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!

Me at Fords Theatre
That’s me being a Lincoln grownup at Ford’s Theatre, March 2016!

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 Is 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.

Emilie Helm
Emilie Helm

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.

Respectfully,
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 Mary Lincolnspace 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
Lincoln

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.

Affectionately
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.

Affectionately
Lincoln

 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 myhttp://hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ds.07422 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

Happy Birthday, Mr. Lincoln

As a Lincoln scholar living on Lincoln Avenue in Springfield, Illinois, I introduced my two daughters to Abraham Lincoln at a very early age. They got a little tired of hearing about Lincoln sometimes, but they were always very good sports about it, even in February when there was no escaping Lincoln at home or at school. You see, in Lincoln’s hometown, celebrating his birthday is a serious business. In 2000, when my daughter Mack was just five years old, she celebrated Lincoln’s birthday month with her kindergarten class at Dubois Elementary School (named after Lincoln’s old friend Jesse K., by the way). Their teacher sat with the students on the carpet, read some books to them, and got them all fired up about Lincoln. She then asked them to pen their own illustrated stories, and Mack’s exuberant piece remains to this day one of my favorite artifacts of her childhood.

And since I’m missing the Lincoln Symposium this year in Springfield, I thought I’d celebrate Lincoln’s birthday by sharing a few adorable depictions of Lincoln and his iconic hat done by little kids, starting first with the one that Mack made (I love love love her upside down bunting!):

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Over the years, I have given February presentations about Lincoln to school children, who have sent me thank you cards and letters with their own art work. I have a box of them that I treasure, and here a few of my favorites:

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So, Happy Birthday, Mr. Lincoln! You continue to inspire us all.

 

History and Lies

In preparing some notes for a law lecture in the 1850s, Abraham Lincoln reflected on what it meant to him to be a lawyer. He wrote: “There is a vague popular belief that lawyers are necessarily dishonest…the impression is common, almost universal. Let no young man lincoln-in-1847choosing the law for a calling for a moment yield to the popular belief; resolve to be honest at all events; and if in your own judgment you cannot be an honest lawyer, resolve to be honest without being a lawyer. Choose some other occupation, rather than one in the choosing of which you do, in advance, consent to be a knave.”

Lincoln’s advice would have come as no surprise to his friends and professional colleagues at the bar, because honesty was at the heart of Lincoln’s character and was among the central reasons he enjoyed the admiration and respect of his peers. Lincoln might have just as easily delivered those words of advice to up-and-coming politicians or to his owns sons in his parental efforts to raise honest citizens and honest men. Lincoln lived by example, never consenting to be a knave in his personal, in his legal, or in his political life. Lincoln’s honesty is precisely why today, nearly 152 years after his death, we still admire and revere him. We call him Honest Abe for good reason.

In the few days since Donald Trump swore his presidential oath upon the very Bible that Honest Abe used to make that same promise, rampant dishonesty and, in fact, outright lies have proven that the new president has no intention of living by Lincoln’s example. Now it is entirely likely that Trump consented to be a knave way back in some formative stages of his arrested development, but the pathological nature of his lies since the inauguration, including a whopper about the fucking weather, has frayed even my jaded nerves. The nature of Trump’s lies, the efforts of his staff to support and perpetuate them, and the willingness of some “fake news” media outlets to broadcast them as facts, alternative facts, or opinions, has got me thinking about the historical record that the Trump administration is creating.

Anticipating your question, I will pause here to say that I am not naive. I know that most people are not Abraham Lincoln. I admit that some politicians stretch the truth, fib, or lie to further their political goals; and neither political party is without such said individuals. I understand that governments and governmental agencies are not always perfectly honest and that presidential administrations have always spun news to their best advantage. I also know that the honesty of great presidents like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln may have inspired the presidential likes of Grover Cleveland, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Jimmy Carter, and Barack Obama, but I admit that the honesty thing fell with a dull thud upon the deaf ears of quite a few others. But at no time in our nation’s history has a president lied purely for the sake of his own self-aggrandizement, or made lying such a public spectacle, or seemed so openly determined to perpetuate established lies as a new kind of truth. The ease with which Trump lies about unimportant things like the weather and the size of his inauguration crowds is disturbing for what it portends for more deceptive dishonesty about critically important issues like foreign intelligence or nuclear weapons.

