Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Emancipation & Reconstruction

I wrote about emancipation back in May and hinted about the continuance of slavery like conditions in the South for many years after the 13th Amendment was passed. My focus in that post was on Lincoln’s move toward the Emancipation Proclamation. Lincoln had to wait to issue his proclamation until the right time in the war. An angle on black freedom which deserves more attention is the Confederate move in the direction of emancipation. Bruce Levine has recently written a concise but important and searching book on Confederate Emancipation. Levine details but does not explore the similarities of what the Confederates wanted from emancipation and what actually happened in terms of black freedom following the failure of Reconstruction. The four major figures in terms of plans for Confederate emancipation who Levine discusses are General Patrick R. Cleburne, Secretary of State Judah P. Benjamin, General Robert E. Lee and President Jefferson Davis. These men rightly saw that what Lincoln and the Union proposed would be revolutionary for the Southern society they enjoyed. In reaction to this, Cleburne, Benjamin, Lee and Davis attempted a counterrevolution by trying to create a scheme for having both black freedom and black subjugation at the same time. It is worth quoting Levine’s description of the Confederate conception of the Southern future at length.

“They hoped to win black cooperation with an offer of freedom. But the freedom they expected to actually grant would be severely circumscribed. The former slaves would cease to be the property of individual masters. They would gain the legal rights to marry, to learn to read, to attend church, to own property, and to sign contracts. But they would receive no land at the point of emancipation. To survive, therefore, they would have to return to the white landowners and work for them. And to make certain that they did so and that they worked intensively, for long hours, and in return for only a bare subsistence, the Confederate government and the individual southern states and locales would (as Prof. Frederick A. Porcher put it) ‘make statutes for the regulation of labour.’ And the former slaves would be unable to block or change those or any other statutes because they would also lack any important political rights, including the rights to vote and hold office.” (p. 154).

As we take each of these things in turn, we should remember that Reconstruction spanned only the terms of Presidents Johnson and Grant, both of whom had no commitment to the more radical aspects of Lincoln’s vision of what America should be about. The only one of the Civil War Amendments which Andrew Johnson approved of was the 13th Amendment which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude (“except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted”, my emphasis). His opposition to the 14th and 15th Amendments, along with everything else which the Radical Republicans in Congress tried, got Johnson impeached and nearly removed from office. In the fall of 1865, Johnson revoked General Sherman’s Special Field Orders No. 15 which confiscated land in Georgia, South Carolina and Florida along the Atlantic coast and had it set aside in 40 acre blocks for freedmen and their families. This order is the likely origin of the famous “40 acres and a mule” phrase. Lincoln had approved this move by Sherman in the spring of 1865. Johnson vetoed bills to renew and strengthen the Freedmen’s Bureau. He also vetoed the Civil Rights Act (1866), the First Reconstruction Act, the Second Reconstruction Act, and so on. Johnson not coincidentally had more of his vetoes overridden than any other President. In the Freedman’s Bureau veto Johnson states: “The Congress of the United States has never, heretofore, thought itself competent to establish asylums beyond the limits of the District of Columbia, except for the benefit of our disabled soldiers and sailors. It has never founded schools for any class of our own people, not even for the orphans of those who have fallen in the defence of the Union, but has left the care of their education to the much more competent and efficient control of the States, of communities, of private associations, and of individuals” (my emphasis). Recall the last line of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address: “With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan--to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations” (my emphasis). Without invoking Lincoln directly, Johnson is rejecting the sweeping social changes implied in Lincoln’s words, and more importantly, in the bill the Congress had drawn up. Johnson, despite being the only Southern Senator to oppose secession, showed his alliance with the Confederate vision when it came to black political rights. Johnson said to an African American delegation which included Frederick Douglass that giving suffrage to blacks would lead to a race war ending in “the extermination of one or the other [race].” It can be seen from the above details that Johnson’s claim in the Freedmen’s Bureau veto that “I have, with Congress, the strongest desire to secure to the freedmen the full enjoyment of their freedom and their property and their entire independence and equality in making contracts for their labor” is shown to be hollow, which is exactly the lack of commitment the former Confederates needed to enact their program.

Johnson’s successor, US Grant, was not a racist and was willing to correct the “wrong” of blacks being denied their civil rights. After having said that in his Second Inaugural Address (1873) Grant continued, “Social equality is not a subject to be legislated upon, nor shall I ask that anything be done to advance the social status of the colored man, except to give him a fair chance to develop what there is good in him, give him access to the schools, and when he travels let him feel assured that his conduct will regulate the treatment and fare he will receive.” In other words, nothing was to be done about the labor conditions of the South. Most African Americans in the South had little choice but to return to work for their former masters under an exploitative situation which was similar to slavery. Grant also declared in this Address that all of the “States lately at war with the General Government are now happily rehabilitated” which meant the end of “Executive control” in those States. As soon as a State could be “redeemed” by Southern Democrats, the business of writing Jim Crow laws could begin. By the time Rutherford B. Hayes’ took office in 1877, Federal troops only remained in Louisiana, South Carolina and Florida (3 of the States whose electoral votes were in dispute and also whose votes ultimately got Hayes elected). After the removal of these troops, Republican governments in all three states dissipated and Reconstruction ended unfinished.

This result, a failed Reconstruction, did not lead to “a new birth of freedom” as Lincoln had put it in his Gettysburg Address. The outright hostility or simple disinterest in the project of Reconstruction from Johnson and Grant and the acquiescence by Hayes on the end of Reconstruction have had a lasting impact on what Lincoln described as the “leading object” of government: “to elevate the condition of men---to lift artificial weights from all shoulders---to clear the paths of laudable pursuit to all---to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life.” It was not obscure figures who advocated emancipation within the Confederacy—it hardly needs to be said however that emancipation was not a popular position to take. Their vision for the South ought to have been clear to Johnson, Grant and Hayes. Though the Confederates did not win their independence or preserve chattel slavery, losing the Civil War and winning the battle over Reconstruction led to a white supremacist Southern home rule which lasted nearly a century. Although it is impossible to determine exactly what course of action Lincoln would have taken on Reconstruction had he lived, Lincoln’s successors distanced themselves from his views which would have aided the integration of the Republic.

Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Presidents' Lincoln

From Andrew Johnson’s assumption of the presidency following Lincoln’s death to Obama taking office, there have been 27 US Presidents. That is a time span of 144 years and only three other Presidents became victims of assassination (Garfield, McKinley and Kennedy). However, no other President besides Lincoln has had to deal with a section of the country trying to establish its independence by breaking up the Union. Presidents, much like other Americans since Lincoln’s assassination, have tried to find ways to use the Lincoln memory.

