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Book Reviews

The Image of His Greatness

July 3, 2021

Fred Reed, Abraham Lincoln: The Image of His Greatness, Whitman Publishing, LLC, Atlanta, Georgia, 2009, 272p., $29.95.

For those interested in collecting Lincoln, this book should prove of interest, as it focuses on the vast array of objects that depict or are named after our 16th president. The author is a longtime collector, having started his lifelong avocation in the mid-1950s acquiring, appropriately, Lincoln pennies. He no doubt placed them in Whitman coin albums which started appearing on the scene in 1940. Whitman Publishing manufactures coin supplies, hosts collector shows and exhibitions, and publishes reference works such as this (it’s a SMALL world!) I also started collecting coins in the 1950s, but “scouted” primarily Indian head pennies and buffalo nickels (Hop along Cassidy, Wild Bill Hickock and the Lone Ranger may have had some influence!)

Reed has written dozens of articles for numismatic journals, as well as The Lincoln Herald. He currently publishes and edits the bimonthly journal of the Society of Paper Money Collectors. From the Introduction: “I have endeavored to present a coherent, chronological survey of the Lincoln image over time. This present work is a book about Lincoln image in the broadest sense … Although this is an illustrated narrative, it is not a catalog. It traces Lincoln commemoration and ongoing development of Lincoln consciousness in myriad media from his own time down to ours. The selection was more eclectic than scientific … I have endeavored to be neither cheerleader nor mudslinger, merely true to the historical record in words and pictures. Abraham Lincoln: The Image of His Greatness is presented in four chronological eras: 1) Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865); 2) Lincoln, the Ideal (1865-1909); 3) Lincoln, the Idol (1909-1959); and, 4) Lincoln, the Icon (1959-2009). Consider these divisions shorthand categories, not exclusive precincts. These designations have considerable overlap to be sure, but do present the dominant transitional historical view of the evolving Lincoln image during those eras, according to my research.”

Fred has a particular interest in the depiction of Abraham Lincoln on U. S. currency, coins and financial instruments. People who collect ancient coins can, he believes, glean historical insight from their study. This can be extrapolated to his field of specialization, an area he feels has been overlooked by scholars and historians. Accordingly, the book is replete with examples of currency, bonds, coins, revenue and postal stamps, American and foreign, that feature Abraham Lincoln. We learn that Lincoln was the first president to be depicted on U.S. currency, upon passage of the Legal Tender Act of 1862 (co-honorees were Salmon Chase and Winfield Scott). He was also the first president to be depicted on U.S. coinage (Washington was depicted on some colonial-era coins prior to becoming president). Obviously, there was some underlying psychology behind the selection of design elements, often indicating legitimacy and financial soundness. The images and symbols we use on our money reflect both our ideals and things that distinguish us as Americans. It is not surprising that we don’t see any images of Millard Fillmore or Richard Nixon on our stamps and coins, although we could evince a certain historical honesty if Boss Tweed, 1. P. Morgan, or the Golden Arches were featured. In any event, the depiction of Lincoln on the widely-used, ubiquitous penny and $5 bill for a century or more has certainly had an effect in “branding” Lincoln onto the American consciousness. Likewise, there is something to be said for the fact that Lincoln’s image also appears on the stamps and coins of many foreign countries.

For the sake of any future editions, let me point out a handful of errors. Figure 1.18 labeled “Lincoln’s boyhood home in Farmington, Kentucky” is actually the cabin that Lincoln helped build for his father upon the family’s arrival in Illinois in 1830. The 1860 Lincoln campaign ribbon shown as Fig. 1.41 is a recent reproduction. The token shown as Fig. 1.48d is not a muling, but the obverse and reverse of a 38 mm. medal by True and a 28 mm. medal by an unknown engraver. The medal shown as Fig. 1.168c is not an inaugural medal issued in 1865, but a commemorative one made in 1867. Finally, Fig. 1.169a is not a ribbon issued as an 1865 inaugural souvenir, but a souvenir of the 1893 Chicago’s World’s Fair.

