Category Archives: Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln’s Ethan Allen story

Lincoln as a candidate for the presidency, as depicted in a lithograph by Leopold Grozelier from a painting by Thomas Hicks. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

My favorite scene in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln takes place in the War Department’s telegraph office, as Lincoln and Stanton are waiting for news from Wilmington, NC. Lincoln decides to tell the assembled staff a vulgar story about Revolutionary War hero Ethan Allen. Stanton, already on the verge of bursting with the tension, can’t handle another of his boss’s rambling yarns and goes scurrying off. As the room erupts in laughter, the camera cuts to a portrait of Washington hanging overhead. The first president’s stern face gazes down impassively on one of his unlikeliest successors—an awkward, unpolished frontier lawyer—who’s cracking up at his own off-color joke, seemingly oblivious to the fact that he’s sitting at the nerve center of a vast war machine.

As it happens, the anecdote in question is one the historical Lincoln actually told on at least a couple of occasions.

Abner Ellis was one of many Lincoln acquaintances who shared their recollections about the slain president with William H. Herndon. Here’s how Ellis recorded the Ethan Allen story in a written statement from 1866, which you can find in the collection of Herndon’s research material edited by Douglas Wilson and Rodney Davis:

It appears that Shortly after we had pease with England Mr Allen had occasion to visit England, and while their the English took Great pleasure in teasing him, and trying to Make fun of the Americans and General Washington in particular and one day they got a picture of General Washington, and hung it up the Back House whare Mr Allen Could see it

and they finally asked Mr A if he saw that picture of his freind in the Back House.

Mr Allen said no. but said he thought that it was a very appropriate for an Englishman to Keep it Why they asked, for said Mr Allen their is Nothing that Will Make an Englishman S**t So quick as the Sight of Genl Washington And after that they let Mr Allens Washington alone

(The asterisks aren’t in the original, but you never know who’s reading your blog.)

Ellis wasn’t the only one of Herndon’s sources who remembered Lincoln’s fondness for the Ethan Allen story. On the day the Republican National Convention nominated him for the presidency in Chicago, Lincoln was back in Springfield, playing ball and chewing the fat with some friends. One of them was Christopher C. Brown, who recalled that Lincoln was “nervous, fidgety” that day and that he passed the time telling anecdotes, including the one about “Washingtons picture in a necessary.”

Abner Ellis claimed that he never heard the Allen story from anyone but Lincoln, so one wonders where he got it. I don’t think Ethan Allen went to England after the war, so if the incident with the privy actually happened, it probably wasn’t exactly as Lincoln told it. Allen was imprisoned in England for a while following his capture at Longue-Pointe, so it’s possible that something along the lines of Lincoln’s story could have happened then.

Oddly enough, in the film Lincoln tells the War Department staff that Allen and the Green Mountain Boys captured Ft. Ticonderoga in 1776. The fort actually fell in May of 1775, just a few weeks after the war started. I’m guessing this was a slip on the part of the screenwriter; Lincoln himself had done his share of reading about the Revolution as a kid.

Anyway, it makes for a great scene.

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Daniel Day-Lewis and Tony Kushner resurrect Lincoln

Cross-posted at the blog of the Abraham Lincoln Institute for the Study of Leadership and Public Policy

First things first.  You buy a ticket to Transformers to see fighting robots, and you buy a ticket to Titanic to see the ship sink.  Most of us who buy tickets to Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln are probably going to see Abraham Lincoln himself, and in that regard this movie doesn’t disappoint.  In fact, between the two of them, star Daniel Day-Lewis and screenwriter Tony Kushner have almost worked a miracle of resurrection.

