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The Legacy of Abraham Lincoln

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Presidents of the USA
Before George Washington | John Adams | Thomas Jefferson | William Henry Harrison
The Life of Abraham Lincoln | Legacy of Abraham Lincoln | Death of Abraham Lincoln
Jefferson Davis | Ulysses S Grant | William Howard Taft
Dwight D Eisenhower - Early Life | President Dwight D Eisenhower
John Fitzgerald Kennedy | John F Kennedy Administration | Assassination of John F Kennedy
Lyndon Baines Johnson | Richard Milhous Nixon | Bushisms of George W Bush

Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, died on 15 April, 1865, but of course no great men ever really die. In Lincoln's case, he lives on in almost everything. It's uncanny.

Currency and Finance

Lincoln’s likeness and memorial appear on two denominations of US currency. They are in fact two of the most common units of currency in the American system, perhaps second only to the quarter and one dollar bill, which bear the likeness of George Washington.

The penny is a small coin of copper-plated zinc, worth one cent. It shows the right side of Lincoln’s face on the front and the Lincoln Memorial on the back. Though the image of the Memorial on the back is small, you can see a figure in the middle, with six pillars to the right of him and six pillars to the left. It could appear to be a man standing, but it is really a very tall man sitting down, as the Lincoln Memorial has a huge seated statue of Lincoln. It is altogether appropriate that Lincoln, who brought about one of the greatest changes in US history (namely the end of slavery) appears on a penny, which is used almost whenever change is made with American money.

The other item with Lincoln’s image on it is the five dollar bill. On the front is Lincoln, looking wise and somewhat mysterious. On the back is the Lincoln Memorial, but shown in much greater detail than on the penny. You can clearly see the 12 Doric columns in the front, and you can also see the great statue of Lincoln sitting and looking kind, yet strong. It makes sense that Lincoln should be honoured with a bill bearing his likeness, as he helped pass legislation governing national banking, which allowed for a central national currency like the one that America has today.

In fact, Lincoln’s contribution to modern government finance is often overlooked. He instituted the first national income tax to pay for the Civil War, made laws about sound credit and safe banking, encouraged labour unions and brought about sizable tariffs on European goods. Lincoln’s economic and financial plans were obviously not overlooked by the Treasury. Besides his appearance on the five dollar bill, the image of his Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P Chase, at one point was printed on the 10,000 dollar bill.

The Lincoln Memorial

In Washington DC, at the end of the National Mall, stands a massive, beautiful monument to Abraham Lincoln. It is made of marble and has 36 Doric columns, symbolizing the 36 states that were in the Union when Lincoln died. Above the columns are two tiers of marble walls inscribed with the names of the first 48 states - those that were in the Union at the time of the construction of the Memorial1.

On either wall are engraved the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. In the middle of the monument is a huge statue of Lincoln, sitting down. This was sculpted by Daniel Chest French2 in 1922.

Image for Entertainment

If you look closely, it is almost uncanny how many references are made to Lincoln in film and television. Not counting documentaries, references to Lincoln, his likeness and image can be found in all sorts of television shows and films - most commonly comedies, and most commonly of those, bad ones. For instance, in the film Zoolander it is asserted that John Wilkes Booth was a male model; in The Master of Disguise, the main character’s grandfather says that Lincoln was really a rather bad public speaker and someone had to dress up as him and excite the crowds; and in Legally Blonde 2, the main character decides that the president's wearing of a top hat was a rather brave fashion choice.

Finally, in the film Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, Lincoln makes a stirring speech:

Four score and seven minutes ago, we, your forefathers, were brought forth upon a most excellent adventure. Conceived by our new friends, Bill and Ted. These two great gentlemen are dedicated to a proposition which was true in my time, just as it's true today. Be excellent to each other, and party on, dudes!

Lincoln’s clear and good image makes him a likely target for satire. With his active sense of humour, Lincoln probably would not have minded the jokes. Because a person might identify a man with a top hat and a distinctive sort of facial hair as being Lincoln3, he appears in many forms of entertainment without the need to make it clear it's Lincoln. Lincoln impersonators, such as James Getty, attract crowds to listen to an imitation of his speeches.

In Print

Alliteration is important for titles and slogans, which have to be catchy. The 16th president inspired at least two of them - ‘Land of Lincoln’, a reference to Illinois, or sometimes illegally to Kentucky4, and ‘Life of Lincoln’, the title of a countless number of biographies on the man. The former is the official state slogan of Illinois and appears on many license plates from that state. The latter can be found in most libraries, under many different authors.

Naturally, not every biography of the man is named 'Life of Lincoln', because that would be confusing. But it is astonishing that nearly an entire sub-genre has been devoted to 'Lives' of Lincoln, with different titles.

Perhaps the authoritative biography of Lincoln was written by Carl Sandburg between the years 1920 and 1939. It consists of six volumes of information about the man, beautifully written and divided into two parts: The Prairie Years and The War Years. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for History in 1940.

Other than basic biographies, there are dozens of published works dealing with selected parts of Lincoln’s life. There are books about Lincoln’s sense of humour, his religious beliefs, his ethics, his family, his lineage, his assassination and places throughout the nation that are associated with the man. There are pop-up books, children's books, long books, short books, old books, new books. The wide variety of books on the man can probably only be described by Dr Seuss5.


A bronzed, lank man! His suit of ancient black,
A famous high top-hat and plain worn shawl
Make him the quaint great figure that men love
- Vachel Lindsay, ’Lincoln Walks at Midnight’

The high top hat (known as a ‘stove pipe hat’) will forever be associated with President Lincoln. The surest way to make a picture or drawing of Lincoln recognisable is to stick a tall black top hat on his head. Most photographs of Lincoln don’t have him in a top hat, and in reality he did not wear one very often, but he wore it one very important day.

The Smithsonian Institute claims to have the top hat Lincoln was wearing when he was shot in Ford’s Theater in Washington DC. The strong association between Lincoln and top hats has inspired some top hat salespeople to name varieties of their items after the president.

Further Reading

1Alaska and Hawaii were not yet states.2Incidentally, this was the second time that someone French sculpted a ‘statue of liberty’.3That is, his 'look' is more recognisable than that of a lesser-known president like William McKinley.4The US Congress passed an act in 1955 that granted a copyright to the state of Illinois for the use of the phrase ‘Land of Lincoln’.5Popular author of children's books, among them How the Grinch Stole Christmas and The Cat in the Hat.

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