Monday, December 31, 2012

Lincoln's impact

The entry I chose for my book, “Lincoln 365,” for today’s date is as follows. It needs no elaboration.

“Lincoln's death was an unparalleled international phenomenon.
Of course heads of state, like his great and good friend Queen
Victoria, sent condolences. But what was astonishing was that,
according to one historian, condolences also came from the
Working Class Improvement Association of Lisbon, the Students
in the Faculty of Theology in Strasbourg, the Teachers of the
Ragged School in Bristol, the Vestry of the Parish of Chelsea, the
Cotton Brokers' Association of Liverpool, the Men's Gymnastic
Union of Berne, Switzerland [all 44 members]. As if moved
inexorably by some powerful if unseen gravitational pull, people
thousands of miles away made it their business to express their
profound sorrow at the passing of this most enigmatic of men.
For somehow Lincoln had managed to capture their imaginations,
this man carved from the granite of the great American heartland,
who had clambered through the dense entangling undergrowth of
misunderstanding and greed, of violence and stupidity, to burst
forth onto God's very own broad, sunlit uplands.”
- Arnold Kunst

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live
- Mahatma Gandhi

Friday, December 28, 2012

Speilberg’s “Lincoln” nit-picked by a history nerd, part 9

Lincoln did in fact make the youngish – and little-known - James Ashley of Ohio the floor manager in charge of lining up the votes needed to pass the 13th Amendment.

The movie doesn’t show it, but Ashley was a gifted wire-puller who did in fact get the job done. On the other hand it’s hard to escape the conclusion that if the effort failed Ashley would have ended up taking the heat. Lincoln was a master wire-puller!

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Speilberg’s “Lincoln” nit-picked by a history nerd, part 8

Picky-picky time: The climax to the film is the vote on the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery forever.

However, the roll-call for voting in the House of Representatives was then - and still is - alphabetical, not, as in the movie, by state.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

From Lincoln to the rest of us: Merry Christmas!

In my book, Lincoln 365, the entry I chose for 25 December reads as follows:

'To ease another's heartache is to forget one's own.'
- Abraham Lincoln

'Ultimately magic finds you, if you let it.'

Ease somebody’s heartache today. Chances are [s]he needs it!

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Speilberg’s “Lincoln” nit-picked by a history nerd, part 7

The movie’s depiction of Tad Lincoln leaves something to be desired. For one thing, the real Tad suffered from a pronounced speech impediment, probably a cleft palate, that left him incapable of communicating to any but a small number of people: his parents, his older brother Robert, Elizabeth Keckley [Mary Lincoln’s seamstress] and one or two others.

In addition, in contrast to the close affectionate relationship between Tad and his father [which is accurate] the film hardly even shows Tad and his mother in the same scene.

The implication the film gives that the boy was close to his father but not to his mother was far from the truth. In point of fact Mary had already lost two of her four sons to disease and during the White House years, with Robert away at Harvard, she was especially close to Tad, for example, taking him with her on trips on a regular basis.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Early Lincoln humor

Sigmund Freud once said, "The child is the father of the man" - truer words were
never spoken. They say that after a church service Lincoln, as a child, would mount
a stump and delight the other children with his rendition of the sermon he had just
heard. It showcased Lincoln's ability at mimicry, his remarkable memory
as well as his bubbly, ever-present sense of humor. 
It was important, of course,
that no adult be present!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Speilberg’s “Lincoln” and Sandy Hook violence

The new Spielberg ”Lincoln” movie accurately shows Lincoln very fatherly toward his 11-year-old son Tad - picking up a sleeping Tad from the floor, packing him on his back and carrying him off to bed. Just what he was attempting to do with his sadly divided, Civil-War-torn nation.

Seems an apt picture for a nation in the grip of gun violence that we, somehow, don’t seem to have the will ever to do anything meaningful about.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Speilberg’s “Lincoln” nit-picked by a history nerd, part 6

In one scene Lincoln actually slaps his son Robert. Almost certainly that slap didn't happen.

For one thing, both father and son had tremendous reserve. In addition, Mary, a Southerner, raised Robert in the tradition of a Southern gentleman which means he wouldn't have goaded his father as happens in the movie. Even so, the scene has a kind of emotional validity because it accurately highlights the tension between father and son – and that certainly was true.