It’s not just that Day-Lewis disappears into the role.  It’s that his Lincoln is so complete.  We’ve had excellent movie Lincolns before, but I don’t think anyone has captured so many aspects of his personality in one performance.  You get the gregarious raconteur as well as the melancholy brooder, the profound thinker as well as the unpolished product of the frontier, the pragmatic political operator as well as the man of principle.  He amuses the War Department staff with off-color jokes in one scene, then ruminates on Euclid and the Constitution in another.  It’s the closest you’re going to get to the real thing this side of a time machine, a distillation of all the recollections and anecdotes from Herndon, Welles, and the other contemporaries into one remarkable character study.

And it’s primarily as a character study that the movie stands out, for there is much about Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln that is unremarkable.  Not bad, mind you, but unremarkable.  The film takes as its story the effort to get the Thirteenth Amendment through Congress, and at times it’s too much a run-of-the-mill political procedural.  The Thirteenth Amendment was undeniably one of the Civil War’s most important outcomes; it formally ended a divisive institution which had existed in America for more than two centuries and contributed to a fundamental shift in the relationship between U.S. citizens and their government.  But it seems—to me, anyway—like an odd method of approach if one is trying to convey all the drama and significance of Lincoln’s presidency in a couple of hours.  Why not the Emancipation Proclamation or the ups and downs of the Union’s military fortunes, instead of an issue dependent on so much wheeling, dealing, cajoling, speech-making, and roll-calling?  Telling the story of the amendment’s fate makes this a movie that’s as much about democracy as it is about Lincoln himself, and that’s fine, but Day-Lewis and Kushner have given us such an interesting central character that the rest of the film seems unexpectedly average by comparison.

Even Spielberg’s directorial trademarks—his tendency toward sentimentality and his flair as a visual stylist—are surprisingly kept in the background.  This movie doesn’t have the signature Spielberg “moments”—no little girl dressed in a crowd of black and white, no thundering footfalls from some unseen menace causing ominous vibrations in the water, no kids on flying bicycles silhouetted against the moon.  One scene between Lincoln and Mary does have a distinctively “Spielbergian” sense of light and shadow, but other than that, the director’s fingerprints are not really apparent.  It’s a very restrained, straightforward effort.

Perhaps that’s as it should be, because ultimately this show belongs to the screenwriter and the cast.  Like Lincoln himself, Kushner has a flair for language, and the dialogue is some of his best work.  Tommy Lee Jones, Sally Field, and David Strathairn give some of the finest performances of their careers, and Jackie Earle Haley looks more like Alexander Stephens than Alexander Stephens himself did.

Ultimately, though, when this movie soars it’s because it makes one of the most compelling figures in American history seem to live again.  When I was in the museum business, we used to bring in Lincoln impersonators to do presentations for groups of schoolchildren.  These events were always a lot of fun, but the most memorable moments for me happened offstage, when “Lincoln” would relax on a couch in the office, out of character.  At those times you could catch a glimpse of him, sitting there in a black suit with his stovepipe hat on the table beside him, one long leg folded over the other while he chatted and joked with the staff.  It was downright surreal.  This, I would think to myself, is what it must have been like to sit in the telegraph office at the War Department or in a parlor at the Executive Mansion, watching Lincoln just being himself.  I had the same thought the first time Spielberg’s Lincoln appeared on the screen, and that was more than worth the price of a movie ticket.

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Lincoln stuff is headed your way

Those of you who live near a ginormous city will be able to see Lincoln this Friday, but it won’t open here in flyover country until Nov. 16.  I’m almost as anxious to swap reactions with all you online history buffs and bloggers as I am to see the movie itself, but I guess I’ll have to wait an extra week before I can review it on the blog.  I suspect that the Union will win, the Thirteenth Amendment will go to the states, rousing speeches will be speechified, and a performance of Our American Cousin will be unexpectedly cut short—but all the same, don’t you guys in New York and L.A. spoil the ending for us, okay?

In the meantime, I’ve got a review of Lincoln’s Code: The Laws of War in American History in the works.  I’ll post it here or over at the Lincoln Institute blog, or perhaps cross-post it to both.

