Goodbye and Hello

I will no longer be posting new material on this blog, because I am consolidating all of my blog writing to Being Mack’s Momma Bear, where I write about life, love, grief, my lost daughter Mackenzie, history (specifically Jane Addams, Abraham Lincoln, the Progressive Era, and women’s history), politics, dogs, yoga, friendship, fear, walking, writing, and hope.

Being Mack’s Momma Bear is just me-—a mom, historian, writer, and middle-aged woman—making sense of life, navigating the big, beautiful, terrifying world, and documenting the joys, sorrows, victories, and failings of being human.

Ode to Mary Lincoln on Her 200th Birthday

There must have been something about Mary Todd, radiant in a delicately pleated dress of fine silk, reciting poetry and arguing about Whig politics at a party. Her blue eyes twinkling with mischief as her sharp tongue disparaged President Martin Van Buren and Democrats in the Illinois state capital of Springfield. Poised among Abraham Lincoln’s circle of political friends, holding her own, Miss Todd was interesting, a unique creature in the room. She was a lovely, spoiled Southern belle whose political passions contradicted the demure character of a typical antebellum lady. Her well-bred grace, knowledge of poetry and politics, social sophistication, and formal education, which cast her eyes far beyond her Kentucky home, must have looked a picture to Mr. Lincoln’s self-taught, self-paved path to the law, rough-hewn manners, and social awkwardness.

There must have been something about Abraham Lincoln, arguing about Whig politics in a rumbled coat and high-water pants. His steely eyes sparkling with intellect as he used his rapier wit like a dagger in the belly of Democratic Party politicians. A towering figure in a dainty Victorian parlor among Mary Todd’s “coterie” of social friends, Mr. Lincoln, who commanded the room by telling stories, was interesting, a unique creature among political men. He was the uneducated son of a dirt farmer, but his intelligence and determination fueled an ambition beyond the dreams of his humble Kentucky origins. Within his love for the poetry of Robert Burns, his partisan political convictions, his unruly head of hair, and his utter disinterest in appropriate apparel befitting an up-and-coming lawyer, Mary Todd saw what the world had yet to know.

She saw the glimmer of Mr. Lincoln’s rising star, and she wanted to fly up into the cosmos with him.

I’ve spent more than twenty years researching and writing about Abraham Lincoln, I have published a biography about Mary Lincoln, and I have read more scholarship on the Lincolns than is is even close to normal. Through my work, I have developed over the years my own particular interpretations about this famous historical couple. I have quite often in that effort found myself at odds with mainstream Lincoln biographers, mostly because I like Mary Lincoln and find her historically and personally compelling. I have no patience for Mary Lincoln hating, and I think many of her contemporaries and most biographers of her famous husband have been too hard on her. Mostly, it makes me angry because so many of them have deified the man and crucified the woman, diminishing the humanity of both of them. I believe the single most important truth I have come to understand about the Lincolns is that they were both beautifully, imperfectly human, with all of the complexities and contradictions of what it always means to be human.

The individual personalities of Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln, their relationships with people, their marriage and shared parenting of four idolized children, their public roles as President and First Lady, and their historical legacies reflect their humanity. These two fascinating human beings deliberately linked their lives together and shared the joys and grief of human existence for nearly twenty-three years as husband and wife. For better or for worse, from the good to the bad, and through all of the human messiness in between, they were a couple, and they are, now and forever, historically connected to each other.

On the occasion of the 200th anniversary of Mary Lincoln’s birth in Lexington, Kentucky (December 13, 1818), let’s pause to consider this famous and infamous First Lady on her own terms. For one day at least, please, let’s set aside the vitriol most male biographers of Lincoln have thrown at her. Because you may not like Mary Lincoln—and I do not really care if you like her or not—but she was married to Abraham Lincoln. She was the wife of a man we revere as one of our greatest and best-loved Americans. For that, at least, she deserves a little fucking respect. Abraham Lincoln married up, you know; and it is a credit to Mary Lincoln that she chose him as her husband. Mary Lincoln deserves for us to see her not as a two-dimensional cartoon villain—a hellcat foil for her mythical, godlike husband—but  instead as a whip-smart woman with a great big personality at a time when society expected women of her social status to sit quietly in the wings and behave, to be well-spoken and charming and pretty, but not too well-spoken or too charming or too pretty.

Mary Lincoln deserves to be seen as a human being—like all of us and yes, dear friends, also like Abraham Lincoln—who possessed angels and demons in her nature. She deserves to be understood in the context of the historical era that proscribed for her a particular experience, but also to be understood as a woman who lived and suffered through not only ordinary human experiences but through extraordinary historical circumstances, as well. Let’s celebrate Mary Lincoln’s 200th birthday by acknowledging a few basic truths about her fascinating life, by seeing some of the good in her, and by considering the possibility that Abraham Lincoln loved her, enjoyed her company, respected her intellect, and possessed compassion and empathy for her when she struggled to cope with emotional frailties and profound grief.

First, we should take off our stove-pipe hats to Mary Lincoln’s intellect and her extraordinary education, which consisted of ten years of formal schooling when most Americans, like Abraham Lincoln himself, had very few educational opportunities. Let’s acknowledge the fact that Mary’s education, combined with her unique family circumstances in the peculiar context of Lexington, Kentucky, emboldened her nature. Let’s remember that her father and her sophisticated French female teacher gave Mary confidence and encouraged her to raise her own voice. It is true, indeed, that raising her voice often landed Mary “in trouble,” but doesn’t that tell us more about the gendered nature of nineteenth-century America than it does about Mary Lincoln? And do you really think Abraham Lincoln knew nothing of Mary’s confident voice when he married her in 1842? Do you really think the brilliant Mr. Lincoln knew nothing of Mary’s strong will and opinionated nature before he put the ring, engraved with “Love Is Eternal,” on her finger?

Let’s acknowledge the intellectual connection Mary shared with her husband. Let’s give Lincoln some credit for wanting a wife who was pretty and smart. Throughout their marriage, the couple shared a passion for partisan politics, a deep appreciation for literature, and love of music and the theater. Remember, too, Mary gave Abraham Lincoln four of his greatest joys: his sons. The Lincolns shared a love of their four boys and were, together, indulgent and thoroughly modern parents, who believed in the idea of childhood. The Lincoln marriage was not perfect, because both Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln struggled with their own very different emotional difficulties. Mary was high-strung and prone to wild mood swings; while Abraham was emotionally distant and depressive. But throughout their marriage, they were companions and shared common interests and beliefs. In the dark days of Civil War, Mary carved out periods of family time, which not only gave her boys some semblance of normalcy but were a refuge for her overburdened husband, as well. Lincoln needed Mary to force a little leisure upon him, and the brief periods of escape at Soldier’s Home or the theater brought some solace to his suffering soul.

