Reflections on the Symposium: Lincoln and Copperheads

February 8, 2009


The first night of our Symposium, despite a few microphone issues, brought to Emporia Dr. Jennifer Weber of The University of Kansas.  Weber gave a talk, entitled The Rise and Fall of the Copperheads.  Weber presented a very well received presentation that dove into the highlights of the Copperheads and their efforts to thwart Lincoln at every turn.  As Weber joked, Lincoln faced fire in the rear, which prompted her to even think of titling her talk this, before she reconsidered.

As many of you know, Lincoln receives some criticism for his suspension of Habeus Corpus, his defiance of Chief Justice Roger B. Taney in his ruling Ex Parte Merryman, his allowance of the arrest and deportation of Clement Vallandigham (the fiery Democratic speaker who railed against Lincoln and policies of emancipation) and his willingness to use what was necessary to win the war, such as a blockade and emancipation measure that seemed a bit outside of the bounds of the current interpretations of the Constitution.  Lincoln faced massive criticism for his Emancipation Proclamation, which changed the aim of the war.  He faced pressure for inactivity from the armies and for the thousands upon thousands of bodies that piled up, particularly during the summer months of 1864 during Grant’s relentless Overland Campaign.

Can we blame Lincoln for stepping on the Constitution?  After enduring an administration that ignored the Constitution with detainees in Cuba, torture in secret prison camps overseas and warant-less wiretaps, should Lincoln and George W. Bush share the same shelf as men who did not necessarily protect and defend the Constitution of the United States?  Bush argued that he did these things because he was protecting the American people and that these methods allowed freedom to endure.  Lincoln argued that the nation was at war and he had to do everything within his power (and even outside the realm of his power) to save the Union.  While Congress agreed with him, the Supreme Court  (or at least one Justice, who ruled that African Americans were property, rather than citizens) did not.  We see a similar thing with the Bush administration.  Bush signed the Patriot Act, underwent very little criticism or scrutiny from Congress for his actions in regards to the Constitution and then, the Supreme Court ruled against him in recent rulings.  If both men did similar things, will Bush see his actions as president be re-assessed years from now, elevating him to a great president?  That is a question that I am unable to answer, but am curious what historians (who tend to be liberal) will have to say. 


We have yet to learn enough about the inner workings of the Bush Administration.  What we do know is that Lincoln was a man who made a decision, writing a letter, statement or law, and then he put it away into a drawer.  As Weber reminded our audience, Lincoln almost caved under pressure from the Copperheads and considered rescinding the Emancipation Proclamation.  He wrote the order, placed it in the drawer and slept on it.  When he awoke, he decided not to send it because he believed that he would be damned for all time if he abandoned African Americans and the promise he had made to them.  Lincoln held firm, after thinking extensively about the issue.  He was willing to accept and seek counsel from many different types of people.  He led the people, rather than letting the people lead him.  All of those qualities of leadership are things that future presidents should try to emulate.  If they have, only time and reflection will tell.  Lincoln and civil liberties will certainly remain a hot and controversial topic for years to come.  We must decide if and when circumstances dictate for a president to make decisions that some may find unconstitutional.  For Lincoln, it really depends on the end of the story.  The Union won the war, the Union was preserved and thus, Lincoln’s actions seem a bit more justified.  Will we have to win the war on terror to say the same thing about George W. Bush???



Claiming Lincoln

January 26, 2009

Republican 2008 Video

In 1992, the Republican National Convention met in Houston to re-nominate George H.W. Bush.  Ronald Reagan took to the podium to both endorse Bush and to offer some words about Lincoln.  Reagan used the speech to remind Americans what Lincoln meant to the country and how he re-affirmed Republican Party values, in a way to remind his audience that Lincoln was a great Republican.  Then, Reagan offered some words from Lincoln:  “You cannot bring about prosperity by discouraging thrift.  You cannot help small men by tearing down big men.  You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong.  You cannot life the wage earner by pulling down the wage payer.  You cannot help the poor man by destroying the rich.”

Great stuff- except that Lincoln never said any of those words.  They come from William John Henry Boetcker, an ordained minister, who published the book, Lincoln on Private Property, in 1906, nearly 41 years after Lincoln died at the hands of John Wilkes Booth.  As Harold Holzer points out, columns around the nation reprinted the words of Lincoln and triumphed the connection between Lincoln and the modern Republicans, that is, until a historian came forward to set the record straight.  This story is not meant to criticize Reagan, or his speechwriters, but to point out how Reagan took Lincoln and gave him policies and principles that were applicable to the current Republican party and candidate. 

Reagan is not the only candidate to do so.  As we have seen in this election, and in my previous blog note, Obama paid homage to Lincoln whenever he could in the campaign and election.  He noted the language of Lincoln and acknowledged how Lincoln handled a  crisis, though he was not willing to see Lincoln as perfect, acknowledging his racism.

Historically, claiming Lincoln goes back to the moments following his death, where some politicians and political orators denounced him for his actions.  At the same time, many Republicans embraced Lincoln in eulogies and denounced Johnson for daring to try to use Lincoln as leverage to get his policies passed.  Republicans evoked Lincoln’s name to local black districts across the south to ensure republican rule would continue and told black voters that they had to vote fo Lincoln because he was the martyr of their liberty. 

After Johnson, presidents routinely sought Lincoln’s endorsement from beyond the grave.  Republican rallies took place after 1887 on Feb. 12.  In 1903, Theodore Roosevelt attended a celebration at the Waldorf-Astoria.  There, with 500 men dressed to the nine and eating a seven course dinner (segregated away from their wives), Roosevelt told the crowd, “I feel that not merely the Republican Party, but all believers in the country, should do everything in their power to keep the memory of Lincoln alive.”  In a way, TR made Lincoln bi-partisan, for a moment anyways.  The rest of the speakers that evening declared that Lincoln as a Republican and that the Republicans were the party to ensure that the nation would be grand and hold an immortal destiny.