But I will leave the modern horror of the Trump lies for the real media and for the honest politicians already at work in the U.S. Congress to keep Trump in check. Today, I am interested in Trump as a future historical figure, and I have a lot of questions about how historians will tackle the historical record in their efforts to make sense of the Trump campaign and presidency. I have heard myself saying out loud a lot lately, “history will get Trump right, trust me.” But will it? Will future historians understand the rancor of the 2016 presidential election if, for example, they dismiss social media as an unreliable and tricky source? Will the differences between real and “fake” news make sense to them? Will they blindly trust governmental statistics from 2017-2020 about the health of the planet if the fact that Trump stifled the EPA’s work and message about climate change gets lost to history somehow? Will future historians know that Teen Vogue offered serious assessments about a Trump presidency and that Fox News was a mouthpiece of the conservative right? Will the political biases of today be so evident 152 years after Trump is dead?

Will historians use television media, which has become the dominant purveyor of political news, as a source? Given the problems of digital archiving of technology and the conflicting cacophony of voices, will they even be able to use it? What in the hell is a future historian supposed to do with Twitter? Will there even be a viable archive of Twitter? And if there is not, then what does that mean for interpretations of Trump, who wields Twitter like a political weapon? If social media archiving is possible, how will future historians interpret it? How will such digital sources impact historical interpretations about the breadth of opposition to Trump or influence assessments regarding degrees of acceptance of his policies against Muslim Americans, his plans to build a wall on the Mexican-American border, or his rejection of climate science? If there is a misleading picture of the Trump inauguration hanging on the wall of the White House, will it eventually become evidence of historical truth? And heaven help the truly subjective historian if a big chunk of the Washington Post becomes lost to history. Believe me, people, it could happen; and then what?

I am sounding a bit shrill, I realize, but these questions have tormented me during the past few days, and I wanted to share the love. As a historian, I balance historical evidence all the time, using what I know about the past to evaluate the validity and contexts of various voices and documentary evidence. I also know that sometimes I have to find creative ways to fill in for historical gaps in the record and that my biases play a role in how that happens. Regardless, I do accept the fact that good, future historians will apply the same professional skills that I do, will conduct the same critical analysis of the sources they utilize, and will understand how their own biases impact the questions they ask of their research and the way they write about the past. What worries me is that we now have a president who will openly and purposely distort the truth to match his own image of himself, the rest of us be damned. That, I think, is a brand new thing under the sun. I worry that distortions in the historical record today could significantly alter analysis of sources in the future and render an accurate examination of the Trump presidency extremely difficult or impossible.

For the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, I also worry that the honesty and integrity we admire in him is completely lost on some people, particularly on the one currently occupying the nation’s highest office. I worry that Trump will exercise his power in that position to damage or permanently erode the connection between honesty and leadership in our democratic society, or worse, that he will badger and browbeat us into submission. For now at least, I have a lot of fight in me to resist. I also have enough faith in the inspirational spirit of Abraham Lincoln to hope for some honest light at the end of the Trump dystopian tunnel. In the meantime though, we must all do our part to expect honesty from our leaders and to hold the feet of liars to the proverbial fire. Hopefully, no matter what happens, the historians of the future will get Trump right, and my belief in their success will not have been in vain.

resolve-to-be-honest
Abraham Lincoln Papers, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

A Little Sandbar in Chicago

All significant biographies of Abraham Lincoln mention the “Sandbar Case” as important in Lincoln’s legal career. The case garners attention mostly because it is one of the rare Lincoln cases for which there is a complete trial transcript, as court reporting was not a professionalized or regulated practice in antebellum courtrooms. The transcript of the case of Johnston v. Jones & Marsh is, indeed, a wonderful resource, because it gives us historical documentary evidence of Lincoln’s deductive reasoning, his smart and crafty questioning of witnesses in open court, and his use of humor. One of my particular favorite Lincoln quips from this transcript is in the testimony of John H. Kinzie, who in 1803 settled with his family in the place that would become Chicago. When an opposing attorney at the trial asked Kinzie about his residency in the city, Lincoln, who was a friend of the man, interjected: “I believe he is common law here, as one who dates back to the time whereof the memory of man runneth not to the contrary.”