Let’s acknowledge Mary Lincoln’s own suffering and give her some credit for living through it. During most of her adult life, she suffered migraine headaches and a difficult delivery of her fourth son left her with an injury that plagued her. She also definitely suffered some degree of mental illness, which no doubt would have been much alleviated had she lived in a time of modern medicine instead of a time when so-called doctors dismissed women’s health issues as hysteria. Yet despite her ill physical and emotional health, Mary got up out of bed almost every day of her life, and she put on pretty dresses, and she raised her boys (often all by herself), and she found joy in books, at White House receptions, while shopping and visiting the theater, and through her husband’s politics.

Mary Lincoln also suffered terrible emotional blows. She buried her four-year-old toddler Eddy in Springfield in 1850, and she buried Willie, her beloved 11-year-old boy, in Washington in 1862. She lost family members to the Confederacy and had a public, front-row seat for the horrors of the war, witnessing the physical and emotional damage on soldiers she visited in Washington. In 1865, Mary Lincoln was sitting next to her husband when an assassin put a bullet in his head; people removed her from her husband’s deathbed, where he died without her, because she was wailing at the loss of him; and people criticized her for lingering too long afterwards in grief in the White House. In 1871 just as she was finding her way through life as the widow of a martyred president, she buried her third son Tad, a blossoming eighteen-year-old man in whom she found joy and so much comfort.

I buried a child myself, and let me tell you, if I had to bury a second one there would be no breath left in my body. Losing three children and witnessing her husband’s violent murder, along with the post-traumatic stress of it all, was not the end of her suffering, either. Mary Lincoln then had to endure fears of financial disaster as a widow in nineteenth-century America, fears exacerbated by her emotional instability, emotional instability that was not her fault! She also faced public ridicule for visiting spiritualists, which was in fashion at the time and brought her some comfort. She had to listen to snipes for visiting health spas, even as mainstream physicians failed to offer her relief. She was also unfairly judged for shopping with her own money and for selling her own dresses; and then her last surviving son Robert had her incarcerated in a mental asylum, an injustice that cut her off from her grandchildren.

Frankly, I find it remarkable and quite inspirational, in fact, that Mary Lincoln not only survived, but that she lived through it all. Except for brief periods of grief following the deaths of her husband and boys, she never stopped reading books and newspapers, feeding her intellect, and writing letters. She maintained her passion for American partisan politics until the day she died; and the letters of her widowed years reflect the mind of a lucid, engaged woman. She was plagued with sorrow, yes, but she wasn’t dead and she wasn’t crazy, either. Most impressively, she had the courage to live in France on her own for four years in self-imposed exile late in her life, and while there she located little joys and small pleasures in her travels, enjoyed some relief at the health spas she visited, and found a little peace on her own terms. Peace she very much deserved. Mary Lincoln was super sassy and smart and, yes, brilliantly imperfect. But she was also strong. Stronger than I would be in her shoes. Stronger than most of us would be in her shoes.

Mary Lincoln’s life is compelling partly because she made that life with Abraham Lincoln. Partly because she was a complicated woman who lived an interesting life in a fascinating period of American history. But partly, and more importantly I think, Mary Lincoln is compelling because she was real. She was human, full complexity and contradiction. Strong but emotionally fragile. Intellectually curious but petty. Sometimes social, but sometimes reclusive. Full of love and full of hate. Full of sorrow but possessing a great capacity for joy.

Mary Lincoln was unique and bold and smart and strong and fragile. I believe Abraham Lincoln understood what he was in for when he married her. I believe he respected and appreciated her, despite the fact and because of the fact that she was also, sometimes, a great challenge to him. Abraham Lincoln did not marry an illiterate, apolitical simpleton; and he knew it. I believe he loved her. I know she loved him. I also believe that for Mary, Abraham Lincoln’s compassion knew no limits. Shouldn’t that alone keep us from sending her to the gallows of history?

Though it is fanciful to consider it, if Mary Lincoln was here today, first I think she would assert that this is actually only her 185th birthday, because she and her sisters always lied about their ages. She’d be overdressed in forward clothing, with flowers somewhere on her person, and she would be pretty but just a little out of reach of fashionable. She’d be reading all of the best new books and consuming tons of newspapers, brushing up on her French, screaming about the state of American partisan politics, and, no doubt, giving us an earful about some of the historical characters who did her or her husband wrong.

She’d eat one small slice of white cake, say no thank you to the spiked punch, and reminisce about her happy times with Abraham Lincoln in Springfield before heavy sorrows cast their shadow down so harshly upon her life. Commanding the room, Mary Lincoln would confidently and in very harsh terms offer assessments about Lincoln’s generals and cabinet secretaries, claim early support for Emancipation, and tell us about her staunch devotion to the Union and her traitorous Southern family members who betrayed her husband and her country. Mary Lincoln would also, through tears, regale us with tales of her cherished and rambunctious boys. All of them. Even Robert, whose life, I think, she would ultimately have deemed successful and ever so grand.

If she could be here for this birthday, Mary Lincoln would charm some of us with her style, impress some of us with her knowledge, offend some of us with her biting sarcasm, shock some of us with her audacity, and, certainly, piss off a few of us for just being who she was. It was never her way to make the room comfortable. As a fairly sassy woman myself, I might like that characteristic of Mary Lincoln’s personality best of all. She knew her mind, even when it struggled to make sense of the emotions and the grief and the challenges of being a smart woman in the nineteenth century.

I don’t apologize for her shortcomings and I don’t absolve her of her mistakes, but I like Mary Lincoln. I respect her despite her human failings, because as a historian I recognize the gendered contexts of her life and the sexism embedded within the historiography, which has so harshly interpreted her historical legacy. As a human being, I also recognize how impossible it is to be perfect, especially when you are a woman and times are hard and sorrows threaten to swallow you whole.  I’m not perfect. You’re not perfect. Even Abraham Lincoln, I dare say, was not perfect. So why should Mary Lincoln have been perfect in order to be worthy of a little human respect? Let’s cut her a little slack on her 200th birthday, OK?

Happy Birthday, Mary Lincoln. I’m sorry life gave you so many sorrows to endure, but I’m glad you were here. And it’s been damn cool getting to know you.

“We must never be as wrong as this again”

This week the National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened in Montgomery, Alabama. In the heart of the South and in a town with a complicated racial history, the memorial is the first of its kind to recognize the painful history and legacy of slavery, lynching, racial segregation, Jim Crow, and police brutality. This new, long-overdue memorial is significant not only because it pays homage to the individual lives of human beings murdered through race hatred perpetrated by white people, but also for its dedication to continued efforts of racial justice. This is not just a memorial to the past, it is also an active memorial of the present and for the future. Because despite the Civil War, which ended the horrific institution of slavery; despite the passage of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth amendments enacted with the promise of racial equality; despite the Civil Rights movement and the Civil Rights Act of 1964; and despite an unblemished and honorable eight years of America’s first black presidency, racism is alive in America; it continues to inflict pain and damage on the lives of black Americans. And, sadly, in the era of Trump it has a new voice.