Of note, Democrats carefully tip-toed around Lincoln.  Grover Cleveland, in 1887, did not stop in Springfield because he knew that the city had become a Republican shrine.  Historian and President Woodrow Wilson, also a Democrat, spoke on Lincoln’s birthday, as did other Democrats, but he said, in one instance, “I sometimes think it a singular circumstance the present Republican party should have spring from Lincoln, but that is one of the mysteries of Providence.” 

The partisan nature of Wilson’s remarks should not surprise anyone, as Lincoln had become a lightning rod for political rhetoric by 1912.  William Taft called Lincoln a man who would never ally with the Progressives of Teddy Roosevelt, even though Lincoln clearly had some Progressive views, when it comes to black equality.  T.R. noted this, arguing, “The official leaders of the Republican party today are the spiritual heirs of the men who warred against Lincoln, who railed at him as a revolutionist, who accused him of being radical, an innovator, an opponent of the Constitution and a enemy of property.”  T.R. had a point, as he noted the political backlash that Lincoln took time and again during his tenure in office. 

Herbert Hoover made a stop in 1932 in Springfield to pay homage to Lincoln.  This created a major political mess for him, as Americans, disatisfied with Hoover, cried foul, that he would dare to look to Lincoln for guidance in the crisis.  In fact, leading Democrats argued Lincoln would not even be nominated if he was a Republican in 1932.  This prompted FDR to allow a revision of history.  He asked, “Does anyone maintain that the Republican party form 1868 to 1938 (with the exception of a few years under TR) was the part of Abraham Lincoln.  FDR, who took up the mantle as the new emancipator, ranked Jefferson, Jackson, Wilson and Lincoln as the men who helped shape the New Deal.  Notice FDR made Lincoln a Democrat, as other Democrats continued to note that Lincoln had nothing in common with the current Republican party. 

The Republicans were not willing to surrender Lincoln easily.  They continued to celebrate the birthday and gather to give speeches.  In 1939, Hoover returned from obscurity to say, “Whatever this New Deal system is, it is certain that it did not come from Abraham Lincoln.”  Surely, Lincoln would denounce 3 terms as president, high taxes, social security, the court packing scheme, among other things. 

Just as in 1912, in 1948, everyone backed Lincoln, as the Dixiecrats evoked him to deal with racial issues, that Lincoln believed they would work themselves out.  The Progressives argued that they came from Jefferson, Jackson and Lincoln.  Dewey bore a resemblance to Lincoln- well, not physically but spiritually.  Truman stated that if Lincoln were here, he would be a Democrat. 

So where does Lincoln stand today?  Who can claim him today?  I think it is hard to know what party Lincoln would be a member of, particularly since the Democrats have come along way in their history.  A few generations ago, they benefited from the KKK intimidating voters and pushed to block Civil Rights legislation.  Now, they have a successful black nominee and president.  The Republicans, who pushed for the 13, 14 and 15 amendments, now have a problem getting blacks to vote for them, even though they overwhelmingly kept the Republican party afloat in election after election from 1866 to the New Deal, except in cases of voter suppression in the South.  Where is Lincoln today?  He seems to be wherever you want him to be.  The fact that both parties, as seen in the above video and in Obama’s homage, have claimed Lincoln.  Maybe the term to describe Lincoln is not Republican or Democrat, but rather American. Well, a Northern American.

The Inauguration of Barack Obama and the Harkening to Lincoln

January 20, 2009


Today, January 20, 2009, emerges as a historic day in American History.  It is the day that the 44th President of the United States, Barack Obama, has been inaugurated.  He is the first African American elected to the presidency of the country, after being the first black candidate to be nominated by a major political party for the presidency in American history.  He is also the first president to pay so much homage to one particular president, Abraham Lincoln.  Here are some of the Lincoln echoes on display thus far:

– Obama announced his candidacy for the presidency from the Old State House in Springfield, Illinois, where Lincoln served in the State House of Representatives.

– Lincoln is a constant presence in many Obama speeches.  Obama readily has admitted to reading Lincoln’s writings extensively and has modeled some of his language and ideas on how Lincoln phrased them in his own speeches.

–  Obama traveled by rail from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C.  He followed the exact same rail line.  A few changes though:  First, Obama stopped in Delaware to pick up Joe Biden.  Second, Obama stopped and gave a speech in Baltimore, a city that he won an overwhelming majority of the votes (Lincoln had to be whisked secretly through Baltimore because of threats on his life).

– When Obama took the oath of office today, he placed his had upon the Lincoln bible, which he requested and had been unearthed from the archives. 

– While the speech itself will be left to future historians to judge, the speech was very frank and honest and called on Americans to sacrfice and to make sure that the sacrifices of previous generations are not ignored.  This language seems very similar to both addresses that Lincoln gave, which were brutally frank and honest, while requesting that Americans work hard to bind the wounds of the nation and come together once again.

– The luncheon today had a multitude of Lincoln references.  First, the luncheon took place in Statuary Hall, which served as the House of Representatives chamber when Lincoln served his one and only term.  The menu included things that Lincoln would have eaten, particularly game birds (duck and pheasants).  The meal was served on China that was modeled after the Lincoln China (see picture above).  The official painting that sat behind the President during lunch was a painting of Yosemite, painted in 1865, and used to honor Lincoln signing a law to protect the land that would become Yosemite National Park in the future.  Several of the remarks made during the luncheon referenced Lincoln and his language from the Gettysburg Address.

–  The pre-inaugural concert was held at the Lincoln Memorial and included a tribute to Lincoln, narrated by Hollywood Historian Tom Hanks, and set to music. 

– The parade, which I am currently watching, includes a float to Illinois.  The float has the old capital building in Springfield, the Sears Tower in Chicago, a White Sox Mascot (Obama’s team from the South Side) and a Giant Lincoln figure that looks like a mascot. 

– At the ball that honored the states of Illinois and Hawaii, Obama had a Chicago-style Cheesecake served.  The cheesecake was topped with apples, which are Lincoln’s favorite fruit.

– The inaugural parade overall had a great wealth of diversity.  So did Lincoln’s celebration,as Lincoln is the first president to both have blacks attend his inaugural reception and had black troops march in his Second Inaugural parade. 

