Showing posts with label Abraham Lincoln. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Abraham Lincoln. Show all posts

Thursday, November 28, 2013

The History of National Thanksgiving

[Here we repost a piece on the history of Thanksgiving that originally appeared on Thursday November 25, 2010]  
Heather Cox Richardson

Anyone who cares about the history of Thanksgiving generally knows that the Pilgrims and the Wampanoags shared a feast in fall 1621, and that early American leaders periodically declared days of thanksgiving when settlers were supposed to give their thanks for continued life and—with luck—prosperity.

The story of how Thanksgiving became a national holiday is fuzzier. I’ve always heard that Lincoln proclaimed a national holiday in 1863, but just how and why was never clear.

The answer is that Lincoln appears essentially to have been pushed into declaring a national holiday in 1863. With that pressure behind him, he recognized that he could use a holiday for an important political statement. Consummate politician that he was, he did so. But he did not stop there. Lincoln pivoted his political statement to express a larger vision of what America should stand for.

Here is how it happened:

An astonishing seventeen state governors declared state thanksgiving holidays in November and December of 1862. The war was going badly for the Union, but the armies still held. Leaders recognized the need to acknowledge the suffering, and yet to keep Americans loyal to the cause. New York governor Edwin Morgan’s widely reprinted proclamation about the holiday reflected that the previous year “is numbered among the dark periods of history, and its sorrowful records are graven on many hearthstones.” But this was nonetheless a time for giving thanks, because “the precious blood shed in the cause of our country will hallow and strengthen our love and our reverence for it and its institutions. . . . Our Government and institutions placed in jeopardy have brought us to a more just appreciation of their value.” (NYT, 11/27/1862, p. 8)

Monday, November 18, 2013

What the Gettysburg Address Means for America Today

Heather Cox Richardson

On November 19, 1863, President Lincoln spoke at the dedication of a national cemetery at Gettysburg. When the battered armies limped out of Pennsylvania after July’s brutal fight, they left behind them more than 7000 corpses in a town with fewer than 2500 inhabitants. With the heat of a summer sun beating down, getting the dead soldiers into the ground quickly was imperative. A local lawyer urged
Lincoln at Gettysburg, about three hours before he gave his address.
Washington to establish a national cemetery in the town, where the soldiers could be interred with dignity. Officials agreed, and the lawyer planned an elaborate dedication ceremony. The organizers invited state governors, members of Congress, and cabinet members to attend. They asked prominent orator Edward Everett to deliver the keynote address. And, almost as an afterthought, they asked President Lincoln to make a few remarks. While they probably thought he would not attend, or that if he came he would simply mouth a few platitudes and sit down, President Lincoln had something different in mind.

About 15,000 people gathered in Gettysburg for the ceremony. A program of music and prayers preceded Everett’s two-hour oration. Then, after another hymn, Lincoln got up to speak. Packed in the midst of a sea of frock coats, he began. In his high-pitched voice, he delivered a two-minute speech that redefined the nation.

Monday, April 22, 2013

The Emancipators: Jackie Robinson, Branch Rickey, and the Politics of 42

Chris Beneke

In a famous photograph of baseball star Jackie Robinson and Brooklyn Dodgers General Manager Branch Rickey, the African American legend prepares to sign his 1948 contract. As he does so, the viewer of this staged scene can make out a small photo hung above Rickey’s head at top right. From that modest rectangular frame, a young, beardless Abraham Lincoln gazes upon the scene.*

Three years earlier, Robinson met Rickey under that same gaze and the two men discussed, among many other things, their shared Christian devotion. During this tense  and seemingly interminable meeting that would lead to the end of baseball’s longstanding prohibition on black players, Rickey had Robinson read a line from Giovanni Papini’s Life of Christ: “But whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Robinson agreed to turn the other cheek and in April 1947, he joined the Dodgers as the first African American major leaguer in more than half a century. 