It’s interesting to note that Lincoln had been absent for much of Robert's early years. During that time Lincoln was riding the circuit for up to six months every year - traveling from one court house to the next with a group made up of a judge, court clerk(s) and an assortment of lawyers bringing grass-roots justice to the hinterlands. This arrangement also had the (happy?) circumstance of allowing Lincoln to be away from both a difficult wife and two demanding sons.

In other words, Lincoln was not gifted with an all-purpose golden touch. As a daddy clearly he was too much here, not enough there - just like you and I. That is, this man, like you and I, had feet of clay.

There's very good news here: by extension, if Lincoln matches us in our grubby humanity, the good news is, it's possible that we can match his ability to influence spectacularly the world he lived in by influencing equally spectacularly the world we live in!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Speilberg’s “Lincoln” nit-picked by a history nerd, part 5

The real Seward-Lincoln relationship was far more nuanced and interesting than the rather two-dimensional relationship depicted in this movie.

William Seward’s relationship with Abraham Lincoln started off on the wrong foot. Seward was the heir-apparent to the Republican presidential nomination in 1860 – only to be outmaneuvered by the gangly lawyer from the middle of nowhere whose existence he had, up to that point, barely acknowledged.

As Lincoln’s Secretary of State he treated the new President as a kind of constitutional monarch, and he was the Prime Minister with the real power. Like the proverbial princess and the pea he threatened to resign early on because he didn’t get his way, only to be put in his place firmly but politely by the one who really was his boss [“If a change is to be made, I must do it.”]

That was the sledge hammer between the eyes Seward needed, and the relationship between the two men was solid from those early days of the Lincoln Administration to Lincoln’s death. In fact theirs was as sincere a friendship as any to be found in American political history. They genuinely enjoyed, and relaxed in, one another’s company, often regaling one another with wildly funny, occasionally bawdy, stories and jokes into the wee hours. Each was a tonic for the other.

The movie, by contrast, depicts Seward in two roles.

First, as a kind of foil to Lincoln’s urge to get this 13th Amendment through the House although the votes weren’t to be had. [“It simply can’t be done” versus “I like our chances.”] The reality was more interesting: both men were passionately opposed to slavery, and eager to secure this final nail in the slavery coffin. Seward as foil to Lincoln was more for dramatic effect than historical accuracy.

The second function Seward plays in the movie is as a kind of lackey employed to do Lincoln’s dirty work for him – in effect, “get the votes by any means necessary, and when you’re done burn your notes.”

Is that the way it played out, Seward as Lincoln’s lackey? Possibly; the notes did in fact get destroyed, so we will probably never really know.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Speilberg’s “Lincoln” nit-picked by a history nerd, part 4

We like to think that Lincoln, since he was a great orator, had a powerful, booming voice, ideally a baritone voice, and we’re understandably disappointed to find this high, thin, reedy thing exiting [apologetically?] from the mouth of Daniel Day-Lewis.

It is true that Lincoln was a great orator with a voice perfectly adequate for the audiences he addressed – never more than a few thousand people at any given time. But if truth be told, Lincoln’s was pure Indiana [“Mr. Cheeeerman”] twang.

Day-Lewis got it right.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Speilberg’s “Lincoln” nit-picked by a history nerd, part 3

At one point in the movie Secretary of War Edwin Stanton, who was not known for his sense of tact [or sense of humor], complains that they’re about to be subjected to yet another of the President’s stories.

Was Speilberg’s Stanton behaving in character? Well, listen to the following and you be the judge:

According to Stanton, just before he announced the draft Emancipation Proclamation, Mr. Lincoln "was reading a book of some kind, which seemed to amuse him. It was a little book. He finally turned to us and said: 'Gentlemen, did you ever read anything from Artemus Ward? Let me read you a chapter that is very funny.'

“Not a member of the Cabinet smiled; as for myself, I was angry, and looked to see what the President meant. It seemed to me like buffoonery. He, however, concluded to read us a chapter from Artemus Ward, which he did with great deliberation, and, having finished, laughed heartily, without a member of the Cabinet joining in the laughter.