Although this was not always the case, contemporary politicians and especially Presidents (and executive hopefuls) face the problem of “getting right with Lincoln,” to use David Donald’s phrase. Reviewing the public papers of US Presidents yields the curious result that Lincoln’s name is rarely invoked until the turn of the 20th century. An interesting figure among the Presidents is Rutherford B. Hayes, who judging by his Diary and Letters, was a Lincoln admirer. Yet, in his public papers Lincoln is only named twice in veto messages. It is easy to guess why Hayes would shy away from Lincoln in public documents when we consider the controversial nature of Hayes’ election in 1876 which earned him the nickname Rutherfraud B. Hayes from Democrats.

The modern use of Lincoln by US Presidents often descends into banal repetition of a few of Lincoln’s words out of context. John F. Kennedy was fond of saying (at nearly every campaign stop in 1960) that the issue of the day was “whether the world will exist half slave and half free.” Kennedy of course was not merely attempting to show that he could rhetorically fight the Cold War with more of the hyperbole which categorized that era than could Nixon. After the election was over Kennedy would dangerously act (from the Bay of Pigs to the Cuban Missile Crisis to Vietnam) as President as if the world was actually at risk of enslavement by the Soviet Union. After all, Kennedy did say in his 1961 Inaugural Address that “we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty”. At a series of fundraisers in 1975, Gerald Ford continually cited Lincoln’s “Fragment on Government.” Before Ford used it, the fragment was one of Eisenhower’s favorite references. Specifically, these Republican Presidents were fond of the line: “The legitimate object of government, is to do for a community of people, whatever they need to have done, but can not do, at all, or can not, so well do, for themselves -- in their separate, and individual capacities”. That Lincoln also said in the “Fragment” that “pauperism” was one the things which fell under the “desirable things” a government should take care of because it was something that “the individuals of a people can not do, or can not well do, for themselves” was lost on both Eisenhower and Ford, but obviously not only on them. George H.W. Bush began saying in 1991 that we should take after Lincoln and “think anew.” Yet, in Lincoln’s Second Annual Message where the phrase “think anew” comes from, he was begging the nation in 1862 to think and act “anew” as the situation the country faced was novel. Lincoln had laid out a plan for compensated emancipation in the message as a way to foreshorten the war and “a means, not in exclusion of, but additional to, all others for restoring and preserving the national authority throughout the union.” Bush was not talking about anything so desperate. He was just upset with the Democratic Party’s control of Congress and the members of the Democratic Party whom he described in Orwellian terms as “old thinkers.” Considering that Francis Fukuyama penned his “End of History” essay (later a book) in Bush’s State Department, Bush invoking Lincoln’s Second Annual Message becomes particularly ironic when we consider its more famous phrase: “we cannot escape history.”

Having made himself politically in Illinois, President Obama could not help but employ the Lincoln memory—historians would take up the task of connecting Obama and Lincoln in any event. Even before Obama became a candidate for the Democratic nomination, he wrote about Lincoln and connected himself to the 16th President. Based on the Obama Presidency so far it does not seem as if he will invoke the memory of Lincoln any less than his predecessor, George W. Bush. After the Thanksgiving pardon of the turkey Courage, Obama joins Bush in carrying out a tradition first enacted by Truman, or, was it Lincoln who started the practice by pardoning his son’s turkey which later showed up in 1864 at the polls? Clinton gave credit to both Presidents (even though Truman never pardoned a turkey). The Lincoln stories are anecdotal and seem to originate in Noah Brooks’ article in The Century magazine. That the turkey pardoning practice appears to be no older than Bush Sr. who granted one in 1989, Bush Jr. stuck to the Lincoln story in 2001. Lincoln did however issue a Proclamation of Thanksgiving which fits in with the current time frame of the national holiday. It was therefore inescapable that Obama mention it, and the context of the Civil War, in his own Proclamation.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Writing About Lincoln


How does one begin writing about Lincoln? Maybe a topic comes up involving Lincoln or a preconceived notion about him gets indulged through writing. Perhaps the author stumbles into the project by accident. Some people are asked specifically to write about Lincoln for some particular purpose. Ultimately all of these reasons and more could start one along in the process of writing about Lincoln. I started writing this blog due to a request, or rather a demand, from a friend. Since I was going to be expected to update the blog I decided I might as well try to further my dissertation research with topics for the blog on the general theme of my project: Lincoln and memory. It is with this sense of commemoration in mind that I am interested in what other people write about Lincoln.

Everyone who writes about Lincoln is engaging in a project of collective memory. Obviously no one is left alive now who knew Lincoln or knew somebody who knew Lincoln for that matter. Therefore, other memories have to be relied upon to say something about Lincoln today. Lincoln was a very personal man who did not keep a diary and gave us minimal insight into his life through his letters. In other words, relying solely on the Lincoln writings in the Collected Works and using no biographical works about Lincoln would make it extremely difficult to piece together the world in which Lincoln lived at any point in his life. Whenever we utilize these secondary sources the problem of unreliable information appears. There are a great many spurious Lincoln quotes floating around to say the least.

Even when dealing with reputable characters, there is the issue of only getting one side of the story or having words put into Lincoln’s mouth. For instance, in Frederick Douglass’ third autobiography, Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1881), he describes a meeting with Lincoln at the White House after Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address has been delivered. Douglass reports Lincoln as saying “Douglass; there is no man in the country whose opinion I value more than yours. I want to know what you think of it?” Douglass responded, “Mr. Lincoln, that was a sacred effort.” A jovial Lincoln replies “I’m glad you liked it!” If one peruses the Lincoln Log entry for March 4, 1865, Douglass is not mentioned unless we consider him included in the number of the 6,000 persons Lincoln shook hands with. This particular encounter would not have been the first time these two men, these two friends, had met at the White House. We know how Lincoln felt about the speech. He wrote to Thurlow Weed on March 15, 1865 that he expected the speech “will wear as well as --- perhaps better than --- any thing I have produced; but I believe it is not immediately popular.” There is no mention by Lincoln of Douglass’ “sacred effort” remark in gauging the perception of the speech. The context of the symbolic use of the Lincoln meeting in the East Room in Douglass’ autobiography (African Americans had previously not been allowed to view the Inaugural Address much less visit a President at the post-Inaugural ball and discuss the speech) is more important than Lincoln’s flippant reply, “I’m glad you liked it!”

