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Lesson Plan: Abraham Lincoln and the Forging of Modern America

Instructor AP American Experience, 11 th grade

Belfast Area High School

Belfast, ME 04915

(207) 338-1790

Home: 101 Woods Rd., Belfast, ME 04915, (207) 338-6335

Introduction: Sometimes I use the whole novel, sometimes I excerpt a chapter or chapters from the text, and sometimes I only use John Huston's two-hour 1956 film, but whenever I read and teach Herman Melville's Moby-Dick (published 1851), I wonder who Ahab is, not in the literary terms established by Sophoclean and Shakespearean tragedy, but rather in the historical terms of the American experience? Who is this figure that usurps the American ship of state and uses it and the crew as a tool with which to satisfy his own selfish lust for knowledge and revenge, even if that satisfaction entails the total destruction of The Pequod, which, with its social hierarchies, diverse ethnicities, and multiple races, clearly represents the American ship of state?

After reading Abraham Lincoln's "Address Before the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield, Illinois, January, 1838 (Title: "The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions"), I am still not sure who Ahab is, but I do know that two of the best minds in antebellum American were deeply concerned with the same question: Could the liberty that the Revolution and the Constitution embody be eroding? Was the republic growing susceptible to what Fred Kaplan in his Lincoln: the Biography of a Writer, calls "demagogues, mobs, and militarists. . . . potential tyrants" who might transform national acclaim into dictatorial rule and undo what Jefferson and Washington and had achieved? Were Lincoln and Melville right to worry that America, having had its Washington, was now in danger of developing its Caesar or Napoleon? (78)

Step 1: Read the two passages below, excerpted from Abraham' Lincoln's 1838 "Address Before the Young Men's Lyceum." A familiarity with Lincoln's entire Lyceum speech is recommended.

Thus, then, by the operation of this mobocratic spirit, which all must admit, is now abroad in the land, the strongest bulwark of any Government, and particularly of those constituted like ours, may effectually be broken down and destroyed-I mean the attachment of the People . . ..

Many great and good men sufficiently qualified for any task they should undertake, may ever be found, whose ambition would aspire to nothing beyond a seat in Congress, a gubernatorial or presidential chair; but such belong not to the family of the lion, or the tribe of the eagle. What! Think you these places would satisfy an Alexander, a Caesar, or a Napoleon? -Never! Towering genius disdains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored. -It sees no distinction in adding story to story, upon the monuments of fame, erected to the memory of others. It denies that it is glory enough to serve under any chief. It scorns to tread in the footsteps of any predecessor, however illustrious. It thirsts and burns for distinction; and, if possible, it will have it, whether at the expense of emancipating slaves, or enslaving freemen. Is it unreasonable then to expect, that some man possessed of the loftiest genius, coupled with ambition sufficient to push it to its utmost stretch, will at some time, spring up among us? And when such a one does, it will require the people to be united with each other, attached to the government and laws, and generally intelligent, to successfully frustrate his designs.

Step 2. Answer the following questions:

1. Who was Elijah Lovejoy (from Albion, Maine) and what happened to him in Alton, Illinois in 1837?

2. Do you think that these events in Alton are what Lincoln has in mind when he refers to the "mobocratic spirit" at large in the land?

3. What other events or people might he also have in mind?

4. Can you think of any ambitious candidates who might fulfill the role of "loftiest genius"? Who might Lincoln be warning his fellow Americans about?

Step 3. Read the excerpt below from Moby Dick, Chapter 36, "The Quarterdeck." Knowledge of the entire novel is recommended, but in the interest of time, a class viewing of John Ford's 1956 film version of the novel will suffice. Ford devotes much film time and skillful dramatic attention to the events that occur in this chapter.

[Ahab is speaking] (Aside) Something shot from my dilated nostrils; he has inhaled it in his lungs. Starbuck now is mine; cannot oppose me now, without rebellion."

"God keep me! --keep us all!" murmured Starbuck, lowly.

But in his joy at the enchanted, tacit acquiescence of the mate, Ahab did not hear his foreboding invocation; nor yet the low laugh from the hold; nor yet the presaging vibrations of the winds in the cordage; nor yet the hollow flap of the sails against the masts, as for a moment their hearts sank in. For again Starbuck's downcast eyes lighted up with the stubbornness of life; the subterranean laugh died away; the winds blew on; the sails filled out; the ship heaved and rolled as before. Ah, ye admonitions and warnings! why stay ye not when ye come? But rather are ye predictions than warnings, ye shadows! Yet not so much predictions from without, as verifications of the fore-going things within. For with little external to constrain us, the innermost necessities in our being, these still drive us on.

"The measure! The measure!" cried Ahab.