– When Obama gets into the White House, he will be able to use the room where Lincoln signed the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation as his private office on the Second Floor. 

For those of you who are excited about the Lincoln Bicentennial, this is a good sign.  Obama certainly has both a great appreciation for Lincoln and a strong sense of history.  One of the first things he will preside over in the coming weeks will be the Lincoln celebration and the president will make decisions about what events he will attend and what role he will play in acknowledging what Lincoln meant to America.  As this entry allows me to resume the Lincoln blog, I will be keeping a close eye on both what the President does in celebration and recognition of Lincoln, as well as what the popular press and media focus upon when they look to Lincoln.

Lincoln Humor for the Holiday

November 24, 2008

For all of you loyal blog readers, I am sure you are aware that Lincoln established a day of Thanksgiving in November of 1864 to give thanks for the efforts of the United States soldiers during the Civil War.  Many of you will be at a Thanksgiving Table over the course of the next week and will be in need of some jokes to tell to keep the relatives entertained.  Therefore, this week, I will present ten humorous Lincoln stories from the White House years.  You can give thanks for the hilarity that will surely ensue from these blog stories.  414_jump

10.  A New-Yorker at the White House said to the President taht it seemed strange that the President of the United States and the President of the Confederate States should have been born in the same State.  “Oh, I don’t know about that,” laughed Lincoln.  “Those Kentucky people will tell you taht they raise ‘most anything in their State, and I reckon they’re mighty near right.”

9.  Lincoln was once asked by a man who wanted the a job to be doorkeeper to the White House.  Lincoln did not think much of the man, but decided to interview him.  “So you want to be doorkeeper of the House, eh?”  “Yes, Mr. President.”  “Well, have you ever been a doorkeeper?  Have you ever had any experience of doorkeeping?”  “Well, no-no actual experience, sir.”  “Any theoretical experience?  Any instructions in the duties and ethics of doorkeeping”  “No”  “Have you ever attended lectures on doorkeeping?”  “No, sir.”  “have you read any texts on teh subject?”  “No.”  “Have you conversed with anyone who has read such a book?”  “No sir; I’m afraid not, sir.”  “Well, then, my friend, don’t you see that you haven’t a single qualification for this important post?”  “Yes, I do,” said the man, and quickly departed, almost gratefully.

8.  Lincoln met with a Congressman from New Jersey, who introduced him to two of his constituents.  The Congressman said, “Mr. President, this is Mr. X and Mr. Y, and they are among the weightiest men in Southern New Jersey.”  After they had gone, Lincoln said, “I wonder that end of the State didn’t tip up when they got off it.”

7.  H.C. Whitney was in D.C. and went to see Lincoln about possibly serving in the war.  Due to his military experience, he expected a solid appointment in the army.  Lincoln said to him, “I’m making generals now.  I na few days I’ll be making quartermasters, and then I’ll fix you.”

6.  Lincoln was quite the story teller.  He once told the story of a judge who was rather specific and “held the strongest ideas of rigid government and close construction that was ever met.”  Lincoln said, “It was said of him, on one occasion, that he would hang a man for blowing his nose in the street, but he would quash the indictment if it failed to specify which hand he blew it with!”

5.  Lincoln was also fast and sharp with the one liners.  In a cabinet meeting, William Seward, the Secretary of State and part of his “Team of Rivals” said, “Mr. President, I hear that you turned out (stepped aside) for a colored woman on a muddy crossing the other day.”  Lincoln answered, “I don’t remember, but I think it very likely, for I have always made it a rule that if people won’t turn out for me I will for them.  If I didn’t, there would be a collision.”

4.  Robert Dale Ownen, a spiritualist, once read Lincoln a rather lengthy manuscript.  Lincoln sat and listened quietly and when asked for feedback, yawned and said, “Well, for those who like that sort of thing I should think it is just about the sort of thing they would like.”

3.  Lincoln told the story of a Southern Illinois preacher who gave a sermon and said that the Savior was the only perfect man who ever appeared in the world and that there was no record of a perfect woman having lived on the earth.  At that point, a person in the back of the church rose to take offense.  They said, “I know a perfect woman, and I’ve heard of her every day for the last six years.”  “Who was she?” asked the minister.  “My husband’s first wife,” said the woman.

2.  Senator Charles Sumner came to visit Lincoln at the White House one day and was told he was downstairs.  When he went to see him, he found Lincoln polishing a pair of boots.  Sumner asked, “Why, Mr. President, do you black your own boots?”  The President vigorously polished away and quipped, “Whose boots did you think I blacked?” 

1.  Two final gems:  Lincoln got a letter asking him for a sentiment and his autograph.  He wrote back, “Dear Madam, when you ask a stranger for which is of interest only to yourself, always enclose a stamp.” 

Finally, Lincoln was visiting with a visitor from the west who told him about a river in Nebraska, but could not remember the Indian name for it, knowing it signified Weeping Water.  Lincoln said, “As Laughing Water, according to Mr. Longfellow, is Minnehaha, this must be Minneboohoo.”

Lincoln and Veterans

November 10, 2008

I am a current resident of Emporia, Kansas and Veterans Day remains an important day for our community.  Our university shuts its doors, the town holds parades and events and many of the city merchants close their doors in honor of those who serve our country.  The date, November 11, emerges as a significant day, for Congress declared that as a day to remember “a day to be dedicated to the cause of world peace and to be thereafter celebrated and known as ‘Armistice Day’.”  In 1953, the city of Emporia, under the leadership of shoe salesman Al King, wanted Armistice Day to expand to recognize anyone who was a veteran.  The Chamber of Commerce took a survey and discovered that the city was willing to suspend business for a day to honor our veterans.  The board of education followed suit, announcing that schools would not hold classes as well.  Congressman Ed Rees of Emporia helped author and pass a bill that created Veterans Day and recognized Emporia as the founding city of the holiday.  Pres. Eisenhower signed the bill into law on May 26, 1954. 

