
Wheeler said images of Lincoln surround us on the penny, five dollar
bill, stamps, bobbleheads, and magazines. Lincoln is even found in
comic books giving advice to crime fighters. His brand is incredibly
valuable. A life insurance company and a car brand were named after
him. Lincoln has been a character in television shows and many
Wheeler said Lincoln is the most written about American of all time
with 19,000 titles written about him. Twenty five states have
Lincoln related sites and there are hundreds of statues of him.
Wheeler asked, "why is Lincoln so enduring to our daily lives in the
twenty first century?" He said there are three reasons:
- Lincoln has the most compelling biography because he was
born in a log cabin and mostly self-taught. Lincoln rose from
poverty to prominence and ends up in the White House.
- Lincoln preserved the union and kept it together. He did not
just let the states that seceded go, but felt saving the union
was worth everything.
- On Lincoln's watch, American slavery died after 250 years.
By the end of the four million men, women, and children were
free partly because of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. He
was an advocate of civil rights and stood for core American
values like all men are created equal.
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Wheeler said 150 years later, we are surrounded by Abraham Lincoln because so
much of what he stood for is "embedded in who we are and who we want to be as
both a nation and as an individual." Lincoln has become "the better angel of our
nature both on a national and personal level."
Wheeler then asked for questions from the audience.
One asked how historians felt Spielberg handled the Lincoln movie.
Wheeler said historians criticized aspects like log rolling and trading
patronage jobs for votes. Wheeler said it is a work of fiction and historians
and filmmakers work at different levels. Wheeler feels Spielberg was using
history to tell a contemporary story.
Someone asked how Lincoln's successes related to his failures.
Wheeler said Lincoln learned when he got knocked down and got back up and used
adversity as learning experiences. Lincoln's friend William Herndon talked about
Lincoln's failures and flaws and said they made Lincoln's brilliance better.
Another asked Wheeler what his personal favorite Lincoln biography was and
whether there were any new books about Lincoln coming out.
Wheeler said there are many good biographies. He said Ronald White's Abraham
Lincoln: A Life is one of his favorites. Wheeler said new books are coming out
all the time. One new one by Charles Strozier examines the relationship between
Lincoln and his best friend. Lincoln did not have many close friends to confide.
Through Wheeler's presentation, those who had watched the movie "Lincoln"
learned more about Lincoln and his legacy and the message of the movie.