Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Lest I forget...

Callimachus linked to an interesting interview today. You can read the excerpt that Cal quoted to get something of a frame for the interview, or you can read the interview itself. (I highly recommend the interview, actually, but it is longish for a web article.)

In this interview, NEH Chairman Bob Cole converses with journalist Andrew Ferguson about Abraham Lincoln, and Ferguson's new book about Lincoln and his place in the American psyche. (Instead of linking to a biography of Ferguson, I've decided to link to one of his articles instead. The interview contains enough biography, and a search engine will provide more for the curious.) The interview has a few interesting points that I'd like to call out.

First, some humor:

Cole: In your book, you also talk about the collectors and buffs and the movers and shakers in the Lincoln world. It's not just about Lincoln.

Ferguson: Lincoln collecting literally began the weekend of his death. There were vendors selling square-inch patches from the sheets he bled on. The Victorians had these earthy obsessions—blood, hair.

Cole: The relics.

Ferguson: The demand for Lincoln's stuff is always expanding, even now. But the supply of really good Lincoln stuff—letters in his own hand, signatures, clothes that he wore, kitchen utensils from his house, and so on—is finite. So the definition of good Lincoln stuff expands.

The best example is the market for Lincoln forgeries. Since you need $4,000 to $5,000 to get a real Lincoln signature now, there has been—incredibly—a robust market in Lincoln forgeries. In the 1920s and '30s, there were some very good Lincoln forgeries, by a guy named Cosey, another guy named Weisberg, a couple of others.

So now you can spend a few hundred bucks to get a Cosey or a Weisberg forgery of Lincoln's handwriting. To one of these Lincoln collectors, I said, “I can't believe people are trading in this stuff.” And he said, “Well, you've got to be careful, because there's a lot of fakes out there.”

Cole: Fake fakes.

Ferguson: Fake forgeries. People faking Weisberg faking Lincoln.

Second, a point that had never occurred to me before:
Ferguson: A lot of people were “union savers.” Garibaldi created a union in Italy—Bismarck in Germany. The nineteenth century was an era of consolidators, statesmen essentially bolting together their fractious countries. You can see Lincoln as part of that trend, I suppose.
Somehow it had never occurred to me that Lincoln's acts could be thought of in that light. The analogy has its weaknesses, but it also has some strengths. I'm going to have to ponder that for a while.

Finally, and anecdote from Ferguson that contains one of the great truisms about America:

Ferguson: My own idea was to reconstruct the Lincoln Heritage Trail, which was an artifact that had been debunked and had fallen into disuse over the last generation. You still see signs for it, lost among the weeds, in various places in the Midwest.

I decided I would try and piece together this Lincoln Heritage Trail that my parents had taken me on when I was a kid. I tried to find a map. I looked on the Internet, asked everyone I could. Couldn't find anything about the Lincoln Heritage Trail.

Finally, I got a call from the director of tourism in Illinois. She said, “I've got your guy—the man who invented the Lincoln Heritage Trail in1961. He's still alive.” I called the guy up. Waxing eloquent, I said, “It's such an honor to speak with you, because the trail is really from a time when people cared enough about Lincoln and our history to try to honor the places he'd been, to touch the places he'd touched. . . .”

And there was a long pause. He finally said, “Uh, thanks. But, you know, don't you, this whole thing was cooked up by the marketing guys at the American Petroleum Institute? They wanted to get people in their cars buying gasoline.”

The thing had been a marketing scam. They had done it out here in the East, a George Washington Heritage Trail. There was a Hiawatha Heritage Trail. And the Petroleum Institute had put together this one for Lincoln. All to sell gasoline. When you scratch anything in America, there's a profit motive not too far underneath.[Emphasis added.]

I love commerce!


Pastor_Jeff said...

Man, ain't it the truth. That Great Lakes Circle Tour was the biggest rip-off ever.

Seriously, you're right on. Ben Franklin was the ideal American. P T Barnum was the real American. Even most of our thinkers and idealists had an eye to profit. Maybe Coolidge was the real American: "The business of America is business."

Icepick said...

I believe that you and I have discussed the context of Coolidge's remark before, haven't we?

Pastor_Jeff said...

If we have, I've forgotten it. I know it's generally misquoted and taken out of context. I actually like Coolidge, and didn't mean it as a slam.

XWL said...

When you scratch anything in America, there's a profit motive not too far underneath.

And in the end, that's exactly why we kick so much ass and will defeat all comers eventually (I'm talking to you crazy Iranians, Venezuelans, Cubans, and even many Chinese).

The profit motive fits human nature better than any other organizing principle, just set up a system that allows fairness and get out of people's way, greed will take care of the rest.

Faith do a good job of reminding folks that greed isn't the only thing in their personal lives, but the economic system should be as amoral as possible allowing and encouraging greed of every kind (so long as it's honest greed and not graft or outright theft).

Which partly is why Pres. Carter was such a failure (he placed way too high a priority on his personal viewpoint on moral judgement to economic and foreign policy, a huge mistake that was corrosive in both areas), and why Gov. Huckabee or Sen. Obama would also make terrible presidents based on their moralizing rhetoric.