There’s no getting around the fact that the latest retelling of Robinson’s epic first season, Brian Helgeland’s film 42, succumbs to Hollywood sentimentality. It’s certainly not a great film, arguably not a good film, and definitely not a subtle one. It aims at a high-level of verisimilitude and mostly achieves it, but too often at the expense of dramatic effect and historical significance. The awkward conflation of events (Dodger scout Clyde Sukeforth appears to apparate, Harry Potter-style, into a Missouri gas station where Robinson has just negotiated his way into a segregated bathroom) and a syrupy musical backdrop (including an Olympian trumpet fanfare to accompany one of Robinson’s exultant trots to home plate) will surely disappoint viewers who were lured by the gritty, thumping Jay-Z-scored trailer.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Mapping the Past Roundup

Maureen McGavin, "Digital project focuses on Lincoln-based sermons," Emory News Center, February 22, 2013
The route of Lincoln's funeral train

A group of graduate students at Emory University specializing in digital research in the humanities have created a new website that uses digital tools to analyze and compare the text of sermons delivered after Abraham Lincoln's assassination.

Their project uses various digital text tools to map geographic and thematic patterns in the collection of 57 sermons, which reside in the Manuscript, Archives and Rare Book Library of Emory's Robert W. Woodruff Library. The scholars are calling their project "Lincoln Logarithms: Finding Meaning in Sermons" and they hope it will become a model for the next wave of research in the humanities.

Max Fisher, "A surprising map of the world’s national holidays (only two countries have no national day)," Washington Post, February 26, 2013

This map, inspired by a Reddit thread with a similar map, shows the national days of the world’s countries. As you can see, the world is mostly divided between countries that celebrate a national independence day and countries that celebrate a national unification or revolution day. The outliers are a tiny minority, and only two countries have no formal national day at all.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

How a Nation Reports its Grief

Glenn Alan Cheney*
Theatre box where Abraham Lincoln was
shot on April 14, 1865. Ford's Theatre,
Washington, D.C. Courtesy of the Library
of Congress.
When I started compiling How a Nation Grieves: Press Accounts of the Death of Lincoln, the Hunt for Booth, andAmerica in Mourning, I had little intention of pulling together a whole book. But I soon realized I was witnessing—not reading about but witnessingthe most traumatic moment in American history. The assassination of Lincoln had shocked North and South alike.

Except for the people at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865, the American people witnessed the national trauma through newspapers. Journalism was a little different in those days. Its practitioners were not restricted to today’s dispassionate, professional voice. They were expected to provide details, and they were free to use language to connote the emotions that came with those details.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

History and Memory of American Slavery Roundup

Eastman Johnson, "A Ride for Liberty: The Fugitive," 1862
"Piecing Together Stories Of Families 'Lost In Slavery,'" NPR, July 16, 2012

For decades, slavery tore apart African-American families. Children were sold off from their mothers, and husbands were taken from their wives. Many desperately tried to keep track of each other, even running away to find loved ones. After the Civil War and emancipation, these efforts intensified. Freed slaves posted ads in newspapers and wrote letters — seeking any clue to a family member's whereabouts.

In Help Me to Find My People, author Heather Andrea Williams examines the emotional toll of separation during slavery and of the arduous journey many slaves took to reunite their families.

Christian Boone, "Controversial slavery mural gets new home," Atlanta Journal-Constitution, July 16, 2012

A controversial mural depicting slavery that until recently greeted visitors to the Georgia Department of Agriculture will be back on display starting in August.

The Georgia Museum of Art, located on the University of Georgia campus, has rescued the painting — part of a series of murals produced by Atlanta-based artist George Beattie in 1956 chronicling the state's agricultural history — from a state storage facility and will debut the collection Aug.

Amy Wimmer Schwarb, "U.S. conference highlights slaves' southern path to freedom," Reuters, June 20, 2012

With the North Star as the guiding light for runaway slaves and Canada as the Promised Land, the underground railroad that U.S. schoolchildren read about in textbooks points to freedom in just one direction - the north.

