Archive for October, 2008

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.

Welcome to the Lincoln bLOG and Lincoln diaLOGS

October 6, 2008

Welcome!  What you are about to read is the first of my weekly posts to the Lincoln bLog, created in conjunction with the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Symposium.  The bLog is designed to spark discussion about Lincoln and his place in the 21st century.  The views expressed in this diaLOG are that of the author, and at times, Lincoln.  Hopefully, these posts will raise more questions than answers, as our nation now ponders what Lincoln means to us today.  Feel free to leave your comments on each topic.  Thank you!  BCM