Grove Press
Atlantic Monthly Press
Atlantic Monthly Press

Land of Lincoln

Adventures in Abe's America

by Andrew Ferguson

“Ferguson’s story, a fascinating collection of his reporting, is about us as much as Lincoln. It is a vibrant and consistently surprising account that chases the wraithlike spirit of the Great Emancipator as it is incarnated or invoked by those around us, usually on less-than-hallowed ground.” —Art Winslow, Chicago Tribune

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 304
  • Publication Date April 15, 2008
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-4361-7
  • Dimensions 5.5" x 8.25"
  • US List Price $17.00
  • Imprint Atlantic Monthly Press
  • Page Count 304
  • Publication Date June 19, 2007
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8711-3967-2
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $24.00

About The Book

Abraham Lincoln was our greatest president and perhaps the most influential American who ever lived. But what is his place in our country today? In this brilliant and captivating new book, Andrew Ferguson goes searching for Lincoln in homes, museums, national parks, roadside motels, and elsewhere from Rhode Island to Beverly Hills. What he finds is a man whose spirit, mythology, and philosophy continue to shape our national identity in ways both serious and surprising.

Ferguson knows a thing or two about the Lincoln mystique. As a child growing up in Illinois, he hung photos of Abe from his bedroom wall, memorized the Gettysburg Address, and read himself to sleep at night with the Second Inaugural. But, decades later, just when Ferguson had almost lost track of Lincoln completely, his buffdom was reignited.

In Land of Lincoln, Ferguson packs his bags and embarks on a journey to the heart of contemporary Lincoln Nation, where he encounters a world as funny as it is poignant, and a population as devoted as it is colorful. In a small town in Indiana, Ferguson drops in on the national conference of Lincoln presenters, 175 grown men who make their living (sort of) by impersonating their hero. He crisscrosses the country to meet the premier Lincoln memorabilia collectors, whose prized items include Lincoln’s chamber pot, locks of his hair, and pages from a boyhood schoolbook. In a motel outside Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, he attends a leadership conference that teaches businesspeople how to run their companies more effectively by appropriating Lincoln’s “management style.” And in one of the book’s most amusing sections, Ferguson takes his wife and children on a trip across the long-defunct Lincoln Heritage Trail, a driving tour of landmarks from Lincoln’s life that wound through three states in the 1960s. At one point, Ferguson even manages to hold a very special piece of American history in his hands (we wouldn’t want to spoil the fun).

Told with an irresistible blend of humor and pathos, and propelled by a boyish enthusiasm as vast as it is infectious, Land of Lincoln is an entertaining, unexpected, and big-hearted celebration of our sixteenth president’s enduring influence on our country—and the people who help keep his spirit alive.


“A splendid book . . . so wonderful I am sick with envy . . . Land of Lincoln is a book that teaches you more about Lincoln in its way than a five-volume biography would, and more about America today than almost any other book I can think of.” —John Podhorezt, New York Post

“There are at least 14,000 books on Abraham Lincoln, and even his greatest enthusiasts won’t claim to have read a tenth of them. Do we need another? Yes, indeed. What Andrew Ferguson offers in Land of Lincoln is the geography of enthusiasm itself. . . . A vivid, beautifully written book.” —Ernest W. Lefever, The Wall Street Journal

“Ferguson’s story, a fascinating collection of his reporting, is about us as much as Lincoln. It is a vibrant and consistently surprising account that chases the wraithlike spirit of the Great Emancipator as it is incarnated or invoked by those around us, usually on less-than-hallowed ground.” —Art Winslow, Chicago Tribune

“Ferguson is a curious and incisive, amusing and often amused guide. . . . On the surface, [his] subject is the present-day obsessives, eccentrics, and entrepreneurs who chew over Lincoln, dress up like him, or make bucks on his legacy. . . . But this book is no comic toss-off. . . . It’s a sharp, funny, complex book.” —Joshua Wolf Shenk, The New York Times Book Review