But scholars gathering this week for the National Underground Railroad Conference will head south to St. Augustine, Florida, home to the former capital of Spanish Florida and a flight-to-freedom story rooted in the 17th century that is unknown to most Americans.

Ira Chernus, "Slavery and 'Big Government': The Emancipation Proclamation’s Lessons 150 Years Later," History News Network, July 12, 2012

One hundred fifty years ago today, on July 13, 1862, Abraham Lincoln went out for a carriage ride with his Secretary of State, William Seward, and his Secretary of the Navy, Gideon Welles. Lincoln told them (as Welles recalled it) that he had “about come to the conclusion that it was a military necessity absolutely essential for the salvation of the Union, that we must free the slaves.” That was the seed of conception for the Emancipation Proclamation, which came to birth five and half months later, giving Lincoln his greatest legacy: “He freed the slaves.” It’s a story everyone knows.

But it’s not quite accurate. Only the slaves in the Confederate states were emancipated. Citizens of the Union could still own slaves.

Dawn Turner Trice, "First lady's ancestry an American story," Chicago Tribune, June 18, 2012

Many Americans are fascinated by the family history of Michelle Obama, a descendant of slaves who is the nation's first African-American first lady.

You've learned a lot about her ancestry in this newspaper. Now, add to that a new book due out Tuesday, "American Tapestry: The Story of the Black, White, and Multiracial Ancestors of Michelle Obama."

Monday, March 19, 2012


Chris Beneke

NPR recently aired a story on the tower of 7,000 Abraham Lincoln-centered books (they’re actually replicas and amount to roughly half of the 15,000 total Lincoln volumes in existence) that now extends 34 feet above the floor of Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. It’s an arresting sight, a soaring tribute to our most important president and the historians who have written about him.

What this immense stack portends to a graduate student considering a career in Lincoln studies, I can only dimly fathom. It’s worth noting that there was no foundation of journal articles here; just books. Most of us won’t have reason to find the Lincoln book tower so daunting. We spend our professional lives erecting theses upon much less imposing and much more manageable stacks of historiography.

Still, the Lincoln Tower heralds an increasingly universal condition among historians that we might term superabundance. The problem derives from the formidable supply of primary sources—thanks to Google Books and other online repositories of historical texts—as well as our output of monographs, journal articles, and dissertations. As a result, what often makes historical research challenging today has less to do with the scarcity of primary sources or their geographic dispersal than the mini-towers of primary and secondary sources that we need to sort through on our way to an original argument. Superabundance is a first-world-type problem in that it mainly afflicts the comfortable and its direct consequences, which may include regular bouts of ennui, are far from catastrophic. Still, it’s an “issue,” as Americans like to describe their non-fatal maladies.

Historians aren’t alone in confronting the scholarly challenges posed by superabundance. Nearly every other academic field is afflicted by its own prodigious production. In a 2009 issue of Chronicle of Higher Education, Mark Bauerlein reported that “[f]rom 1986 to 2008, Wordsworth collected 2,257 books, chapters, dissertations, etc. Faulkner came in at 2,781, Milton at 3,294, Whitman at 1,509, Woolf at 3,217, and Shakespeare at 18,799.”

No doubt many thousands of illuminating volumes on Lincoln and Shakespeare are yet to be written. But how many more—and at what rate? This is the weightier question posed by our own scholarly superabundance. The good embodied in that indomitable stack of Lincoln volumes is not the profit that some ideal reader might reap from digesting every single one of them, because no sane person would—and certainly not a person who hoped to ever write anything themselves. Moreover, and this warrants more than passing mention, only a handful of libraries can now afford to own more than a fraction of the total.

Recognizing that humanities research contributes a great deal to the public good and that every teaching historian should have extensive and regular experience with it, would higher education be any worse if only 2000 works on Lincoln were produced over the next decade, as opposed to 2500? Would our public culture suffer? Over the last three years or so, Mark Bauerlein has been unsettling Chronicle readers with questions of just this sort. In particular, he asks: Might there be diminishing marginal returns in humanities scholarship? And might the sheer volume of this production bury high quality work under a heap of scholarly mediocrity?