To commemorate the opening of the memorial and to recognize its importance, a newspaper in Montgomery apologized for its past role in perpetrating white supremacy in Alabama and for failing to be a voice for the rights of all of its citizens. The editorial began: “We were wrong. On the day when people from across the globe come to our capital city to consider the sordid history of slavery and lynching and try to reconcile the horrors of our past, the Montgomery Advertiser recognizes its own shameful place in the history of these dastardly, murderous deeds.” The editorial concluded: “We must never be as wrong as this again.” In an interview this morning on NPR, the newspaper’s editor Bro Krift repeatedly employed the word “we” as he apologized for the newspaper and as he was talking about the newspaper’s history and the way in which it dehumanized black lynching victims and perpetuated Jim Crow in the South.

The use of the word “we” by the newspaper and its editor was deliberate, and, I believe, phenomenally important. No one alive today is personally responsible for slavery, and most white Americans are not white supremacists, nor do most of them actively engage in discrimination against their black fellow Americans. But some white people in America are active racists and some of them are in positions of authority to enact that racism against black people and other racialized “others.” More importantly, political, economic, educational, and other forms of institutionalized racism exist and continue to inflict damage on an entire group of our fellow Americans. Institutionalized racism represents not only America’s racist past and the legacy of that past, but it is also one of America’s biggest challenges. As the new memorial in Montgomery will bear witness to the racism that black Americans have faced for the entirety of American history, we must all bear witness that history. It is not black history, it is American history, it is our history.

As long as some of our fellow Americans face discrimination, hatred, and police brutality because of the color of their skin, then we are all responsible. We have an obligation to acknowledge that racism exists in America, to recognize the fact that in America whiteness unfairly equals privilege, and to be engaged in an effort to realize Abraham Lincoln’s new birth of freedom and Martin Luther King’s dream that all people be recognized not for the color of their skin but for the content of their character.  I believe that sometimes simply choosing the right language is the easiest way to start. Bro Krift did not deflect his newspaper’s past sins upon on people long in the grave; he acknowledged that we must be sorry for past wrongs and we must not repeat the mistakes of history.

In 1900 in Mob Rule in New Orleans, which chronicled the horrific lynching of Robert Charles, Ida B. Wells wrote: “Men and women of America, are you proud of this record which the Anglo-Saxon race has made for itself? Your silence seems to say that you are. Your silence encourages a continuance of this sort of horror. Only by earnest, active, united endeavor to arouse public sentiment can we hope to put a stop to these demonstrations of American barbarism.”

Wells’ appeal from 118 years in the past hits very close to home, still shockingly pertinent. Racism is not a history problem. It is not a Southern problem or a rural problem. It is an American problem. And we all are responsible for its continued existence, and we all must be engaged in fighting it.

Suggested Sources to Consult:



In 1912, four candidates vied for the presidency: Democrat Woodrow Wilson, Republican William Howard Taft, Progressive Theodore Roosevelt, and Socialist Eugene Debs. This historic campaign resulted in the best showing of a third-party candidate in American history, marked the emergence of women in national politics, and popularized the idea of the presidential primary. The New Nationalism campaign of Roosevelt and the New Freedom campaign of Wilson put reform and social change at the center of political debate and moved the Republican party to the right, the Democratic party to the left, and set their party agendas for decades to come. It was a fascinating and thrilling political year, especially for women who for the first time in American history were involved in the development of political platforms and the implementation of campaign strategies. The 1912 election also ushered in the age of continuous campaigning and gave Americans two bitterly contested national conventions.

The campaign inspired the incomparable Jane Addams to dip her toe into the turbulent waters of American politics. As a reformer, she saw Roosevelt and the brand-new Progressive Party as an opportunity to move social justice and reform into the political arena, and many social workers and reformers like her agreed. Addams’ foray into politics drew the ire of some, who believed politics an unladylike profession or who thought the practice of partisan politics unwise for people dependent upon bipartisan support for the funding of their activities. But as she always did, Jane Addams made her own decisions and then she stood strong in support of her beliefs. Not only did she second Roosevelt’s nomination at the Progressive Party’s convention in Chicago (the first woman to enjoy the honor), she sat on the party’s national committee and campaigned for Roosevelt and the party’s reform agenda, which included woman’s suffrage, a national health service, and reform legislation to aid children, women, immigrants, and the poor.

In spending so much time with the Chicago newspapers of 1912, I’ve been amassing a collection of extraordinary political cartoons, many by the Pulitzer-Prize-winning cartoonist John T. McCutcheon, who exercised his political wit in the pages of the Chicago Tribune. I have enjoyed the cartoons, and think there are many #Twitterstorians who will enjoy them, too. And so, from now through November—in a sort of real-time, as the 1912 presidential campaign unfolded—I’m going to share them each day on Twitter with the hashtag #1912Election.

The first offering, below, was published in the Chicago Inter Ocean on March 26, 1912, before the birth of the Progressive Party in August and just a month after Theodore Roosevelt publicly announced that he would accept the Republican Party nomination for president if it was offered. A rift between Roosevelt and former friend and political ally President William Howard Taft signaled a growing schism in the Republican Party and promised an interesting political spring and summer. Months before the election, the country was already speculating about Roosevelt’s chances of returning to the White House, and this cartoon offers one idea from the west.

03-26 (Inter Ocean)

Watch Twitter (@StacyPhDfor daily cartoons. Enjoy!

Suggested Reading: Lewis L. Gould, Four Hats in the Ring: The 1912 Election and the Birth of Modern Politics (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2008); Geoffrey Cowan, Let the People Rule: Theodore Roosevelt and the Birth of the Presidential Primary (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2016).

Jane Addams and Theodore Roosevelt image: Robert Carter, “Enlisted for the Great Battle,” Boston Journal, August 9, 1912, Theodore Roosevelt Political Cartoon Collection, Harvard University.

I’m a Lincoln Grown-up!

I am very happy to announce that I have joined the Board of Directors of the Abraham Lincoln Institute!ALIlogoTall

This development all started in March 2016 when I had the thrill of my professional life speaking at the Institute’s annual symposium at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC. I presented a lecture about Mary Lincoln and talked about my biography of her life, Mary Lincoln: Southern Girl, Northern Woman. Standing on that historic stage under the illuminated Lincoln presidential box was humbling, inspiring, and represented an important moment in my career as a Lincoln scholar. After twenty-five years of toiling as a scholarly editor of Abraham Lincoln’s papers, it was a happy occasion to earn recognition as a worthy contributor to Lincoln scholarship.