But while the trial transcript offers great glimpses of Lincoln’s character as a lawyer and the case is illustrative of the sophistication of Lincoln’s legal mind and the caliber of his legal practice, the historical importance of the case is often overshadowed by Lincoln’s role within it. Few cases capture the imagination of antebellum America and illustrate so beautifully the rapid rise of a great American city. Because that “sandbar” of land at the heart of the “Sandbar Case” is today a part of Chicago that sits along the “Magnificent Mile.” That “sandbar” did not even exist until after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed the construction of a channel they dug in order to make a navigable connection between the Chicago River and Lake Michigan. So before I can get into the details of the “Sandbar Case,” I first need to offer a short version of a very long environmental history of the land in question. In 1830, Chicago had just 100 or so residents, but early and very influential Chicago boosters, like John H. Kinzie, had a vision that far exceeded the natural qualities of the volatile Lake Michigan waters at “Chicagoua.” The location of Chicago was ridiculously unnatural for a viable harbor, but the federal government nonetheless undertook a massive engineering effort to improve the mouth of the Chicago River, create a navigable harbor, and connect Chicago and the emerging Midwest to the Great Lakes and the Eastern Seaboard. They dug the channel and built northern and southern piers to create the new inlet and then dredged the harbor. Work continued throughout the 1830s and 1840s, even as the rough waves and undercurrents of Lake Michigan and the heavy, lakefront winds fought against their efforts. But in the end, humanity triumphed over nature, and the Chicago harbor project was successful beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. The harbor boomed, and so did the rapidly growing city of Chicago, which exceeded 112,000 residents by 1860.

The construction of the piers and the channel combined with the undercurrents of Lake Michigan resulted in a 1,200-foot wide accretion of new land along the north pier, signficantly altering the shoreline of land that by 1860 was already worth a fortune. While the U.S. Corp of Army Engineers was fighting nature in the constant dredging and redredging of the harbor, landowners began fighting with each other over ownership of the accreted lands and the new lakefront. William S. Johnston and William Jones owned adjoining lakefront lots on land through which the new channel crossed. In the federal court in Chicago, Johnston sued Jones and Sylvester Marsh, who also had interest in the property in question, in an action of ejectment. Basically, Johnston was claiming ownership of six acres of new land and wanted to evict Jones and Marsh from the property. Johnston claimed that after the government built the new channel, his property continued to border Lake Michigan, entitling him to the new land. However, Jones argued that Johnston no longer had a lakefront border and, therefore, was not entitled to any of the new land. The legal proceedings were long and complicated, but at the fourth trial, the jury found for Johnston. Jones then appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed the judgment, arguing that if Johnston believed there was a defect in his deed to the land, he should have corrected it in chancery. But, of course, that’s just a boring legal technicality, and Johnston was not having it. Remember, this is NEW land in downtown Chicago. Johnston was holding tight to his hope for a claim on that valuable property.

So here is where our Mr. Lincoln finally enters the story. After the case returned to the federal circuit court in Chicago, Johnston continued the ejectment case, and both parties engaged new attorneys. A company who stood to benefit from Johnston’s defeat, retained Abraham Lincoln to represent Jones, whose team of Chicago heavy-hitters was eager to get Lincoln on board for the jury trial. Lawyers were more numerous in this case than litigants and witnesses, and observers in Chicago had noticed this fact. One of the wittiest newspaper articles from the Lincoln era that I have ever read was an anti-lawyer rant that made a very convincing argument that the “Sandbar Case” was more about the greed of the lawyers than it was about the property rights of the land owners:

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Abraham Lincoln to Robert A. Kinzie (brother of John H. Kinzie) 5 January 1858 (Chicago History Museum)

 

“Sand bars, whatever they may be deemed by mariners, deserve to be embalmed in the deepest and tenderest regard of Chicago lawyers. Between our bar legal and the bar at the harbor mouth, there should by this time have sprung up the most perfect good feeling. Those reaches of barren sand have been a rich El Dorado to the lawyers, Pike’s Peak and California at their very feet.”

