Lincoln Bicentennial Review: Carl Sandburg’s Address to a Joint Session of Congress

April 30, 2009 § Leave a comment

On February 12, 1959, poet Carl Sandburg addressed a joint session of Congress at a celebratory dinner in honor of the 150th birthday of Abraham Lincoln. The celebrated author of the four-volume Lincoln: The War Years, Sandburg crafted a beautiful address in honor of the president, interweaving his own comments with fourteen quotes from Lincoln. Although Lincoln campaign workers were the first to develop the mythic “rail-splitter Lincoln”, Carl Sandburg’s work did a great deal to cement the idea in popular culture.[1] This Lincoln was one who grew up in poverty, was self-taught, worked hard splitting rails and studying to be a lawyer, and who through his own grit grew to be one of the greatest Presidents the United States has ever known. In a United States that was enduring the great Depression in addition to the threat of totalitarianism and other evils, Lincoln as icon of the common man, Lincoln as symbolizing democracy, is one that quickly gains weight in literature, culture and historical analysis.[2]

But what does it mean to say that Lincoln is a symbol of democracy? Near the end of his address, Sandburg muses: “Democracy – we cannot say exactly what it is, but [Lincoln] had it. In his blood and bones he carried it. In the breath of his speeches and writings it is there.”[3] Sandburg understands Lincoln as a man of contradictory qualities – “both steel and velvet…hard as rock and soft as drifting fog, who holds in his heart and mind the paradox of terrible storm and peace unspeakable and perfect”[4] – and carefully chooses fourteen quotes spoken by or attributed to Lincoln to reveal different facets of Lincoln’s character. It is helpful to reflect on at least some of these quotes, picked to highlight several aspects of Lincoln’s character or events in his life: his relationship to events surrounding him in general, his desire to keep the Union intact, his hatred of the bloodshed of the war, his actions regarding emancipation, reconstruction, and finally, how Lincoln saw himself in the great drama of history. Furthermore, these quotes are indicative of shifts in the understanding of Lincoln, from controversial figure to mythic figure and champion of the common man.

It is important to note that Sandburg’s address was delivered at a time when Lincoln scholarship was at a high point. For as Lincoln came under more and more scrutiny, Sandburg’s own railsplitter image of Lincoln was beginning to dissolve into an image which was more “complex, fractured and blurred.”[5] The Great Emancipator was not as passionate and certain about emancipation as modernity wanted him to be. He had a troubled marriage. He may have even struggled with serious depression. In the face of evidence that clouds the image of Abraham Lincoln, how does one both acknowledge the great president’s imperfections as well as give him the praise due him on his 150th birthday?

The first shift to a mythic figure can be seen in the quotes Sandburg chooses to deal with Lincoln’s understanding of his relationship to the events taking place during his Presidency, namely, the torrid violence of the Civil War. In a masterful and respectful handling of Lincoln’s controversial actions as President of the United States, Sandburg does not shy away from mentioning that Lincoln “took to himself the powers of a dictator”[6] in his drive to keep the Union together.  Did he have a concrete policy or was he bobbing along with the flood, responding to crises as they arose? While he did have a positive influence on emancipation of the slaves in Confederate territory, he also abolished habeus corpus and enforced conscription of soldiers. Sandburg successfully softens even these issues, however, crafted phrases that indicate that Lincoln as President acted “under imperative necessity”[7]. Lincoln’s policy was indeed not to have one: it was to look at each problem as it arose and calmly take action.[8] By asserting that Lincoln was acting according to the dynamic of events surrounding him, Sandburg saved Lincoln from becoming too similar to the dictators that the world feared in 1959.