What did Lincoln have to say about veterans?  When he arrived in Gettysburg, PA on November 19, 1863, the President was not invited as the keynote speaker, but someone who could offer a few remarks.  The great orator, Edward Everett, spoke for nearly two hours, discussing the history of the battle of Gettysburg and even used maps.  When Lincoln arose, he spoke 277 words in under 5 minutes and offered the most poignant words offered about the sacrifice men make in war. 


Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Lincoln starts his address with a biblical reference (in terms of numerology) and connects the nation not to the Constitution, but to the Declaration of Independence.  Lincoln saw the conception of the nation in 1776, not 1787, and thus Jefferson’s words, that spoke of all men being created equal and that those men are endowed with the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuite of happiness, as the foundation of the country.  The Constitution specifically ignored African Americans, Native Americans and women.  The language of the Declaration seems to be on a higher moral and ideological plane, which is where Lincoln wanted to take his address. 
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
Lincoln saw that the Civil War would test not just the citizens, but the very idea of the United States and how it was constructed in 1776.  Could the nation survive a war that ripped it in half?  Lincoln then reminded his audience of where they were, the largest battle of the Civil War, that had over 50,000 casualties in the course of three days, making it the bloodiest of the war for the United States.  He then reminded the audience why they were there, to honor the veterans and what they had done, given their lives so that the country would survive. 

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.

In this portion, Lincoln argues that while the recognition of Union soldiers and their sacrifice is a fitting thing, nothing that can be said or done that November day in Pennsylvania could do more than what the men who gave their lives have done.  In fact, Lincoln pointed out that the world would probably forget what was said that day (they haven’t) but that the sacrifice given by the Union soldiers would last as long as the nation lasted.  So what could the public do to make sure the men did not die in vain?  Lincoln argues that the war must continue, that the United States must persevere and succeed in the war effort in order to make the sacrifices of the Union families worth the struggle. 

It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Lincoln’s resounding conclusion talks of “these” honored dead.  Lincoln is standing in a United States cemetery, where the Union dead lie in rows.  Of note, the Confederate dead lie in trenches on the fields where they fell.  Thus, Lincoln offers a partisan speech.  Yet, he is President of the United States of America and his goal that day was to recognize what sacrifices U.S. soldiers had made.  Now, it was up to the nation to take up the cause, to re-unify the nation under a new birth of freedom.  By November  1863, that new nation would be a free nation, that upheld Jefferson’s ideology by abolishing slavery, allowing all men to be perceived as being created Lincoln.  Lincoln certainly set out a lofty vision for the country.  He knew that the scars of slavery would take generations to heal.  He knew that the pain and sacrifice of war would take a generation to heal, as well.  Yet, the war had to continue, the pain would have to continue because the nation owed it to its veterans and their sacrifice. 

As we pause as a nation to remember our veterans tomorrow, November 11, let us remember that the wars we fight have lasting ramifications well beyond this generation.  Our wars should always be noble in their cause, scope and reasoning and that we always should have a plan to execute an end to the conflict that honors the sacrifice of those who fall in battle.  Lincoln knew that the U.S. would do that after the Civil War and woudl expect future generations to do the same. 


Lincoln’s Sexuality and The Simpsons

November 3, 2008

Much to my horror last evening, the latest BCS standings appeared on Fox Television. As I was watching the results scroll on the screen, I became infuriated that my beloved Nittany Lions had been jumped by the Texas Tech Red Raiders.  After calling my brother to claim the BCS was horse pooh, I decided that my blog topic today would be what Lincoln would say about the BCS (that is Bowl Championship Series, which determines the national champion in college football Division I-A).  The comfort that my brother and I had was that the Simpsons annual Halloween special was about to begin and I had seen a preview that they were going to lampoon It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown.  Much to my surprise, the episode returned to Abraham Lincoln.

The Simpsons have always had fun with the Civil War in two previous episodes.  One, the city of Springfield was re-enacting a Civil War battle between the East and West forces.  The re-enactment spills over to a WWII veterans meeting, where Abe (Grandpa) Simpson, and fellow WWII vets are listening to Tom Brokaw and demanding that he owes them.  As the chaos of the Civil War re-enactment disturbs the WWII meeting, the WWII vets get into tanks and crush the Civil War forces.  In another episode, the famed anchor for the local news, Kent Brockman, reports that a squirrel has been discovered that looks like Abraham Lincoln.  Brockman reports this with a graphic of a squirrel that bears Lincoln’s profile.  Later, in the episode, Brockman has a breaking story:  the Lincoln squirrel has been assassinated.

Last evening, the Simpsons did a parody of the brilliant AMC show Mad Men.  In the episode, Homer was working for an ad agency and realized that he could use dead celebrities to hock whatever items he wanted, because they could not respond.  This idea comes into fruition with the brutal murder of Krusty the Clown (a la the movie Fargo).  Halfway through the skit, we are taken to heaven where many of the celebrities, whose likeness has been used to sell products in a distasteful manner, are gathered together to complain.  Gathered amongst the celebrities are George Washington and Abraham Lincoln.  We are then shown a new commercial for the Springfield Wedding Chapel that will hold a President’s Day Marriage-a-thon.  At the chapel, Lincoln and Washington elope and kiss in the commercial.  Washington responds, in heaven. “That ad portrays that Mr. Lincoln and I are betraying familiarities.  It’s an outrage.”  Lincoln blushes and responds, “Yes …(nervous chuckle)… an outrage.”

The celebrities decide to break out of heaven and go exact their revenge on Homer, running over Jimmy Stewart.  The celebrities murder Homer Simpson (it is the Halloween episode) and ride back to heaven, only to find that Homer has beaten them back and locks the gates to keep them out.  The only two seen now are Homer and Lincoln.  Lincoln tells Homer about a poker game at the Rec Center and Homer finds that a fun thing to do in heaven.  Homer calls Lincoln “Mr. Penny Face” and then asks if his wife is there.  Lincoln responds with a chuckle and tells Homer, “We have an understanding.”  He then proceeds to grab Homer’s buttocks as the scene fades to black.  As my friend Mike Upton pointed out, The Simpsons must be thinking Lincoln was a Homer-sexual! 