The three historical references to the search for gold was not so far off the mark, as nineteen lawyers (yes, 19!) were employed during the dispute. The roll of attorneys was a Who’s Who of the Chicago bar and also included a couple of nationally renowned lawyers, as well. Along with Lincoln, you might recognize Isaac N. Arnold, Salmon Chase,  Grant Goodrich, Reverdy Johnson, J. Young Scammon, and Elihu B. Washburne, as all are characters in the Lincoln story. In the “Sandbar Case,” Lincoln himself earned a whopping $350, and he was only actively engaged for the trial in March of 1860. Ogden, Fleetwood & Co., a real estate firm in Chicago which had interest in the accreted land, had paid Lincoln’s fee, also paid the law firm of Scammon, Ezra B. McCragg, and Samuel W. Fuller $1,800 that we know about, spent at least $380 for witnesses, and footed the hotel bill for eight witness who came to testify all the way from Milwaukee. The people who got money from Ogden, Fleetwood & Co. were no doubt happy to oblige, but we can also thank the company for the 482-page trial transcript, because they paid Robert Hitt $346 to sit through the trial and create that document. Ergo, as a Lincoln scholar and legal historian, I am grateful that the little sandbar in Chicago raised such a ruckus.

Ok, but what the hell happened? Who got the land? Well after an eleven-day trial, the jury found for Lincoln’s client, Mr. Jones, in March 1860. While Lincoln returned to Springfield and got nominated as the Republican Party candidate for president just a couple of months later, Mr. Johnston still refused to admit defeat. There was far too much value in the land to give up the fight, so he appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court, which affirmed the judgment against him in February 1862. In this final opinion, Justice Noah H. Swayne, whom then President Lincoln had nominated to the Supreme Court just a month earlier, wrote the opinion that settled the damn case once and for all. By then, the country was entering a second year of Civil War, Camp Douglas in Chicago would soon become home to nearly 5,000 Confederate prisoners of war, and, I suppose, Johnston was all out of steam or had more pressing things on which to focus his time and to spend his money.

Lincoln’s “Sandbar Case” is so much more than just a Lincoln case. It is one of thousands of cases in the legal history of America that provide a vivid landscape of the past, capturing a point in time and space that speaks specifically of its era and yet speaks directly to us in the present, as well. It has always been my habit to understand something of the history of all of the places I have lived and have had an opportunity to visit. Knowing the history of a place helps you to understand it better. Knowing about the “Sandbar Case” enhances my appreciation for the modern space in Chicago of which that 1,200-foot accretion of land is now so very much a part. I love that little “sandbar” in Chicago, and knowing the history of it makes me love it all the more. It is awesome to know that just underneath the glitz and glamor of Chicago’s commercial district lies the fascinating historical details that made all of that glitz and glamor possible in the first place.

The next time you are in Chicago, and you’re strolling along Michigan Avenue at the southern end of the “Magnificent Mile,” pause a moment on the northeast side of the bridge there, overlooking the canal. Look slightly northeast, and then imagine Chicago in 1830, when the churning waters of Lake Michigan hit the shore about where the Tribune Tower stands today. Then imagine Chicago in 1860, after that shoreline had so dramatically shifted to the east and when an energetic and new, urban metropolis bustled all around that new channel of the river. And then pause…for just a moment…to appreciate how rich the history of our physical environment and recognize the simple but awesome truth that our tangible connections to the past are sometimes lying right underneath our feet.

References:

Johnston v. Jones & MarshThe Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln: Complete Documentary Edition, Second Edition, online (2008); “Johnston v. Jones and Marsh,” The Papers of Abraham Lincoln: Legal Documents and Cases, 4 vols. (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008), 3:384-453; Eleanor Lytle Kinzie Gordon, John Kinzie: The “Father of Chicago”  (1910),  7 A. T. Andreas, History of Chicago from the Earliest Period to the Present Time, 3 vols. (1884);  Chicago Press and Tribune 26 March 1860, 1:4-5; Appointment of Noah H. Swayne as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, 24 January 1862, RG 59, Entry 785: Appointment Records, Commissions, Commissions of Judges, 1837-1888, National Archives, College Park, MD.

String-Doll Mr. Lincoln

My daughter works for Greenheart International in Chicago, and last year she purchased Christmas gifts for me at the company’s fair-trade store. While the alpaca-wool scarf made in Ecuador was lovely and very practical, it was the adorable and useless string-lincoln-1string-doll Abraham Lincoln that really made me happy. The doll’s woolen hat is attached to a key ring, but I could not bear the thought of this precious little Lincoln holding a bunch of keys and dangerously knocking around in my pockets and bags. So since I received him, he has been hanging out under the shade of an antique lamp on my desk. When I pull the chain to switch on the light each morning, the bell on Lincoln’s hat rings, drawing my eyes to his funny face. His haphazard beard, wide-set eyes, and prominent nose always make me smile. String-doll Mr. Lincoln is almost as powerful as my morning coffee to get my day off to a good start.