“A hilarious, offbeat tour of Lincoln shrines, statues, cabins, and museums. . . . The Land of Lincoln turns out to be a big place: bigger than Illinois, bigger even than the United States, stranger than anyone would have thought. Mr. Ferguson maps it expertly, with an understated Midwestern sense of humor that Lincoln, master of the funny story, would have been the first to appreciate.” —William Grimes, The New York Times

“Writing with humor, insight, imagination, and warmth, Andy Ferguson has accomplished a most unusual feat—he gives us a fresh look at Abraham Lincoln and his impact on our country.” —Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of Team of Rivals

“Andrew Ferguson is a writer with perfect pitch and flawless timing who can go from hilarity to poignancy without missing a beat. Whether he is describing the seedy glories of Route 66 or the Holocaust survivor who believed Lincoln came to him in a dream, his reporter’s powers of observation and his instinctive understanding of the human condition produce the satisfying blend of entertainment and instruction he delivers in this marvelous book.” —Florence King, Wilson Quarterly

“If I were to awake tomorrow morning and find myself in charge of a great big foundation, the first thing I’d do would be to award a great big grant to Ferguson so that he could quit his day job and do nothing but write books like Land of Lincoln. He is that rarest of birds, a writer who is at one and the same time very funny and very serious. . . . journalism like Land of Lincoln beats most scholarship hollow.” —Terry Teachout, Commentary

“Wow! This is a fascinating book. With his usual humor and insight, but also with real poignancy, Ferguson looks at how we see ourselves as a nation by exploring the way we choose to see Lincoln. The result is brilliant and amusing, but also deeply moving.” —Walter Isaacson, author of Einstein: His Life and Universe

“In the old days, historians—at least some of them—were patriotic and moralistic. No longer. We live in what Andrew Ferguson, in his brilliant new book, Land of Lincoln, calls ‘a wised-up era.’ Now, Ferguson explains, ‘skepticism about the country, its heroes and its history’ is ‘a mark of worldliness and sophistication.’ Ferguson is himself a worldly and sophisticated observer of contemporary America. . . . But his guided tour of the often amusing, sometimes bizarre ways we remember Lincoln today leads us gently from being wised-up toward wisdom. . . . Heartening and even inspiring.” —Time

“In Andrew Ferguson’s lively new book Land of Lincoln, he sets out to discover why Lincoln, more than almost every other historical figure, retains such a hold over Americans . . . It’s real fun . . . The author’s generous, curious spirit makes room for almost all Lincoln lovers, even the married couple who conduct a misguided management training workshop called ‘Lessons From Lincoln’ at the Gettysburg Battlefield Holiday Inn.” —Ruth Graham, New York Sun

“A marvelous addition to anyone’s summer reading list. . . . Unlike many cultural commentators who sacrifice reporting in pursuit of a good one-liner, Ferguson treats his subject with just the right ratio of humor and sobriety. That’s not to say the book isn’t often laugh-out-loud funny: it is. . . . Land of Lincoln is ultimately a slightly nutty road trip through the hearts and minds of those who still have a tendency to think and discuss Lincoln in the barely-passed tense.” —Stephen Miller, January Magazine

“This is a wonderful book . . . as wise and funny as you’d expect a book by Ferguson to be.” —Stanley Kurtz, National Review Online

“Rich and vibrant . . . Satisfying . . . Ferguson is a brilliant writer: realism with an impressionistic flourish and more than a dash of irony, plus a two-quart pitcher of eloquent sarcasm.” —David Bass, Capitol File

“In Land of Lincoln, Mr. Ferguson set out to find the real Abe, and his journey yields a portrait of modern American life unmatched in wit and insight. . . . An extraordinary and wonderful book.” —Tod Lindberg, Washington Times

Land of Lincoln is, as its title suggests, LOL, which is to say, laugh-out-loud funny. It’s also a wonderful and serious book about the enduring impact of our greatest president, by one of our best and wittiest writers.” —Christopher Buckley, author of Thank You for Smoking