Lincoln’s death was 144 years ago yet people still write about the “real” Lincoln—a Google search of “the real Lincoln” I did recently returned over 26 million results. If all of this time has passed and the genuine Lincoln has not been discovered, why should we believe that a new book or article will uncover the actual Lincoln which has been ostensibly out of our grasp? Putting the “real” or the “true” Lincoln in the title of one’s writing about Lincoln is audacious at best, foolhardy at worst. Authors making use of such titles are usually out to “set the facts straight” or separate “the myths from reality” or any number of other such stock phrases. Someone writing in this mood such as Thomas DiLorenzo typically has something out for Lincoln, those who write about Lincoln, or both. His second book about Lincoln, Lincoln Unmasked: What You’re Not Supposed to Know About Dishonest Abe, even begins with a section entitled “Challenging the Gatekeepers.” Such gatekeepers, DiLorenzo claims, are “the Lincoln cult” who, whether they are on the political left (a dubious idea in itself that the United States has one of these) or right, “use the Lincoln mythology to advocate a bigger, more centralized, and more interventionist central government for one reason or another.” Seeking a reevaluation of Lincoln’s legacy as DiLorenzo seems to want is fine in itself, but name calling is no way to begin an honest debate. We are also able to see that the “real” Lincoln to be discussed is only a Lincoln which fits in with the author’s predetermined standpoint—which is a terrible way to write no matter what one’s interests are. Any notions about discovering the “real” Lincoln at this stage of American history should be put to rest. If no one has done it by now, it’s not going to happen.

There is a Lincoln (or I should say Lincolns) that most people do not know, but this is not the “real” Lincoln either, but simply more of Lincoln than is typically written about. From what I can gather, Lincoln historians are well aware of how Lincoln handled the Sioux uprising in Minnesota in 1862—Lincoln signed the execution order of 38 Santee Sioux men (the largest mass execution by the US government in its history), pardoned 265 other Santee men, and allowed the removal of the Sioux and the Winnebago (the latter were not involved with the uprising) from Minnesota. Lincoln historians are reluctant to discuss this Lincoln in their writings. There remains only one book on Lincoln and his Indian policy, David A. Nichols’ Lincoln and the Indians. Lincoln’s service in the Black Hawk War (1832), which involved no actual fighting, or the fact that Lincoln’s grandfather was killed by Indians is hard to leave out of Lincoln biographies and is easy to track down. The Lincoln who advocated colonization for African Americans has been well documented by historians, along with the crucial fact that he changed his mind about this policy. Although Lincoln as a lawyer came down on the side of black freedom in a case of an attempt to sell a black woman in Bailey v. Cromwell, an unfamiliar Lincoln is the lawyer who six years later defended a slave owner in the Matson case. Nevertheless, this too is a Lincoln that the general public would struggle to reconcile with the popular image of “The Great Emancipator.” One of the difficulties of writing anything trying to approach a comprehensive Lincoln is that the Lincoln who emerges is a thoroughly complex man who is unable to be confined in the simplistic portrayals most people have been subjected to. Another hurdle to writing about Lincoln is a deadline. I’ll try hard not to come up against it next month.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Forging Lincoln

If we leave out the fraudulent Lincoln we are left with an incomplete image of the memory of Lincoln. It matters far less that Lincoln never said “you may fool all of the people some of the time; you can even fool some of the people all the time; but you can’t fool all the people all the time,” than it matters that people believe that he did (this quote is also attributed to P.T. Barnum on occasion). Likewise, the public wants to believe that Lincoln loved Ann Rutledge and wants to know the details. Carl Sandburg, who believed that Lincoln uttered the quote about fooling people, also played a prominent role in promoting the fictional aspects of the relationship in his huge seller, The Prairie Years (1926).

Sometimes the forging of the Lincoln memory involves actual forgery. Sandburg was unfortunately involved with the Wilma Minor affair which resulted in a big embarrassment for Atlantic Monthly. Sandburg initially believed that Wilma Minor had turned up lost Lincoln love letters to and from Rutledge because Sandburg wanted to believe in love and refused to use a critical eye toward the letters. It was only after the Lincoln scholar Paul Angle exposed Minor’s Lincoln letters as nothing more than a hoax that Sandburg changed his mind.

While there was monetary compensation for Minor’s fraud, she seems to have been driven by a want of fame. Other forgers of the Lincoln memory were after fortune. Producing Lincoln letters was a potential source of riches but trying to forge the Lincoln signature was an easier way to try to make money.

Lincoln memorabilia hunting started even before he became President. Henry Rankin, who studied in the Lincoln and Herndon Law Offices in Springfield, asked Lincoln for an autograph in 1858.

It is this signature, either A. Lincoln or Abraham Lincoln that is so prized by collectors and worth so much. Even in Lincoln’s Collected Works it is possible to find notes under entries such as this one from an endorsement: “close and signature have been cut off but copied below in pencil, presumably by the autograph collector.”

It was therefore very tempting for con artists to try their hand at Lincoln’s signature and affix it to items of dubious provenance in order to make some quick cash off of unsuspecting admirers of the 16th President. The impetus for this interest in any kind of Lincoln memorabilia was the assassination of Lincoln which made him into a national martyr. Examples of Lincoln mementos range from the macabre (a sliver of a bloody pillow case slip) to the mundane (Lincoln’s hairbrush-although this item is very improbable since Lincoln’s hair was rarely in order). There a few Lincoln forgers who became infamous such as Charles Weisberg, aka, The Baron; Henry Woodhouse, and the team of Harry Sickles and Eugene Field II. Their handiwork can still be found today. One item, a book of 19th century sheet music, which was part of Sickles and Field’s very large and lucrative counterfeiting operation appeared on PBS’ History Detectives (which uses the great Elvis Costello song above for a theme song).

The Sickles and Field scam in the 1930s involved Mary Todd Lincoln’s former coachman, William P. Brown and a Muskegon County Michigan notary public, Frank Thatcher. Sickles and Field had Brown autograph 19th century books and maps. Thatcher’s role was to attest that Brown’s signature was genuine and attach his notary seal. After acquiring this semblance of legitimacy, Lincoln’s signature, either Abraham Lincoln or A. Lincoln was added by Sickles. Thus, on the face of it, any of these particular items appeared to be Lincoln’s former possessions. Brown was most likely unaware of the intentions of the men as a newspaper article noting that he had been the last person alive employed by the Lincoln’s had appeared in 1931 and brought him public attention as a result. Similarly, Thatcher only thought he was certifying the authenticity of Brown’s signature. Sickles and Field also created forgeries utilizing the signature of famous personages such as Mark Twain and Theodore Roosevelt, among others. Unlike the aforementioned forger Charles Weisberg who was arrested and died in prison, Sickles and Field never even drew a formal charge for their fraudulent products.

One could be cynical about the people who were fleeced by Sickles and Field or other forgers and say with Dave Hannum (not P.T. Barnum who was sued by Hannum over the authenticity of the Cardiff Giant), “There’s a sucker born every minute.” It is however more important to ask what the commodification of the Lincoln memory says about Americans despite the fact that forgeries and replicas mistaken for the genuine article are in existence. What does the inclusion of forgeries in private collections and Lincoln libraries tell us about the forging of the Lincoln memory? The continued existence of private Lincoln memorabilia collections along with Lincoln letters fetching six figures on the auction block suggest that Lincoln artifacts retain a strong interest to this day. It is also surprising to me that there is an apparent dearth of fraudulent Lincoln productions showing up from time to time in light of how much Lincoln items sell for.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Lincoln at the Movies, Lincoln on TV


Motion pictures have not been around for a very long time but they have come a long way since Lumière’sExiting the Factory” (1895). Lincoln’s image would appear on film for the first time in 1901 in an Edison Film Company production called The Martyred Presidents which shows a female mourner at an altar upon which the images of all the assassinated Presidents up to that time (Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley) appear in turn—then it gets strange for the last few seconds where a figure is begging for something before a statue of Justice. The Edison Film Company would also be the first to use Lincoln’s image in a drama, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1903). Since the first use of Lincoln in 1901, according to Mark S. Reinhart’s research, Lincoln has been a character in “at least 300 productions.”

