There’s a good chance you do, since so many people are homebound right now. Check out the White House Historical Association’s collection of resources from the nation’s presidential sites—virtual tours, blogs, educational material, you name it. The ALLM is there, too, right at the top of the list of Lincoln sites.
Tag Archives: presidents
The Union Light Guard was an independent cavalry unit organized in late 1863 by Ohio Gov. David Tod to serve as Lincoln’s military escort and bodyguard. Here’s one veteran’s account of a memorable Sunday morning inspection:
Tad was present, dressed in the uniform of an officer, and accompanied Captain Bennett during inspection with the gravity of a veteran. Inspection over, Captain Bennett took position in front of the company to deliver his usual scolding. Tad stood by his side. The Captain proceeded to criticize sharply the condition of the quarters. He described the manner in which they should be kept and said: “The condition of the quarters is disgraceful. Instead of being kept as they should be kept, they look like”——At this point Tad’s shrill voice rang out, completing the sentence in a manner more pungent than elegant and quite unprintable. The effect was ludicrous. The sternness of the Captain’s face relaxed in a broad smile, as he turned on his heel, while the company, regardless of discipline, burst into unrebuked laughter.
Belated congratulations to the University of Tennessee’s own James K. Polk Project for completing its mission after more than six decades of scholarly effort, The project’s staff have sent the fourteenth and final volume of annotated Polk papers off for publication.
UT has also been home base for two other presidential documentary editing projects: the papers of Andrew Jackson and Andrew Johnson. Only one other university has hosted multiple presidential papers endeavors.
You could make a good case that documentary editors make a bigger and more lasting contribution to the historical profession than any other group of people, except maybe the archivists who preserve and provide access to the originals. Books and articles will go out of date, but researchers will keep turning to the primary sources again and again, long after the folks who collate and shepherd them through publication have passed on. Heck, this afternoon I was poring over material from a couple of documentary editing projects that ended more than a century ago.
Running a presidential library might just be the toughest gig in public history.
Michael Koncewicz, who worked at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, shares a few war stories over at Contingent Magazine. It’s like a perfect storm of administrative and interpretive nightmares.
Private foundations raise the money to build and operate these institutions, while the federal government is generally responsible for the records themselves. This can lead to tension over control of the programming. The subject matter is inescapably political—and since you’re dealing with an individual’s life and legacy, it’s also personal. The history is often recent and raw.
To top it all off, the subject’s family and associates likely sit on the foundation’s board, looking over the staff’s shoulders. In the case of the Nixon Museum and Library, the subject himself was looking over everyone’s shoulder, weighing in on the exhibit content. As Koncewicz writes, it led to some…well, problematic interpretive approaches:
The original exhibit on Watergate blamed the president’s enemies for his downfall and glossed over the key sections of the infamous tapes that led to his resignation. The text read, in part, “Commentators sought to portray Watergate strictly as a morality play, as a struggle between right and wrong, truth and falsehood, good and evil. Given the benefit of time, it is now clear that Watergate was an epic and bloody political battle fought for the highest stakes, with no holds barred.” Museum visitors were told Nixon did not obstruct justice, and Watergate was nothing but partisan politics.
There was also the small matter of spying on the tour guides:
I was also informed they were upset that I had recently rushed through a temporary Nixon centennial exhibit during one of my school tours—which meant, among other things, that I had been spied on! I was further told they were less than thrilled with my dissertation research, a study of Republicans who resisted Nixon’s orders. (The project was born out of my time working on the revamped Watergate exhibit, and was an early version of what eventually became my first book, They Said No to Nixon: Republicans Who Stood Up to the President’s Abuses of Power.) Finally, there were another two or three instances in which I was spied on during a tour, and there were probably others I was not aware of.
The diorama is still one of the most effective gimmicks in the museum business. You can lose yourself in these little worlds behind glass. Maybe it’s the fact that they’re three-dimensional.
In 1939, the Work Projects Administration funded the creation of twenty dioramas depicting scenes from Abraham Lincoln’s life for the Chicago Historical Society. Painstaking research and craftsmanship went into each one. Some fifty artists spent two years putting them together.
Today we have five of these masterpieces on exhibit at the ALLM. Visitors (especially kids) are invariably drawn to them, like metal shavings to magnets.
Let’s take a look at one of the scenes. It’s May 19, 1860. We’re inside the parlor of Abraham Lincoln’s Springfield home. The Republican Party has just concluded its second national convention in Chicago. A delegation has arrived by train to inform Lincoln that he’s the party’s nominee for president.
George Ashmun of Massachusetts is handing Lincoln the official letter of nomination.
The décor is historically accurate to a middle-class Victorian home. In fact, the wallpaper matches the actual design used in the Lincolns’ parlor. Check out that exquisite little flower under glass in the corner…
…and the tiny books on the shelf.
The attention to detail is nothing short of astonishing. There’s a miniature picket fence affixed to the exterior of the back wall, just in case a viewer should decide to peer through the windows. It’s hardly visible from the front; most visitors probably don’t notice it. I had no idea it was there until the first time I saw the diorama from the back.
