Abraham Lincoln Myth Had Its Doubters, Like Edgar Lee Masters

In poet Edgar Lee Masters's telling, Honest Abe was a fraud and an enemy of civil liberty.

By + More

By John Aloysius Farrell, Thomas Jefferson Street blog

I would not be a proper contrarian, nor a worthy Jeffersonian, if I did not note that besides the brigades of adulatory Lincoln biographers listed in the weekend's book reviews by William Safire and others, there was at least one great American man of letters who thought Honest Abe was a fraud.

He is the poet Edgar Lee Masters, and he is best known as the author of Spoon River Anthology, a triumph of American realism.

Now, it is certainly true that Masters was a curmudgeon. Indeed, he was one of the most self-centered, egotistical, and grouchy figures in American literature. And there are some who contend that Lincoln: The Man, the poet's 1930 dissection of Lincoln, was written from jealous spite as an answer to Carl Sandburg's hugely successful, often fictional, and always worshipful Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years, which helped perpetuate the Lincoln myth in 1926.

Masters and Sandburg were both from Illinois, but their early friendship had turned to rivalry, and Masters was never one to forgive another's success.

Yet it must also be said that Masters grew up where Lincoln did, and Sandburg did not. The Spoon River country was Lincoln country. And Masters's own biographer, Herbert Russell, notes how Masters's father had once practiced law with William Herndon, Lincoln's former law partner, and that Masters's grandfather, a local justice of the peace, had known the 16th president well.

From the tales of his relatives and the townfolk of his childhood, Masters drew a corrective picture of Lincoln. His Abe was cold, and cunning, and devious, and a sexual misfit, and a blundering politician who helped bring on the Civil War, trampled on civil liberties, and was ever-beholden to Eastern financial and manufacturing interests.

It is worth noting that Masters dedicated his book to Thomas Jefferson. Like many Democrats of his time, Masters hated the upstart Republican Party for its slavish allegiance to wealth and economic power, and for the corrupt way that the victorious "War Party" perpetuated its hold on Washington, and despoiled American democracy, in the Gilded Age.

Masters and Democrats like him saw, in how national power shifted to the federal government and Wall Street during and after the Civil War, a betrayal of the individual rights and liberties that Jefferson and James Madison and the other Founders had celebrated in the Declaration of Independence and engraved in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. What was the Gettysburg Address, other than an ode to central authority, and as such a perversion of Revolutionary principles?

Well, needless to say, Masters did not win the argument. He was widely criticized for challenging the patriotic orthodoxy; his book sold poorly, and is regarded today as a curiosity, if at all. The myth of Lincoln—the saintly commoner who, almost single-handedly, saved the Union and freed the slaves—lived on.

And so it should. It's a pretty good myth, after all.

  • Read more by John Aloysius Farrell.
  • Read more about Abraham Lincoln.
  • Read more from the Thomas Jefferson Street blog.