The humor utilized by the Simpsons reveals a very real, interesting, and some would argue, disturbing question about Lincoln:  Was he gay?  Since Lincoln married and had children, was he bisexual?  In recent years, some writers have taken up the task to explore the sexuality of our chief executives in the Civil War Era.  James Loewen, the celebrated sociologist but sloppy historian, triumphantly proclaimed he had outted James Buchanan.  Larry Kremer claimed at a recent conference that he had proof that Lincoln and his best friend, Joshua Speed, were lovers.  He said Speed had written in his diary of Lincoln, “He often kisses me when I tease him, often to shut me up.  He would grab me in his long arms and hug and hug. . . our Abe is like a school diary.”  Carl Sandburg, the eminent Lincoln historian, wrote in 1926 that Speed and Lincoln had a relationship that was “a streak of lavender and spots soft as May violets.”  As noted in a article, in 1996, the log-cabin Republicans, after being rejected by Bob Dole, denounced it, arguing that the founder of the Republican party was just like them:  gay.

Kramer claimed that the diary had been found hidden in a general store, under the floorboards, that had been owned by Speed, where he and Lincoln first met.  However, Kramer never produced the diary or further proof that Lincoln was gay.  In 2004, C.A. Tripp produced a book, The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, that attempted to again look at the issue.  What is fascinating about this book is what Tripp says and does not say.  He looks at seven relationships that Lincoln had with men throughout his life.  Tripp utilizes the often criticized studies of Kinsey, which said that adolescent boys experienced same sex activity and thus, clearly the young Lincoln did the same thing.  Tripp also claimed that Lincoln hit puberty at age 9, giving him PLENTY of time to engage in many gay relationships.  Yet, just because someone hits sexual maturity at an early age does not mean they would sexually experiment.  Keep in mind:  Lincoln grew up in an age before gay identity, which did not come into America until well after the Civil War.  Self-identification as a homosexual is a post-Lincoln phenomenon.  Thus, Tripp is playing fast and loose here with puberty and identity and the implication does not hold water.

Next, Tripp turns to Lincoln as the storyteller, which included many off-color stories and some poetry with a homosexual twist, including a poem intended as a joke about two men who got married by accident.  I think this does nothing to prove Lincoln was gay:  it only proves he might vote against Prop. 8 in Califormia.  Yet, Tripp uses the poem as evidence that Lincoln had to be gay, when combined with his early maturity.  Tripp then catalogues Lincoln’s friends, including Billy Greene, who Lincoln helped when his boat became stuck (Greene would write in a letter later in life, describing Lincoln has having perfect thighs and the two men shared a bed when they spent time together).  Although Tripp sees this as the proof, its problematic for two reasons:  First, the language of the nineteenth century greatly differs from the modern era and many men would describe other men in these romantic, flowery tones that have nothing to do with sexual orientation.  Secondly, it was routine for men to share a bed.  Lincoln, when traveling the circuit as a lawyer, shared beds with his law partners all the time at local inns.  Tripp forgets that this is before there are 93 hotels in one area- many communities had one tavern with beds and the men had to share if they wanted a good night’s rest. 

I know what you are thinking:  Lincoln married Mary Todd and courted Ann Rutledge.  Tripp says that the marriage to Mary Todd was for political convenience and that he stayed away working as a lawyer (for you see, Tripp cannot acknowledge Lincoln as bi-sexual- he has to be gay for his argument to stand).  Even though Lincoln was married, Tripp claims he had a sexual relationship during that time with Elmer Ellsworth (who was murdered in an incident in Alexandria, Virginia in the early years of the war when he took down a Confederate flag).  Granted, Lincoln did call their relationship “intimate” but in modern terminology, that would be Lincoln saying that he was his B.F.F. (best friend forever).  Ellsworth’s death did shake Lincoln to his core and the body laid in state in the East Room of the White House.  But Ellsworth was the first officer killed in the Civil War for the United States and died in such a horrific manner that the nation outpoured their grief. 

Lincoln with his bodyguards, including DericksonFinally, Tripp talks about Captain David Derickson, who joined Lincoln as a bodyguard in 1862.  The two men became friends, as Lincoln invited him to ride around Washington and enjoy meals.  Tripp sees this relationship like Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston in The Bodyguard.  In Tripp’s favor is some evidence that Lincoln invited Derickson to share his bed while Mary was away (which is different from the necessity argument like on the circuit courts) and apparently, Derickson wore Lincoln’s night shirt.  Tripp uses this incident to conclude “Let there be no mistake.  From any point of view Lincoln was highly peculiar from the start.  His homosexual side, while not unusual in itself, was connected with an early puberty of such extremity-fully four years sooner than verage-as to make even it extraordinary.” 

So here we are:  Tripp’s book, which gave him major press and reviews in major publications and appearances on television programs, has seeped into the Simpsons.  So I beg the question again:  Was Lincoln gay?  Does the evidence hold up?  My answer is no, for the reasons I noted above, plus the fact that NO ONE wrote of a sexual relationship.  Sexual scandal was all over the papers before the Civil War and if someone revealed that detail, it would have made news, especially in that era of vicious campaigning. 

And, quite frankly, should we care?  If Lincoln is gay, does it diminish his standing as our nation’s greatest executive?  There are those who take pleasure in denigrating the great men of history or denigrating Lincoln scholars for ignoring this “truth.”  Yet, I think we are a bit too obsessed to get to know the real Lincoln.  We are simply imposing our 21st century ideals and values on the men of the 19th century.  We are mis-reading their affectionate language to one another, their friendships and their time spent sharing a  bed.  I think the gay Lincoln myth belongs right where we started:  on the Simpsons Halloween Special, because anyone who buys into it is simply spooky!

