Tag Archives: presidents

The planter and the railsplitter

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

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.

“Abraham Lincoln, the Martyr, Victorious,” by John Sartain. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division (LC-DIG-pga-03258).

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.

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Filed under Abraham Lincoln, American Revolution

Fifty years since Dealey Plaza

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.

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More than you ever wanted to know about William Howard Taft’s weight loss program

Daily weigh-ins, food diaries, a low-carb diet, a personal trainer, the whole nine yards.  Check it out.

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Neat visual aid for history teachers

If you’re a history or social studies teacher, check out the Periodic Table of the Presidents.  It’s got lots of historical information in an easy-to-use format, and you can get it in poster form to hang in your classroom.

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Filed under Teaching History