The Magazine

When Lincoln Returned to Richmond

Dispatches from an unlikely culture war.

Dec 29, 2003, Vol. 9, No. 16 • By ANDREW FERGUSON
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Three times during our interview Bowling was interrupted with phone calls from reporters, seeking comment on one aspect or another of the controversy. He answered them all with a patient repetition of well-rehearsed sound bites. "It is an insult to the Confederate soldier," he said. After the third call I got up to leave, and he walked me outside. The pickup in the driveway had an old NRA sticker: "Charlton Heston is my President."

"This thing is not over yet," he said. "There are a lot of people upset over this, and they may still have a few tricks up their sleeves."

I asked him if he meant someone was planning to prevent the statue from going in.

"If there's anything violent or what have you that happens, the Sons of Confederate Veterans will have no part in that," he said. "People do feel strongly. But the statue will go in," he said. "Probably." He laughed. "Unless it doesn't."

2.

The Uses of Lincoln

While he was alive, Abraham Lincoln was one of the least popular presidents the country has ever known, as most Lincoln scholars acknowledge. The minute he got shot, however, things began looking up for him. Colleagues and subordinates who had considered him dithering or imperious in life fell into inconsolable and very public mourning at word of his death. Political enemies who had prayed for his demise suddenly saw a figure of inviolable moral integrity, farseeing competence, unsearchable wisdom. For four years Henry Ward Beecher, the abolitionist preacher in Brooklyn, had lacerated Lincoln from his pulpit for timidity and hesitation in the face of Southern barbarism. Then came John Wilkes Booth, and Lincoln was dead, and when the body passed through New York on its way to the cemetery in Springfield, Illinois, the old blowhard ascended the same pulpit and became the martyred president's foremost eulogist.

"Dead-dead-dead, he yet speaketh," Beecher said. "Four years ago, O Illinois, we took from your midst an untried man, we return him to you a conqueror. Not thine anymore, but the Nation's; not ours, but the world's. Give him place, ye prairies!"

Everyone was ready to give him place. So quickly and so thoroughly did his countrymen exalt him that causists everywhere found it profitable to enlist his memory. A teetotaler in life, for instance, Lincoln became, once he was safely dead-dead-dead, an unsilenceable advocate of national temperance--or so claimed the Drys of the national temperance movement, which distributed millions of copies of a speech he had made on the subject early in his career. The Drys pressed their Lincoln association for decades, until historians employed by Adolphus Busch, partner of Anheuser and father of Budweiser, discovered a yellowing liquor license that had been issued in the 1830s to a small prairie grocer by the name of . . . Abraham Lincoln. Busch made sure that reproductions of Lincoln's license soon hung on the wall of every tavern in America. They stayed there, consoling drinkers, until the tragic triumph of the Drys in 1919.

By that time Lincoln had been dragooned into causes far more implausible than temperance. On the centennial of his birth, in 1909, the nation's leading white supremacist, a senator from Mississippi named James K. Vardaman, made an unironical pilgrimage to Springfield and claimed "the immortal Lincoln" as his inspiration. "My views and his views," he said later on the Senate floor, "are substantially identical." He would have got an argument, probably, from the American Communist party, which throughout the 1930s put on an annual Lincoln-Lenin Day festival and festooned its Harlem headquarters with his likeness.

Different Americans laid claim to his spiritual life, too. Lincoln was a man of few and ambiguous religious beliefs. He never joined a church, and when he ran for president every pastor in Springfield pointedly refused to endorse him. Yet when his soul took flight he was claimed by most Protestant denominations simultaneously. Unitarians took him as their own, and so did the Christian Scientists, even though the science of divine healing was not revealed to Mary Baker Eddy until a year after Lincoln's death. In 1891, the famed (at the time) seer Nettie Colburn Maynard published a long study called "Was Abraham Lincoln a Spiritualist?" She answered her question with an emphatic yes, describing dinner parties during the Civil War at which the president had witnessed a grand piano rising mysteriously off the floor, with the president himself perched atop it--unheard of for a teetotaler. More than one Christian publicist saw in Lincoln's life eerie resemblances to the life of Christ. As Jonathan T. Hobson pointed out in his treatise "The Master and His Servant," both Jesus and Lincoln were born of carpenters and rose from lowly beginnings, both were storytellers, both were killed on Good Friday, both were saviors--of the world, in one case, of the Union, in the other. And in the days before his death each made a profound journey of mercy, Jesus to Jerusalem, Lincoln to Richmond.

