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.
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!
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 husband. So 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.
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.
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.
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 choosing 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.
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:
“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.
Johnston v. Jones & Marsh, The 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.
In Pioneer Court in Chicago, at the intersection of Michigan Avenue and the Chicago River, a 25-foot bronze statue of Abraham Lincoln demands attention, as his iconic stovepipe hat stretches out over the busy sidewalk. But while the less-than-perfect likeness of President Lincoln (it’s a little too smiley and too rosy-cheeked for my liking) draws pedestrians in for photo-ops, as it did for my daughter and I on Sunday, Lincoln’s shorter bronze companion leaves them baffled. Who in the hell is that dude in the white, cable-knit sweater and khaki pants? What is he holding? And why in the world is Lincoln hanging out with him?
I had already heard about the installation of Seward Johnson‘s colossal version of his “Return Visit”—a life-size statue he did for the Lincoln Fellowship of Pennsylvania in Gettysburg in 1991—so as I excitedly crossed the river, shuffling through the snow, I knew something of what to expect when I finally cast my eyes upon it. Apparently, the dude in the cable-knit sweater represents a “common man” of the present, who is holding the Gettysburg Address as Lincoln explains its depth and meaning. But in seeing the public art for myself, in observing the many furrowed brows and confused expressions of the pedestrians all around me, and in hearing people ask their companions about that dude in the white sweater, even my little advance knowledge of the art and of the artist did little to help me understand the sculpture’s message and to appreciate its purpose in Chicago in December in 2016.
The snow may have defeated my efforts to locate a descriptive marker about the art, but I did not find one, and it appeared as though the confused pedestrians I saw had not located one either. It is possible that well-written, well-curated signage may have offered some answers about the art and explained something of artist’s intention with the work. However, the sculpture alone failed to reinforce the little knowledge I had about it and, in fact, it left me with many questions. How does this public art connect with its urban context at that historic and iconic Chicago intersection? What history is it trying to share with the thousands of pedestrians who will see in over the course of the next year that it is scheduled to be a fixture on that plaza? How can a diverse, urban populous relate to a statue that depicts a mythical and colossal Abraham Lincoln and a “common man” depicted as a seemingly confused, middle-aged, white guy?
It is not that I disapprove of a giant statue of Abraham Lincoln in Chicago. On the contrary, I was thrilled to see Mr. Lincoln there, hoisting his hat, beckoning his fellow Americans in the Windy City to come say hello and to snap a photograph with him. I am always in favor of interjecting a little Lincoln into our public spaces, because I know about his power to inspire. I just wish we spent more time thinking about making meaningful connections to our past. The Chicago Tribune reported that the owners of Pioneer Court, who organized the installation of this statue, hoped that Honest Abe’s presence in Chicago would “remind people that one of the most fundamental things we should be striving for is honesty in our political dialogue, in our exchange, in our debate, as opposed to criticism of each other.” I wholeheartedly agree, but I am at a loss to understand how the “Return Visit” evokes that meaning, and without a marker to offer even a suggestion to that point, the message is entirely lost on the audience. And without providing any artistic or historic context, the colossal sculpture in Chicago is nothing but a humorous photo-op, a quirky destination for Roadside America. Disappointingly, it is missing a giant opportunity to substantively engage pedestrians traveling through that iconic Chicago intersection with history and to offer them a vehicle for discussion about the intersections of our shared past and our shared present.
By way of a more positive conclusion, I must say that I have no doubt that tens of thousands of Chicagoans and visitors in the city throughout 2017 will take note of the giant Lincoln statue on Michigan Avenue. Like me, most of those visitors will fail to see the relevance of Lincoln’s companion in the cable-knit sweater; but I suspect that in spite of their confusion, they will enjoy Lincoln’s presence there in that intersection and will take time out of their schedules to spend a moment with him. And who knows, perhaps the colossal sculpture’s placement, in juxtaposition to the colossal Trump tower kitty-corner across the street, will at least for a moment connect the present with the past in some meaningful way. Perhaps the giant letters on Trump tower will catch the eye of people posing for their photos with Mr. Lincoln and remind them that American presidents can be and should be good and honest people of character and decency. That possibility, in the end, might just cancel out my skepticism about this perplexing sculpture and make worthwhile all of the effort and expense it took to install it.
For twenty-five years, I have immersed myself in the nineteenth century, researching and writing about Abraham Lincoln, the antebellum Midwest, American legal history, the history of race, and women’s history. Some of my family members and friends have accused me of being a little too comfortable in the past, poking fun at me when I use the present tense to talk about my historical subjects. But since I have always been far more capable of making sense of the people who left the earth a long, long time ago than making sense of many of the people wandering around today, I was always happiest with my head in the past.
The loss of my daughter two years ago at first reinforced my preoccupation with the past. Yet since October 2014, the personal writing I have done in order to come to terms with my loss has altered my thinking in this regard. In writing about my grief and telling stories of my happy past with my daughter, I have learned that the exercise of putting thoughts and feelings to paper, or the computer screen as it were, is both therapeutic and instructive. The personal writing has also revealed to me previously unseen connections between my past, my present, and my future. And it recently occurred to me that I might seek to make those connections in my historical writing, as well.
Most historians are content, like I have always been, to live in the past, immersing their heads and their hearts in their particular historical contexts. But while the historical
profession succeeds on a grand scale of keeping the past alive for those who choose to engage it, it has mostly failed to make it relevant to those who do not. In this photograph, my daughter was poking fun at the inaccessibility of my first book, a revised dissertation in American legal history. But while it is a picture of a teenager striking a humorous pose at the expense of her nerdy mother, it is also illustrative of the limits of history written by historians who live only in the past and who fail to connect their work to the present and to engage wider audiences. Abraham Lincoln famously said that “we cannot escape history,” but lately I’ve come to believe that history is escaping us. In the current American political context, in an era of anti-intellectualism, and in the face of fake news and gross misinformation disseminated on social media, history matters more than ever. Historians need to get their heads out of the past, to use their historical expertise to engage the issues we face in the present, and to help prepare an increasingly fractured American electorate for the future.
There are good historians doing good work on social media, deconstructing historical myths, countering historical misinformation, and combating outright historical lies. But who is listening outside of the profession? #Twitterstorians have dynamic and inspiring conversations with each other, but are politicians, policymakers, and the general public listening? Is there a way to open the discussion to those who do not live in the past? Can we write about the past differently in order to foster greater engagement with mass audiences? Are there ways that historians can make their work more relevant in the present? How can we ensure that future policies will be grounded in historical expertise? Do historians have a responsibility to make their work more accessible? Do they have a responsibility for the present and for the future?
As I embark here on this personal journey to explore in my own work a present and future context for the history I write, I have far more questions than I have answers. But I think the questions are important and that the journey might reveal some modern “historical” truths. In the coming years, as I pursue my own historical research, writing, and editing in my professional work and here on the pages of this blog, I am going to keep one eye on the present and another eye on the future as much as keep each one on the past. And particularly in my Lincoln scholarship and in my new editing work at the Jane Addams Papers, I am going to look for the answers to some of those questions. Because in the end, Lincoln was right. We cannot escape history. And we certainly cannot afford to let it escape us.