A second shift, one from an image of Lincoln who sometimes contradicted himself in regards to emancipation to a Lincoln who is a champion of the common man, is evident in Sandburg’s choice of quotes dealing with emancipation. His portrayal of Lincoln is upbeat and progressive, especially when he quotes Lincoln as writing to a Union general, Nathaniel Banks that “I think it would not be objectionable for her to adopt some practical system by which the two races could gradually live themselves out of their old relation to each other…education for the young blacks should be included in the plan.”[9] This is a far cry from the Lincoln who admitted that he would give up emancipation at its beginning than lose the Union.[10] But Sandburg goes a step further in removing race as an issue altogether with his second emancipation quote. Lincoln wrote that “when the Know-Nothings get control, it will read ‘all men are created equal except Negroes and foreigners and Catholics.'”[11] On a note of bitterness, he ends: “When it comes to this, I shall prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretense of loving liberty.”[12] Emancipation is not merely about equality of race, but it is rather about freeing the common man from under the heel of oppressive government. This shift allows for Lincoln to be even further removed from the controversy surrounding him.

The quotes Sandburg chooses to represent Lincoln’s understanding of his place in history are telling as well. He quotes Lincoln’s words to Congress when he said that “the dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate for the stormy present. We must think anew, we must act anew, we must disenthrall ourselves.”[13] So also we must disenthrall ourselves from any one conventional image of Lincoln to embrace all the contradictions and mystery of his character. If we look beyond the apparent contradictions, we can see how Lincoln epitomized the virtue of democracy, the virtue of the common man. This effectively releases Lincoln the man from his bonds in history so that he can be understood by anyone. Unfortunately, it is contentious whether this one-sided view of Lincoln does more harm than good, because while it turns attention away from apparent flaws in Lincoln’s character, it at the same time downplays his genius in reconciling his own conflicting views.

The notion of disenthrallment also gives Sandburg the chance to appropriate the Lincoln and show how he can continue to be an inspiration in the future. Lincoln, for Sandburg, is not a mere historic figure who lived and died, but something timeless. This timelessness is what makes this Lincoln more of a myth than a man. Because he is a myth, he can be idolized by everyone, from one continent to another, from one social strata to another, without regard to race or religion. Lincoln’s words to Congress, Sandburg says, “are the sort of words that actuated the mind and will of the men who created and navigated that marvel of the sea, the Nautilus.”[14] The Nautilus was the first nuclear-powered submarine, which traveled under the North Pole in a race against the Soviets in the summer of 1958. When he says this, Sandburg is pointing out how the spirit of Lincoln is something that strikes a chord in every heart and soul aspiring to greatness.

Although Sandburg will says at the end of his address that the “mystery of Lincoln” is one that can never be fully spoken in words[15], the poet was apparently quite precise in choosing the aspects of Lincoln’s character – which encompasses many contradictory qualities – that he wanted to show.  Sandburg wanted to portray a mythic Lincoln, free from controversy, free from the bonds of historical events that surrounded him, and free from the bonds of time. In this he was certainly successful, as the crowd rose to their feet in a standing ovation when the address was finished.[16] But at what cost to our understanding of Lincoln the man? It is at great cost, for abstraction from the man himself brings with it a loss of at least one of the qualities that made Lincoln truly great: his ability to wrestle with issues and reconcile conflicting beliefs in his own mind and heart.

[1] Carwardine, Richard, Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power, New York, Vintage Books, 2006. 121-122.

[2] Peterson, Merrill, Lincoln in American Memory, New York, Oxford University Press, 1994. 312.

[3] Sandburg, Carl. “The Report from the Join Committee on the Arrangements on the Commemoration Ceremony in Observance of The 150th Anniversary of the Birth of Abraham Lincoln.” Washington, DC, United States Government Printing Office, 1959. 6.

[4] Sandburg, 3.

[5] Peterson, 314.

[6] Sandburg, 4.

[7] Ibid, 4.

[8] Ibid, 4.

[9] Ibid, 5.

[10] Carwardine, 209.

[11] Sandburg, 6.

[12] Ibid, 6.

[13] Ibid, 6.

[14] Ibid, 6.

[15] Ibid, 6.

[16] Peterson, 371.


Listen to Sandburg read his Address, and read it yourself at the same time.

Lincoln in American Memory

Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power

Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site (well worth visiting the actual home!)

Historic ship Nautilus

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