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“most Americans Don’t Know What Lincoln Really Represents”
For a good part of his life, the governor of New York has used history as a guide—and a solace
December 1990 | Volume 41, Issue 8
So there are the models: More, Lincoln, Christ, especially when he threw the guy down the stairs of the temple. Because that’s reassuring. Ah, see: even you , Jesus. These other great heroic figures are beyond me; I’ve never really been interested in them. The angels I am not interested in. And I’m offended by people who are offended by the flaws of the Kennedys and the Lincolns and the Roosevelts.
You have a book coming out on Lincoln.
If it comes out good, I’ll take credit for it, but it really is not my book. There will be a book coming out, yes, and we’re it’s not too much to say—excited about it. It happened practically by chance.
Two teachers from Solidarity were brought here. I gave them not quite as elaborate a tour as I gave you, but I spoke a little about the Red Room, and they spoke about what a great state this is and what a great country. “Will you come over to Poland and talk to us about democracy?” they asked, and I said, “I’m not equipped to. But there are some great American thinkers and figures. You should have people talking about Lincoln on democracy.”
“Ah, Lincoln. Lincoln is good, except we don’t have him in Polish.”
“Well, since the Soviets came in, no Lincoln.”
Swept away by the moment, I said, “Well, I will arrange to have Lincoln translated into Polish.” I thought all I had to do was go home and call Harold Holzer [Cuomo’s press secretary and a Lincoln expert] and say, “Harold, give me the best Lincoln on democracy we have and give me the best Polish translator, and I’ll figure out where to get the money and we’ll translate it and send it over to the Polish people.” Except that when you go through the index of the collected works, you don’t find “democracy” anywhere. We were confronted all of a sudden by this wonderful idea of translating him into Polish, but no Lincoln to translate.
Lincoln should be every young black person’s hero, not because he freed the slaves but because he made it.
So we gathered together the Lincoln scholars (some of whom I had known because I’d given a speech in Springfield), and they loved the idea. They were a little bit concerned that a politician was doing it, and I don’t blame them. I tried to reassure them that there would be nothing political about it, certainly nothing crass about it.
They got very interested, and eventually the thought was that they would select pieces, and several of them would write essays before each contribution, all on democracy. Harold, who did most of the work of putting it all together, insisted that I write a little piece just to attach my name to it, an introduction recounting the story of how it started.
It should be out by the end of November—in English and Polish. Then the AFT—the teachers—will put together educational materials for courses. We’ll send the books over there, we’ll send people over there, and I’ll go over there. I promised I would, and I want to very much.
But the deal I made is this: We’ll send this over to you, but then you must send people over to us. We will go to you to talk about how we enjoy democracy; you must come to us and tell us what happens when you lose democracy. I said that lesson is at least as important to us. And they agreed to do that. As the word has gotten out, I had the Lithuanians here, and they’re all excited about it, and the Czechs and all sorts of people want Lincoln in their language now. I think it’s not extravagant speculation to say that we will have, in the very near future, Lincoln all over the globe. He will be the figure on democracy. Which he never was. Not in this country or anywhere else. And that’s all because two guys from Solidarity walked into the governor’s office.
I’d like to ask you about something you said about Lincoln. You once wrote, “His mythology became our national mythology. It’s as if Homer not only chronicled the siege of Troy but conducted the siege as well. As if Shakespeare set his play writing aside to lead the English against the Armada.” Do you think of that as being the key to Lincoln?
Well, I’m going to disappoint you. When you say the key to Lincoln, if you mean the key to his popularity—why it is that through all these years so many Americans look to him as a hero—I think most Americans don’t know what Lincoln really represents, what his role was in the Civil War, except that they believe he was against slavery. Most Americans would be shocked if you said to them, “You know, he wasn’t always really that much against slavery.” They would be very offended.
I think Lincoln’s appeal is much simpler. Lincoln is the ultimate success story. The reason he appeals to most Americans, not to educated Americans, certainly not to historians, but to most Americans, is that he’s everybody’s ideal adventure. Start in a log cabin, and you go all the way. Start with nothing, and you make it anyway. Self-educated, he let nothing stop him. He should be every young black person’s hero in my neighborhood of South Jamaica, not because he freed the slaves but because he made it. I think that’s what Americans see in him.