Speaking of Lincoln movies, you might remember the upcoming film about Lincoln’s relationship with Ward Hill Lamon that was in the news last year.  The folks behind the project have put together a sneak peek and they were kind enough to direct my attention to it.  Brooks Simpson has already posted the video over at Crossroads, but here it is anyway if you haven’t seen it yet:

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Once bitten, twice shy

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter is out on DVD now, and my mom has been determined to see it, for reasons unfathomable to me. The day before yesterday she went to the local rental place, and every copy was checked out. Every single one.

She went back again yesterday, and still had no luck.

On her way home from work today she tried for the third time, and there was one copy available. She snagged it and carried it around while looking over the other new releases, and while she was in the store she overheard two different people ask the clerk if there were any extra copies of AL:VH in the back.

Maybe it’ll be one of those movies that die an ignominious death in theaters only to enjoy cult status in the home video market.

By the way, Mom didn’t like it.

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Old slogans

A Chinese guy who ordered a t-shirt with a Patrick Henry quote on it is appealing his sentence of two years in a labor camp.  When you live in America, it’s easy to forget that in some parts of the world those 250-year-old words are still…well, revolutionary.

On a much lighter note, there’s a pretty clever Lincoln-Johnson campaign site you guys should see.  Oh, and some new John Bell Hood documents are coming to light.

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A couple of Lincoln notices

Spielberg’s Lincoln screened at the New York Film Festival, and the early reviews have been pretty good.  Everybody seems to be impressed with Daniel Day-Lewis and the rest of the cast; the story is apparently good, if a little slow-moving.  I’m guessing the NYFF screening wasn’t the final cut, so the wide release version will probably be a little tighter.

Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) of Colorado tried valiantly to put the best face on Obama’s debate performance: “It’s just like Lincoln. When Lincoln ran for re-election, it was…dead close, I mean really a struggle, really close, and he wasn’t a great public speaker. I mean, Obama’s a great speaker. Lincoln wasn’t a great debater.”

He later clarified his remarks by stating, “Evidently…in the Lincoln-Douglas debates, by most accounts, he had a hard time keeping up with Stephen Douglas, who was great. That’s what I was referring to.”

Because if there was one area where the man who delivered the Gettysburg Address needed improvement, it was public speaking.  But to be fair, Republicans have been having their own history issues lately.

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Brian Dirck discusses his Lincoln research

…over at the Lincoln Institute blog.  Check it out.

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Is Lincoln to blame for America’s empire?

Some observers see Lincoln’s presidency and the outcome of the Civil War as the point when America got off-kilter, sort of like a national equivalent to the Fall of Man.  At some point between 1860 and 1865, so this line of thinking goes, the country went off the rails and abandoned the legacy of the Revolution and the Constitution, leaving us with the centralized, interventionist, and industrial nation in which we now live.

There’s a nugget of truth to all this, but it’s hidden among a lot of overstatement and moralization.  The Civil War did contribute to the creation of a stronger and more vigorous central government, Lincoln’s use of presidential authority was broader than many of his predecessors, and the Union’s victory did accelerate the creation of a more consolidated and economically modern America.  At the same time, though, you can’t attribute America’s transformation entirely to the Civil War or to Lincoln’s presidency.  The war was a critical step down that road, but it wasn’t the only one—and the road itself was circuitous, since the exertion of federal authority has expanded and contracted at various times between 1865 and today.  Lincoln did a great many consequential things, but he didn’t sucker punch the whole country into the modern age single-handedly.

Abraham Lincoln portrait by William F. Cogswell, 1869 (The White House Historical Association via Wikimedia Commons)

In an interesting and provocative essay, Thomas DiLorenzo takes this notion of the Lincoln presidency as something akin to America’s moment of original sin and applies it to foreign policy.  He argues that Lincoln abandoned the Founders’ desire for neutrality and friendly commerce in favor of “imperialist fantasies about perfecting the entire planet as the bedrock of American foreign policy ideas.”  Lincoln, he states, believed that it was incumbent upon Americans to impose democratic ideals on other countries, and so our subsequent foreign entanglements and interventions follow from this misguided conviction.