My speech in that hallowed building went pretty well…I didn’t fall down or lose my nerve (even though the C-SPAN cameras made me shake a little in my favorite brown boots). While I was in awe of the historical space in which I stood, I was able to make my arguments about Mary Lincoln’s redeeming qualities; and while I failed to convince one particular person in the audience (a friend who despises her), others thought highly of my presentation. So, several weeks after that event, a couple of Abraham Lincoln Institute board members approached me about joining them, and the board approved my nomination last month! I am very honored to join such a distinguished group of Lincoln and Civil War scholars and knowledgeable civilians. The Institute, based in Washington, DC, presents one of the best Lincoln symposium every year and awards dissertation and book prizes for quality scholarship. I am so very excited to play a role in the Institute’s good work. And I certainly will not complain about an excuse to travel to DC twice a year, either.

When I started out in this crazy Lincoln business back in the early 1990s, I could never have believed that I would be lucky enough to earn a living studying Lincoln. But for twenty-five years at the Papers of Abraham Lincoln that is exactly what I was fortunate enough to do. But I have to admit that I mostly felt like I was just a kid playing in the sandbox, laboring on the edges of Lincoln studies. I have now moved on from the Papers, but Lincoln is still in my bones. Research for a book about Lincoln’s relationship with women is underway, I’m tweeting and writing about Lincoln every day, and now I get to be a governing part of the Abraham Lincoln Institute. I guess I kinda feel like I’ve finally “arrived” in Lincoln studies (as nerdy as that probably makes me sound), and I guess it officially makes me a Lincoln grownup!

Movie Mary

I spent the better part of two years researching and writing a biography of Mary Lincoln that provides historical nuances of the life and legacy of our country’s most controversial first lady. Yet all the public really wants to know is what I think about the portrayal of Mary Lincoln in Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln. Oh well. I have not yet grown so old and stodgy that I reject a pop-culture question such as this one; and I certainly appreciate the fact that Lincoln inspired interest in Abraham and Mary Lincoln, subjects to which I have devoted my entire professional career. So, what do I think about Mary Lincoln in Lincoln?

First, let’s talk about the real Mary Lincoln:

The real Mary Lincoln was highly intelligent and sharp-tongued. Mary enjoyed an extraordinary formal education unheard of in her era. Her ten years of study and her father’s encouragement of her political passions fueled her spirit and contributed to her personal and intellectual confidence. Her deep interest in and impressive knowledge of party politics was an important part of her relationship with her husband and it was central to who she was a person.

The real Mary Lincoln was emotional and passionate. These personality traits inspired her intense love for, devotion to, and constant worry over her husband and her children as well they inspired her pettiness and hostility towards individuals whom she perceived as enemies. Mary possessed a very fragile psyche and she was high-strung by nature. She was a complicated woman; but she was not insane.

The real Mary Lincoln was a companionable mate for her husband. Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd were married because they liked one another and were in love. Their marital relationship was based upon common interests in politics, literature, and the theater, upon mutual intellectual respect for each other, and on a shared adoration of their boys.

Now let’s talk about the movie Mary Lincoln.

In the interest of full disclosure, I want to state that I am not one of those historians who holds Hollywood to the same historical standards that I hold my fellow historians. Movies are an art form, and I do not begrudge artistic license to those brave enough to make popular movies about historical topics. Therefore, my evaluation of the movie Mary Lincoln is more about how the movie captures the spirit and essence of Mary Lincoln and less about niggling historical details.

The movie Mary Lincoln is smart and has a sharp wit. I absolutely adore the exchange between Mary Lincoln and Congressman Thaddeus Stevens in the reception line at the very beginning of the movie. Of course the dialogue is the brilliance of the screenwriter and not based on anything that Mary Lincoln actually said, BUT this scene is delicious for two important reasons. First, it shows Mary’s intelligence and her confidence in her own opinions. Second, it reveals Lincoln’s willingness to let Mary have her say.

In another fantastic scene, Mary tells Lincoln that despite the fact that he has not confided in her, she is well aware of the administration’s behind-the-scenes efforts to get the Thirteenth Amendment passed in the U.S. Congress. Whispering in the couple’s private box at the opera, she asks her husband: “When have I ever been so easily bamboozled?” She goes on to impress upon him that he needs to do whatever is necessary to succeed, because she has faith in his belief that passage of the amendment will end the war. And for Mary, the end of the war will keep her beloved Robert, who is now in the army against her wishes, out of harm’s way. “If you fail to acquire the necessary votes,” she glares at her husband, “woe unto you, sir, you will answer to me.” Glorious, I say, just glorious; and Mary’s furious shaking of her fan makes it all the better.

These two scenes, and several others like it, demonstrate Mary’s intelligence and understanding of politics. They also illustrate the intellectual, as well as the emotional, relationship between Mary and her husband. And they portray the first lady as a three-dimensional character. The real Mary was a complicated woman, and the movie Mary is complicated, too.

The movie Mary Lincoln is emotional and fragile. A long, long, long run of Lincoln biographers have portrayed Mary Lincoln as mean and crazy, and praise Jesus and hallelujah, Spielberg did not go down that same interpretive path. Instead, the movie portrays Mary as a grieving mother with emotional instabilities. Yes, there is the scene where Lincoln rages that he should have “clapped” her in the mad house because she couldn’t stop crying after the death of Willie. But the power of that scene is not about Mary’s insanity. Instead, the scene portrays two desperately grieving parents who have suffered the loss of a cherished child and are grieving in very different ways. Necessity forced Lincoln to internalize his grief, but without his responsibility to the Union, he would have been no better off than Mary. Mary is not crazy. Rather, she is grieving the loss of one son, she is terrified she will lose another, and, unlike her husband, she has the luxury to indulge her grief and her terror.

I love this scene for its emotional intensity and for its tenderness, and I think it captures a moment in the Lincoln marriage that rings true. Lincoln internalized emotions. Mary wore emotions on her sleeves (and what wonderful sleeves they were!). And here in the movie we see how such different sensibilities may have played out in their marriage. Yet despite their personality differences, the Lincolns did have a strong bond to each other; and this scene depicts that as well. It ends with Lincoln telling his wife that she must let him bear his grief alone and that she alone “may lighten this burden or render it intolerable.” Perfect.

The movie Mary Lincoln is a life mate to her husbandSo many scenes in the movie show the Lincolns as a married couple with common interests and tenderness for each other, despite their struggles and difficulties. The movie depicts various scenes of the couple in their private quarters in the White House. They discuss the meaning behind a dream he has had. He helps her unlace her corset. But my favorite scene is at the end of the movie when the couple is riding in a carriage, sharing some private time on that fateful Good Friday. They smile and tease one another, they discuss their plans to travel after the war, and she frets over the toll the war has taken on him. “All anyone will ever remember of me,” Mary says quietly to her husband, “is that I was crazy and ruined your happiness.” This, of course, is a tipped hat to all those historians who have reduced Mary’s historical legacy to being crazy and ruining Lincoln’s happiness. Ah, but it is Mr. Lincoln who has the last word on this nonsense, when he responds to his wife: “Anyone thinks that doesn’t understand, Molly.”