Generations of American schoolchildren were taught to be like Lincoln--honest, compassionate, just, resolute. But what we've really wanted is for Lincoln to be like us, whoever we are. As common property, he has become whatever we say he is, and shame on the nitpicker who dares to argue over discrepancies in our diverse accounts. Even in the South this has long been true--even in Richmond, even among the Sons of the Confederacy, as the historian Merrill Peterson demonstrated in his great book, "Lincoln in American Memory." For a generation after the war, Lincoln was a vague presence in southern mythology, best left undisturbed and unremarked upon, but in time southerners too became reconciled to his greatness. In 1928, the Virginia legislature passed a bill commemorating Lincoln's birthday. "Every southern gentleman now agrees with Lincoln," said the sponsor of the bill, which provoked little dissent. In the late 1940s, when a speaker at a wreath-laying at the Jefferson Davis statue in the U.S. Capitol blamed the war on Lincoln's depravity, a spokesman for the Sons, who had sponsored the ceremony, made sure to repudiate the remarks publicly. A few years later a representative of the Sons laid a wreath, along with a crossed pair of Confederate flags, at the Lincoln Memorial, as an official tribute. "He who abuses Lincoln abuses himself," editorialized the Richmond Times-Dispatch in the 1920s, expressing the general view.

Of course, that was long before anybody got the bright idea of building a statue of him in the capital of the Confederacy.

3.

The Limited Edition Lincoln

Robert Kline works out of a large house on Richmond's Main Street, a brick pile built in the Federal style a decade or two before the rebellion. It lies just far enough west of downtown to have escaped the flames in April 1865. A brass nameplate next to the front door identifies it as the headquarters of the United States Historical Society, the company Kline started 30 years ago, after a career in public relations and real estate.

Pedants might complain that the name is a little misleading; Kline's society does not have members or hold conferences in the manner of more conventional historical societies. It is instead "a private nonprofit educational organization," according to its literature, "dedicated to fostering increased awareness and appreciation of America's culture and history." It does its fostering by making and selling "collectibles"--small, heavy things forged of pewter or brass, mounted on polished strips of cherry or little rectangles of marble--that bear a strong resemblance to what many in the nonprofit world call knick-knacks.

A first floor conference room, where I waited for my interview with Mr. Kline, serves as a kind of showroom for the society's handiwork. Collectibles were mounted on walls, standing in ranks on shelves, covering the tops of bureaus, and resting in piles on the floor. All stages of American history were represented. There were miniatures of World War II submarines, minesweepers, destroyers, and PT boats; gilt-rimmed plates featuring famous American homes--Monticello, Graceland--sun-dappled in sylvan settings; reproductions of pewter tankards designed by Paul Revere. President Kennedy was there as a doll delivering his Inaugural Address, one hand tucked in his coat pocket, the other thrust confidently toward the future.

There were replicas of swords--one fashioned after the one George Washington wore at his inauguration, another like the one Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown--and reproductions of famous pistols, and tiny cannons adorned with plaques. There were mounted replicas of "famous canes," and more stained glass than the Sainte Chapelle: familiar, multicolored scenes from Norman Rockwell and from the life of Christ, Calvary next to Valley Forge next to the parting of the Red Sea next to Tom Sawyer and the whitewashed fence, plus a spookily detailed rendering of the Elvis postage stamp, Washington on the Delaware, and cozy Christmas scenes. Dolls of Patrick Henry, FDR, Chuck Yeager, and Clara Barton queued up beside a three-dimensional tableau of the angels hovering over the stable at Bethlehem.

As I marveled at the collection Kline appeared, wearing a sky-blue suit with a wide tie striped in shades of gray. "This is what U.S. Historical Society does," he said, sweeping his arm across the room with evident pride. He's a tall man, with a prominent nose, and very slender; Lincolnesque in stature, almost, though his hair is white now and thin as silk. His voice is soft and so is his handshake. We sat down at a conference table.

"This idea first came to me 20 years ago," he said. "I had already lived here for many years, knew the city well, and loved it. And I thought: Lincoln in Richmond! What an event! What a symbol!" His voice, though frail, still conveys his unmistakable enthusiasm. "The visit to Richmond should be a big thing in the history of our country. It stands for peace, for reconciliation, all those things that we need more of. So I brought the concept to Virginius Dabney."

In Richmond there are few weightier names to drop than that of Dabney, now deceased but for 40 years a Southern historian of note and, as editor of the Times-Dispatch, a legendary defender of the honor of the Confederacy. A nihil obstat from Dabney, under normal circumstances, would go far in indemnifying anyone against charges of carpetbaggery.