Last May, Stephen J. Mexal countered Bauerlein with a stout defense of research quantity, arguing from the twin premises that 1) “we cannot know in advance which projects will matter, or in what way. The easiest way to account for this uncertainty is to produce as much work as possible and let the future worry about quality or utility” and 2) the peer review process is indefinitely scalable and “a larger community of active scholars means a stronger, more democratic community of ‘peers’ to perform the valuable work of peer review.” (For another astute consideration along these lines—comparing scholarly projects to the risks inherent in new business enterprises—see Johann Neem’s post, “The Value of Useless Research.”)

Mexal and Neem make a convincing case for generous funding of a wide-range of humanities research, which I’m pretty sure Bauerlein also favors. But Bauerlein’s argument is really about priorities. It assumes a resource-neutral environment in which the superabundance represented by the tower of Lincoln books is not a reason to halt, or even significantly curtail research, but simply to reevaluate our priorities as scholars and teachers. Perhaps wary of too close an association with market economics, Bauerlein calls it “redistribution.” What he’s really pointing to is the need for a realignment of incentives. It boils down to this: If we’re going to improve the quality of higher education and expand its impact, we may need to reward interaction with students more generously and reward individual research quantity less so.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Battle of Olustee, February 20, 1864

Heather Cox Richardson

Monday was the anniversary of the Battle of Olustee, the largest Civil War battle fought in Florida. Although few people today have even heard of it, Olustee was crucial in convincing Civil War era Americans to accept black freedom.

On February 7, 1864, Federal troops landed in Jacksonville. Carving Florida off from the rest of the Confederacy had several obvious advantages. First, the Confederacy was hurting for food, especially cattle. When the Union took the Mississippi River, it cut off the Texas herds from the rest of the South. The cattle herds in Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina, and South Carolina could not fill the gap. If the Union could cut the lines for moving the Florida cattle that still fed the South in 1864, it would be closer to starving the South into submission. One general estimated in 1864 that 20,000 head of cattle and 10,000 hogs a year went from Florida to feed the Southern armies.

President Lincoln also wanted to reorganize Florida out from under the Confederacy as a free state much as he was trying to do in Louisiana. Opponents carped that he was trying to get Florida back into Congress so he could count on more electoral votes in the 1864 election, although there were obvious reasons to want Florida back on the Union side even without the president’s reelection fight looming on the horizon.

Finally, an excursion into Florida promised to attract black recruits to fight for the Union. And in 1864, new soldiers would be quite welcome to the battle-thinned Union ranks.

Brigadier General Truman Seymour, the head of the expedition, had strict orders not to move far from Jacksonville. Instead, Union troops under Colonel Guy V. Henry of the Fortieth Massachusetts mounted quick raids that destroyed supplies and reconnoitered the Confederate army. Their operations among the poor and dispirited people were successful and relatively painless: they suffered few losses.

It was perhaps the ease of the raiding to that date that made General Seymour decide on February 17 to march his 5,500 men 100 miles west to destroy the railroad bridge over the Suwanee River. Seymour did not know that Confederate officers had surmised the danger to Florida and had moved troops quickly to prevent Union troops from gaining a foothold in the interior. Five thousand Confederates under Brigadier General Joseph Finegan were encamped on the road Seymour’s men would take, near the railroad station at Olustee, about fifty miles from Jacksonville.

When the two armies came together in mid-afternoon on February 20, Seymour threw his men in without much forethought, apparently believing he was up against the same ragtag fighters Henry had been smashing for weeks. But Finegan’s men were experienced troops. They trained their cannons and held their ground. The Union lost more than 1800 men to the Confederacy’s 950. Most of the surviving Union soldiers ran from the field to hightail it down the road back to Jacksonville.[1]

The Union rout did not turn into a panic solely because the remnants of the Massachusetts 54th and the 35th U. S. Colored Troops held the Confederates back to cover the retreat. The soldiers of the Massachusetts 54th had earned their reputation for bravery in the assault at Fort Wagner, near Charleston, South Carolina the previous July. At Olustee, the black soldiers from the 54th and the 35th held their ground until past dark, enabling the white troops to get safely out of range, before they received their orders to move back toward Jacksonville.