Inaugurating Lincoln

October 27, 2008


Since word leaked out this week that Obama had already drafted his inaugural address (which turned out to be a bit of an erroneous report), I am going to blog about Lincoln’s most profound and important speech of his career.  Lincoln was certainly the master of the oratory, blessed with delivering a poignant message without lengthy and bloated sentences.  Consider the speech that most Americans think is his most powerful and prominent: The Gettysburg Address (which is 1195 Baltimore Pike, Gettysburg).  Lincoln summed up both the meaning of the battle and the larger significance of the war.  I will use a future entry to discuss my views on this speech. 

Lincoln had won an election in the fall of 1864 that he, at one point, believed was out of reach.  He issued his blind memorandum a few months before the election, asking his cabinet members to sign a document that they did not have the chance to read.  It noted that the administration would work with the new administration if they were to lose the election.  Gen. William T. Sherman and Phillip Sheridan helped change that, with major military victories in the weeks before the vote.  Furthermore, McClellan ran an inept campaign, including one that took the vote of soldiers for granted.  Although McClellan had once been beloved by Union soldiers as a commander, the rank and file of the army selected Lincoln overwhelmingly (80% is what the exit poll would show) to finish the war and not sue for peace.

On Saturday March 4, 1865, Lincoln stood before a huge crowd (including John Wilkes Booth) to talk about the previous four years and the next four and beyond.  He opened with noting that the audience was well aware of the military details and that prospects did look strong in securing victory.  Then, Lincoln decided to reflect on where the nation stood four years ago to the day.  He said, “Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came.”  I think this language is rather stunning, considering how Lincoln paints the Confederacy as responsible for starting a war that would tear the nation apart.  At the same time, he reflects on how the United States decided that they must go to war, that they must respond to their adversaries in order to save the Union.  Lincoln had always claimed that his paramount goal for the war was to save the Union and the people clearly supported that goal when they went to war.

Lincoln then decided to discuss the cause of the war.  James Loewen, a sociologist who recently was in Emporia to talk about Sundown Towns, decided to spend a majority of his lecture discussing the causes of the Civil War (much to my chagrin as a Civil War historian).  Loewen asked the audience what caused the secession of the Southern states and gave the audience 4 choices: slavery, state’s rights, the election of Lincoln or taxes and tariffs.  A majority of the audience voted for state’s rights.  Lincoln would disagree with the audience.  At the second inaugural, he said, “These slaves constituted a peculiar and powerful interest. All knew that this interest was somehow the cause of the war. To strengthen, perpetuate, and extend this interest was the object for which the insurgents would rend the Union even by war, while the Government claimed no right to do more than to restrict the territorial enlargement of it.”  Loewen needs to refine his talk for many reasons, but most importantly, change slavery to the expansion or threat of extinction of the institution.  Lincoln notes that the state’s that were in rebellion wanted to make slavery permanent and extended into the territories, which he had denounced.  Lincoln did not run as the abolitionsit candidate, but he certainly was painted as one from both abolitionists and the Confederacy, and embraced that label by the late summer of 1862.

Lincoln shifts quickly from a discussion of slavery as a cause of the war to the role that religion played in the war.  Lincoln noted that both sides prayed to the same God and read the same Bible and hoped that God would intervene and help them achieve victory.  Lincoln paused to reflect on this religious divergence, noting, “It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. ”  I wonder what Lincoln would think about people today who pray for a new i-pod, for a presidential candidate to win, for a significant other to enter into their life.  If Lincoln thought it was strange for both sides to pray for victory in the Civil War, he might think the frivolous things we pray for today to be laughable.  In a way, Lincoln asserts this notion to give the Confederacy some comfort, as if to say you did not lose this war because God abandoned you. 

In the aftermath of the Civil War, southerners had to deal with the reality of defeat, the loss of slavery and the notion that God had selected the North to win.  Had he?  Had God intervened to help the Union win?  Was U.S. Grant the Second Coming?   If God had backed the Union, why did it take so long?  Why did so many people suffer, bleed and die over the course of four years?  Lincoln had an answer to that question.  He said, “The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully.”  He then asked, “If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? ”

Lincoln seems to believe that the Civil War is a punishment the United States had to endure because they accepted and allowed slavery to exist for so long.  He echoed the thoughts of all Americans, north and south, when he asserted, “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away.”  Instead of the country praying for a victory, maybe the country should pray that the war comes to an end (no matter what the outcome).  For Lincoln, however, the outcome was not really in doubt by the spring of 1865.  Yet, for our nation today, if we pray to win in Iraq, is that the correct prayer?  Or should we pray that the war ends?  Should we pray for our president to give us a victory or pray that our country take care of the wounded, the families of the fallen and the men and women who will continue to experience the horrors of war again and again in their dreams and nightmares?  What priority should our prayers take?

By fusing the inaugural address with a lengthy religious discussion, pertaining to prayer and punishment, the speech turned the pro-slavery argument upside down, as slaveholders had long argued that God approved and sanctioned slavery as an institution.  Now, Lincoln said, “Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'”  Lincoln’s thinking reflects what many Union soldiers and civilians had thought in the early stages of the war.  Historian Chandra Manning’s brilliant new book looks at how Union soldiers may have fought for emancipation from day one.  In a collection of letters I am editing from a soldier in Iowa, he joined the war to abolish slavery and called it “our national sin” and that the country deserved to suffer because it had turned its back on generations of suffering.  In a way, our country had created a whole heap of bad karma and things were returning to balance.  I wonder what Lincoln would think about the sins our country continues to commit:  racial prejudice and violence, wars fought, ethnic cleansing ignored.  Will the country again have to suffer for the sins we choose to ignore?

As he concluded his address, Lincoln spoke words of optimism and hope to an audience that wanted the long national nightmare to come to an end.  He said, “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

WOW!  Look at the words he concludes his address with, to both chart a course for the future and to assure the public that he will work to help the nation heal.  He offered no malice towards those who had started the war.  At the same time, he re-affirmed his dedication to finish the war and the aims that the war now entailed (which included the destruction of slavery, the reunification of the country and the vote for some black men [which he continued to talk about in his final public address]).  Lincoln also believed that the war would not end when the last gun fell silent.  The country would have years of work ahead of them to care for the wounded, the widow and the orphan.  Furthermore, the country would have to bind up the wounds between the two sections, so that North and South could again function as one entity.  In 74 words, Lincoln charted a course for the future and offered a vision for peace and prosperity in the future, intertwined with the challenges of reunification and postwar care for those touched by the hard hand of war. 