Fred has 4,000 items in his Lincoln collection to draw upon. He also has gathered images from other sources to assemble approximately 700-800 illustrations. The layout is both uniform and simple, with illustrations generally appearing on the bottom of the page and text at the top. The quality of the pictures is very good and the design highly creative and professional. In spite of Fred’s background in currency, such items do not overwhelm. There is, in fact, a very even mix of items. There will be comparisons made, no doubt, to Stuart Schneider’s book Collecting Lincoln. One major difference being that this book does not segregate items by their collecting categories. Obviously, political items appear in the chapters that cover the time period prior to Lincoln’s assassination; beyond that, though, all other types are randomly interspersed. The first chapter contains a brief summary of Lincoln’s life and the folklore surrounding it, but the text generally conforms to a series of “datelines” – brief entries that either describe an event in Lincoln’s life or something related to a “Lincoln event” or the creation of an artwork or commemorative object. Each chapter has opening remarks, usually quite perceptive and well-written, that precede the dateline entries. These look beyond “surface” factors that influence what was produced (available technologies, popular taste and culture) and try to dig deeper for underlying themes. The first chapter goes from Lincoln’s birth until his assassination. The second chapter starts with the aftermath of the assassination until the centennial. “The tragedy [assassination] transformed Lincoln from man to martyr. Almost immediately the country’s grief translated the mortal Lincoln into the idealized Lincoln. Honest Old Abe the Rail Splitter, who cracked vulgar jokes and trampled civil liberties, became Father Abraham, the Great Emancipator and Savior of our Nation. Washington may have still been first in the hearts of his countrymen, but Lincoln quickly became a close second.” The third chapter relates changes that took place between the centennial and the sesquicentennial. ” … The Lincoln idol sat on his Grecian throne at the west end of the Capitol Mall flanked by the tablets of his divine revelations, his ‘Gettysburg Address’ and his Second Inaugural Address.’ … The immortal, deified Lincoln was omnipresent. He gazed protectively from the granite pantheon in the Black Hills and from monuments across the nation … Americca’s Main Street, the Lincoln Highway, spanned the country from sea to shining sea … His birthplace was ensconced in a Greek temple. Replica cabins were constructed for the edification of tourists at the world’s fair … Lincoln’s literature, monuments, shrines, and other trappings of divinity became the fabric of daily life … The years 1909 to 1959 could well be called the ‘Lincoln half century.’ During that time more than 8,500 books on Lincoln were published … Lincoln appeared as a character in more than 100 films on the silver screen … Lincoln the brand was appropriated for everything from cigarettes to life insurance companies to automobiles.” The fourth chapter deals with this period from the sesquicentennial to this year’s bicentennial. “Although many still admire Lincoln, and he continuously ranks at or near the top of every poll of ‘best’ or ‘most admired’ U.S president, he increasingly has become trivialized in the past half century. This dumbing-down of Lincoln has become a staple of pop culture. Dressed in drag … or characterized as a melancholic insomniac in advertisements – such depictions are significantly divorced from Lincoln’s prior idealized and idolized persona. During this period books by Lincoln detractors have also proliferated. Lincoln, originally the man of the people, was put on a pedestal only to be pulled off it and become commonplace once again.” (With apologies to Norma Desmond in “Sunset Boulevard”, I can imagine someone going up to Lincoln today and saying, “Hey, aren’t you Abe Lincoln. You used to be big!” to which Lincoln replies, “I still am BIG. It’s the country that got SMALL” Finally, the author devotes a few pages on the relevancy of Lincoln for current and future generations, along with recount in! efforts to commemorate the bicentennial of his birth on stamps, coins and currency.

In perusing the Lincoln memorabilia of recent times, one can’t help notice the intrusion of crass values, popular culture increased commercialization and declining quality of the graphic arts. This may be attributable to pronounced and rapid changes in society. The changes we have undergone in the last 50 years are breathtaking and must have an influence on how we view our system of government and its leaders, past and present. In studying Lincoln collectibles and his changing image, we might catch a reflection of ourselves and reaffirm that “change is constant.’ Hopefully, though, some core values and beliefs endure.