Tag Archives: Lincoln in Memory

Mary Todd Lincoln without the caricature

We ended up having a little extra wall space in our new exhibit, so we’ve decided to get with our designer to create a new panel on Lincoln’s family life.  I’ve spent the past few days working on the text.

Writing exhibit copy is always hard—much more difficult, in my experience, than any other type of writing.  Your audience is necessarily broad and you don’t have much space.  The pressure to be clear and concise can be downright crushing.  And since museums speak with an authoritative voice, you have to be as even-handed as possible.  Covering the Lincolns’ marriage within these guidelines has been especially difficult, mostly because of Mary Todd Lincoln.

Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division via Wikimedia Commons

She was undeniably volatile.  She shouted.  She screamed.  She chased Lincoln out of the house with a broom, clocked him on the nose with a chunk of firewood, and chewed him out in front of friends and neighbors.  She pestered him over his informal manners and his unfashionable, ill-fitting clothes.  She bullied the maids and haggled unbecomingly with salesmen.

Lincoln’s friends and neighbors described her as “a hellion — a she devil — vexed — & harrowed the soul out of that good man — wouldn’t Cook for him — drove him from home &c — often & Often.”  His law partner William Herndon, one of her more strident detractors, claimed that she made Lincoln’s life “a domestic hell.”

But the stories of Mary’s theatrics (plentiful though they are) don’t tell the whole story of the Lincolns’ marriage.  Her niece remembered, “Mr. Lincoln enjoyed his home and he and Mary idolized their children. So far as I could see there was complete and loving kindness between Mary and her husband, consideration for each other’s wishes and a taste for the same books. They seemed congenial in all things.”  Another neighbor reported, “Mary was a little high strung. She came of blue blood, blue grass Kentucky stock; and her tastes were somewhat different from Abe’s, but, law, they got along well together.”

And it must be said in all fairness that her husband was a difficult man to be married to.  He was gone for weeks or months at a time, traveling the Eighth Judicial Circuit or conducting political business, leaving Mary to raise the children alone.  (In 1850, Lincoln was away from Springfield more days than he was home.)

Even when he was home, some of Lincoln’s eccentricities must have compounded her stress.  He answered the door in his shirtsleeves, sat down to dinner without his coat, and stretched out on the floor to read.  He became so absorbed in thought that he didn’t notice her speaking to him, or failed to see that one of the boys had fallen out of the wagon in which he was pulling them.  When she launched into one of her tirades, one neighbor recalled, he would ignore her—or worse, laugh at her.

If we’re going to give our visitors a sense of what Lincoln’s domestic life was like, Mary’s tantrums have to be a part of the story.  They’re too prominent in the record to dismiss (although I suspect Herndon pressed the issue in his interviews with Lincoln’s acquaintances, given his evident dislike for the woman).

At the same time, though, our handling of the Lincolns’ marriage needs to be well-rounded.  As tempting as it is to devote all our space to colorful anecdotes about Mary’s histrionics, those incidents don’t tell the whole story.  We don’t want to reduce her to a crude caricature.  Some depictions have stooped to this level.  In D.W. Griffith’s 1930 film Abraham Lincoln, Mary is an unbearable shrew, played almost strictly for laughs.

What our exhibit needs, in other words, is detail and nuance.  That’s not easy to pull off in the tightly confined space of a single panel.  A biographer could take an entire chapter to develop a balanced appraisal of Mary.  We have to do it in a few sentences. And those sentences have to be accessible and engaging to everybody from elementary school students to members of our institution’s faculty.

Sometimes people think public history is easier than academic history.  The truth is, public history only looks easy because part of the job is making it look easy.  And that’s usually the hardest part of the gig.

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Lincoln’s short-term legacy

One of the things that surprised me about The Republic for Which It Stands, Richard White’s volume on Reconstruction and the Gilded Age in the Oxford History of the United States, is how large Lincoln’s shadow looms over the whole book.  The previous volume in the series, James McPherson’s Battle Cry of Freedom, ends with Lincoln’s assassination.  White picks up the story with his funeral, and many of the issues he brings to the fore in the body of the book are those in which Lincoln was deeply invested: the trans-Mississippi West as a haven for free labor, national unity reinforced through infrastructure, the fate of African Americans, the ascendancy of the Republican Party, and the struggle to build an egalitarian society of independent producers.

