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.