Despite that sizeable number, Lincoln has not appeared as the main character very often since the 1940s. The next film slotted to feature Lincoln is Stephen Spielberg’s much delayed (now due out 2011) Lincoln biographical film which is set to star Liam Neeson as Lincoln. Over the years Lincoln has been played on screen by famous actors such as Henry Fonda (Young Mr. Lincoln-1939), Raymond Massey (Abe Lincoln in Illinois-1940; The Day Lincoln Was Shot-1959; How the West Was Won-1961), and Sam Waterston (Gore Vidal’s Lincoln-1988), singer/actors such as Kris Kristofferson (Tad-1995) and also by Lincoln impersonators such as Charles Brame (Happy Gilmore-1996; Zoolander-2001; The Man Who Invented the Moon-2003). The quality of presentation in terms of resemblance to Lincoln and accuracy of the narrative of Lincoln on screen varies widely of course. The best hope on both elements is still the documentary form and there have been two very good ones this year, PBS' Looking for Lincoln and KET's Lincoln: I, too, am a Kentuckian.

It is impossible to say for certain what Lincoln would have thought about his depiction as Snake Plissken in the picture above this post, but Lincoln had seen worse representations of himself in his day. The defaced currency is typical of the nature of how Lincoln is most often seen in contemporary American society, which is to say, not seriously. Lincoln appears much more often on television than in film. It seems that Lincoln always comes up for humorous effect suddenly and then disappears in these TV sightings, such as this recent Family Guy episode. Professional historians might balk at the inaccuracies of the short scene at Ford’s Theatre in the brief clip from the cartoon show. However, to ignore or decry such portrayals of Lincoln based on the false information contained within them misses the point—these events are meant to be entertaining. Beyond that, it might be important to ask why the silly Lincoln gets laughs or why writers would even imagine that viewers would crack up at seeing Lincoln. Is it because most Americans carry around an image of a sober, albeit simplistic (since he loved to tell jokes and humorous stories), Lincoln? And further, perhaps the preformed ideas about the serious Lincoln not only open up the contrast for comedic purposes but also show that Lincoln’s prestige is safe, even if it is not high as it once was.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

New Format-Monthly Updates


Due to time constraints (teaching class, research, editing a book project, etc.), I will now officially only be updating this blog once a month, although I will post more than once per month if spare time can be found. This doesn't count as the update for this month--I'm working on that post. In the meantime, take a look at this Chicago Tribune article on Lincoln memory which asks: what would Lincoln say about race today?

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Lincoln's 4th of July Message and the Declaration of Independence


Not July 2nd when independence was voted for (probably to the chagrin of John Adams) nor August 2nd when the Declaration was signed, but July 4th (the date the Declaration was approved) is the day that the United States celebrates its independence from Great Britain.

Therefore, in part because of the symbolic importance of the day and the because of the opportunity to have a special session of Congress approve measures already taken after the fact, it was on July 4 of 1861 that Lincoln’s message to Congress occurred. In describing secession as a “farcical pretense,” Lincoln appealed to the Declaration, “the good old one, penned by Jefferson” over the declarations of the Southern “adversaries.” Lincoln asked why the Southerners had not included the words “all men are created equal.” For the answer he needed to look no further than his friend Alexander H. Stephens who had become the Vice President of the Confederacy.

Stephens in his “Cornerstone Speech” on March 21, 1861, said about the Constitution of the Confederate States that it “had put to rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution African slavery as it exists amongst us the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization.” Stephens noted that Thomas Jefferson had been right that the question of slavery would unmake the Union but he was wrong in believing “that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically.” Any thoughts during the Founding or after it that slavery might somehow pass from existence in the United States were wrong said Stephens because “[t]hey rested on the assumption of the equality of the races.” The Confederate government on the contrary was “founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.” According to Stephens this inequality was a “great physical, philosophical and moral truth.”

Stephens had provided Lincoln with as direct a statement as one could wish for to answer his query and yet Lincoln did not make reference to the speech. In fact, as Frederick Douglass rightly notes, the July 4th message of Lincoln does not speak of slavery. Douglas Wilson states that, as Douglass would understand later, a critical reaction to the lack of antislavery language in the message is exactly what Lincoln sought to provoke. Douglass would much more forcefully say the words which Lincoln would reserve for the Second Inaugural, namely, that slavery was the cause of the war. Whereas Lincoln qualified his statement with “somehow”, Douglass in 1861 said “[e]very reflecting man knows, and knows full well, that the real source and centre of the treason, rebellion and bloodshed under which the country is now staggering as if to its fall, is slavery. Every one knows that this is a slaveholder’s rebellion, and nothing else.” This is not to say Douglass needed a Lincoln message to speak out against the “self-deception” that slavery was not to blame for the war. In his Douglass’ Monthly in June Douglass declared that the “very stomach of this rebellion is the Negro in the condition of a slave. Arrest that hoe in the hands of the Negro, and you smith the rebellion in the very seat of its life.”

The Declaration of Independence, like Lincoln’s message, does not mention slavery. The reason for the omission in the Declaration is because Jefferson was overruled by his fellow slave holders in the Congress and the passages against slavery (including the description of slavery as “War against human Nature itself”) were cut. Nevertheless, it was the Declaration without mention of slavery which Lincoln would elevate to Constitutional status in the Gettysburg Address: “Four score and seven years ago our forefathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” In closing the Gettysburg Address Lincoln refined words from his July 4th message (“government of the people, by the same people”) into his exhortation “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Lincoln also used the Declaration in his message to run a connecting thread through the Union. From 1776 to the present, the Union was perpetual, the states united, said Lincoln. No “sophism” or “drugging the public mind” of the South could change that fact.

Unlike the “same Bible” which was read and “same God” who was prayed to and invoked for aid by the North and the South, July 4th and the Declaration of Independence which is commemorated on that the day was emptied of content for the Confederacy as much as for the Great Republic of Rough and Ready. Happy birthday, USA!


Cheesy Lincoln


Photo copyright of Reuters/Ray Stubblebine

As a patriotic display of one of the United States’ “big cheeses” (sponsored by Cheez-It), Lincoln was sculpted in cheese by cheesecarver Troy Landwehr. This is the second time of three possible years that Lincoln (therefore the biggest cheese?) has been carved out of cheese by Landwehr. In 2007, he sculpted a Mount Rushmore out of a 700 pound block of Land o’ Lakes brand cheddar cheese. That sculpture met its end in Oklahoma as snack cubes.

