The New York Lincoln Memorial

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The NYT today features a “Lincoln Memorial Diary” that has some choice verses about Abe. In typical fashion of Americans canonizing their politicians, these verses appear:

Weep, gentle nation, weep,
The sad, the swift remove of him,
Whom heaven, indulgent, sent to,
Man; too good for earth, to heaven,
Art thou fled, and left a nation in tears.

and

“A glorious career of service and devotion is crowned with a Martyr’s death.”

The diary supposedly records a variety of makeshift Lincoln memorials erected around New York after the killing.

What strikes one is how emotionally attached people were to a politician whom most of them had never met, and how insistent they are on portraying him as the manifestation of unadulterated virtue.

Yet, the Lincoln Cult seems to only be an extreme version of the sort of politician worship that has long been a tradition in the United States. Perhaps De Tocqueville commented on this. Perhaps democracy impels people to imbue their democratically elected leaders with super-human virtue. Whatever it is, experience has shown us that the attitude is hardly limited to Lincoln.

On a recent visit to Canton, Ohio, I dropped by the William McKinley memorial. The memorial is a huge temple erected to the man who ordered the murder of thousands of Filipinos and started a pointless war with Spain.

If one knew little of McKinley, one would leave the memorial thinking he were some kind of austere hermit who instructed his followers on moral virtue. Plaque after plaque at the site informs us that McKinley was a model of virtue, hygiene and manly rigor, all the while making Americans more virtuous, hygienic, and uh, manly. This was all accomplished by sheer force of his magnificent example.

We use different sorts of words for our politicians today, but the way we remember them has changed little.

11:28 am on April 18, 2009