Illinois' State Historian Dr. Samuel Wheeler describes how Abraham Lincoln is embedded in who we are

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[October 17, 2016]  LINCOLN - The inaugural Lincoln Film Festival opened Friday, October 14 with a showing of the 2012 movie "Lincoln" following by a gala at the Logan County Courthouse.

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 movies.

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

[Angela Reiners]

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