“Abraham Lincoln: The Martyr President,” by Currier and Ives. Library of Congress (LC-DIG-pga-03167).

These problems that dominated American life in the late nineteenth century lay at the heart of the “Greater Reconstruction,” a term White borrows from Elliott West.  The end goal was to propagate homogeneous, prosperous communities of free and independent householders—communities much like Lincoln’s own hometown of Springfield, Illinois.  Springfield, White claims, was “as close as any actual place could be to the template that the North planned to use in recasting the South, as well as the West” (p. 136).

But White’s book is also an account of disillusionment.  At the end of the story, the Greater Reconstruction has failed.  Since the tale begins with Lincoln’s death and revisits so many of the problems he supposedly resolved, the Greater Reconstruction’s failure raises troubling questions about Lincoln’s legacy.

Did Lincoln succeed?  To most Americans, the answer is self-evident.  The Union triumphed, the nation remained united, and legalized slavery came to an end.  Lincoln himself died, but he died a martyr, having completed what he called “the great task” of reaffirming the American promise.  But all this assumes that the story ends in April 1865.

Anti-slavery Whig and eventual Republican that he was, Lincoln idealized free labor.  He considered it a stepping-stone to becoming an independent producer.  “There is no permanent class of hired laborers amongst us,” he once said.  “The hired laborer of yesterday, labors on his own account to-day; and will hire others to labor for him to-morrow.”  Slavery’s end marked the destruction of one great obstacle standing in the way of this ideal of self-advancement.  But for many Americans, the path to full independence and sufficiency remained closed.  The late nineteenth century witnessed some of the most bitter and violent contests between capital and labor.  Contract labor during Reconstruction and the Gilded Age may have been “free,” but in many cases it remained exploitative, and hardly a temporary way station on the road to prosperity and independence.

Nor did the end of slavery mean realization of racial equality.  We think of emancipation as Lincoln’s most enduring legacy.  But subordination of African Americans by means of terrorism, economic dependency, and legalized inequality continued into Reconstruction and the Gilded Age.  It’s more difficult to celebrate the “new birth of freedom” Lincoln proclaimed at Gettysburg when you consider the reversals that came after.

As a Whig, Lincoln envisioned a united nation bound together by transportation and trade.  And as a Republican, he wanted the West to be settled by free laborers and landholders.  Here, too, White and other historians have painted a bleak picture of the decades following the Civil War.  Secessionism collapsed, but sectionalism persisted.  The transportation networks and markets that Lincoln and other Whigs had long wanted penetrated more deeply into the American landscape than ever before, but White claims that the late nineteenth century’s great railroads were more effective at forging interregional links than truly transcontinental ones.  And while the Civil War settled the question of whether the West would be slave or free, the period after the war saw much of the frontier engrossed by monopolists and speculators rather than egalitarian homesteaders.

The upshot here is that if you use 1865 as the end date for the “Age of Lincoln,” then Lincoln was a victorious martyr.  But if you use 1877 or 1898 as a terminal point, his success comes with important qualifications.

Should we make space to deal with the problematic nature of Lincoln’s short-term legacy when telling his story in exhibits, documentaries, and popular books?  On the one hand, it might help address Americans’ amnesia about Reconstruction.  On the other hand…well, the idea of the victorious martyr (shot on Good Friday, no less!) is about as compelling as you can get from a narrative standpoint.

But I think there’s a sense in which the reversals and the unfinished business that followed Lincoln’s death doesn’t diminish his historical stature, but magnifies it.  If it’s true that the “great task” wasn’t completely finished in 1865, it’s also true that it’s not completely finished today.  And that makes the study of Lincoln and his legacy much more relevant than it would be if we could wrap the whole thing up with a bow and relegate it to a chapter of our history long since closed.

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A few Civil War updates

A few items relating to the Civil War and the ways we remember it caught my attention lately.

First up, when Pope Francis visits Philadelphia, he’ll be speaking behind the same podium Lincoln used to deliver the Gettysburg Address.  Right now it’s at the city’s Union League for safekeeping.

By the way, the Union League is worth a visit if you’re ever in Philly.  As Dimitri Rotov noted recently, it’s got a fine collection of Civil War art and memorabilia.  I got to spend some time there a few years ago on a business trip (one of the perks of working for a Civil War museum is traveling to neat places for work), and it’s a fantastic building to wander around in if you’re a history buff.

