Remember that movie about a young Abe Lincoln that’s been in the works? Well, if you’re going to Sundance, you can see it this weekend. The rest of us will have to settle for this quick peek that’s popped up online:
Tag Archives: Lincoln in Memory
A few items worthy of note as we ring in 2014.
- This list of New Year resolutions for Kentuckians includes a few history-related things to do, including some sites that every citizen of the Bluegrass State should visit. I’ll add one more assignment for Kentuckians in 2014: If you haven’t already, read either Thomas Clark’s classic history of the state or the more recent volume by Lowell Harrison and James Klotter.
- Speaking of knowing your local history, all you folks in Winston-Salem should get acquainted with your town’s Rev War namesake.
- We’re getting a new statue of Sam Houston here in Tennessee, where he made a name for himself before heading off to Texas. There’s also a new Civil War Trails marker going up in Maynardville, just down the road from my neck of the woods.
- Zachary Keck argues that Americans’ fondness for revolutions is misplaced, and stems partly from our own revolutionary beginnings. But he also claims that the American Revolution wasn’t all that revolutionary, because it didn’t upset the status quo. Keck notes that most revolutions don’t create stable, free societies; real progress is due more to evolution than revolution. But should we consider the democratization of the nineteenth century to be an effect of the American Revolution or an example of gradual evolution? Gordon Wood took the long view of the Revolution as a process that turned America away from the hierarchical, colonial past and toward the democratic, egalitarian nineteenth century. Taken as a discrete event which ended in the 1780s, though, the Revolution seems more limited in scope. I guess it all depends on your perspective.
- By far the year’s most popular post here at Past in the Present was a 2012 item about an off-color anecdote told by Abraham Lincoln which made its way into Spielberg’s film.
- I’d like to pick a best American history book of 2013, but most of the books I read this year had already been in circulation for a while. People have been writing history books for a lot longer than I’ve been reading them, so I spend most of my reading time trying to catch up with backlisted titles. As for the best American history book I read in 2013, I’d probably go with Rachel Klein’s Unification of a Slave State: The Rise of the Planter Class in the South Carolina Backcountry, 1760-1808.
- High point of 2013 for me? Under any other circumstances, visiting the Freedom Trail, Lexington and Concord would be impossible to top, but…
The Great Emancipator takes a walk on the wild side in the new Illinois Office of Tourism ad, and I think it’s hilarious.
If you didn’t get a chance to see Saving Lincoln in theaters, it’s available on DVD now. Using actual period photographs for its settings, the movie explores the relationship between Abraham Lincoln and Ward Hill Lamon, the Virginia-born attorney who went from lawyer to presidential bodyguard. Lamon isn’t as well-known as some of Lincoln’s other associates, but the two men had a remarkable and longstanding relationship.
They met in Illinois, where Lamon was admitted to the bar in 1851. Although he was born a Southerner, Lamon joined the young Republican Party and played an instrumental role in securing Lincoln’s nomination in 1860, packing the convention hall with his friend’s supporters by printing up extra tickets.
It was during Lincoln’s inaugural train trip that Lamon’s stint as a self-appointed bodyguard began. After detective Allan Pinkerton brought Lincoln word of a possible plot to assassinate the president-elect in Baltimore, an armed Lamon accompanied Lincoln as he passed through the city secretly by night. Neither Pinkerton nor Lamon thought much of the other’s abilities; Pinkerton dismissed Lamon as a “brainless, egotistical fool,” while Lamon later claimed that the purported assassination plot was a sham. (He reversed this opinion in some of his postwar writings.)
Lamon wanted a diplomatic post, but spent Lincoln’s presidential years as a U.S. Marshal of the District of Columbia. In this position he managed to offend some powerful people, with some senators eventually demanding that he be fired. Lincoln entrusted him with a number of delicate missions, including a controversial trip to Ft. Sumter before that installation fell to the Confederates. Despite Lincoln’s wish to hold the fort, Lamon gave Southern authorities the impression that the Union was prepared to abandon it. But if Lincoln was angry at Lamon’s handling of the Charleston trip—and some sources indicate that he was—it didn’t stop him from allowing his old friend to take responsibility for presidential security. The burly Virginian often patrolled the White House grounds at night—armed to the teeth with a pistol, knife, and a set of brass knuckles—sometimes sleeping on the floor right outside Lincoln’s bedroom.
Perhaps one reason Lamon was so conscientious when it came to presidential security was the fact that Lincoln himself seemed so cavalier about it. An exasperated Lamon wrote to him in 1864, “I regret that you do not appreciate what I have repeatedly said to you in regard to the proper police arrangements connected with your household and your own personal safety.…To-night, as you have done on several previous occasions, you went unattended to the theatre. When I say unattended, I mean that you went alone with Charles Sumner and a foreign minister, neither of whom could defend himself against an assault from any able-bodied woman in this city.” Lincoln’s lifelong tendency toward fatalism probably contributed to his seeming indifference toward his safety. He told associates that if someone wanted to take his life badly enough, there would be little anyone could do to stop it. Lamon wasn’t on hand on the night one of Lincoln’s enemies finally got the chance to strike a fatal blow, having been sent on a mission to Richmond.
He returned to his legal practice after the war, setting his name to a poorly-received ghostwritten biography of Lincoln. After Lamon died in 1893, his daughter assembled some of his material into a second book, published in 1895. Some of his personal effects—his watch, marshal’s badge, and ashtray—are highlights of the collection of LMU’s Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum.
