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.


  1. Pat,
    Check out this blog by a friend of mine -

    Dave Wiegers
    Gurnee, IL

  2. Dave,

    I've been so busy preparing to teach a summer course that I'm just now posting a new blog entry and seeing your comment. Thanks for the link. I about to check it out.