Personally, I have been reflecting a lot lately on this last paragraph from this speech, as I look at the current wars and political candidates.  No one of late (Bush, Cheney, Obama, McCain, Biden, Palin) have spoken words like this about the future of our war with Iraq.  When that war comes to speedily pass away, will our new president echo Lincoln?  Will we work to bind up the wounds of a divided country, with red states and blue states divided about the war?  Will we work tirelessly to take care of our amputees, of our men and women who suffer from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder?  Will we make sure they return to adequate health care, adequate mental care, a shot at a good education and a solid job?  Will we support the families who have to find a way to cope with the loss of their young son or daughter, their father or mother, their husband or wife, their boyfriend or girlfriend? 

My prayer is that President McCain or President Obama will offer 74 similar words in their inaugural address.  I doubt it, says the cynic within me.  Lincoln remains our greatest president, and will always be, no matter what happens in our future.  A big reason for that is how he boiled down his elegance into a simple, yet complex series of sentences that forced the country to accept its pains and work to heal them. He challenged the country to work together, to lay down their weapons and pick each other up to move the country forward.  Lincoln, through his Second Inaugural, still has so much to say to us today, now more than ever!

Lincoln’s Two (or Four) Cents

October 20, 2008

In 2009, the U.S. Treasury has announced that they will redesign the penny.  The penny (which costs more to make than it is worth) will bear a striking change, both in terms of Lincoln’s profile on the front (which will now resemble the Jefferson image on the new nickel) and on the back, as the penny will now bear four different images.

The first image will represent Lincoln’s birth and humble beginnings with the image of the log cabin.  I have been to the Lincoln birthplace site in Hodgenville, KY.  The site includes the grand monument to the site of his birth, with steps equal to the number of years Lincoln lived (which can make the walk to the top on a cold, winter morning exhilarating!)  Inside, you will find a cabin that Lincoln was born in.  There is no doubt that Lincoln was born in that area in a log cabin, but it is hard to know that the cabin was located in the exact spot that the monument now stands.  Furthermore, the cabin on display is probably not the cabin Lincoln was born in.  It was a cabin probably extracted from the area several years after his birth.  Of note, during a historical celebration, Lincoln and Jefferson Davis’s cabins toured the country (Davis was also born in a cabin about 100 miles from Lincoln).  The cabins were dismantled for easier travel.  Thus, it stands a real possibility that some of the Lincoln logs on display today are actually Davis Logs.  Makes those childhood memories a bit less adoring- Look mom- I built a house out of Davis logs!  Doesn’t seem to ring as true as-Look mom- I dug these Lincoln logs out and built a cabin!  (A Side Note:  My friend Jacob, an expert on the cabin, told me over lunch last week in Clarksville, Tennessee, that the Lincoln and Davis cabins are exact fit cabins, so it is highly unlikely that the logs could be interchangeable!  Kudos to Jacob for helping debunk the cabin mythology)

The second image represents Lincoln’s years in Indiana, as he worked as a rail splitter.  It is clear that Lincoln working on the farm in Indiana would have had to split rails.  However, during his run for the presidency in 1860, the Republican Party utilized the image of the rail-splitter to portray Lincoln as a man of the people.  The image propelled Lincoln to a unique place that people considered his only profession to be rail-splitting, rather than the self-educated lawyer that came to dominate local courthouses in Illinois and the political consciousness of slavery on a national level.

The third image is meant to represent Lincoln’s years as a State Legislator in Illinois, where he served in the House from 1834–41 and eventually ran and won one term in the U.S. House of Representatives (1847–49).  The people of Illinois sent the one-term Whig Congressman home, mostly due to his questioning of intelligence pertaining to the Mexican-American War and his opposition to the war, because, as he argued, he did not believe that President Polk had shown sufficient evidence that Mexico had weapons of mass destruction Mexico had indeed attacked American troops on American soil.  I find the choice of Lincoln at the state house here interesting for the penny design.  While Lincoln did have a reputable career as a legislator, the political speeches of the 1850s, particularly those in Peoria, during the debates with Douglas and at Cooper Union in 1860, seem to have more of a profound impact on his political career before the presidency.

The final image is meant to represent the years of the Presidency.  I find this to be the most interesting of the four.  Lincoln is not here- just the construction of the dome of the capital building that was completed during Lincoln’s term.  The image, to me, represents the nation unfinished, in the process of being re-built or finished during his term of office.  Despite the horrific and destructive nature of the Civil War, the nation utilized the war to re-build itself in a different manner, that began to apply the principles laid out in the Declaration of Independence to the nation.  Even after the war, the nation still had a long ways to go, as they had to work tirelessly to include African Americans, women, Asians, Native Americans, and in recent years, Muslim and gay Americans, into the fold of the American family.  I am glad to see that the Treasury decided to show the capital as still under construction, rather than completed.  Lincoln, as president, certainly helped push the construction of the nation forward, but it was far from complete by the time of his tragic death in April of 1865.  It probably still is under construction today, as the nation works to form that more perfect union.

For fun, here are some rejected penny designs:  

I found the inclusion of a persistent Lincoln myth (Lincoln living as a gay man), Lincoln acting as if he were black and the assassination to be particularly amusing.  However, I think all three of them deserve their own blog, which I will address at a later date.  For now, be sure to get your pennies when they arrive next year.  And that is my four cents worth!

Advertising Lincoln

October 14, 2008

After having traveled to New Orleans for the Southern Historical Association Meeting, I returned home to a mountain of emails.  It was getting close to lunch time, and I was a bit hungry.  I decided to open an email from subway (I had won a free cookie from them recently and thought maybe lightning would strike twice).  Instead, what I found was the image above:  Abraham Lincoln advertising foot long subs.  I was struck by the image for two reasons:  First, the designers have Lincoln wearing an Olivia Newton John “Let’s Get Physical” headband from the 1980s.  Second, I am not sure Lincoln would have been flattered or happy to know that his image had been used so prominently in advertising. 