Second item: an opera based on Cold Mountain just premiered in Santa Fe.  Seems like a suitably operatic subject, but I doubt they’ve found a way to pull off the Battle of the Crater inside an auditorium.

Third, it looks like Jefferson Davis will be staying in the Kentucky Capitol for the foreseeable future.  The state’s Historic Properties Advisory Commission voted to keep the Davis statue while adding some “educational context.”  As I’ve said before, I think leaving historic monuments intact while providing some interpretation to put them in their context is the best course of action in these situations.

One thing that really surprised me about the Davis issue was the reaction among black Kentuckians.  In one poll, they were pretty evenly split between support for keeping the statue (42%) and support for removing it (43%).  The percentage of black Kentuckians in favor of keeping the statue was much lower than that for whites (75%), but still a lot higher than I would’ve expected.

Reflecting Kentucky’s Civil War divisions, the Davis statue shares the Capitol with a likeness of the state’s other wartime president, Abraham Lincoln.

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The Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum’s newest exhibit features a glimpse at Hollywood’s Lincoln

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

The newest exhibit at Lincoln Memorial University’s Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum opened this week.  “Clouds and Darkness Surround Us”: The Life of Mary Todd Lincoln examines the tragic fate of Lincoln’s widow, and features original costumes from Steven Spielberg’s Oscar-winning film alongside additional material from the ALLM collection.  This exhibit runs through November 20, 2015.

In conjunction with the exhibit, the museum is hosting a number of special events, including a screening of Spielberg’s film and presentations on the history of Lincoln in the movies.  For more information about the exhibit and upcoming events, visit the ALLM website.

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From the “Lincoln Was a Godless Communist” File

Because if there’s one thing a longtime Whig like Lincoln couldn’t stand, it was capitalism, right?

Religious right broadcaster Kevin Swanson agreed with one of his guests that Abraham Lincoln imposed socialism on the United States during the “war against the South” – more commonly known as the Civil War.

Swanson hosted neo-Confederate author Walter Kennedy last month on his radio program, reported Right Wing Watch, where the pair argued the Republican Party had been founded by “radical socialists and communists.”

“The Democrats, both Northern and Southerners, believed in limited government, and the Marxists hated that concept,” Kennedy said. “They wanted to do away with states’ rights and limited government so that they’d have one big all-powerful indivisible government that could force its will upon the American people.”

The broadcaster – who has argued the Disney hit movie “Frozen” was a satanic tool for indoctrinating girls to become lesbians — agreed with his guest, saying Lincoln and Mark Twain helped ruin the U.S. by replacing Southern slavery with socialist slavery.…

The author told Swanson that Lincoln had given a “big boost” to communism by winning the Civil War and then created a federal government that began an “incessant attack on religious values in America.”

“What Marxist dictator could ask for less?” Kennedy said. “All of these communists that have wormed their way into power, into powerful positions, they began to influence other people to pursue this objective of a big, indivisible government, and government supplants God as being sovereign.”

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Yes, the Lincolns had servants…but not slaves

You hate to generalize about people, but modern apologists for the Confederacy tend to be really, really bad at using primary sources.  As Andy Hall once said while discussing a particularly hilarious example, “Forget interpretation. Forget analysis. Forget trying to understand the document within the context of the time and place it was written; these people don’t even seem capable of reading the documents they cite.”

Now Brooks Simpson has drawn our attention to the latest instance of a neo-Confederate trying to make sense of a document and failing spectacularly.  If you haven’t seen it yet, it’s a doozy.

Over at Cold Southern Steel, a diligent researcher and defender of Southron Heritage presented what he believed to be evidence that Lincoln had a slave.  This supposed evidence had been hiding in plain sight in the 1860 U.S. census, but had apparently gone unnoticed for lo these 150 years.

Here’s a close-up of the census list which was posted to Cold Southern Steel.  As you can see, it indeed names one Abraham Lincoln of Springfield, IL, occupation “Lawyer,” along with the members of his household.

Lincoln Household

Included in the list is “M. Johnson,” an eighteen-year-old female.  Her occupation?

“Servant.”

So right there it is, proof that Abraham Lincoln had a “servant” in 1860.  Ergo Lincoln was a slaveowner.  Right?