"Dabney thought it was a wonderful idea, too," Mr. Kline went on. "From there I went to elected officials, off and on over the years. A year or so ago I went to our lieutenant governor, Tim Kaine, and he suggested the park service might be interested in a memorial to Lincoln's visit. And indeed they were very enthusiastic. And now here we are. Sometimes I can't believe it's really about to happen--if we can just get through the next few weeks."

When he talked about the controversy, Mr. Kline's enthusiasm seeped away. He had the look of someone who didn't know what hit him. "Sure, of course, we knew a few die-hards might object here or there. But nothing like this . . . this ugliness."

He made a gesture toward the window. Out on the street a well-fed fellow in a black T-shirt and low-slung Relaxed Fit jeans was holding a hand-painted placard: "Lincoln = War Criminal." He was a holdover from larger demonstrations that had been held outside the society's headquarters in previous weeks. None drew more than twenty demonstrators, according to news accounts. Still, twenty good old boys doing the rebel yell outside your window can be unsettling.

"You should see the mail," Mr. Kline went on. "And my email, oh my. Accusing me of everything they can think of. And now, of course, it's reached the newspaper. Anytime a businessman sees the word 'Impropriety' and his own name in a headline--even if it says 'Cleared of Improprieties'--well, it's just not good, is it?"

TOGETHER WITH CITY and park service officials, Mr. Kline announced plans for the statue at a press conference last December. The controversy began at once, with the first phone call placed by the first reporter to Brag Bowling and other Sons seeking comment. In keeping with the way public disputes are played out nowadays, the air was soon thick with motive-mongering, personal vituperation, and allegations of criminality. An anonymous website appeared, accusing Kline of exploiting public assets--the Tredegar Visitor Center--for financial gain. This in turn generated hundreds of letters to Virginia newspapers, and then to the commonwealth attorney general demanding an investigation for possible fraud. Some Sons persuaded a local congressman, Virgil Goode, to ask the park service itself to see whether the society's activity was legitimate.

The particulars of the accusations against Kline, the park service, and local officials--all of whom were supposedly acting in self-dealing collusion--were never made completely clear. Baroque accounts of the conspiracy, published on the web and patiently laid out for me by several Sons on condition of anonymity, turned vague at crucial points, thoroughly incomprehensible at others. At the heart of it all was the odd means by which the relevant parties had agreed to finance the statue. It was an arrangement that Kline told me had worked for the society and its business partners on many other occasions. The society would pay for the statue--its commission, design, forging, and transportation to Richmond--and give it to the park service free of charge. Then, to recover its money, the society would sell miniatures of the statue, each forged of genuine bronze, weighing 13 pounds, and tagged with the apparently magical (in the collectibles business) words: "limited edition." Solicitations were already being made by direct mail and over the Internet, at the Tredegar gift shop, and through an agreement with the Virginia Historical Society. In addition, Kline's society would hawk smaller "resin bronze" miniatures, in an unlimited edition.

"We're going to be out of pocket a considerable sum," Mr. Kline told me. "And we're assuming all the risk, for goodness sake." He had priced the limited-edition miniatures at $875 apiece, the others at $125 (shipping and handling not included). Already, he said, the statue had cost the society $225,000, and sales thus far had only totaled around $40,000.

To the Sons this sounded like profiteering, but the attorney general, the commonwealth's corporation counsel, and the park service all said they found nothing improper in the arrangement. Still, simple arithmetic showed that Mr. Kline wouldn't have to unload too many mini-Lincolns to cover his costs. I asked him what he was going to do if he sold so many that he had money left over.

"Oh my, wouldn't that be nice?" he said. "Well, we'll want to withhold some funds for a reserve for future projects--we're always coming up with projects. And then any money beyond that we'll give to the Richmond Peace Education Center, a wonderful group of people here in town. They stand for a lot of things Lincoln stood for. Peace. Understanding others. Their specialty is conflict resolution."

As it happened, I'd already run across the peace education center during my time in Richmond. In the days leading up to the war in Iraq they had taken to the streets downtown in peace demonstrations they called "Women in Black." Stuck in traffic jams, I'd watch through the windshield as the women in black hoisted signs reading "Jail Bush, Not Saddam" and "Disarm U.S., Not Iraq." It seemed odd to fund a pacifist group with money from the sale of little statues representing America's greatest, and fiercest, wartime president, but before I could say anything, Mr. Kline took me over to a shelf.

"And here it is," he said, holding up a bronze miniature. He gave me a high-wattage smile. Lincoln was set to take his place in the pantheon. Santa--Jesus--Chuck Yeager--Elvis--Abe.

Part I -- Part II -- Part III