I became curious:  how much is Lincoln used to sell items?  Here is what I uncovered: 

 Here Lincoln seems to have been fused with Democratic nominee Barack Obama, used on a Dem. website to raise money for his election campaign. 















  Here is Lincoln, accompanied by Phil the groundhog advocating sleep medication.  If you have had the pleasure of turning on your television in February, you no doubt have run across Lincoln selling mattresses, tool sets, cars or anything else that the nation attempts to sell on President’s Day.

Lincoln would be shocked that his image has been used to sell merchandise.  Lincoln routinely described himself as “dark complected” and told self-depricating stories to describe his appearance.  Apparently, Lincoln was stopped by a man who shoved a revolver into his face.  Lincoln remained calm, rather than adding stress to the situation.  “What seems to be the matter?,” asked Lincoln.  “Well,” said the man with the gun, “A long time ago I swore that if I ever came across an uglier man than myself I’d shoot him on the spot.” Lincoln replied, “Well, go ahead and shoot me then, because if I am an uglier man than you I don’t want to live.”

In 1858, Lincoln said, “Nobody has ever expected me to be President.  In my poor, lean, lank face, nobody has ever seen that any cabbages were sprouting out.”  In another instance, when Lincoln had been accused of being two-faced, he joked, “If I had another face, do you think I’d be wearing this one?”  From his rough and tumbled hair in the photograph taken in 1857 to his arrival in Albany New York after the election, when he was described as “Tired, sunburned, adorned with huge whiskers,” Lincoln seems to not be overly concerned with his appearance, especially if he constantly joked about it.

Or does he?  Historian Harold Holzer, among others, have extensively studied Lincoln’s image and its manipulation.  When Lincoln strolled into Matthew Brady’s studio in New York City, in the midst of delivering his famous Cooper Union speech in 1860, he took a photograph that appeared in newspapers across the country over the coming months.  Lincoln had his left hand resting on a stack of books and stood with a classical column behind him.  His coat looked presidential.  His face had a little touch-up work done on it to make him appear more presidential.  In fact, there was nothing that wasn’t presidential about that image. 

So, which is the real Lincoln?  The one who made fun of his appearance or the one who worked to make sure his public image was as presidential as possible?  What would Lincoln say about the subway ad?  Would he say that he would never eat at subway because he would scare all the sandwich artists away?  Or would he use the image to become CEO?  We will never know.  What we do know is that the Lincoln image continues to resonate today, whether on our money, in our advertising or in the hearts and minds of the American people who look to the past for examples of strong, presidential leadership!

Debating Lincoln in the 21st Century

October 6, 2008

Are you aware that our nation is currently celebrating the 150th Anniversary of the Lincoln Douglas debates?  It is pretty easy to forget our historical anniversaries as our nation undergoes its own series of debates regarding the economy, the Iraq war and the future presidential election.  I recently watched both debates and found myself fascinated by the fact that, at least in the presidential debate, the candidates had time to actually talk about the issues that were facing America.  Imagine if  Obama and McCain decided to go to seven cities in America, representing different geographical areas.  Imagine if McCain won the coin flip (I would hope they would flip a penny) and got to go first and talked at length (about an hour) about his vision for the nation and how to deal with the problems that faced it.  Then, Obama would get up and offer a rebuttal after having carefully listened to what McCain had said, while laying out his own vision.  McCain would then get the last word in with a 30 minute response to conclude the debate.  The two candidates would then hop into their private planes and fly to another city, where the debate would commence again, this time Obama beginning and using the opening remarks to challenge any leftover issues or views and then offer a new part of his platform.  No soundbites, no spin room.  No “talking heads” debating for hours on end about body language or acts that could be viewed as condescending.  Just straight ideas, visions and deep discussions.  

I have often wondered what the debates between Lincoln and Douglas would have been like in a modern arena.  There sits Horace Greeley to moderate and Lincoln would have 90 seconds to criticize the Dred Scott ruling, challenge popular sovereignty in 60 seconds and respond to Douglas’s assertion that Lincoln favored black equality in 30 seconds.  Would the members of the state legislature in Illinois, when they went to cast their votes in this Senate race, have a different view?  Would a legislator vote for Douglas because Lincoln slouched over and sighed or vote for Lincoln because he looked more Senatorial? 

Speaking of debates, it seems this year that the media turned to Lincoln and Douglas as guidance for discussion pertaining to the debates.  Check out this clip from a Fox News Weekend program, regarding the debates:  .

When I first saw this clip, I paused to wonder how many Americans actually thought that Frederick Douglass (different spelling from Stephen Douglas- both in terms of first and last names) was the man who debated Lincoln.  I thought, surely, millions wrote to Fox to tell them about this historical error and to reassert their historical knowledge.  Right?

Does this episode raise larger questions?  Did the news intern/staffer at Fox simply not know their history?  Did they not take a survey class, when their instructor, talking about the causes of the Civil War, showed them pictures of Lincoln and Douglas and talked about the arguments?  Or was it assumed, that because the program was trying to make a connection to Hillary Clinton (white) and Barack Obama (black), that it simply assumed that Douglas had to be black?  Is this just an error, a goof, a mistake, or is it one with a deeper meaning that reveals our own views on history and race?  The optimist in me says it was just an error and that Americans knew the real Douglas.  The realist in me, teaching history in a society that does not seem to value a sense of the past as they once did, thinks otherwise. 

The concern I have with historical illiteracy prompted me to create the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Symposium.  On Monday October 13, 2008, Dr. Lucas Morel will come to ESU to talk about race, slavery and the sprit of 1776, as it applies to the Lincoln Douglas debates.  This is the first of five significant and important presentations that have been designed to share Lincoln with the public once again.  My own hope is that someone in the audience, when they work for a news organization, will pipe up in a production meeting and say, Douglas was that white, chubby guy.