This years’ Lincoln cheese sculpture (pictured above) doesn’t share the spotlight with any other Presidents. At 6-feet, 8 inches, it is slightly larger than life. However, this sculpture is just another massive block of cheese depicting Lincoln fated for consumption, eventually. In the meantime, the cheese sculpture is on display and consumers of the Lincoln image will have to settle for Cheez-It snack crackers in stores. The Kellogg’s press release (parent company of Cheez-It) shows the unabashed corporate exploitation of the Lincoln memory: Cheez-It crackers bring the big cheese taste baked into each little bite, so it seems fitting for the brand to tip our hat this year to our nation's 'biggest' president during his bicentennial year.”

Corporate use of Lincoln to make a buck is not new. Lincoln log toys were created in 1916 and are still sold today. Lincoln Motors became the company that Presidents from FDR to Bush Sr. turned to for limousines. The Lincoln National Life Insurance Company (now Lincoln Financial Group) opened in Fort Wayne, Indiana in 1905 using, with permission from Robert Todd Lincoln, Lincoln’s likeness. The company’s slogan was “Its name indicates its Character.” A young frontiersman Lincoln was depicted in a statue outside the Fort Wayne office. The company did establish a Lincoln museum in Fort Wayne which they closed after 77 years last June citing poor attendance. One can only wonder if Robert Lincoln would be ok with the interactive Subway sandwich ads from last year for their $5 footlong sandwiches featuring “urban” Lincoln asking potential customers to send out “5 dolla hollas” to friends. See below.

This food hawking Lincoln, whether it is coming from Cheez-It or Subway, is devoid of any semblance of seriousness about the 16th President. Barry Schwartz will argue that Lincoln’s presentation in advertising is more proof that Americans do not respect greatness or heroes. However, the use of Lincoln by these companies surely demonstrates that they think Lincoln resonates well enough to sell products. And, perhaps Lincoln’s national stature is so well founded that there’s nothing to worry about from such advertising among those persons serious enough to care about the Lincoln legacy.

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Louisville's Lincoln

Photo by Kylene Lloyd, The Courier-Journal

On June 4, 2009, the city of Louisville, Kentucky unveiled a new Lincoln statue at its Waterfront Park. Dan Kelly a Republican State Senator for Springfield (Kentucky) and co-chair of the Kentucky Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission had an idea for a statue in order to “reclaim our Lincoln heritage.” This new Lincoln monument is the outcome of that initial idea. Lincoln was born in Kentucky of course, a fact which is reflected in the stylized log cabin which is the Commonwealth’s Bicentennial logo. Louisville already had another link to the Lincoln memory in the Farmington Historical Plantation (which was a hemp plantation fueled by slave labor) where Lincoln visited his good friend Joshua Speed for three weeks in 1841.

Famous Louisville resident Muhammad Ali and Kentucky Colonel (Lincoln is not even a posthumous Kentucky Colonel for some reason but he did visit their 2008 BBQ, was on hand at the sunset dedication ceremony. Ali also talked about Lincoln’s “ideas of unity, justice and equality” with Boys and Girls Club students at his Ali Center before the unveiling. Ali’s name at birth, Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., represents another Lincoln connection. Cassius Marcellus Clay (1810-1903), whom Ali and his father Clay, Sr. were named for, was a Kentucky emancipationist and journalist who served three terms in the Kentucky General Assembly and was a founding member of the Republican Party. Cassius Clay was also related to Senator Henry Clay, Lincoln’s “beau ideal of a statesman.” Cassius Clay was appointed Minister to Russia in 1861 by Lincoln and witnessed Tsar Alexander’s II edict which emancipated the serfs. Clay was recalled from Russia in 1862 and offered a generalship in order to get the corrupt Secretary of War, Simon Cameron, out of the country as Minister to Russia. Clay made a speech in Washington when he returned saying that he would not “draw a sword to keep the chains upon another fellow-being” and assured Lincoln that Kentucky would not secede if emancipation of the slaves was announced (Clay was sent back to Russia in 1863 and later played a role in the purchase of Alaska). Lincoln did issue his preliminary proclamation after the battle of Antietam.

The monument is the work of Kentucky sculptor Ed Hamilton. Hamilton has depicted Lincoln in the statue clean shaven as he would have appeared around the time of the visit to the Speed plantation. An 18,000 pound, but approachable (especially by children climbing), Lincoln holds a law book and sits on a 22,000 pound rock. Hamilton also created 4 bas-relief panels to accompany the statue. One panel shows Lincoln as a shirtless muscled youth with an ax and a younger Lincoln reading beside the fireplace. Another panel depicts chained and naked slaves—a scene Lincoln had witnessed on a steamboat with Speed on the way from Louisville to St. Louis in 1841 (though Lincoln never described the slaves as naked). A third panel illustrates the division of the Union with a battle scene and Lincoln consoling a crying woman and on the other side of a divided line, a woman holding a soldier who is probably dead. The final panel places Lincoln inside a room at the Speed plantation into which a slave can be seen entering with a tray of refreshments. The panels and Lincoln statue are surrounded by amphitheatre seats with words of Lincoln (all written well after 1841) inscribed such as “with malice toward none, with charity for all” (Second Inaugural Address, 1865); “as I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master” (fragment on Democracy, undated but assigned to 1858 in the Collected Works); and “I too, am a Kentuckian” (undelievered speech to Kentuckians, 1861).

The commemoration of Lincoln found in the monument and the celebratory unveiling and press coverage in Louisville’s The Courier-Journal aim at the words of Lincoln which were not used (despite the fact that he said them to a sitting Kentucky Governor in 1864): “I am naturally anti-slavery. If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong. I cannot remember when I did not so think, and feel.”.

However, by focusing on the 1841 steamboat trip and stay at Speed’s plantation, the presentation of the Lincoln memory on slavery in Louisville is beset by difficulties. Lincoln’s stay on the Speed plantation and witnessing slavery first hand “haunted Lincoln and shaped his views” according to the Courier-Journal. This statement is followed by an 1855 quote from a Lincoln letter to Joshua Speed which is clipped in such a way that the sight of slaves, “ a continual torment”, is ostensibly about the stay at the plantation even though it is not. The “continual torment” which Lincoln writes Speed about was the sight of slaves on the steamboat. Given the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854, tensions over slavery’s expansion were growing daily. Lincoln and many other Northerners had to worry because the Missouri Compromise of 1820 had been abrogated by the Compromise of 1850 which had started to fall apart upon passage. Yet, in 1855, Lincoln only sought to restore the 1850 compromise and oppose Kansas’ entry into the Union as a slave-state (the ‘civil war’ in Kansas, as Lincoln called it in 1859, known as Bleeding Kansas had just started by the time of his letter to Speed). “Naturally anti-slavery” or not, Lincoln likely thought he was expressing the majority opinion of the North when he told Speed: “You ought rather to appreciate how much the great body of the Northern people do crucify their feelings, in order to maintain their loyalty to the constitution and the union.” In other words, Lincoln at this time was only opposed to spread of slavery and was not going to agitate Southerners and a good deal of Northerners by advocating emancipation.