“'Well,' he said, 'let's have another chapter,' and he read another chapter, to our great astonishment.

“I was considering whether I should rise and leave the meeting abruptly, when he threw his book down, heaved a sigh, and said: 'Gentlemen, why don't you laugh? With the fearful strain that is upon me night and day, if I did not laugh I should die, and you need this medicine as much as I do.'"

I don’t think Stanton agreed!

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Speilberg’s “Lincoln” nit-picked by a history nerd, part 2

Clearly the opening scene of the movie has more artistic than strictly historical accuracy. Even so that scene doesn’t quite sit right.

It is hard to imagine not only that common soldiers had chunks of the Gettysburg Address memorized but that they would quote it back to the original author of that address.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Speilberg’s “Lincoln” nit-picked by a history nerd, part 1

[Spoiler alert: let me suggest that you see the new Steven Spielberg movie LINCOLN before you read this series of blog entries.]

The first of the many dazzling characteristics of Daniel Day-Lewis's "Lincoln" is the President’s even-temperedness and approachability. He may be President of the United States but he’s as comfortable as an old pair of slippers.

The movie opens on a rainy evening. A battle has just concluded and two soldiers are speaking to someone out of view of the camera explaining what happened in the battle. As the camera pulls back it becomes clear that we are looking over the shoulder of President Abraham Lincoln. What is remarkable about him is his zen-like tranquility in the presence of a private to corporal – and their comfort in the presence of the President of the United States.

He proves to be equally tranquil as he is told by his advisers that the passage of the 13th amendment abolishing slavery is simply not possible; the votes in the House can't be had, he needs to deal with a group of high-ranking Confederate peace emissaries, he needs to focus on winning the war first, etc.

This is not a man to be rattled!

Monday, December 10, 2012

Lincoln jokes, part 4

Throughout his Presidency Lincoln was hounded by office seekers. When he returned from speaking at Gettysburg in November of 1863 he had contracted a mild form of [contagious] smallpox.

“Where are all those office seekers now?” he asked. “I’ve got something I can give everybody!”

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Lincoln jokes, part 3

Lincoln once described the frustration of sending troops to the Army of the Potomac.

“It’s like shoveling fleas across a barnyard.”

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Lincoln jokes, part 2

A conference was held in early 1861 just before the outbreak of what came to be called the Civil War. It was billed as a peace conference and was meant to bridge the gap[s] between North and South.

That, of course, reminded Lincoln of a story.

"I once knew a good sound churchman, whom we will call Brown, who was on a committee to erect a bridge over a very dangerous and rapid river. Architect after architect failed, and, at last, Brown said, he had a friend named Jones who had built several bridges and could build this.

“’Let us have him in,' said the committee. In came Jones. ‘Can you build this bridge, sir?' ‘Yes,’ replied Jones, ‘I could build a bridge to the infernal regions if necessary.'

“The sober committee was horrified. But when Jones retired, Brown thought it but fair to defend his friend. ‘I know Jones well,' said he, ‘and he is so honest a man, and so good an architect, that if he states, soberly and positively, that he can build a bridge to Hades, why, I believe it. But I have my doubts about the abutment on the infernal side.'

“When politicians said they could harmonize the northern and southern wings of the democracy, why, I believed them. But I have my doubt about the abutment on the southern side."

Friday, December 7, 2012

Lincoln jokes, part 1

At one point Secretary of War Edwin Stanton replied to a telegram from the President demanding urgent instructions, with "all right, go ahead."

"I suppose you meant," said Mr. Lincoln, "that it is all right if it is good for you, and all wrong if it is not.

“That reminds me," said he, "of a story about a horse that was sold at the cross-roads near where I once lived. The horse was supposed to be fast, and quite a number of people were present at the time appointed for the sale.

“A small boy was employed to ride the horse backward and forward to exhibit his points. One of the would-be buyers followed the boy down the road and asked him confidentially if the horse had a splint.

“‘Well, mister,' said the boy, if it's good for him he has got it, but if it ain't good for him he don't.'"

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Abraham Lincoln as Pain in the Neck!

