“Framing Variations and Collective Memory: “Honest Abe” versus “the Great Emancipator”

Central to American identity have been public memories of events like the struggle for independence and the achievements of key figures from the past. The individual most often subject to hagiographic accounts is Abraham Lincoln, with emphasis both on his epic achievements in saving the Union and ending slavery and on his personal characteristics, such as honesty and the motivation to transcend his “backwoods” childhood and attain positions of local, state, and national leadership. However, a recent study based on extensive survey data found that Lincoln's connection to emancipation provided the primary content of beliefs about him for most Americans today, with other beliefs mentioned much less often. Our present research supports that emphasis when presidential actions are the focus, but a randomized survey-based experiment shows that with a type of questioning that reflects the distinction between “essence” and “action”—inner character versus public achievements—beliefs about the former become at least as prominent as beliefs about the latter. Preliminary evidence to this effect is replicated decisively in a separate experiment, and the study is then extended to consider changes over time in indicators of essence versus action. Our research highlights the importance of how inquiries are framed, and they show that variations in framing, including those that are unintended, can enlarge our understanding of collective memory of Lincoln and of collective memory generally.