So it should now be clear that I rather like the movie Mary Lincoln. I think the film was fair and captured the essence of who she was. I am not completely convinced that Sally Field fully embodied the spirit of Mary Lincoln in the same way that Daniel Day Lewis embodied the spirit of Abraham Lincoln, but I think she did a damn fine job of it. I also believe that Mary, who loved a good drama, might have enjoyed the performance, too. Although I do suspect she may have been a wee bit touchy about Daniel Day Lewis’s Lincoln threatening to clap her in the madhouse. But I also think she would have thought Joseph Gordon-Levitt was just adorable as Robert Lincoln; and she sure as hell would be right about that!

Note: This is an edited version of an essay I wrote for a colleague’s blog, Civil War Pop, in April 2015.


America Is Already Great, Asshole

I chose the “feeling pissed off” emotion and vented my spleen on Facebook earlier today. I have no regrets, but it’ll cost me. From three to five people will unfriend me, my mom will feel a little sad for awhile because her daughter can be so stern, and I’ll get a lecture from one or two people who will tell me I need to learn to hold my tongue.  But like I said, I have no regrets. And now I wish to double-down in a more serious environment.

So here goes:

Donald Trump’s “America First” budget to “Make America Great Again” actually eliminates many of the simple (and inexpensive) things that actually do make America great ALREADY–libraries, historic sites, the arts, innovative scholarship, and museums. This budget is a war on knowledge and American cultural heritage. It eliminates the National Endowment for the Humanities, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Institute for Museum and Library Services.

If you’ve ever checked out a library book or visited a historic site or watched Sesame Street as a kid or with your kids or attended an arts festival in your community or taken a degree from a public university YOU have been the beneficiary of the good these agencies do with a fraction of the money Trump will spend of our tax dollars traveling to Florida every weekend to play golf.

I don’t care if you voted for Trump because you always vote for the GOP or you hated Hillary or you oppose government-funded health care or you think poor people should get a job or you actually want the government to use your hard-earned money to build that ridiculous wall along our southern border. But unless you can look me straight in my face and tell me you hate libraries and books, think museums and historic sites are stupid, believe I wasted my life editing and preserving Abraham Lincoln’s writings, don’t want your kids to watch wholesome programming on PBS, and believe your community doesn’t deserve arts programs, then call your congressional delegation NOW and tell them this is not what you voted for, this is not what you want. Tell them that you care about our country’s cultural heritage and believe in the power of humanities to make us more human, to bring us together, and to preserve our history.

And if you can look me straight in my face and tell me you hate libraries or any of those other things I listed above, then you’ve probably unfriended (or unfollowed) me already.

Peace. Out.

Mary’s Little Sister

When Mary Lincoln was in Lexington in 1848, she developed a very close relationship with her young stepsister Emilie Todd; and afterwards, Emilie visited the Lincoln family in Springfield, where Lincoln fell in love with her, too. By 1856, however, there was a widening gap in political opinions between Mary and her Kentucky family. Emilie had married Benjamin Helm, an attorney and member of the Kentucky legislature who would just four years later be fighting for the Confederacy. An 1856 letter Mary wrote to Emilie reveals her fondness for her little sister and shares typical social gossip and family news. However, it also contains a calculated defense of her husband’s politics, a direct response to the increasing divisiveness of national politics as it pertained to the issue of slavery.

Mary Lincoln to Emilie Helm

Springfield Nov 23rd 1856

With much pleasure, my dear Emilie, I acknowledge, the receipt of one of your ever acceptable letters, & notwithstanding many weeks have passed since writing you. I have frequently intended doing so, & you have been oftentimes in my thoughts. Mr [Edwards] expressed great pleasure at meeting you last summer, you know you have a very warm place in his heart. You have been such a wanderer around with your good husband, and a letter might have failed reaching you. I must try & devise some excuses—for my past silence, forgetfulness you know it could not be.

Besides, there is a great deal in getting out of the habit of letter writing; once I was very fond of it, nothing pleases me now better than receiving a letter from an absent friend. So remember dear E. when you desire to be particularly acceptable, sit thee down & write one of your agreeable missives & do not wait for a return of each, from a staid matron, & moreover the mother of three noisy boys. Your Husband, I believe, like some of the rest of ours, has a great taste for politics & has taken much interest in the late contest, which has resulted very much as I expected, not hoped.

Altho’ Mr. [Lincoln] is, or was a Fremont man, you must not include him with so many of those, who belong to that party, an Abolitionist. In principle he is far from it. All he desires is, that slavery, shall not be extended, let it remain, where it is. My weak woman’s heart was too Southern in feeling, to sympathise with any but Fillmore, I have always been a great admirer of his, he made so good a President & is so just a man & feels the necessity of keeping foreigners, within bounds. If some of you Kentuckians, had to deal with the “wild Irish,” as we housekeepers are sometimes called upon to do, the south would certainly select Mr Fillmore next time [Mary harbored some nativists, Know-Nothing feelings that her husband did not share.] The democrats in our state have been defeated in their Governor, so there is a crumb of comfort, for each & all. What day is so dark, that there is no ray of sunshine to penetrate the gloom? Speaking of politics, Gov’s [etc.] reminds me of your questions, relative to Lydia M. The hour of her patient lover’s deliverance is at hand, they are to be married, privately I expect. Some of us who had a handsome dress for the season thought it would be in good taste for Mrs Matteson, in consideration of their being about the leave their present habitation, to give a general reception. Lydia, has always been so retiring, that she would be very averse to so public a display. [Lydia Matteson was the daughter of outgoing Illinois Governor Joel A. Matteson. She married John McGinnis in 1856.] This fall in visiting Mrs M I met with a sister of Mr McGinnis, a very pretty well bred genteel lady from Joliet—she spoke of being well acquainted with Margaret K. in [Kentucky]. Frances W. returned from her visit to Pennsylvania, two or three days since, where she had been spending the fall. Mr Edward’s family are well. Mr B & Julia are still with them [Mary Lincoln’s niece Julia was the daughter of Ninian and Elizabeth Edwards. She married Edward L. Baker in 1855]. Miss Iles was married some three weeks since, I expect you do not remember her, which gave rise to some two or three parties. Mr Scott is frequently here, rather playing the devoted to Julie Ridgeley, I suspect, whether any thing serious I do not know. I expect the family would not be very averse to him. Charley R was on a visit to him, in Lex. this fall. He, it is said, is to be married this winter to Jennie Barrett—a lovely girl, you remember her. I am very sorry to hear that our Mother, is so frequently indisposed. I hope she has recovered from her lameness. Tell her when you see her that our old acquaintance O. B. Ficklin took tea with us—an evening or two since, made particular enquiries about her. Still as rough & uncultivated as ever altho some years since married an accomplished Georgia belle, with the advantages of some winter’s in Washington. Ma & myself when together, spoke of our minister Dr Smith, who finding his salary of some $1600 inadequate, has resigned the church. Uncle & some few others are desirous of getting Dr Brown, your former pastor in Lex. within the last year, both his wife & himself, have been a great deal here. He has purchased lands, and appears rather identified with the country. I must acknowledge, I have not admired him very much, his wife appears pleasant but neither I think would suit the people. Dr Smith is talented & beloved, & says he would stay if they would increase his salary, yet notwithstanding the wealthy in the church, as usual, there are many very close. But I am speaking of things that will not interest you in the least. If you do not bring yourself & Husband to see us very soon we will think you are not as proud of Him, as rumor says you should be. Do write soon, in return for this long & I fear dull letter from yours truly