Now  string-doll Mr. Lincoln, it turns out, is a member of the String Doll Gang, a product line made my artisans in Thailand and distributed by an American fair-trade company. Gang members include animals, kids playing various sports, literary characters, and (of course?) American historical figures. Each of the dolls come with a small tag, identifying the character and offering a pithy moral. The Tuskegee Airman doll “helps you pave the way for important and necessary changes.” Harry Truman “reminds you not to believe everything you read in the newspapers.” Alexander Hamilton “helps you achieve financial stability and maintain good credit.” (I’m thinking the Hamilton string doll is string-lincoln-2probably the newest member of the gang, right?). And this will be a real shocker, I know, but string-doll Mr. Lincoln is called Honest Abe, and his tag speaks the truth.

No doubt the String Doll Gang is made for a western and not an Asian audience. No doubt the American marketers of this Asian folk art have ordered up particular American characters about which few Thai people are even aware. My daughter, who incidentally, taught school in Thailand for a couple of years, assures me that Thai children are not learning about Abraham Lincoln. But I cannot help but wonder if the artisan who crafted my string-doll Mr. Lincoln might have recognized the stovepipe hat and the beard and understood the reference “Honest Abe.” That would make it a lot less weird that string-doll folk artists in Thailand are making string-doll Mr. Lincolns just like mine. I would also like to think that at least in some college preparatory high school somewhere in Thailand there is a world history teacher who knows that his country actually has a very interesting connection to Abraham Lincoln. Surely said teacher tells every new class of students the story about the famous Siamese King Mongkut (this is Anna’s king, you know) and his offer to send elephants to America, and about President Lincoln’s polite return letter refusing said elephants.

But while my daughter might be a genius in the selection of perfect mom gifts, she is very skeptical of her mom’s enthusiastic hope in regard to this U.S.A./Thailand Lincoln connection thing. And, in fact, she suspects that only Lincoln scholars and very well-read Lincoln loonies (affectionate term, don’t get mad) in America know about Lincoln’s refusal to accept elephants. Perhaps. But just because most people do not know about it does not mean they should not know about it; and so I will take this opportunity to tell the story just in case.

On February 2, 1861, King Mongkut, the fourth monarch of Siam (which did not become Thailand until 1939) wrote to President James Buchanan, sending gifts and waxing poetic about the utility of elephants. “On this account,” wrote the King, “We desire to procure and send elephants to be let loose [to] increase and multiply in the continent of America but we are as yet uninformed what forests and what region of that country are suitable for elephants to thrive and prosper; Besides we have no means nor are we able to convey elephants to America, the distance being too great.” The King’s letter must have arrived some time after Lincoln’s inauguration on March 4, 1861, because the Lincoln administration finally answered it on February 3, 1862. While most diplomatic correspondence was crafted by the Department of State and merely signed by the President, I think this letter sounds like Lincoln; and given the unusual content of Mongkut’s letter, I kinda think Lincoln may have had a hand in writing it. If the original letter ever surfaces in Thailand and it is all in in Lincoln’s hand, perhaps that will be enough to prove I am correct. But whoever wrote it, it is a very humorous, although very diplomatic, reply: “I appreciate most highly Your Majesty’s tender of good offices in forwarding to this government a stock from which a supply of elephants might be raised in our own soil. This government would not hesitate to avail itself of so generous an offer if the object were one which could be made practically useful in the present condition of the United States. Our political jurisdiction, however, does not reach a latitude so low as to favor the multiplication of the elephant, and steam on land as well as on water, has been our best and most efficient agent of transportation in internal commerce.”

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First Page of Monkut’s Letter to America, courtesy of the National Archives.

And so, my friends, that is how you begin with a Lincoln Lunacy, in this case my useless, string-doll Mr. Lincoln, and end with a useless, esoteric, historical tale that is worth far less than the $10 fair-trade gift that is responsible for this essay in the first place.