“Andy Ferguson is the single most important writer about American politics. Abe Lincoln was the single most important American politician. The combination of Abe and Andy is—no other word will do—Lincolnesque. Land of Lincoln is like its subject: wise, funny, melancholic, virtuous, complex, tragic, undefeated, kind, stern, and possessed of a fund of wonderful stories. If you don’t read this book you are on the wrong side of the twenty-first-century American Civil War, casting your lot with those who would secede from the union of good sense, good principles, and good humor.” —P.J. O’Rourke, author of On the Wealth of Nations

“What a funny and warm-hearted and wonderful book this is. In Land of Lincoln, part sociology, part journalism, part history, Andy Ferguson’s superb reporting bursts forth on each page. This book belongs on the bookshelf of every civil war buff!” —Jay Winik, author of April 1865: The Month That Saved America

“Now he belongs to the ages—including the age of kitsch, criticism, and yearning in which we live. Andy Ferguson, one of the best writers in America, tracks Lincoln through twenty-first-century America with humanity, clarity, humor and passion—the very qualities of Lincoln himself.” —Richard Brookhiser, author of What Would the Founders Do?: Our Questions, Their Answers

“What a look into the world of Lincoln Andrew Ferguson offers his readers! He visits Lincoln’s detractors as well as his champions, those who dress up in an effort to be the man, those who collect everything from Lincoln’s hair to his teetotaling likeness on a whiskey shot glass. It’s so darned much fun to travel along with Ferguson as he parts the curtains and leads us to the Land of Lincoln.” —Vicki Erwin, Main Street Books, St. Charles, MO

“With his curiosity piqued by a 2003 protest against the installation of an Abraham Lincoln statue in Richmond, Virginia, journalist Ferguson decided to undertake a tour of vernacular attitudes toward the historical Lincoln. . . . Ferguson and his discovery of the infinitely malleable Abe—yesterday’s Emancipator, today’s business consultant—delivers wry, ever-humorous perspectives.” —Gilbert Taylor, Booklist

“The question that animates this original, insightful, disarmingly funny book is: how do Americans commemorate Lincoln, and what do our memories of him reveal about our visions of the good life? To discover the answer, Ferguson, an editor at the Weekly Standard and a Lincoln buff, made a long field trip, poking into many of the places where Americans have chosen to remember—or to forget—Honest Abe. . . . Ferguson’s conclusions are stirring.” —Publishers Weekly

“Colorful, opinionated, openly hostile to the new historians—and great fun to read.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Funny and insightful.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Ferguson is himself a worldly and sophisticated observer of contemporary America. But his guided tour of the often amusing, sometimes bizarre ways we remember Lincoln today leads us from being wised-up towards wisdom. . . . Ferguson’s wry and sardonic account of the ways we remember [Lincoln] is heartening and even inspiring, almost despite itself or despite ourselves.” —William Kristol, Time

“We all look for ourselves in Lincoln, our own identities and aspirations. Ferguson explores this trend by traveling the country and hanging out with buffs, collectors, impersonators, scholars, and even the occasional Lincoln-haters. And somehow, by immersing himself in the kitschy world of Lincolniana, he manages to transcend the hype and help us better understand why we admire this man in the first place.” —Andrew Benedict-Nelson, Bookslut.com

“With grace, insight, and great good humor, Ferguson travels the blue highways to discover the stories behind our fascination with the 16th president. . . . And it is a journey well worth taking, honest!” —Joe Drabyak, Chester County Book & Music Company, West Chester, PA

“No parent who ever packed a family into a station wagon will fail to identify with, and roar at, the adventures of the Ferguson clan on the Lincoln Heritage Trail—Ferguson’s son winces . . . against the torrent of information . . . in Springfield while his daughter mimics Dad’s tour-guide enthusiasm. And no father will be disappointed by their inevitable epiphany. . . . Ferguson’s cultural insights are vivid and penetrating. He is a gifted observer and terrific writer, at his best with his family in tow.” —Harold Holzer, Washington Post

“Ferguson is a gentle and genteel guide, whose deft comedic touch lightly stamps nearly every page.” —Richard Willing, USA Today

Land of Lincoln is a fascinating and entertaining survey of the numerous ways Lincoln runs through American culture.” —David Rapp, American Heritage