                                                                                                Mary Lincoln

Before the outbreak of the Civil War, President Lincoln offered Emilie’s husband a position as an army paymaster, but he refused and joined the Confederate Army. After he was killed at the Battle of Chickamauga in 1863, Emilie and her young daughter Katherine went to the Washington to stay with the Lincoln family. Their presence in the White House made some critics doubt Mary’s allegiance to the Union, and it was a minor political problem for President Lincoln. Even secretary John Hay was uncomfortable with Emilie’s arrival, noting in his diary: “I visited with Mrs. L. Her sister, Mrs. Gen. Helm is with her just arrived from Secessia.” But because the Lincolns deeply cared for their little sister, they sought to protect and nurture her during her time of need.

But after a trip south on a pass from the President and an awkward return visit to Washington during which Emilie was incapable of tempering her southern sympathies, the political differences between Mary and her little sister became too much to overcome. Emilie returned to the south, and her bitter letter to Lincoln in October 1864 ensured that the giant chasm between the sisters would never again be bridged.

Emile Helm to Abraham Lincoln

30th Oct. 1864.
Lexington, Ky.

Mr. Lincoln,

Upon arriving at Lexington, after my long tedious unproductive and sorrowful visit to you, I found my brother stretched upon a sick bed. Made sick by the harrowing and shocking death of your Brother in law, and my half Brother Levi Todd [Levi’s wife divorced him on grounds of cruelty and he died from alcoholism in 1864]. He died from utter want and destruction as a letter sent to Sister Mary by Kitty [Mary’s youngest steps-sibling.] gives particulars. Another sad victim to the poisons of more forced relations. With such a sad, such a dreadful lesson, I again beg and plead attention & consideration to my petition to be permitted to ship my cotton & be allowed a pass to go South to attend to it. My necessities are such that I am compelled to urge it. The last money I have in the world I used to make the unfruitful appeal to you. You cannot urge that you do not know them for I have told you of them. I have been a quiet citizen and request only the right which humanity and justice always gives to widows and orphans. I also would remind you that your minnie bullets have made us what we are [Emilie is blaming Lincoln and the Union Army for her sorrows.] I feel I have that additional claim upon you…

Will you reply to this. If you think I give way to excess of feeling, I beg you will make some excuse for a woman almost crazed with misfortune.

Emily Todd Helm

The Civil War robbed Mary of her southern family, and that is just another sorrowful fact of her life. Perhaps if Lincoln had survived the war, a reconciliation would have been possible, as his charitable heart may have been willing to overlook Emilie’s impertinence. But perhaps by the time that Emilie’s hateful letter came to her husband’s hands, Mary had completed her metamorphosis from a southern girl to a northern woman, and there was no chance for reconciliation, anyway. But, no matter.

Mary’s Husband

When Abraham Lincoln was serving in Congress (1847-1849), Mary Lincoln and the couple’s two young sons at first went to Washington, D.C., with him. But a city boarding house inhabited by mostly single Congressmen proved an awkward and constrained living space for a young family with rambunctious boys. So Mary took little Bob and Eddy to Lexington, Kentucky, for an extended stay in her family home. This arrangement gave Mary an opportunity to spend time with her immediate and extended family, offered the boys access to fresh air and outdoor adventures, and was a far more comfortable living arrangement for all three of them. Although the family’s separation was not ideal, it worked out well and was, after all, just a short-term arrangement.

Although the separation was, at times, lonely for Lincoln and found Mary and the boys longing for a reunion, the family members kept busy in their respective locations and the couple kept in touch by writing letters. There is a depressing dearth of surviving correspondence between Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln, especially from the time of their marriage in November 1842 up to 1860. However, there are four sweet and poignant letters from the time of Mary’s stay in Lexington that are illustrative of the couple’s companionable marriage. Contrary to what so many male Lincoln biographers would have their readers believe, Abraham and Mary had a relatively normal marriage. The letters here reveal shared bonds, mutual concern, open communication, and love.

Abraham Lincoln to Mary Lincoln
16 April 1848

Washington, April 16. 1848

Dear Mary:

In this troublesome world, we are never quite satisfied. When you were here, I thought you hindered me some in attending to business; but now, having nothing but business—no variety—it has grown exceedingly tasteless to me. I hate to sit down and direct documents, and I hate to stay in this old room by myself. You know I told you in last Sunday’s letter, I was going to make a little speech during the week; but the week has passed away without my getting a chance to do so; and now my interest in the subject has passed away too. Your second and third letters have been received since I wrote before. Dear Eddy thinks father is “gone tapila” [perhaps Eddy trying to say capitol?] Has any further discovery been made as to the breaking into your grand-mother’s house? If I were she, I would not remain there alone. You mention that your uncle John Parker is likely to be at Lexington. Don’t forget to present him my very kindest regards.

I went yesterday to hunt the little plaid stockings, as you wished; but found that McKnight has quit business, and Allen had not a single pair of the description you give, and only one plaid pair of any sort that I thought would fit “Eddy’s dear little feet.” I have a notion to make another trial to-morrow morning. If I could get them, I have an excellent chance of sending them. Mr Warrick Tunstall, of St Louis is here. He is to leave early this week, and to go by Lexington. He says he knows you, and will call to see you; and he voluntarily asked, if I had not some package to send you.

I wish you to enjoy yourself in every possible way; but is there no danger of wounding the feelings of your good father, by being so openly intimate with the Wickcliffe family? [Robert S. Todd and Robert Wickliffe were bitter rivals]

Mrs Broome has not removed yet; but she thinks of doing so to-morrow. All the house—or rather, all with whom you were on decided good terms—send their love to you. The others say nothing. [Apparently, Mary did not make friends with all the people in Lincoln’s DC boarding house.]

Very soon after you went away, I got what I think a very pretty set of shirt-bosom studs—modest little ones, jet, set in gold, only costing 50 cents a piece, or 1.50 for the whole.

Suppose you do not prefix the “Hon” to the address on your letters to me any more. I like the letters very much; but I would rather they should not have that upon them. It is not necessary, as I suppose you have thought, to have them come free.