But back to the “continual torment” for a moment. This was certainly new sentiment from Lincoln that had developed the more he thought about slavery. In 1841 not long after the steamboat trip, Lincoln wrote in a careless digression in a letter Speed’s half-sister: “Nothing of interest happened during the passage, except the vexatious delays occasioned by the sand bars be thought interesting. By the way, a fine example was presented on board the boat for contemplating the effect of the condition upon human happiness. A gentleman had purchased twelve negroes in different parts of Kentucky and was taking them to a farm in the South. They were chained six and six together. A small iron clevis was around the left wrist of each, and this fastened to the main chain by a shorter one at a convenient distance from, the others; so that the negroes were strung together precisely like so many fish upon a trot-line. In this condition they were being separated forever from the scenes of their childhood, their friends, their fathers and mothers, and brothers and sisters, and many of them, from their wives and children, and going into perpetual slavery where the lash of the master is proverbially more ruthless and unrelenting than any other where; and yet admit all these distressing circumstances, as we would think them, they were the most cheerful and apparently happy creatures on board. One, whose offence for which he had been sold was an over-fondness for his wife, played the fiddle almost continually; and the others danced, sung, cracked jokes, and played various games with cards from day to day. How true is it that ‘God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb’, or in other words, that He renders the worst of human conditions tolerable, while He permits the best, to be nothing better than tolerable.”

By selecting certain writings of Lincoln to read dramatically and having a 50 piece orchestra perform Aaron Copeland’s Lincoln Portrait, Louisville and the Commonwealth of Kentucky wanted the “naturally anti-slavery” Lincoln to claim for their heritage while presenting him more like he had been Cassius Clay. It is not reported in the Courier-Journal whether Muhammad Ali talked about why he and his father were originally named for Clay and not Lincoln.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Lincoln and the "Living Relics"

Image copyright of Wisconsin Historical Society.

Lincoln was seen by many as a secular saint and martyr for the nation following his assassination on Good Friday. It is not surprising then that his personal effects are sometimes seen as or described as relics. In April when Dr. John Sotos wanted to perform a DNA test (to determine whether Lincoln was dying of a rare cancer) on a piece of the pillow Lincoln bled and died on which is housed at the Grand Army of the Republic Museum in Philadelphia, Temple University professor Andy Waskie proclaimed: “This is the Shroud of Turin of Civil War history.” One difference between Lincoln relics and Christian ones is that the selling of Lincoln relics is not forbidden. And, Lincoln relics often claim high prices. However, it is the interesting phenomenon of living Lincoln relics which is worth looking at in more detail.

In his book, Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory, Barry Schwartz described a scene at a 1909 Lincoln Day dinner held by the Chicago Women’s Press League where one of these “living relics” appeared. U.S. Grant’s son, General Frederick Dent Grant, showed up and the toastmistress accidentally called him by his father’s name. The elder Grant had died in 1885 but somehow the name, forever connected to Lincoln because of the Civil War, caused quite a stir. Unlike one of Grant’s other sons, Jesse Root Grant, Frederick Grant had never met Lincoln. In any event, the visage of Grant’s son excited the women and one declared “Why, she might almost as well have introduced Lincoln!” Frederick Grant could not measure up to the stature of his famous father, but being alive and in the room was enough for him to become a medium for the commemoration of Lincoln himself by the women.

Another son, in this case one of Lincoln’s own, disappointed those looking to witness something of the President in him. Ida Tarbell interviewed Robert Todd Lincoln in 1895. Looking him over from head to toe, she found no Abraham Lincoln in him. Robert Lincoln was “all Todd.” Perhaps she should not have been surprised by this lack of resemblance. In 1860 while Lincoln was making speeches in the East he went to visit his son Robert at Philips Exeter Academy. Robert (Bob as the boys called him) was a “very popular with the girls of the town as well as the boys” and a ‘good dresser’—not exactly an assessment which would apply to Abraham Lincoln. Robert’s father in contrast with his son made a “disappointing appearance” which was only forgotten after Abraham Lincoln settled into his speech. Robert’s father was then praised and meeting him was deemed a great honor. A note about my source of this event: he was a living relic himself. Marshall S. Snow, for several years he acted as chancellor of Washington University in St. Louis, was one of Robert’s classmates in attendance that night in 1860. He shook Lincoln’s hand and always thought of the pre-bearded Lincoln. Snow had also read the Gettysburg Address and the Bixby letter with great care. Snow obviously offered the Magazine of History a compelling reminiscence for the commemoration of the Centennial of Lincoln’s birth.

But what is it about these living relics, themselves usually unremarkable characters, that had a purchase on the minds of those who encountered them? Was the country not ready to let go of any tangible living nexus to Lincoln? I have no answer for these questions. There’s no rational reason I can think of for Nelson Rockefeller (then Governor of New York) to say (several times) in 1963 after meeting a 114 year old man who had shaken Lincoln’s hand, “I can’t get over the fact that I’ve actually shaken the hand that shook hands with Abraham Lincoln.” Nor does a good story stand in the way of those who present vicarious access to the Lincoln memory. The headline of the Baraboo Evening News above about the “Celebrated Haskins Brothers” is incorrect. It was Simon Cameron (Lincoln’s Secretary of War) who suggested that the triplets be named after himself, Gideon Welles (Lincoln’s Secretary of the Navy) and Lincoln to the father, Leonard Haskins.

Even when the authenticity of the narrative of a living relic is challenged, sometimes Lincoln scholars throw caution to the wind as Doris Kearns Goodwin does with Addison Proctor whom she cites as a source on the 1860 Republican Convention in her Team of Rivals. Proctor claimed to be the youngest delegate to attend that convention which nominated Lincoln for President and by 1911, he felt he was the only delegate still living. His status as a delegate was probably not the whole reason why he was invited to give speeches. Proctor said that the Kentucky Senator Cassius M. Clay was leader of the Kentucky delegation and gave an unforgettable speech (which Proctor could recite) at the convention in favor of Lincoln’s nomination. Clay did not attend the convention and said as much in his memoir (he also notes that Lincoln was his second choice after Chase). When Proctor was confronted with this information by William Henry Townsend, author of Lincoln and the Bluegrass, Proctor maintained that Clay was at least at the hotel if he had not attended the convention (p. 378, n. 12). Townsend was kind enough not to tell Proctor that Clay also says in his Life that had he been at the convention, according to everyone there, that Clay and not Hannibal Hamlin would have been nominated Vice President. The lesson here is that when you come across a narrative by one of these living relics, your first reaction shouldn’t be that of Seinfeld’s Kramer: “A story like that has got to be true.”

