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!): 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:
So, Happy Birthday, Mr. Lincoln! You continue to inspire us all.
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.
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-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 probably 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.”
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.
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.
There is an abundance of wonderful, wacky, and weird Lincoln shit out in the world, like this adorable, but very strange Lincoln rubber ducky. I purchased this little fella for one dollar at the eclectic urban market across the street from my house. It was buried in a big bin of presidential rubber duckies just waiting for this Lincoln scholar to pluck him out from under a large number of far more numerous Washington and Reagan rubber duckies. Missouri was a border state, and Lincoln has never been all that popular here; however, with some hope in my voice, I asked the sales clerk if there had been a run on the Lincoln rubber duckies. He smiled broadly and laughed, noting that the Lincoln and the Obama rubber duckies had flown out of that bin, leaving the far less popular presidents behind. While Missouri is hardly a “reconstructed” state (just look at the November 2016 election returns), at least my border city knows how to pick the right presidents out of bin of presidential rubber duckies.
Over the years I have always trained my eye for wonderful, wacky, and weird Lincoln shit out in the world, and when I see it I make a beeline for it. I laugh…or groan, as the case may be. I bring it to the attention of my companions, who do their own groaning. I snap pictures and often, admittedly, plunk down hard earned cash to make it my own. I have Lincoln bandages, a Lincoln switch-plate, and a set of Lincoln salt and pepper shakers, to name just a few of my purchases. I have never documented my finds, but in the back of my mind has always lurked a desire to share what I have come to call my Lincoln Lunacies with the world. And so, with this website and effort to write history for the present, I finally have my chance.
Watch for regular Lincoln Lunacy blog posts, and send me your crazy-ass Lincoln finds, too. It’ll be fun to talk about how a great and ugly man from the 1860s came to be such omnipresent icon in our modern world.
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.