Why Abraham Lincoln is an icon for Republicans and Democrats alike

“‘Malice toward none, charity for all.’” Abraham Lincoln

(After his assassination, Abraham Lincoln became a beacon of the United States presidency. Bethany Moslen/shutterstock.com)

During the 2016 Republican presidential primary, The Washington Post’s Bob Woodward and Robert Costa asked Donald Trump if he could be a “unifier” like Abraham Lincoln who expressed “‘Malice toward none, charity for all.’”

Trump’s answer was surprising, but the fact that he was asked the question is not. Lincoln has evolved into an icon of presidential leadership for both sides of the aisle.

In our book, “Memories of Lincoln and the Splintering of American Political Thought,” we studied reminiscences of Lincoln from the time of the president’s death in 1865 through the passing of those who knew him personally in about 1900. We were particularly interested in understanding the rhetorical power of public messages that evoke the living Lincoln.

We believe how Lincoln is remembered by presidents and presidential candidates tells us much about their approach to governance. Trump’s understanding of Lincoln sheds insight, we believe, into the controversies that swirl around the current president.

Lincoln memories as beacons

Memories of Abraham Lincoln have served as a “beacon” for the nation since the hours after his assassination. The night the 16th president was shot, the streets of Washington, D.C. reportedly filled with angry Northerners contemplating revenge against any Southerner suspected in the assassination plot.

Years later, in recounting his memories of that frightful night, Sen. William M. Smith of Nevada credited Lincoln for quelling the storm. The spread of the simple epitaph – “What would Lincoln do?” – helped quiet the crowd, Smith claimed, and revealed the force of Lincoln’s memory in beginning to heal a grieving nation.

Lincoln acquaintances like Smith created a cottage industry by publishing their first-person accounts of the Lincoln whom they talked with, walked with, witnessed and heard up close.

A generation removed

Subsequent generations used the recollections of the previous generation to keep Lincoln’s memory fresh – and to repurpose his legacy.

U.S. presidents and presidential contenders have been among the most active interpreters of Lincoln memory as they attempt to score political points, bolster their credentials and unify the country during times of national turmoil.