Saturday, May 9, 2009

A Multitude of Emancipation Proclamations


In the video above, a clueless Barney Fife attempts to elucidate what the Emancipation Proclamation is with no success. At one point he shouts exasperatedly at Andy Griffith that the Emancipation Proclamation was “about emancipation, what do you think it was about!?” The proclamation in question, the one of January 1, 1863, did not bring “the end of slavery in America” as Allen Guelzo’s subtitle of his Lincoln Prize winning book states, nor was it the only proclamation of emancipation.

Journalist Douglas A. Blackmon found that slavery, “by another name,” continued in the South for more than seventy years after the passage of 13th amendment. It was only after the horrors of the National Socialist regime in Germany were witnessed that, according to Blackmon, “the final delivery of African Americans from overt slavery and from the quiet complicity of the federal government in their servitude” (p. 382).  Slavery on a much smaller scale still exists in the US with the slave holders getting what amounts to a slap on the wrist in the way of punishment. Lincoln himself had to deal with the sympathetic friends and relatives of Captain Nathaniel Gordon, who was convicted of violating the Piracy Law of 1820 by being “engaged in the slave trade.” The penalty was death and Lincoln refused to grant Gordon a pardon. Gordon became the only person in US history to be executed for being a slave trader on February 21, 1862. Lincoln signed a treaty with the British in July of 1862 “for the suppression of the slave trade.” Meanwhile, we should remember that a “conservative estimate” maintains that 27 million people are enslaved worldwide today.

On the subject of proclamations, Lincoln issued two (he also signed two separate 1862 bills which abolished slavery 1) in Washington, D.C. through compensated emancipation—an idea he tried without success as a Congressman in 1849 and 2) in the territories—a law directly challenging the Dred Scott decision). The first was a preliminary proclamation on September 22, 1862. Technically States or parts of States “in rebellion against the United States” in September could have read this document as a warning and discontinued their support of the Confederacy and joined the Border States in keeping their slaves when the final Emancipation Proclamation  was issued on January 1, 1863. Predictably, the Civil War raged on. Lincoln had also revoked two proclamations by the time he issued his preliminary proclamation, those of General John C. Frémont in Missouri and General David Hunter for Georgia, Florida and South Carolina. By the time of the final Emancipation Proclamation Lincoln had also already asked Congress for a resolution supporting compensated emancipation, drafted a bill for compensated emancipation in Delaware, appealed to Border States to get their representatives to favor emancipation, and worked out the figures in his December 1862 Annual Message on the cost of compensated emancipation were it to be dragged out over 37 years.

It took a long time for Lincoln to come to the position that he had the authority as Commander-in-Chief “in time of actual armed rebellion against authority and government of the United States” to abolish slavery. He had for most of his adult life favored gradual emancipation and voluntary colonization of freed blacks as his hero Henry Clay advocated. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation freed very few slaves, but this did not matter much in the imagination of the country at the time nor does it now. The Sunday before the issuing of the proclamation, Frederick Douglass said: “It is difficult for us who have toiled so long and hard, to believe that this event, so stupendous, so far reaching and glorious is even now at the door. It surpasses our most enthusiastic hopes that we live at such a time and are likely to witness the downfall, at least the legal downfall of slavery in America. It is a moment for joy, thanksgiving and praise.”

It would take two more years of bloody war and the passage of the 13th Amendment to ensure that Lincoln’s efforts at legally ending slavery were not rolled back.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Lincoln and the Patronage


In American history, we often learn about the patronage system (or the spoils system) through the Presidency of Andrew Jackson, satirized in the political cartoon above. Most simply, the patronage system was the handing out of government jobs by the winning political party to people in the party who helped in creating the victories in elections. The words about the spoils in the cartoon did not originate with Jackson, but with New York Senator William L. Marcy who said in an 1832 speech defending Jackson’s political appointment of Martin Van Buren as a minister to England, that New Yorkers “boldly preach what they practice. When contending for victory, they avow their intention to enjoy the fruits of victory, and if defeated they expect to retire from office. They see nothing wrong in the rule, that to the victors belong the spoils of the enemy.” We do not often think of Abraham Lincoln as a willing participant in such a system. Did not Lincoln himself say in 1861 that the Civil War was “essentially a People’s contest” and that the Union’s purpose in the war was to defend “that form, and that substance of government, whose leading object is, to elevate the condition of men---to lift artificial weights from all shoulders---to clear the paths of laudable pursuit for all---to afford all, an unfettered start, and a fair chance, in the race of life”? Doris Kearns Goodwin’s book Team of Rivals has been much discussed lately for the purposes of drawing a connection between Obama’s cabinet appointments and those of Lincoln. The fact that Lincoln put his main competitors (to call them rivals is a bit disingenuous because, as Timothy S. Good reminds us in his recent book, Lincoln was not a rival to any Republican candidate in 1860 in any sense except for his superior character), Edward Bates, Salmon P. Chase, and William H. Seward, for the Republican nomination in 1860 in his cabinet seems to belie the notion that Lincoln rewarded supporters with jobs.

However, when looking at Lincoln’s correspondence or his day to day activities, we can see that he expended much energy in carrying out politics as usual under the patronage system. In actuality, Lincoln during his first term was the worst offender of the spoils system of any President. The turnover in jobs from the previous administration was nearly absolute. In carrying out such a purge, he handed out jobs to friend and foe alike with the intent of keeping as many people faithful to the Union as possible. Having both Congressmen and commoners in his debt surely helped Lincoln secure a second nomination in 1864. Lincoln’s skillful use of the patronage did not apply as far as the so-called Indian System (then Office of Indian Affairs, now Bureau of Indian Affairs) was concerned.

Lincoln’s knowledge of the Indians was scarce before taking office. Although he had enlisted in the Black Hawk War (1832), he experienced no combat. Lincoln did seem to share the common prejudices and feelings about the Indians as “savages” standing in the way of Westward expansion and with it, civilization—this view continued unto his death. Lincoln also campaigned for Whig presidential candidates who had been Indian fighters: William Henry Harrison (Tecumseh’s War-Battle of Tippecanoe) and Zachary Taylor (Black Hawk War; Second Seminole War). The tragedies which resulted from Lincoln’s lack of care in handling Indian affairs were written about by David A. Nichols in his Lincoln and the Indians. I will take up this much neglected aspect of Lincoln’s Presidency substantially in my dissertation.