And you are entirely free from head-ache? That is good—good—considering it is the first spring you have been free from it since we were acquainted [Migraine headaches plagued Mary her entire life]. I am afraid you will get so well, and fat, and young, as to be wanting to marry again. Tell Louisa I want her to watch you a little for me. Get weighed, and write me how much you weigh. [I guess Lincoln liked Mary’s womanly curves!]

I did not get rid of the impression of that foolish dream about dear Bobby, till I got your letter written the same day. What did he and Eddy think of the little letters father sent them? Don’t let the blessed fellows forget father.

A day or two ago Mr Strong, here in congress, said to me that Matilda [the daughter of Lincoln friend Cyrus Edwards] would visit here within two or three weeks. Suppose you write her a letter, and enclose it in one of mine; and if she comes I will deliver it to her, and if she does not, I will send it to her.

Most affectionately

Mary Lincoln to Abraham Lincoln
May 1848

Lexington May. 48.

Mr Dear Husband.

You will think indeed, that old age has set its seal, upon my humble self, that in few or none of my letters, I can remember the day of the month, I must confess it as one of my peculiarities; I feel wearied & tired enough to know, that this is Saturday night, our babies are asleep, and as Aunt Maria B. is coming in for me tomorrow morning, I think the chances will be rather dull that I should answer your last letter tomorrow. I have just received a letter from Frances W, it related in an especial manner to the box, I had desired her to send, she thinks with you (as good persons generally agree) that it would cost more than it would come to, and it might be lost on the road, I rather expect she has examined the specified articles, and thinks as Levi says, they are hard bargains. But it takes so many changes to do children, particularly in summer, that I thought it might save me a few stitches. I think I will write her a few lines this evening, directing her not to send them. She says Willie is just recovering from another spell of sickness, Mary or none of them were well. Springfield she reports as dull as usual. Uncle S. was to leave there on yesterday for Ky. Our little Eddy, has recovered from his little spell of sickness. Dear boy, I must tell you a little story about him. Boby in his wanderings to day, came across in a yard, a little kitten, your hobby, he says he asked a man for it, he brought it triumphantly to the house, so soon as Eddy, spied it his tenderness, broke forth, he made them bring it water, fed it with bread himself, with his own dear hands, he was a delighted little creature over it, in the midst of his happiness Ma came in, she you must know dislikes the whole cat-race, I thought in a very unfeeling manner, she ordered the servant near, to throw it out, which of course, was done, Ed—screaming & protesting loudly against the proceeding, she never appeared to mind his screams, which were long & loud, I assure you. Tis unusual for her now a days, to do any thing quite so striking, she is very obliging & accommodating, but if she thought any of us, were on her hands again, I believe she would be worse than ever. In the next moment she appeared in a good humor, I know she did not intend to offend me. By the way, she has just sent me up a glass of ice cream, for which this warm evening, I am duly grateful. The country is so delightful I am going to spend two or three weeks out there, it will doubtless benefit the children. Grandma has received a letter from Uncle James Parker of Miss saying he & his family would be up by the twenty fifth of June, would remain here some little time & go on to Philadelphia to take their oldest daughter there to school, I believe it would be a good chance for me to pack up & accompany them. You know I am so fond of sight seeing, & I did not get to New York or Boston, or travel the lake route. But perhaps, dear husband, like the irresistible Col Mc, cannot do without his wife next winter, and must needs take her with him again. I expect would cry aloud against it. How much, I wish instead of writing, we were together this evening, I feel very sad away from you. Ma & myself rode out to Mr Bell’s splendid place this afternoon, to return a call, the house and grounds are magnificent; Frances W would have died over their rare exotics. It is growing late, these summer eves are short, I expect my long scrawls, for truly such they are, weary you greatly; if you come on, in July or August I will take you to the springs. Patty Webb’s school in [Lexington] closes the first of July, I expect Mr Webb, will come on for her, I must go down about that time & carry on quite a flirtation, you know we, Always had a penchant that way. [Edwin Webb courted Mary, and she is teasing her husband about it.] I must bid you good night. Do not fear the children, have forgotten you, I was only jesting. Even E. eyes brighten at the mention of your name. My love to all.

Truly yours
M L.

Abraham Lincoln to Mary Lincoln
12 June 1848

Washington, June 12. 1848.

My dear wife:

On my return from Philadelphia yesterday, where, in my anxiety I had been led to attend the whig convention, I found your last letter. I was so tired and sleepy, having ridden all night, that I could not answer it till to-day; and now I have to do so in the H. R. [House of Representatives] The leading matter in your letter, is your wish to return to this side of the Mountains. Will you be a good girl in all things, if I consent? Then come along, and that as soon as possible. Having got the idea in my head, I shall be impatient till I see you. You will not have money enough to bring you; but I presume your uncle will supply you, and I will refund him here. By the way you do not mention whether you have received the fifty dollars I sent you. I do not much fear but that you got it; because the want of it would have induced you say something in relation to it. If your uncle is already at Lexington, you might induce him to start on earlier than the first of July; he could stay in Kentucky longer on his return, and so make up for lost time. Since I began this letter, the H. R. has passed a resolution for adjourning on the 17th July, which probably will pass the Senate. I hope this letter will not be disagreeable to you; which, together with the circumstances under which I write, I hope will excuse me for not writing a longer one. Come on just as soon as you can. I want to see you, and our dear-dear boys very much. Every body here wants to see our dear Bobby.

A Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln to Mary Lincoln
2 July 1848

Washington, July 2, 1848

My dear wife:

Your letter of last Sunday came last night. On that day, (Sunday) I wrote the principal part of a letter to you, but did not finish it, or send it till Tuesday, when I had provided a draft for $100 which I sent in it. It is now probable that on that day (Tuesday) you started to Shelbyville; so that when the money reaches Lexington, you will not be there. Before leaving, did you make any provision about letters that might come to Lexington for you? Write me whether you got the draft, if you shall not have already done so, when this reaches you. Give my kindest regards to your uncle John, and all the family. Thinking of them reminds me that I saw your acquaintance, Newton, of Arkansas, at the Philadelphia convention. We had but a single interview, and that was so brief, and in so great a multitude of strange faces, that I am quite sure I should not recognize him, if I were to, meet him again. He was a sort of Trinity, three in one, having the right, in his own person, to cast the three votes of Arkansas. Two or three days ago I sent your uncle John, and a few of our other friends each a copy of the speech I mentioned in my last letter; but I did not send any to you, thinking you would be on the road here, before it would reach you. I send you one now. [This certainly speaks to Mary’s shared political interests with her husband.] Last Wednesday, P. H. Hood & Co, dunned me for a little bill of $5.38 cents, and Walter Harper & Co, another for $8.50 cents, for goods which they say you bought. I hesitated to pay them, because my recollection is that you told me when you went away, there was nothing left unpaid. Mention in your next letter whether they are right. Mrs Richardson is still here; and what is more, has a baby; so Richardson says, and he ought to know. I believe Mary Hewett has left here and gone to Boston. I met her on the street about fifteen or twenty days ago, and she told me she was going soon. I have seen nothing of her since. The music in the capitol grounds on saturdays, or, rather, the interest in it, is dwindling down to nothing. Yesterday evening the attendance was rather thin. Our two girls, whom you remember seeing first at Carusis [a theater in DC], at the exhibition of the Ethiopian Serenaders, and whose peculiarities were the wearing of black fur bonnets, and never being seen in close company with other ladies, were at the music yesterday. One of them was attended by their brother, and the other had a member of congress in tow. He went home with her; and if I were to guess, I would say, he went away a somewhat altered man—most likely in his pockets, and in some other particular. The fellow looked conscious of guilt, although I believe he was unconscious that every body around knew who it was that had caught him. [Lincoln is gossiping about these women of questionable reputation because apparently Mary and he had gossiped about when she was in Washington, too.]