Few people now remember Florida’s major Civil War battle, but it made a searing impression on President Lincoln. “There have been men who have proposed to me to return to slavery the black warriors of Port Hudson & Olustee to their masters to conciliate the South,” he told visitors in August 1864. “I should be damned in time & in eternity for so doing.” (AL to Alexander W. Randall and Joseph T. Mills, August 19, 1864, in Roy P. Basler, Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, volume 7, pp. 507.)

The New York Times noted that the Colonel Henry had three horses shot out from under him during the battle, but was himself unhurt. His luck would not hold. Henry continued to serve in the army until 1892. He fought in the Apache campaign before joining the Sioux Wars. He was shot in the face in the Battle of the Rosebud, losing part of his cheek and one eye. He later led the Ninth Cavalry in the events surrounding the Ghost Dance and Wounded Knee Massacre.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Exploring History from National Geographic

Randall Stephens

National Geographic has rolled out a new magazine, Exploring History, which promises readable and easily accessible essays and features on ancient to modern topics. The magazine has the polish of History Today, though it does not include the range of historians that HT does so well.

The first installment includes a cover story on Abraham Lincoln that delves into that giant's political career and his inner world. K. M. Kostyal presents the man who would become the 16th president as a contrarian:

Growing up in a land of hunters, he spurned hunting; in a land of overt religiosity, he was a skeptic and kept his beliefs private, in a frontier society preoccupied with physical labor, he disdained it, in an environment indifferent to education, he had a passion for learning; raised by farmers, he left the farm; in a rough-cut male culture, he didn't smoke, chew, curse, gamble, or drink; surrounded by slavery sympathizers, he opposed it.

Kostyal draws on the work of scholars and uses firsthand sources throughout and asks "What propelled Abe Lincoln from the obscurity of frontier life to leading the nation, and becoming the most written about president of the United States?" Like other articles in this inaugural issue, this piece could be used for undergrads in a history survey.

The Fall 2011 issue also includes essays on "Rome's War Machine," "The Rise and Fall of Moctezuma," "Joan of Arc--Beyond Belief," and "Birth of the Pyramids." Editor Anne Alexander writes "Just as National Geographic has been revealing the wonders of the world to readers for more than a century, this magazine will dig deep to unlock the mysteries of time, from the dawn of civilization to the modern era."

Richly illustrated and laid out with clean precision, Exploring History is a must have for history buffs, general enthusiasts, teachers, and professional historians.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Abraham Lincoln's Bank War, or Whigs Leaping out of Windows

Randall Stephens

Everyone now knows the story of how Wisconsin state senators stopped the wheels of government, for a moment at least, by getting out of the state. Over at the the Chicago Tribune Eric Zorn points out another such instance ("As a State Legislator, Lincoln Tried to Play the 'Run Away' Game, too," Chicago Tribune blog, Feb 21, 2011). In 1840 Lincoln and the Illinois Whigs tried the same exit strategy against the then-dominant Democrats. (Zorn quotes from Gerald J. Prokopowicz's book on the topic.) The Whigs hoped to build canals and railroads throughout the state. And then the Panic of 1837 set in. The Democrats and the Whigs squared off on the matter of the Illinois State Bank. What transpired played out some of the national themes of the Jacksonian era.

A bit more on it from Alexander Davidson and Bernard Stuvé, A Complete History of Illinois from 1673 to 1873 (Springfield, 1874), 423.