To stick to the topic of patronage, it will suffice to say that Lincoln initially perceived the offices of the Indian System in the same manner as any of the other political offices he had at his discretion to allocate. Through his handlers at the Chicago convention in 1860, Lincoln offered to exchange the positions of the Secretary of the Interior and the Commissioner of Indian Affairs for Indiana’s 26 nomination votes (both Doris Kearns Goodwin and Timothy S. Good skirt the Indian issue by stating such offers were unessential to Lincoln’s nomination). The men who filled these positions, Caleb B. Smith and William P. Dole, respectively, were professional politicians with no experience in Indian affairs. Some of the men Lincoln appointed to be Indian agents had never even met an Indian. Getting a job as a superintendent or agent in the Indian system could be extremely lucrative as agents sometimes engaged in wholesale theft of Indian annuities—Simon Cameron, whom Lincoln appointed Secretary of War despite pointed opposition, was possibly among these unscrupulous agents as a federal commissioner. He allegedly defrauded the Winnebago (Ho-Chunk) Indians of $66,000 in 1838. Cameron resigned in less than a year because of more corruption allegations. Caleb Smith and William Dole, however, lasted longer. Smith resigned in protest when Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation. During his time as Secretary of the Interior, Smith wholeheartedly endorsed expansionism. In 1862, he stated “The rapid progress of civilization upon this continent will not permit the lands which are required for cultivation to be surrendered to savage tribes for hunting grounds”. Smith’s replacement, John Palmer Usher, joined Dole, currency comptroller Hugh McCulloch, and Lincoln secretary John Nicolay in buying land in Kansas in 1864 which was to be held in trust for the Sac and Fox Indians. The Indian system was also a pathway to upward mobility by the time Lincoln took office. Simon Pomeroy had used the system to enrich himself and become a US Senator from Kansas (1861-1873). The first two governors of Minnesota, Henry Sibley and Alexander Ramsey (later Secretary of War for Rutherford B. Hayes), had also risen through the system. Both of these Minnesota men would play a role, Sibley as colonel of the state militia and Ramsey as Governor of Minnesota, in the Sioux Uprising of 1862 (precipitated by the cheating of the Santee Sioux out of annuities since 1851).

Lincoln was not ignorant of the extreme corruption of the Indian system in Minnesota but he was left to deal with the fallout: 400 to 800 Minnesota civilians were dead, along with 70 to 100 Sioux, and 77 US Army soldiers. Three hundred and three Sioux had been tried, in some cases in trials averaging 10-15 minutes in length, convicted of murder or rape, and sentenced to death. Lincoln personally reviewed the sentences and commuted all of the sentences but 38—which still makes Lincoln responsible for the largest mass execution in US history. Lincoln then removed all of the Sioux from Minnesota and their reservations were abolished. The Ho-Chunk were also expelled from Minnesota in 1863. The reform of the patronage system would have to wait, and obviously the consequences (which I have only hinted at here) were dire for Indians, until 1883 with the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act (it took until the Grant administration in 1873 to even create the Federal Civil Service). The Bureau of Indian Affairs however, has remained a controversial agency to say the least.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Lincoln and the Theatre


Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre and became almost instantaneously upon his death on April 15, preserved in memory. During their Easter sermons, Christian ministers did not hesitate to suggest that Lincoln, who was shot on Good Friday, died to redeem the sins of the United States in a similar way to how Jesus died to save humanity from its sins. The symbolic portrayals of Lincoln did not end in the Christian churches. Passover having ended, rabbis in synagogues suggested Lincoln as a Moses figure who did not reach the Promised Land with his people whom he had freed. The irony of the situation, as Harold Holzer points out, is that Lincoln “died in a sinful playhouse.” Lincoln did not see the theatre in this light. He loved the theatre and it presented him with an opportunity to relieve stress. He was most fond of Shakespeare’s plays and saw several of them as President in which John Wilkes Booth’s brother Edwin Booth, a highly acclaimed tragedian actor, played roles.

The play Our American Cousin has become famous in American history although most Americans have never seen the play performed nor do they know that it was a satirical play (based on negative European stereotypes) about Americans (an opera about the play and the Civil War has recently come out called Our American Cousin which was written by the American composer Eric Sawyer and poet John Shoptaw). Be that as it may, the night Lincoln was shot by John Wilkes Booth while Lincoln attended the play, Our American Cousin, it had become very popular and had been performed for “upwards of one thousand nights” by April 14, 1865.

There was another play on the bill listed for Saturday, August, 15, 1865, which was not performed which is worth pointing out: The Octoroon; or, Life in Louisiana by Dion Boucicault. This play was also a hit in the United States, first opening in New York in 1859. In a nutshell the plot of the play goes like this: the nephew (George Payton) of a Louisiana plantation owner returning home from France discovers the plantation will have to be sold because of his late uncle’s mismanagement. George falls in love with one of the slaves (Zoe, the octoroon) who is the daughter of his uncle—George is unaware of her racial status. Another man (Jacob McClosky) who helped ruin Payton’s uncle’s finances wants Zoe for himself (though she rejects him) and plans on selling the plantation and the slaves and acquiring Zoe during the sale and taking her as a mistress. This plot would have been thwarted by a letter from a debtor of Payton’s uncle but McClosky literally kills the messenger, a slave boy (Paul). An Indian (Wahnotee) discovers the body of his good friend but Wahnotee’s English is so bad that he cannot explain what he has seen. Later after George finds out that he can’t legally marry Zoe, Zoe is sold to McClosky on a steamboat. Finally it is realized that the slave boy Paul is missing. Wahnotee arrives on the boat, drunk, and tells them the boy is dead. McClosky calls for Wahnotee to be lynched. Another character asks accusingly if there will be one law for whites and another for Indians. The delay in trying to give Wahnotee a fair trial brings forth pictorial evidence that McClosky is the real killer. McClosky is later killed ignobly by Wahnotee to blindly avenge his friend Paul. The play was not without controversy (not about the Indian of course).

Based on press reports some people thought the play, which opened after John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry, was an abolitionist work. Others felt it was pro-slavery. Modern commentators point out that the play had different endings. In Britain, the play had a happy ending with a so-called “mixed-race” marriage, which would have been referred to as miscegenation (after 1863-the word was coined by Democratic journalists at the New York World in a pamphlet hoax which tried to harm Lincoln’s reelection bid) in the American South, between Zoe and George. In the United States, the play ended with the death of all the major actors in the play on board a steamboat which explodes (not that far-fetched of an idea, 1/3 of all steamboats built in the 1850’s exploded).

On the anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination, we should probably spend less time thinking about the play that Lincoln saw before his death with its well worn European notions of Americans as bumpkins and more time pondering the more engaging play which was not put on because of Lincoln’s death. The fact that Irish born Boucicault deliberately changed the ending of The Octoroon depending on the differing sensibilities about race amongst his audience tells us something about both the British and American theatergoers. That people continue to ignore the depiction of the Indian in the play as well as questions about justice for Indians in the USA (much the same way too many people don’t know what to make of the “metaphysics of Indian-hating” in Melville’s The Confidence-Man, tells us something about ourselves.