The Lincoln figure looks pretty solemn, but there was a bit of levity to the proceedings. The nominee asked William D. Kelley of Pennsylvania—I think he’s the fellow standing between Ashmun and Lincoln—how tall he was. Kelley was 6’3″.
“I beat you,” Lincoln said, “I am six feet four without my high-heeled boots.”
Kelley had a sense of humor. “Pennsylvania bows to Illinois,” he replied. “I am glad that we have found a candidate for the Presidency whom we can look up to.”
First up: his corpse might be taking up new quarters. It wouldn’t be the first time it’s happened. Like a lot of other historical figures, Polk’s mortal coil has had quite the active career.
He died of cholera at Polk Place, his Nashville home near the site of the present Tennessee State Capitol, just three months after leaving office. Despite his request to be laid to rest there, he was initially buried in a cemetery on the outskirts of the city as demanded by law for cholera victims. Shortly thereafter his remains went back to Polk Place for interment, where they stayed for more than forty years. But in 1893, the bodies of Polk and his wife got relocated to the Capitol grounds and laid to rest beneath a monument designed by the same architect responsible for the Capitol building itself. It wasn’t where the former president wanted to spend the afterlife, but it was close—just a short distance from Polk Place, which got demolished in 1900.
There the matter (and Polk) rested until a current proposal that state lawmakers are considering, which would entail moving the remains again, this time to the President James K. Polk Home and Museum in Columbia, TN. Polk’s father built the Columbia house in 1816, and the future president lived there until his marriage in 1824. The site’s curator says the move would accord with Polk’s desire to be buried at home, since the Columbia museum is his only residence still standing (other than the White House). Joey Hensley, a state senator who supports the reinterment, has also argued that the current tomb is too easy to overlook.
The relocation is one step closer to happening, since the state senate has given its approval. But both houses of the General Assembly, the state historical commission, and the courts have to agree before anybody starts digging, and the state historian thinks it’s a bad idea.
Personally, I think the sensible thing to do is leave the grave where it is. In his will, Polk didn’t request burial “at home,” but specifically at Polk Place. Since Polk Place itself is gone, fulfilling that request to the letter isn’t possible, but the State Capitol is just a short walk from where the house stood. It seems as appropriate a spot as any, especially since it’s a place of honor at the seat of the state government. That’s just my take.
The other Polk news item is the publication of another volume of his papers by the fine folks at UT’s James K. Polk Project. This new volume includes valuable material on the end of the Mexican War and the consequent U.S. territorial gains, one of the most important developments of Polk’s presidency.
UPDATE: Check out this HNN piece by David Shorten, who notes the problems inherent in interpreting current events with simple historical analogies. He urges us to “give up on historical comparisons and replace them with historicism—to quit analogizing and start contextualizing.”
Well, look on the bright side. This administration is going to be a freaking bonanza for historians looking to get on the talking head circuit. The Lincoln folks had all the fun for eight years, but now we’re less than two weeks into the new regime and the Jacksonian scholars are already passing the mic to the Nixon experts.
U.S. President Donald Trump fired the federal government’s top lawyer Sally Yates on Monday after she took the extraordinarily rare step of defying the White House and saying the Justice Department would not defend his new travel restrictions targeting seven Muslim-majority nations.
The White House said on Twitter that Dana Boente, U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia, would replace Yates, an appointee of former Democratic President Barack Obama, as acting U.S. attorney general.
…There have been only a handful of instances in U.S. history of top Justice Department officials publicly breaking with the White House. The most famous example was in 1973, when then-Attorney General Elliot Richardson resigned rather than obey President Richard Nixon’s order to fire a special prosecutor investigating the Watergate scandal.
And it looks like things are only gonna keep spiraling down from here. If society totally breaks down, maybe us backcountry Rev War guys will get our fifteen minutes on C-SPAN.
NSFW but apropos and amusing:
Charles Francis Adams was one of many Americans who stood in front of the Capitol 150 years ago to hear Lincoln deliver his second inaugural address. “That railsplitting lawyer is one of the wonders of the day,” Adams wrote a few days later. “Once at Gettysburg and now again on a greater occasion he has shown a capacity for rising to the demands of the hour.” He believed the speech would be “for all time the historical keynote of this war.”
Lincoln himself expected his speech to “wear as well as —perhaps better than—any thing I have produced,” even though it was “not immediately popular.”
Here are a few links to help you commemorate the sesquicentennial of what historian Ronald C. White has called Lincoln’s greatest speech:
- The text of the address itself, from Basler’s Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln
- The inaugural address was actually three arguments in one, according to acclaimed Lincoln authority Harold Holzer
- Ronald White lectures on the address
- An essay by Lewis E. Lehrman
- Resources from the Library of Congress
- Eyewitness accounts of the ceremony
Washington and Lincoln usually rank among the more admired presidents, but most people don’t consider them in light of each other. Presidents’ Day seems like an appropriate occasion to compare and contrast these two men who had little in common except the office and above-average height.