Well, no.  “M. Johnson” was not a slave.  She was Mary Johnson, a free white girl employed by the Lincolns.

In this context, “servant” doesn’t mean an enslaved person.  It’s a job description.  In the nineteenth century, many middle-class families employed young women and girls as house servants, often on a live-in basis.  A lot of these women were immigrants from Ireland or Germany.  In Springfield, about one-fourth of the homes had hired help of this kind around the time Lincoln lived there.

As a prospering family headed by a respectable lawyer, the Lincolns employed several women over the years, some of them as live-in servants.  For example, eighteen-year-old Catharine Gordon was working and living with the Lincolns in 1850, and appears in the census for that year.  In 1860, the same year that Mary Johnson turned up in the census, Mary Todd Lincoln employed a Portuguese teenager named Charlotte Rodruiguis as a seamstress.  A woman named Margaret Ryan claimed that she witnessed some of Mary Todd Lincoln’s worst behavior during her employment in the house, although the chronology behind her claims is iffy.  (Richard Lawrence Miller discusses the Ryan evidence in the third volume of Lincoln and His World.)  These women and girls were not slaves bound to work for life.  They were not the property of the people in whose homes they worked.

Now, here’s the really funny part.  The proof that Mary Johnson was a free woman is right there in the 1860 census, the very source being offered as evidence that she was a slave.  In other words, the problem here is that the blogger in question simply doesn’t know how to read the document.

Here’s the page in question.

1860 Census Lincoln

 

See the very top, where it says “SCHEDULE 1.—Free Inhabitants”?

Free Inhabitants

That’s sort of an indicator that all the folks in that list were, you know, free inhabitants of Springfield.  The 1860 census counted slaves separately.  You’re not going to find any slaves officially listed in a census list of free inhabitants.

Of course, you’re not likely to find many slaves documented in the census lists for Illinois at all, since Illinois was a free state.  (Funny thing you’ll notice about slave states and free states: the slave states tended to be the ones with slaves.  An interesting coincidence, that.  You know how Peanut M&M’s are the ones with peanuts, whereas the plain M&M’s are the ones without them?  It runs somewhat along those same lines.)

Now, check out the very bottom of the list, where all the individuals are tallied up by race and gender.

Race Inhabitants

Twenty-six white males, fourteen white females.  All forty people on the page present and accounted for, and each one of them white.  This list does not include any African-American residents of Springfield, let alone enslaved ones.  Incidentally, the Lincolns did employ a free black woman named Mariah Vance as a cook and laundress a couple of days a week for ten years.

Now, just because these women and girls were free doesn’t mean their lives were all beer and skittles.  By many accounts, Mary Todd Lincoln was an absolute Gorgon as a boss, difficult to please and tight-fisted.  She was particularly critical of Irish girls—the “wild Irish,” as she referred to them in a letter to a relative.  According to the NPS, Mary Johnson was of Irish background herself, so she was probably on the receiving end of Mrs. Lincoln’s temper at one time or another.  (For information on Mary Todd Lincoln’s domestic help, check out Jean Baker’s fine biography, pp. 105-08).

But the women and girls who worked for the Lincolns were not chattel slaves, and were not the family’s property, despite the fact that they worked in the home and sometimes lived there.

There’s a lot of neat information to unpack in that list of names.  It shows us a time when middle-class Americans were very conscious of their status, when hired help was an indicator of that status, and when working in someone else’s home was the fate of many a young European-born immigrant girl.  It tells us a lot about the Lincoln family’s economic and social circumstances, about how they saw themselves and wanted to be seen by others.  It offers us a glimpse of a world somewhat similar to our own, but also strikingly different in terms of the way people conceived of their ranks and roles.

But it doesn’t show us evidence of slavery, and it takes a spectacularly negligent misreading to make it say otherwise.  Primary sources are wonderful things, but only if you know how to make sense of them.

UPDATE: Now the guy is claiming that he never said the Lincolns had slaves, despite the fact that he titled his post “Lincoln and his slave.”

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Glenn, Hillary, and history: pot, meet kettle

I can understand why the folks at Glenn Beck’s news outlet would get a kick out of Hillary’s Lincoln mistake.  But the admonition against removing a speck from your neighbor‘s eye seems awfully appropriate here.

 

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