Abraham Lincoln could be, and often was, a real pain in the neck. Let's suppose you, a college graduate, had made your way through local and state government; that you’d assiduously polished your résumé; that you had gone on to spend years climbing the Washington D.C. greasy poll; that you’d mastered the time-honored art of working a room with consummate ease, comfortable in that sophisticated setting [what a later generation would call The Beltway]; and, at this most crucial point in American history when the country was coming apart at the seams, you were now asked to join President Abraham Lincoln’s cabinet.

Challenges that others would run from as overwhelming you clutch to your bosom gladly because they’ll prove your mettle. You had achieved what for many was the panicle of ambition.

So far so good.

But be aware that you’d probably be annoyed, to put it mildly, being up close and personal with this lanky, ah-shucks prairie lawyer, with 17 years of experience as a member of a two-man law firm from Podunk, Illinois [if you went any further west from Springfiield you’d fall off!], a man country to the core, full of time-wasting, corny, cracker-barrel jokes, whose kids on a regular basis would burst into cabinet meetings to jump on their daddy’s lap And Disturb Everythinng.

And you’d have to stifle your urge to burst in and say, “LET’S GET ON WITH IT!”

After all, he’s the boss, isn't that right?

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

A Crescendo of Magnificant Proportions...

In 1849, after his lone two-year stint in the House of Representatives, Lincoln returned to the wilds of Illinois to practice the law. As he did so, Lincoln, in this self-imposed exile from politics, set out to take stock of himself, sort out his ideas, figure out where he wanted to go both personally and politically.

He was like a fertile field that was destined for a time to lay fallow, and he had, or developed, the self-discipline necessary to acquiesce in being shunted like some unused box car into an unused siding. One has the feeling that the seeds of greatness were nurtured during that time - that immense power was gathering in the shadows for a crescendo of magnificent proportions.

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Lincoln, the word-wizard war leader

One of the principle jobs of any war leader is to marshal the resources of the nation behind the war effort. Few have performed this task with the consummate skill of this wizard with words.

The following quote, even 150-odd years later, is still white-hot, still utterly compelling. Here is Lincoln in his message to Congress in December of 1862, the equivalent of The State of the Union speech of another century; drink what he says, utterly pliant to the subtle ministrations of this wizard with words:

“The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present. The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, so we must think anew, and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.

“Fellow-citizens, we cannot escape history. We of this Congress and this administration will be remembered in spite of ourselves. No personal significance, or insignificance, can spare one or another of us. The fiery trial through which we pass will light us down, in honor or dishonor, to the latest generation. We say we are for the Union. The world will not forget that we say this. We know how to save the Union. The world knows we do know how to save it. We -- even we here -- hold the power, and bear the responsibility. In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free -- honorable alike in what we give, and in what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best hope of earth. Other means may succeed; this could not fail. The way is plain, peaceful, generous, just - a way which, if followed, the world will forever applaud, and God must forever bless.”

The Master has spoken!

Monday, December 3, 2012

Lincoln's Family Troubles, Part 1

In February 1862 Willie Lincoln, aged 11, died. His brother Tad would break into intermittent sobbing because Willie “would never speak to me any more.” And Mary was so prostrate with grief that she did not even attend the funeral.

Within a few weeks Mary had suffered a nervous breakdown and shut herself in her room for the next three months. Lincoln, according to one observer, “worried about her, haunted by fears that she might lapse into insanity. One day he led her to a window and pointed to a distant building where mental patients were confined. ’Try to control your grief,’ he said firmly, ‘or it will drive you mad, and we may have to send you there.’”

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Implaccible Hatred, Part 1

Reconciliation had a long way to go in the days following Lee’s surrender. Edmund Ruffin, credited with firing the first shot at Sumter four years earlier, reacted to the news of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox by leaving a farewell note decrying “the perfidious, malignant and vile Yankee race” - then putting a bullet through his head.

Not to be outdone, as it were, the famous Northern preacher Henry Ward Beecher, vitriolic as ever, foresaw eternal agony for the secessionist aristocrats – “guiltiest and most remorseless traitors, polished, cultured, exceedingly capable and wholly unprincipled…Caught up in black clouds full of voices of vengeance and lurid with punishment, [they] shall be whirled aloft and plunged downward forever and forever in endless retribution.”