As its title implies, Saving Lincoln focuses on Lamon’s role as bodyguard, but it nicely balances the public and private aspects of Lincoln’s life in the White House. Tom Amandes effectively conveys Lincoln’s affable side in a performance reminiscent of Sam Waterston’s portrayal in the TV adaptation of Gore Vidal’s Lincoln. (History buffs may recall that Amandes spent two seasons playing Eliot Ness in The Untouchables.) Lea Coco, Penelope Ann Miller, and Bruce Davison all give convincing turns as Lamon, Mary Todd Lincoln, and William Seward, respectively. The film includes a few incidents that don’t usually make it into Lincoln movies, such as the controversy over Lamon’s performance of a traditional song during Lincoln’s visit to Antietam. I’m glad to see it available in DVD format; anyone interested in history will find it well worth watching.
In his new book and recent National Review piece, Rich Lowry argues that the American Right has a friend in Lincoln. I haven’t read the book, but based on the NR article I’d say he makes some valid points, overstates some things, and understates some others. None of that is surprising, since it’s generally the pattern when people try to shoehorn nineteenth-century political figures into modern categories.
Lowry’s NR piece prompted this response from Thomas DiLorenzo. While he never really refutes any of Lowry’s points, DiLorenzo does manage to mock Lowry’s physical appearance, criticize his writing style, and label the late William F. Buckley a fascist. All that in about 350 words.
This is why we can’t have nice things.
I asked the students in my introductory Lincoln course to write an essay on Lincoln’s use of presidential power. I told them to decide whether Lincoln abused his authority and overstepped the Constitution, whether he was too timid, or whether he used his power judiciously, and to defend their answer in a short paper.
Although I assured the class that there was no “right” answer to the question, and that they were free to excoriate Lincoln as harshly as they wanted, the results came back overwhelmingly in his favor. Of some two dozen students, only three found his use of power excessive. The rest of the class generally agreed that Lincoln acted properly, given the circumstances he faced.
Interestingly, though, the two groups defended their positions quite differently. The students who argued that Lincoln assumed too much presidential power cited specific passages of the Constitution to make their case. Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, in particular, came in for criticism. As these students noted, the Constitution permits such an act “when in Cases of Rebellion or Invasion the public Safety may require it,” but this passage is found in the article dealing with powers of Congress. The legality of a presidential suspension of habeas corpus while the legislature was out of session was therefore a matter of controversy during the Civil War, and it remains so today.
The students who defended Lincoln, by and large, did not try to cite law and precedent to demonstrate that his actions were legal. Instead, they argued from necessity. Rebellion on the scale of the Civil War was something no other president had faced, and most students felt he had no choice but to act as he did in order to preserve the Union.
A few of the students who defended Lincoln did find him a bit too hesitant in one respect; they wished he had issued his emancipation decree sooner. But they also noted that their preferences in timing weren’t necessarily practical, and agreed that Lincoln had good reasons for waiting as long as he did.
I found it interesting that the two groups of students differed in their approaches, because Lincoln himself used both law and necessity in defending his more controversial policies. Referring to his suspension of habeas corpus in a message to Congress in 1861, he noted that “the attention of the country has been called to the proposition that one who is sworn to ‘take care that the laws be faithfully executed,’ should not himself violate them.” At the same time, however, he observed that all the Constitution’s provisions were essentially going unenforced “in nearly one-third of the States.” Was it acceptable for “all the laws, but one, to go unexecuted, and the government itself go to pieces, lest that one be violated? Even in such a case, would not the official oath be broken, if the government should be overthrown, when it was believed that disregarding the single law, would tend to preserve it?”
In any case, Lincoln continued, his suspension of habeas corpus was not a case of “disregarding the law.” He believed he had acted within the limits established by the Constitution. After all, that document permits habeas corpus to be suspended in a case of rebellion, and while it does not explicitly permit the executive branch to exercise this power, neither does it explicitly forbid it. Besides, since “the provision was plainly made for a dangerous emergency, it cannot be believed the framers of the instrument intended, that in every case, the danger should run its course, until Congress could be called together; the very assembling of which might be prevented, as was intended in this case, by the rebellion.”
Lincoln thus hedged his rhetorical bets in his message to Congress. He made a case for the constitutionality of his actions, and if that failed to convince his critics, he asked whether they preferred to see one law stretched and the Constitution saved or watch the whole Constitution tossed aside by the rebellion while the Union’s hands remained tied.
If my students’ essays are any indication, many modern Americans will support leaders who use extraordinary means so long as they believe the ends are worthwhile.
The Old Dominion has embraced Honest Abe, at least according to this article.
The writer claims that Tredegar’s sculpture of Lincoln and Tad is “the only statue of Lincoln in the South, where many people still refer to the Civil War as the War of Northern Aggression.” I must beg to differ. In fact, if you visit my alma mater here in East Tennessee, you’ll find three of them: a standing Lincoln at the main entrance, a copy of Paul Manship’s larger-than-life “Hoosier Youth” in the museum atrium, and a depiction of Lincoln as a lawyer in front of the library.
There’s also a Lincoln statue at the state capitol in West Virginia, and Kentucky has more Honest Abes than you can shake a stick at.
One more quibble. I’ve lived in the South for more than thirty years, and I’ve only heard one person refer to the Civil War as “the War of Northern Aggression.” The guy who said it was a reenactor; ironically, I was at an event in a state that never joined the Confederacy. Most of my fellow southerners aren’t nursing a grudge over a war that ended before their great-grandparents were born.
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.”
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?”
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.