“A wickedly funny yet surprisingly fresh road trip memoir.” —John Marshall, Seattle Post-Intelligencer

“Blends exhaustive historical research, biting satire and slice-of-life immediacy . . . Ferguson seamlessly mixes earnest history, objective observation and sharp wit. His insight and humor help penetrate the murky years that separate modern America from one of its most famous presidents.” —Adam Goldstein, Rocky Mountain News

“A funny, sad, savage and tender account of contemporary America.” —Roger Buoen, Minneapolis Star Tribune

“Ferguson writes with assured style, offering loads of irony, both humorous and sobering, never failing to convey with subtlety his own sincere regard for finding the Lincoln that matters most.” —Martin Brady, Bookpage

Land of Lincoln is a gossamer creation, spun with generosity and wit. So much so that you’ll scarcely notice how formidable an enterprise it is as the narrative pulls you along.” —Jonathan Last, Philadelphia Inquirer

“It’s the best thing you’ll read all summer.” —Neil Steinberg, Chicago Sun-Times

“Ferguson has a breezy style suited to his material that doesn’t obscure his underlying question.” —Len Barcousky, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

“With grace, insight, and great good humor, Ferguson travels the blue highways to discover the stories behind our fascination with the 16th president. During the course of the journey, readers come to know a Lincoln who was an icon, an enigma, an intimate, and an enemy. And it is a journey well worth taking, honest!” —Joe Drabyak, Chester County Book & Music Company, West Chester, PA, Book Sense quote


A Book Sense Selection
Chicago Tribune Favorite Books of 2007



More books have been written about Abraham Lincoln than about any other American—nearly fourteen thousand in all—and at least half of those books begin by saying that more books have been written about Abraham Lincoln than about any other American. This book, you’ll notice, is one of them. Yet its subject matter is not Lincoln directly, or Lincoln exclusively. Its subject is really the country that Lincoln created and around which, I think I can show, he still putters, appearing here and there in likely and unlikely places, obtruding, stirring things up, offering consolation, dispensing bromides and bits of wisdom and otherwise making himself undeniable.

So even though this is a Lincoln book and not a book about me—sorry to disappoint you—it might help explain some things that happen in the book later on if I explain at the outset my own association with Lincoln, which runs pretty deep.

I was born in a midsize town in northeastern Illinois, the state that sells itself (to itself, among others) as the Land of Lincoln; its convicts stamp the claim right there on the license plates. My father worked as a lawyer in Chicago, in a firm founded after the Civil War by Robert Todd Lincoln, the only one of Abraham Lincoln’s sons to survive childhood. I grew up in a drafty old Victorian house on Lincoln Street, a mile or so from another drafty old Victorian where, legend had it, Lincoln himself had spent the night in the 1850s. Riding in our family’s Oldsmobile as a boy, I saw this house nearly every day, turning in my seat as we passed, always picturing the tall stooped figure climbing the front porch, removing his stovepipe hat to greet the lady of the house as he crossed the threshold into the cool of the parlor, until the Olds took the bend in the road and the house was out of sight.

During the long humid summers, on visits to grandparents and cousins downstate, my parents would sometimes break the boredom by taking my brothers and me on side-trips to the state capitol of Springfield, an exhausted city of liquor stores and parking lots but to me a place full of wonders. There in the heat we would run a well-worn path from the Lincoln tomb to the “restored Law Offices of A. Lincoln” to the only home A. Lincoln ever owned, a clapboard house tucked behind a picket fence in a down-at-the-heels neighborhood not far from the capitol building. Once or twice we drove twenty miles out of town to New Salem, the village on a bluff above the Sangamon River where Lincoln spent his young manhood. Its inhabitants abandoned New Salem long before Lincoln died, and a commemorative collection of log cabins had been rebuilt on the site a century later, as a tourist draw. Already, by the time of our visit, the splintered logs of the new buildings had grown gray and brittle from the weather, taking on the faded look of historical artifacts themselves. Our Lincoln diversions climaxed in a long car trip the family took one bright, blissful week along the then-new, and soon-to-be defunct, Lincoln Heritage Trail.