Receiving the brimming pewter, and turning to the harpooneers, he ordered them to produce their weapons. Then ranging them before him near the capstan, with their harpoons in their hands, while his three mates stood at his side with their lances, and the rest of the ship's company formed a circle round the group; he stood for an instant searchingly eyeing every man of his crew. But those wild eyes met his, as the bloodshot eves of the prairie wolves meet the eye of their leader, ere he rushes on at their head in the trail of the bison; but, alas! only to fall into the hidden snare of the Indian.


"Drink and pass!" he cried, handing the heavy charged flagon to the nearest seaman. "The crew alone now drinks. Round with it, round! Short draughts--long swallows, men; 'tis hot as Satan's hoof. So, so; it goes round excellently. It spiralizes in ye; forks out at the serpent-snapping eye. Well done; almost drained. That way it went, this way it comes. Hand it me--here's a hollow! Men, ye seem the years; so brimming life is gulped and gone. Steward, refill!

"Attend now, my braves. I have mustered ye all round this capstan; and ye mates, flank me with your lances; and ye harpooneers, stand there with your irons; and ye, stout mariners, ring me in, that I may in some sort revive a noble custom of my fishermen fathers before me. O men, you will yet see that--Ha! boy, come back? bad pennies come not sooner. Hand it me. Why, now, this pewter had run brimming again, wert not thou St. Vitus' imp--away, thou ague!

"Advance, ye mates! Cross your lances full before me. Well done! Let me touch the axis." So saying, with extended arm, he grasped the three level, radiating lances at their crossed centre; while so doing, suddenly and nervously twitched them; meanwhile glancing intently from Starbuck to Stubb; from Stubb to Flask. It seemed as though, by some nameless, interior volition, he would fain have shocked into them the same fiery emotion accumulated within the Leyden jar of his own magnetic life. The three mates quailed before his strong, sustained, and mystic aspect. Stubb and Flask looked sideways from him; the honest eye of Starbuck fell downright.

"In vain!" cried Ahab; "but, maybe, 'tis well. For did ye three but once take the full-forced shock, then mine own electric thing, that had perhaps expired from out me. Perchance, too, it would have dropped ye dead. Perchance ye need it not. Down lances! And now, ye mates, I do appoint ye three cupbearers to my three pagan kinsmen there--yon three most honorable gentlemen and noblemen, my valiant harpooneers. Disdain the task? What, when the great Pope washes the feet of beggars, using his tiara for ewer? Oh, my sweet cardinals! your own condescension, that shall bend ye to it. I do not order ye; ye will it. Cut your seizings and draw the poles, ye harpooneers!"

Silently obeying the order, the three harpooneers now stood with the detached iron part of their harpoons, some three feet long, held, barbs up, before him.

"Stab me not with that keen steel! Cant them; cant them over! know ye not the goblet end? Turn up the socket! So, so; now, ye cup-bearers, advance. The irons! take them; hold them while I fill!" Forthwith, slowly going from one officer to the other, he brimmed the harpoon sockets with the fiery waters from the pewter.

"Now, three to three, ye stand. Commend the murderous chalices! Bestow them, ye who are now made parties to this indissoluble league. Ha! Starbuck! but the deed is done! Yon ratifying sun now waits to sit upon it. Drink, ye harpooneers! drink and swear, ye men that man the deathful whaleboat's bow--Death to Moby Dick! God hunt us all, if we do not hunt Moby Dick to his death!" The long, barbed steel goblets were lifted; and to cries and maledictions against the white whale, the spirits were simultaneously quaffed down with a hiss. Starbuck paled, and turned, and shivered. Once more, and finally, the replenished pewter went the rounds among the frantic crew; when, waving his free hand to them, they all dispersed; and Ahab retired within his cabin . . ..

I, Ishmael, was one of that crew . . .. A wild, mystical, sympathetical feeling was in me; Ahab's quenchless feud seemed mine. (Chapter 41)

Step 4:

1. Why is it important that Starbuck first resist and then succumb to Ahab's power?

2. Starbuck's "foreboding invocation," the "wind in the cordage," and the "hollow flap of the sails": what do these three images have in common? What meaning do they share?

3. Where does the narrator stand on the age-old and often tragic question of fate versus free will? What are the implications of this stand for The Pequod and, by extension, for the United States?

4. The communal passing of the measure of rum is a mock ritual, a dark parody of the Christian Eucharist. What are the social and political implications of this ritual?

5. Consider the image of the three mates-Starbuck, Stubb, and Flask--crossing their lances while Ahab grips the axis: what symbolic meanings are being expressed here?

6. Why is it important for us to know that Ishmael, too, had his soul "welded" and "clinched" with that of Ahab and the crew?

Step 5: Both Lincoln and Melville knew from experience that human weakness and depravity were real and that they would manifest themselves in a will for dominance that could ruin and degrade the Union. Who, then, is this figure that both Lincoln and Melville are warning us about? This figure whose designs on American democracy we must "successfully frustrate" or else see the political and social vision of the founders give way to tyranny? Drawing upon your knowledge of American history and literature and using the two documents above, construct an essay in which you identify this figure. Who, in other words, is Ahab?