DiLorenzo thus uses an interpretation of the past to critique the present.  As far as his criticism of American interventionism goes, I’m inclined to agree with him, at least to a considerable extent.  What I don’t agree with is his diagnosis of the historical origins of the problem.  Like the larger concept of which it’s a part—the notion that the Civil War is the point at which the country somehow went wrong—I think his argument contains a kernel of historic truth hidden in a matrix of serious oversimplification.  DiLorenzo makes Lincoln out to be a far more influential figure than he actually was.

He’s certainly correct that Lincoln believed the U.S., as an experiment in popular government, had an important role to play in the world.  Indeed, that’s one reason why he took secession so seriously.  If the nation collapsed in civil warfare, he thought, then the whole notion of a nation governed by the people themselves was in doubt.  Hence his argument at Gettysburg that America was a nation conceived in liberty and dedicated to a proposition of equality, and that the war was a contest to determine whether any such nation could survive.  If the Union prevailed, self-government would be vindicated and would have the opportunity to take root elsewhere.

But I don’t think DiLorenzo is accurate in equating Lincoln’s brand of American exceptionalism with a zealous support of foreign intervention.  Ever since the Revolution—since earlier than that, actually, if one takes the Puritans into account—Americans have believed they could instruct the world, but not all of them have believed they must do so by force.  I don’t really see any reason to assume that Lincoln’s American exceptionalism was necessarily of the militant kind or to lay the blame for America’s status as a global policeman at his feet.  True, the interventionist and expansionist U.S. of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries probably wouldn’t have taken the form it did if it weren’t for the creation of a consolidated and industrial nation with a vigorous government, which the Civil War made possible.  But that’s not to say that it wouldn’t have become an interventionist and expansionist country at all.  The agrarian, slave-based economic interest that was so influential in antebellum America was something of an imperialist engine in its own right, spurring on conflict with Mexico and sparking filibustering expeditions in other parts of Latin America.  Indeed, well before the Civil War, America had been practicing a form of internal imperialism with regard to the Indians.  It’s therefore entirely possible that an America without a Lincoln presidency or a Civil War might have become an interventionist world power anyway, albeit an interventionist power of a different kind.

I have no idea how Lincoln would feel about modern America’s willingness to spend blood and treasure policing the world.  Maybe he’d endorse the extension of American ideals and institutions to foreign countries by force of arms, at least under some circumstances.  Or maybe not; after all, he was a vocal critic of America’s war with Mexico in the 1840′s.  Whatever the case, I think he’d be quite surprised that anyone would draw a direct line between his readiness to use force to suppress what he considered an internal rebellion and the deployment of American forces across the globe a century and a half later.

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Lincoln movie items of note

In the next few weeks there are going to be so many Lincoln updates that you’ll be pining for the good old days when nothing happened other than the occasional Liam Neeson visit to Springfield.

As is his custom, Daniel Day-Lewis was fanatically committed to his role in Spielberg’s upcoming Lincoln film.  This according to Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who plays Robert Todd Lincoln and whose character in The Dark Knight Rises was utterly superfluous, thank you very much.

Producer Kathleen Kennedy also talked to reporters about Spielberg’s Lincoln.  More importantly, she gave a progress report on the next Jurassic Park installment.  (One of these days I’ll finally give in and make this a history/dinosaur blog.)

There’s already been misplaced criticism of Day-Lewis’s portrayal of Lincoln’s voice.  All you people who want your Lincoln to sound like Gregory Peck need to read up on what his voice was actually like.

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Oh, well

That Lincoln document that a guy has been hawking on the street in Milwaukee?  It’s probably a facsimile.  The original is still at the Library of Congress.

If you can’t put your faith in a presidential manuscript that somebody’s peddling by the road with a handmade sign, then you can’t really take anything for granted, can you?

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