Having been where he’d been, and walked where he’d walked, I became a Lincoln buff, junior division, privileged to indulge (I thought) in a special intimacy with greatness. I cleared my schedule—not so hard to do when you’re ten—whenever Abe Lincoln in Illinois or Young Mr. Lincoln was to show up on TV. My favorite book was a photographic album as thick and heavy as a plank of oak, called Lincoln in Every Known Pose. My second favorite was a Yearling children’s book called Abraham Lincoln, by Ingri and Edgar D’Aulaire, a beautifully illustrated biography whose only defect was that it ended before his dark and splendidly heartbreaking death. His photographs hung on the walls of my bedroom. Sometimes at night, wakened by a bad dream, I’d rise from my bed and go to my desk and pull from the center drawer a sheaf of papers written in Lincoln’s own hand. I’d bought a packet of these yellowed, crinkly reproductions, reeking of the rust-colored dye that was meant to make them look antique, at a cavernous gift shop near his birthplace. The words carried the force of an incantation—entrancing, if not, to me, thoroughly comprehensible. By the light of the desk lamp I’d read the “Letter to Mrs. Bixby” or the last paragraph of the Second Inaugural, the one beginning “With malice toward none. . . .” I memorized the Gettysburg Address and his sublime “Farewell” to the people of Springfield.

What I mean is, I had a great deal of Abraham Lincoln growing up. I was a buff, and I was not alone.

* * *

And then I wasn’t a buff anymore. The country had undergone a Lincoln boom in the early 1960s, following the 150th anniversary of his birth and coinciding with the centennial celebrations of the Civil War, and not long after the centennial passed, my interest in Lincoln waned, too. On my bedroom walls Lincoln was replaced by the Beatles, who were themselves replaced in a few years by the languid Susan Dey. Every Known Pose sat stoutly on the shelf, unconsulted, passing eventually to a box in my parents’ garage, doomed. I don’t know what happened to it, or to the sheaf of Lincoln papers. I seldom recalled Springfield or New Salem. Something similar was happening in the country at large, I think. The great historical amnesia, certified and lamented nowadays by professional educators and tut-tutters of all kinds, was just settling in. Fewer and fewer courses in American history were taught less and less frequently, and those that survived were recast as exercises in multicultural special-pleading or litanies of political grievance. The tut-tutters took surveys and compiled the sad data of what has come to be called “historical illiteracy”: fully two-thirds of graduating high-school seniors can’t name the half-century in which the Civil War was fought, another third can’t identify Thomas Jefferson, 65 percent think Stonewall Jackson was a bass player for the Funkadelics, and so on. Historical tourism, another marker, declined too. The historian Barry Schwartz checked the figures and found a steady decline in attendance at Lincoln sites from the 1960s to the end of the century. More than a million people a year visited New Salem in the mid-sixties, for example; twenty years later the number was reduced by half.

But more than simple amnesia was at work. There was something willful in the forgetting. Americans, particularly the well-off and over-schooled, were entering a wised-up era, where skepticism about the country, its heroes, and its history was a mark of worldliness and sophistication. The historian C. Vann Woodward called this loss of innocence—if that’s what it was—the “Fall of the American Adam.” Even in Springfield, which clings to Lincoln’s memory like a rosary, road signs that directed tourists to the “Lincoln Shrines” were replaced by signs listing the “Lincoln sites.” I recall one episode in particular from the 1970s. Talking after class one day, a college friend and I discovered that we had both been buffs as boys, both in thrall to the same Lincoln children’s book, by the d’Aulaires. I mentioned the climactic scene, in which young Abe witnesses a slave auction and announces: “Someday I’m going to hit that, and I’m going to hit it hard.”