I have had no letter from home, since I wrote you before, except short business letters, which have no interest for you.

By the way, you do not intend to do without a girl, because the one you had has left you? Get another as soon as you can to take charge of the dear codgers. Father expected to see you all sooner; but let it pass; stay as long as you please, and come when you please. Kiss and love the dear rascals.


 The first three letters are in the Lincoln Collection, Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, Springfield, IL; the last is at the University of Chicago.

Frederick Douglass is US

Frederick Douglass is one of those rare voices from the past with the power to pierce the distance of time and stab you right in the heart with truth. I like that quality in my historical heroes. For me, Douglass exists on the highest plane of human greatness. He is a quintessential American hero, just like Abraham Lincoln. Douglass’s presence in my historical imagination towers over almost every other human I admire, living or dead. As a historian, as an American, and as a human being, I am in awe of his humanity and unyielding dignity, his fierce sense of justice, his courage, and his support for women’s suffrage in 1848, way, way, way before it was cool.

This is why I popped a forehead vain when I saw the current occupant of our nation’s greatest office indicate with his moronic comments about Black History Month that he has not a clue about who Frederick Douglass was or what Frederick Douglass stands for in American history.  I expect my leaders to possess at least basic historical knowledge; I want them to know where our country has been before they even try to figure out where it is going. The current President of the United States has no idea where this country has been, and it is distressing to me he is so willfully ignorant of our nation’s past. So now, perhaps more than ever before, we need history. Historians can help fill the intellectual vacuum that was created with the installation of an anti-intellectual administration in Washington. In the face of lies, damned lies, and “alternative facts,” historical context will be imperative to inform the political, economic, and social debates that are underway now and will continue to occupy our attention for the next four years.

But back to Frederick Douglass and why he was important and why he can continue to inspire us today. Born a slave, Douglass knew the lash of American slavery, so he is a voice from bondage in the South. As a free black person, Douglass understood the limitations of American freedom, so he is a voice from the “free” North. As a fearless abolitionist newspaper editor and a leader of the movement to end racial oppression in America, he is one of the most inspirational figures in American history. He was a patriot in the antebellum era fighting against the tyranny of American slavery, which was a stain on American democracy, just as Patrick Henry was a patriot in the revolutionary era fighting against the tyranny of a king.

In 1852, the Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society in Rochester, New York, invited Frederick Douglass to deliver an Independence Day speech. Douglass accepted the invitation, but he asked to deliver his remarks on the day after Independence Day, instead. He used the opportunity to lay bare the hypocrisy of American freedom and equality. His 5th of July oration was one of his most stirring speeches. It was a speech that offered a powerful argument for the as yet unrealized possibilities of American ideals and in support of the principles set forth by the nation’s founders in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution. But his speech was also a powerful argument for the abolition of slavery and a bold indictment of injustice in America. In the speech, Douglass asked the question “What to the slave is the fourth of July?”And on that summer day in Rochester, New York,  he answered that question with a daring and prophetic speech, chastising a complicit American populous and predicting “dark and threatening clouds” over the American “ship of state.”

Douglass was direct and unapologetic: “My subject … is American Slavery. I shall see, this day, and its popular characteristics, from the slave’s point of view. Standing, there, identified with the American bondman, making his wrongs mine, I do not hesitate to declare, with all my soul, that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July! Whether we turn to the declarations of the past, or to the professions of the present, the conduct of the nation seems equally hideous and revolting. America is false to the past, false to the present, and solemnly binds herself to be false to the future. Standing with God and the crushed and bleeding slave on this occasion, I will, in the name of humanity which is outraged, in the name of liberty which is fettered, in the name of the constitution and the Bible, which are disregarded and trampled upon, dare to call in question and to denounce, with all the emphasis I can command, everything that serves to perpetuate slavery the great sin and shame of America! I will not equivocate; I will not excuse; I will use the severest language I can command; and yet not one word shall escape me that any man, whose judgment is not blinded by prejudice, or who is not at heart a slaveholder, shall not confess to be right and just.”

Like I said, Frederick Douglass still has the power to pierce our hearts with truth. Throughout our nation’s history, there have been people who have fought injustice no matter the fear or the consequences. People who have asked difficult and unpopular questions of our government and put themselves at risk in so doing. People who have been brave advocates for human rights. People who have been willing agitators for the expansion of American democracy and freedom. Frederick Douglass was one of those people, and that is why he was and continues to be important to the history of the United States.

We need heroes today to fight bigotry and hatred and ignorance in America. To stand up for the rights of our Mexican-American and Muslim-American neighbors. To demand justice for black Americans targeted by police. To support equal rights for LGBT people. To counter the lies of our current president, to support freedom of the press, and to demand proper checks and balances on our government. If Frederick Douglass was with us today, he would do what he believed in his bones was his duty. He would stand up for what is right, speak out against injustice, and lock in a fierce and determined focus for a vigil to last a lifetime. But while he is not here in body, Frederick Douglass is here with us in spirit. His heart and his legacy reside in the work that good people are doing right now to keep America on the path of freedom and equality, tolerance and inclusion.

Black History Month gives us an opportunity to recognize those awe-inspiring historical spirits that made an impact on who we are as a nation. I have always enjoyed Black History Month, because it gives me a happy chance to remember some of my favorite historical figures, like Frederick Douglass, Ida B. Wells, and Harriet Tubman. I think it is absolutely okay to take an entire month to celebrate black history and the achievements of black Americas; but I also think it is important to remember that black history is American history. Douglass, Wells, and Tubman are important historical Americans. Their stories are our collective national stories; and those stories can and should inspire all of us in February or any other month of the year.


Learn More About Frederick Douglass:

My Bondage and My Freedom (1855)

Oration Delivered in Corinthian Hall, 5 July 1852

Morgan Freeman reading one of Douglass’ most powerful speeches, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July”

Frederick Douglass Papers, Library of Congress

The Frederick Douglas Papers Edition, Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis