Tag Archives: Abraham Lincoln

The Abe Delusion

I don’t know how I managed to miss it until now, but there’s an “Alincolnist” Facebook page.  Some of the arguments against Lincoln’s existence presented therein are admittedly persuasive.

Personally, I am willing to concede that a man by the name of Abraham Lincoln may have lived during the nineteenth century; the tradition that he worked as a circuit lawyer suggests that he was some sort of itinerant sage or wise man.  But I find the log cabin birth narrative hard to believe, and the historical Lincoln certainly wouldn’t have referred to himself as “President of the United States.”

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Lincoln looking south from Peoria

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

Although not as popular as some of his other works, Abraham Lincoln’s speech at Peoria, IL—delivered over the course of some three hours on October 16, 1854—is one of his more important public addresses.  The speech combines history, reason, and moral appeal in an attack on the extension of slavery.  Lincoln was no abolitionist—he did not call for the immediate eradication of slavery in states where it had always existed—but he considered its extension north of the Missouri Compromise line to be both a moral and a political wrong.  The compromise had held for more than thirty years before Stephen Douglas’s Kansas-Nebraska Act overturned it in 1854 by permitting slavery in northern territories whose populations voted to permit the institution.

The Peoria speech contains one of my favorite passages from the entire Lincoln corpus:

Before proceeding, let me say I think I have no prejudice against the Southern people. They are just what we would be in their situation. If slavery did not now exist amongst them, they would not introduce it. If it did now exist amongst us, we should not instantly give it up. This I believe of the masses north and south. Doubtless there are individuals, on both sides, who would not hold slaves under any circumstances; and others who would gladly introduce slavery anew, if it were out of existence. We know that some southern men do free their slaves, go north, and become tip-top abolitionists; while some northern ones go south, and become most cruel slave-masters.

It’s a surprisingly charitable statement for a speech devoted to a divisive political issue, especially since Lincoln believed the stakes in the debate over slavery in the territories to be incredibly high.

Abraham Lincoln in 1854. Wikimedia Commons

In fact, in the same speech he denounced slavery as a “monstrous injustice” and its spread as an existential threat to American principles which “forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty—criticising [sic] the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest.”  Since Lincoln saw the slave question in such stark and consequential terms, the natural thing to do would have been to demonize those who upheld the institution and its extension.  He not only refrained from doing so, but asserted that only historical circumstances accounted for the difference of opinion.

Perhaps one of the reasons for his refusal to castigate the South over the slave issue was the fact that he believed it such a difficult problem to solve.  Lincoln freely admitted that he couldn’t prescribe a remedy for slavery.  He told the Peoria audience that his “first impulse would be to free all the slaves, and send them to Liberia,—to their own native land.”  He dismissed the prospect of granting them social and political equality, stating that his “own feelings will not admit of this; and if mine would, we well know that those of the great mass of white people will not.”   Lincoln did believe “that systems of gradual emancipation might be adopted; but for their tardiness in this, I will not undertake to judge our brethren of the south.”

To modern ears, Lincoln’s desire to see the freedmen sent out of the country and his unwillingness make them his equals make him seem woefully backward.  But his conviction that the slave question had no easy answers was one of the reasons he was reluctant to condemn those who disagreed with him about it.  Faced with the most divisive, emotive political issue of his time, Lincoln did not assume that individuals on the other side of it were his moral inferiors.  Even as he demonized the institution of slavery, he humanized those who disagreed with him about it.  This willingness to distinguish between issues and their proponents would serve him well when he presided over a nation at war, a war that gave him the opportunity to enact the sweeping solution to the slavery problem from which he shrank in 1854.

For anyone trying to evaluate Lincoln as a moral role model, the Peoria speech shows him at both his worst and best.  His remarks about political and social equality between whites and blacks revealed him to be a man of his time with all the attendant prejudices.  On the other hand, the empathy he expressed toward the South seems remarkably enlightened by any standard of political rhetoric.  Most modern Americans have long since outpaced Lincoln in terms of our beliefs about race, but in terms of knowing how to handle emotive political issues it seems we haven’t caught up with him yet.  He knew that you could attack people’s opinions without attacking the people themselves.  That’s a lesson we could learn today, when political differences remain as heated as they were in Lincoln’s day.

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The Lincoln screed checklist

This guy’s got all his ducks in a row.

Reference to the USSR?  Check.  Use of the felicitously vague label “progressive”?  Check.  War attributed to tariffs?  Check.  The Greeley letter quoted in blissful ignorance of the chronology surrounding the decision for emancipation? Check.  Quote from the Charleston debate?  Check.  Lerone Bennett citation?  Check.

Bonus points for conflating the slavery debate as the cause of the war with abolition as a Union war aim from the get-go…”Moreover, if, according to the progressive version of history, abolition of slavery was the cause of the Civil War, why didn’t Lincoln free the slaves right off the bat?”

…and for overlooking the wee matter of the Battle of Antietam: “Why did he wait for many months — and do it only when the war took a bad turn for the Union, and, more important, when the superpowers of the day, Great Britain and France, were about to recognize the Confederacy and come to its aid?”

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“A change of scene might help me”

On January 23, 1841 Abraham Lincoln wrote a letter to his law partner, John Todd Stuart, who had been elected to Congress as a Whig.  This is the same letter in which Lincoln referred to himself as “the most miserable man living,” a reference to the melancholy spell he went through in the wake of his broken engagement with Mary Todd and his friend Joshua Speed’s departure for Kentucky.

There’s an interesting passage near the end of this document that isn’t quoted as frequently as the references to Lincoln’s bout with depression: “The matter you speak of on my account, you may attend to as you say, unless you shall hear of my condition forbidding it. I say this, because I fear I shall be unable to attend to any bussiness here, and a change of scene might help me.”

What “matter” was Lincoln referring to?  Maybe it had something to do with a position Stuart tried to secure for him later that year.  In March, Stuart wrote to Secretary of State Daniel Webster, recommending Lincoln for the post of chargé d’affaires in Bogotá.  The post was already occupied by an Illinoisan, and Stuart argued that if it became vacant it should be “filled by a Citizen of the same state,” commending Lincoln as a man with “talents of a very high order” and “a favorite with the people.”

Lincoln never ended up in Bogotá, of course, but today there’s a school named for him there.  It’s hard for me to see him carrying out diplomatic assignments in a South American capital; that’s quite a long way from a Kentucky log cabin.  Then again, so is Washington, D.C.

Plaza Mayor de Bogota in 1846, by Edward Mark Walhouse. Wikimedia Commons

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A proclamation visitation

The honest-to-goodness original Emancipation Proclamation came to Nashville for a limited engagement, and since my cousin and I are dedicated history aficionados, we hit the road to see it.  I would’ve snapped a photo, but…

photo-9

Anyway, as an unexpected bonus, we got to see the Thirteenth Amendment, too.  The Tennessee State Museum hosted these items as part of a special Civil War exhibit from the National Archives, and even if you don’t see the proclamation itself, the exhibition is still worth a visit.  It uses NARA holdings to illustrate various subjects relating to the war, so you get a sense of the incredible variety and value of primary sources from the period as well as learning about the conflict itself.  Check out Gordon Belt’s blog for some photos.

This was one of the most rewarding public history experiences I’ve had in a long time.  Getting to see the proclamation was great, of course, but what I enjoyed almost as much was seeing the other visitors enjoy themselves.  People of every age and background were there; the TSM was open late to accommodate the crowds, and as we left, the line of ticket holders and standbys was as long as it had been when we entered.  While everyone waited to be admitted, the staff passed around handouts with transcriptions of the proclamation’s text, and visitors huddled in groups to read them, discussing particular passages and arguing over implications and meanings.

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Miscellany

  • If you’re within driving distance of Nashville, don’t forget about the special exhibition of the original Emancipation Proclamation at the Tennessee State Museum, Feb. 12-18.  Viewing hours are limited and lines may be long, so click here to learn how to make advance reservations.  Some time slots are already full.
  • Hey, speaking of Lincoln, did you know that in addition to leading a Marxist war effort, he was also an “unscrupulous fascist“?  A sneaky devil, that Lincoln.
  • Here’s an interesting history of the sites associated with Lincoln’s early life.
  • Thoughts from East Tennessee on the importance of family heirlooms.
  • There’s another proposed state law to prevent people from fiddling with or renaming monuments.  This one is right here in Tennessee.
  • Some info on the sesquicentennial commemoration of the Chattanooga Campaign.
  • Mt. Vernon has acquired an original painting by Benjamin Latrobe.

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Rep. Joe Courtney makes a mountain out of a molehill

I can understand why he’d be miffed that Lincoln wrongly depicts representatives from his state voting against the Thirteenth Amendment, but sending a letter to Spielberg asking him to fix it in time for the DVD release is going a little overboard.

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Remind me again why this guy is an authority

Whenever Glenn Beck and David Barton get together to talk about history, you know you’re in for a show.

Check out this conversation they had about the movie Lincoln.  Beck asks Barton about the film’s accuracy, and Barton claims that, contrary to what the film shows, the Thirteenth Amendment passed Congress easily as a “slam dunk” and without all the wheeling and dealing.

In reality, the vote in the HOR was anything but a “slam dunk.”  Approval of a proposed constitutional amendment requires a two-thirds majority, not a simple one, and the Thirteenth Amendment just barely passed.  A mere handful of additional nays, and it wouldn’t have.

Barton’s supporters are always assuring us that he’s an expert in matters constitutional and historical; he does know how new amendments get added to the Constitution, right?

As for the “wheeling and dealing,” Lincoln’s administration did, in fact, put quite a bit of pressure congressmen to support the amendment.  The exact nature and extent of that pressure is a matter of some uncertainty (for obvious reasons, it’s not the sort of thing that leaves a paper trail), but that Lincoln was more heavily involved in this congressional matter than was usual for him is pretty well established.

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What do American college freshmen think of when someone mentions Lincoln? (An unscientific survey)

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

For the past couple of weeks, I’ve been teaching a section of the introductory course on Abraham Lincoln which all freshmen at Lincoln Memorial University are required to take.  On the first day, I asked the students to write down five things they think of when they hear Lincoln’s name.  I didn’t require correct answers, and I told them not to consult any books or other sources.  I was just curious to see what comes to the mind of the average American eighteen-year-old when Lincoln is mentioned.

The most common responses by far involved some aspect of the assassination, with all but five of the students mentioning Lincoln’s murder.  About one-third of them referred to the fact he was shot in a theater, and one-fifth mentioned John Wilkes Booth by name.  One of them mentioned Booth’s close proximity to Lincoln at the 1864 inauguration.

Lincoln’s height was the second most common thing that came up, followed pretty closely by references to the Emancipation Proclamation, Lincoln’s opposition to slavery, and his “Honest Abe” moniker.  One-quarter of the students mentioned the fact that he was the Sixteenth President of the United States, and the same number mentioned his iconic stovepipe hat.  One-sixth of them referred to Lincoln’s whiskers, his Kentucky background, his appearance on American currency, his “railsplitter” nickname, or his association with the Civil War.

The early deaths of several of Lincoln’s relatives was mentioned twice.  So was the Thirteenth Amendment, the date of his birth, his election to the presidency, and the association of his name with LMU.

Only two incorrect statements appeared in the responses.  One student claimed that Lincoln was “stern and serious,” perhaps confusing his appearance in formal portraits with his actual demeanor.  Another wrote that Lincoln got into hot water with his dad for chopping down a cherry tree, but I half suspect that this answer was an intentional joke rather than an honest mistake.

The following references each appeared once:

  • Member of the Whig Party
  • He dressed badly
  • Born in a log cabin
  • Was a Republican
  • His wife shopped a lot
  • Carried letters in his hat
  • A public speaker
  • Had many enemies
  • Was a great leader
  • Loved reading books
  • Had “defined” facial features
  • Had disturbing dreams
  • Mentioned the names of attending doctors at his deathbed
  • Gettysburg Address
  • Wrote about giant bones at Niagara Falls
  • Grew up poor

Only one student mentioned the Gettysburg Address, which came as a surprise to me.  Also surprising was the reference to Lincoln’s short meditation on Niagara Falls, one of his more obscure written works.  In addition, I expected to see more references to his humble origins and log cabin birth, since that’s been such an important aspect of the Lincoln cultural phenomenon over the years.  In fact, of the five major aspects of “Lincolnian memory” identified by historian Merrill Peterson (the savior of the Union, the great emancipator, the man of the people, the first American, and the self-made man), only the notion of Lincoln as emancipator was prominent in the students’ responses.

Finally, three students mentioned the recent “vampire hunter” meme.  I leave it to you to decide whether that number is alarmingly high or reassuringly low.

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“She is the very picture of Ann Rutledge”

Today I’ll be spending some time in my Lincoln class talking about the Ann Rutledge controversy.  People tend to take biographical information for granted, as if all the facts we think we know about famous historical figures have just always “been there.”  The Ann Rutledge case is a handy way to show students that historical information is constructed and contested, dependent on  the evidence researchers are able to uncover and how they interpret it.

Ann Rutledge died in 1835, when photography was still in its infancy.  That means I’ve got to rely on later, imaginative reconstructions when it comes to my PowerPoint slides.  But while I was browsing around the Interwebs yesterday, I stumbled across a picture I’d never seen before, with an interesting typewritten caption attached.

Library of Congress, Rare Book and Special Collections Division, Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana.

This photo is part of the Alfred Whital Stern Collection of Lincolniana at the Library of Congress; Stern acquired over 11,000 Lincoln items before turning his material over to the LoC in 1953.

In his book on the Ann Rutledge case, John Evangelist Walsh identifies James McGrady Rutledge as Ann’s favorite cousin.  He was one of the family members who claimed that Ann and Lincoln were formally engaged.

I haven’t found any other information on “Miss Minnie Harms,” but that photograph might be as close as we can get to knowing what Ann really looked like.

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