Interestingly, recent years have witnessed renewed historical attention to both Lincoln and Washington as leaders of men. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s bestseller on Lincoln and his cabinet turned the phrase “team of rivals” into a catchphrase, while John Ferling has argued that Washington was a much more deft political operator than other biographies have indicated. Both men displayed an ability to handle opposition, but they approached interpersonal conflict in different ways.
Ferling has written that during the Revolutionary War, Washington felt especially vulnerable to criticism. He was particularly sensitive when he thought critics were comparing him to powerful rivals, as he believed to be the case after the fall of Philadelphia, fearing a plot to oust him from command was in the works among his detractors in both Congress and the army. Lincoln faced his fair share of criticism, too, but his skin was thicker than Washington’s. If Lincoln and his rivals never constituted a true “team”—dissensions and divisions plagued the cabinet, and several of its members didn’t last the duration of Lincoln’s first term—he was nevertheless more adept at keeping discordant elements in check than the sensitive Washington.
The two men also differed in their strengths and weaknesses when it came to the art of persuasion. Washington wasn’t known for his rhetorical gifts; his most well-regarded work of prose, the Farewell Address, was partly the work of Madison in its first draft form and Hamilton in a later one. But Washington was physically imposing and formidable, and he knew how to magnify his physical qualities with a little stagecraft. When he arrived in Philadelphia to attend the Continental Congress, he was decked out in military uniform, prepared to make a striking impression.
And he knew how to play on an audience’s emotions by letting his formidable exterior slip a little, as he did during the unrest in the Continental Army at Newburgh in 1783. Amid reports that disgruntled officers wanted to use the army to pressure Congress over a lack of pay, Washington addressed the men at a meeting on March 15. Fumbling over a letter from a member of Congress that he intended to read to them, he donned a pair of glasses, stating, “Gentlemen, you will permit me to put on my spectacles, for I have not only grown gray but almost blind in the service of my country.” The officers were deeply moved by this rare show of weakness from a man noted for his vigor and powers of endurance.
Gangly and awkward, Lincoln could never command a room simply by walking into it, as Washington could. What he lacked in imposing presence, he made up for with his ability to craft compelling arguments and lyrical prose. When he spoke at New York’s Cooper Union in 1860, one member of the audience found him “so angular and awkward that I had, for an instant, a feeling of pity for so ungainly a man.” Eventually, though, the clarity of Lincoln’s ideas and the power of his words overcame the awful first impression and won his audience over. “I forgot his clothes, his personal appearance, and his individual peculiarities,” the eyewitness remembered. “Presently, forgetting myself, I was on my feet like the rest, yelling like a wild Indian, cheering this wonderful man.” At Newburgh, Washington used his physical presence to make up for what his prepared remarks lacked. At Cooper Union, by contrast, it was only Lincoln’s ability as a public speaker that overcame his ungainly appearance.
Twentieth-century American history has never been my thing, but I’ll admit that the flurry of assassination anniversary coverage over the past couple of weeks has piqued my interest.
I’ve never put much stock in conspiracy theories, and what I’ve read of the events in Dallas has only reinforced my conviction that Kennedy’s death was the work of one man. Most Americans disagree, although belief in a conspiracy seems to be declining. I was curious to see what my students’ opinions were, so on Wednesday I conducted an informal poll in one of my classes. Out of about twenty people, only three believed Oswald carried out the assassination himself. The rest thought there was some sort of conspiracy, except for two or three students who abstained because they weren’t sure one way or the other.
Of course, this week marks the sesquicentennial of the Gettysburg Address, too. Bill Mauldin tied Lincolnian imagery to JFK’s death in a famous 1963 cartoon, but I’m not aware of any major attempts to connect this year’s dual anniversaries. That’s a little surprising to me, given that both presidents met the same fate.
Anyway, here are a few links I found interesting.
- Three hours’ worth of original CBS coverage from 11/22/63
- Access plenty of primary source material via the Mary Ferrell Foundation
- The house where Oswald’s family stayed is now a museum operated by the city of Irving, TX
- Fascinating interviews with Oswald’s brother, older daughter, and younger daughter
- An interactive timeline of JFK’s Dallas trip
- A list of things Oliver Stone’s movie got wrong
- Explore the collections at the Sixth Floor Museum, the National Archives, and the JFK Presidential Library and Museum
- Take a virtual trip to Dealey Plaza, or view the scene from the webcam in the sixth floor of the former Texas Schoolbook Depository
- Finally, Oswald’s wedding ring fetched $108,000 at auction last month. Accompanying the ring was a note from his widow, reading in part, “At this time of my life I don’t wish to have Lee’s ring in my possession because symbolicly [sic] I want to let go of my past that is connecting with November 22, 1963.” Since she’s spent five decades with the memory of that day—on which she found herself in a strange country, a frightened young mother of two children, and married to an abusive man who had just been accused of the crime of the century—I think she deserves some peace and quiet.