By Edward Achorn
In recent days, numerous friends have sent me pictures of a charred bust of Abraham Lincoln in Chicago. I (and perhaps they) erroneously believed that the torching occurred during this spring’s riots, but in fact the statue was vandalized three years ago.
The mistake may be understandable, because the cultural war on statues and America’s past is definitely heating up.
My friends know I admire Lincoln and that my book, Every Drop of Blood, about his extraordinary call for charity and mercy after four years of harrowing war, has just been published.
“What an absolute disgraceful act of vandalism,” Alderman Ray Lopez wrote on Facebook in 2017, posting the picture.
“This bust of Abraham Lincoln, erected by Phil Bloomquist on August 31, 1926, was damaged and burned,” he added.
The historic statue is located at the corner of West 69th Street and South Wolcott Avenue. Chicago, of course, played a big role in the story of this brilliant lawyer from Illinois. It was in this city that Lincoln won the Republican nomination for president in 1860. If not for that, he would probably be unknown to most Americans today.
One wonders if those who defaced the statue know anything about Abraham Lincoln. The vandals may have simply regarded him as a white male associated with — and a symbol of — the “system” in America, which has not led to happiness and safety for large numbers of people in poor minority neighborhoods.
He is, undeniably, a symbol of our system of government. Lincoln played an integral role in preserving the United States and its constitutional liberties, which remain a beacon to the world. In doing so, he led the nation to eradicate the horrors of slavery and honor the founding ideals beautifully articulated by Thomas Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence.
I wonder if the vandals knew that President Lincoln saved the nation and eliminated slavery only through the help of 180,000 black Americans, most of them former slaves, who fought on the side of the Union. They demonstrated through their heroism and sacrifice — at a time when nonstop racist propaganda depicted them as a subspecies of human being — that they were Americans in every sense of the word. Some 750,000 — black and white — died in that war, which Lincoln argued was God’s means of ending the evil of slavery.
In recent days, some organized groups have been working to replace that system with one that would be avowedly more socialist and authoritarian. They do not seem to support constitutional limits on government authority and America’s essential view that the rights of individuals are sacred. Braced up by the good will of most Americans, who detest racism and police brutality, they have embarked on a campaign that has turned peaceful protests into massive riots marked by burning and looting. Now they are seeking to shrink or eliminate police forces, which would undoubtedly weaken the rule of law.
In the course of their recent devastation, rioters in Boston defaced another monument to the Civil War and the quest for freedom, the beautiful tribute to Colonel Robert Shaw and the first African American volunteer infantry unit, the 54th Massachusetts Regiment (celebrated in the movie “Glory”). Fortunately, the vandals left the exquisite bronze work by Augustus Saint-Gaudens alone, though they spray-painted the granite back of the monument. It was one of 16 statues and memorials damaged in Boston that night.
Outside the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, meanwhile, someone spray-painted, “Yall not tired yet?” A picture was posted on May 31 by the National Park Service. Three years ago, someone spray-painted in red on one of the lovely monument’s columns: “[F-word] LAW.”
Lincoln revered the rule of law and the rights of individuals. He believed it was deeply immoral to judge groups of people by the actions of only some, as those lured by the bigotry of identity politics now insist on doing. However greatly people differed in abilities, they were equal in this, Lincoln believed: everyone was born with rights no one could legitimately take away. Though the Founders were unable to eradicate slavery, Lincoln greatly admired them, in particular for signing a Declaration of Independence in 1776 that undermined slavery and will be a stumbling block to tyranny for as long as Americans heed its words.
African Americans, many of them fervent Christians, revered Lincoln. They thronged his second inauguration on March 4, 1865. They wore their best clothing; some arrived in wagons from outlying counties where they had recently been enslaved human beings. As I recount in Every Drop of Blood, black Americans had come to believe “that God had broken their chains through the instrument of a tall, ungainly, country-bred lawyer with scruffy whiskers.”
George Orwell, in his brilliant novel 1984, showed that the destruction of history is essential to those who would seek to control their fellow human beings. I believe this authoritarian impulse is behind the organized efforts in recent years to topple and deface statues that celebrate the imperfect human beings in our past.
History is messy and does not lend itself to the simple messages of demagogues. Thomas Jefferson was a racist and slaveholder, but he also opposed slavery and wrote the Declaration that sounded the death knell of slavery. Those seeking to tear down his statues, I worry, are trying to tear down our love for America. Such easily debunked inaccuracies as those propagated by The New York Times in its 1619 Project also seem to be designed to sow hatreds, smear America and destroy people’s understanding of how wonderful and just, by the standards of world history, this nation is. The challenge before us, I would argue, is not to destroy our system but to better protect people in dangerous neighborhoods and improve their access to opportunity (especially through better schools).
An understanding of history is essential to grasp the price and value of freedom. Let us hope that those who burn and deface statues and monuments fail to eradicate the knowledge of America’s past.
(Read Edward Achorn’s books about American history.)
This was updated to correct the blatantly false report that the Chicago bust was torched this year. I apologize to my readers for the error, and promise to try to do better. Hat tip to Cliff Furnald for alerting (and chastising) me!