Stephen Oates believes the grandiose dimensions and symbol-building power of the myths people create reveal their deepest longings (Oates 4). He argues this is especially true of the myths Americans have created about Abraham Lincoln, the powerful figure who presided over the country's greatest trial, the Civil War (Oates 4). However, he argues that rather than reflect any actual truths about Lincoln the man and President, the American mythology surrounding Lincoln reflects the spiritual and psychological needs of America's culture (Oates 4).
Oates argues that mythology carries a different truth than that of historical truth. In the case of Abraham Lincoln, the myth is what Americans wish the man had been rather than what he really was. The Lincoln myth has imbued him with the traits Americans consider their most noble, among them honesty, tolerance, a work ethic, forgiveness, compassion, a clear-sighted vision of right and wrong, and a dedication to God and country (Oates 16). Thus, Oates maintains, the mythological Lincoln "carries the torch of the American dream, a dream of noble idealism, of self-sacrifice and common humanity, of liberty and equality for all" (Oates 16).
Oates argues that the myth-building around Lincoln began on "Black Easter," April 16, 1865, when Northern abolitionist ministers portrayed the slain President as an American Christ who died to cleanse the sins of his guilty land. They saw it as no coincidence that he had fallen on Good Friday (Oates 16). However, Lincoln's law partner, William Herndon, reacted to this initial mythology by offering up instead a contrasting Western folk hero, who could be funny, ambitious, irreverent, and sorrowful by turns (Oates 16).
Rather than a haloed saint, Herndon's Lincoln was the son of a shiftless poor white man and the illegitimate daughter of a prominent Virginia planter. Oates notes that though Herndon's Lincoln does rise above his impoverished origins, he keep...