“Yeah,” my friend said. “What a load of crap.” Historians had discovered that the incident was wholly fictitious, he said—a fantasy. In fact Lincoln had been as much a racist as . . . as . . . Jefferson Davis! His official policy, as president, was to ship the slaves back to Africa. The Emancipation Proclamation was a cynical, empty act that didn’t free the slaves Lincoln could have freed and “freed”—here his fingers wiggled air quotes—only those that were out of his reach. All this was, he said, “common knowledge,” and in the face of it I realized that the very thought of being a buff indicated a hopeless lack of sophistication—the mark not only of an ignoramus but of a dweeb. You might as well wear a pocket protector and highwater pants.

Of course, Lincoln didn’t fall from the nation’s esteem altogether. We can’t shake him. Indeed, he’s fared better than many other of our traditional heroes. He’s still on the penny, for one thing. You can still find discussion groups and clubs devoted to him in many large and mid-sized cities, and you can subscribe to a half dozen periodicals with names like the Lincoln Herald and the Rail Splitter. The books continue to pile up. Occasionally one or two of these will prove popular; Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Lincoln book was a bestseller in 2005 and may even serve as the basis of a movie by Steven Spielberg. But you can’t help noticing, in most of the Lincoln books, an air of narrow self-justification—a wan parochialism. Mario Cuomo, the politician, published a polemic called Why Lincoln Matters, proving that if Lincoln were alive today his political views would be pretty much indistinguishable from Mario Cuomo’s. The gifted journalist Joshua Wolf Shenk, who has struggled with clinical depression, wrote Lincoln’s Melancholy, proving that the key to Lincoln’s achievements was his struggle with clinical depression. Most memorably of all, in 2005, a sex researcher and gay rights activist named C.A. Tripp published The Intimate Lincoln in hopes of proving that Lincoln was an active homosexual—the point being, as another activist put it, “He’s ours.”

For a century or more generations of Americans were taught to be like Lincoln—forbearing, kind, principled, resolute—but what we’ve really wanted is for Lincoln to be like us, and this has never been truer than the present day. Lincoln hasn’t been forgotten, but he’s shrunk. From the enormous figure of the past he’s been reduced to a hobbyist’s eccentricity, a charming obsession shared by a self-selected subculture, like quilting or Irish step dancing. He has been detached from the national patrimony, if we can be said to have a national patrimony any longer. He is no longer our common possession. That earlier Lincoln, that large Lincoln seems to be slipping away, a misty figure, incapable of rousing a reaction from anyone but buffs.

Or that’s what I assumed, anyway. Then one wintry morning a while back I fetched the local paper from the front stoop and saw a headline: LINCOLN STATUE STIRS OUTRAGE IN RICHMOND.

I thought: Lincoln? Outrage? And I felt the first stirrings of the fatal question, the question that, once raised, never lets go: “Huh?”

I took off for Richmond a week later. I spent a lot of time there, off and on—long enough to see the statue unveiled and to imbibe the outrage in deep drafts. The chapter that follows this preface, “When Lincoln Came Back to Richmond,” is the result. I left Richmond convinced that I was at the beginning of a story rather than at its end. I decided to keep looking for Lincoln.

RIchmond did something else to me, too. My time among the Lincoln haters, and the briefer time I spent with the Lincoln operators who had commissioned and financed the statue, made me uncomfortably aware of how little I really knew about Lincoln—and made me wonder, more to the point, how we know what we think we know about Lincoln. How was it that a single historical figure, and a single set of historical facts, could inspire such wildly divergent views, held with equal certitude by seemingly sensible people? So the first place I went looking for Lincoln was in books, and in one book in particular. There I discovered a wild and woolly character—the overworked phrase is perfectly appropriate—who stands as godfather to every Lincoln buff, and to every Lincoln hater, too. Learning the story of Billy Herndon constituted a kind of refresher course in Lincoln Studies, which I happily pass on in chapter 2.

Then I started moving again, and I didn’t really stop till I reached the steps of the Lincoln memorial—and this is where, conveniently enough, I wind up in chapter 10. The curiosity that pushed me along was part personal and part professional, which accounts, I suppose, for the strange commingling in what follows. Lincoln means a lot to me. He means a lot to the country—or he should if he no longer does. By the end of my travels I was more convinced of that truth than I’d been since I was a boy, reading beneath a pool of light in a darkened bedroom on Lincoln Street.