Parties in Illinois became almost divided upon the subject of the banks. Nearly all the leading democrats opposed them and the acts legalizing their suspensions, although they were authorized and their capital stocks were increased irrespective of party. The whigs were called bank-vassals and rag-ocracy, and charged to be bought and owned by British gold. The bank officers were sarcastically denominated rag-barons; and the money was called rags and printed lies. The whigs retorted that the democrats were disloyal, and destructive of their own government; that the banks were the institution of the State, and to make war upon the currency was to oppose its commerce and impede its growth and development. Although parties were in a measure divided upon the banks, with the democrats largely in the majority, this was not without benefit to those institutions. It gave them unswerving friends. Besides, the merchants and business men of that day were, with rare exceptions, whigs, who gave currency or not to the money as they pleased. Partisan zeal led them to profess that the banks were not only solvent, but that they were unduly pursued, and that the opposition to them was nothing but absurd party cry.

When the suspensions of the banks was legalized again in 1839, it was to extend until the end of the next general or special session of the general assembly. The legislature for 1840-41 was convened two weeks before the commencement of the regular session to provide means to pay the interest on the public debt, due on the first of January following. . . . The democrats now, however, thought that their time of triumph had arrived. It was by them contended, that that portion of the session preceding the time fixed for the regular session to begin, constituted a special session, and if the suspension was not further extended, the banks would be compelled to resume specie payment on the day the regular session should begin or forfeit their charters and stop business. Upon the other hand, it was contended that the whole constituted but one session. Much party animosity was, besides, manifested at this session. The fate of the banks seemed to hang upon the motion pending to adjourn the first part of the session nine die. It was perceived that the motion would prevail. To defeat it in the House, the whigs now essayed to break the quorum. But the doors were closed, a call of the House ordered, and the sergeant at arms sent in quest of the absentees. The whigs, being thus cut off from the usual avenues of retreat, bounded pell mell out of the windows, but without avail—enough were held in durance to make a quorum, and the sine die adjournment was carried.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Andrew Johnson Sworn in as President

Heather Cox Richardson

It always surprises me how much I think I know about Civil War history that I really don’t.

What did it mean that Georgia was “remanded to military rule” in 1869? I always thought that phrase indicated that troops marched into the state and took control. That’s wrong. Actually, what being “remanded to military rule” meant was that Congress did not seat the elected representatives from Georgia that session.

What did it mean that President Rutherford B. Hayes “removed the troops from the South” in 1877? That always sounded to me like the soldiers packed up and moved out. That’s wrong, too. Actually, in April 1877, the president removed federal troops from around the South Carolina State House, permitting Wade Hampton’s men to take control of the government from Republican incumbent Daniel Chamberlain. (There were very few troops in the South at that point, in any case, since many had been moved to the northwest plains to fight the Lakota and Northern Cheyenne in 1876. More moved out in summer 1877 to combat the Great Railroad Strike.) Federal troops remained in the South for years after 1877, a nominal number, but enough to be a thorn in the side of Southern Democrats.

Knowing that much we “know” is wrong, I’ve always wondered if Andrew Johnson was actually president during Reconstruction, or if he was only acting president—a legal distinction, to be sure, but an important one.

It turns out that this is a story we’ve gotten right. Johnson did, indeed, take the oath of office and become president, not simply acting president, of the United States.

On Monday, April 17, 1865, the New York Times ran a stark account of the event, the very sparseness of the language conveying some of the reporter’s shock at what had transpired in the past two days.

Shortly after President Lincoln breathed his last at 7:22 on April 15, Attorney General James Speed visited Vice-President Johnson at his rooms in Kirkwood House on Pennsylvania Avenue. The newspaper reporter simply recorded that Speed delivered a message informing Johnson of Lincoln’s death and impressing upon him that “the emergency of the government” required that he take the oath of office immediately. What he did not say was that James Speed was the older brother of Lincoln’s best friend Joshua Speed, and that he was quite likely both in shock and in tears.

Johnson replied that he would take the oath at 10:00 in his rooms.

At that hour, eleven men arrived at Kirkwood House for the ceremony. Curiously, they presented a fair representation of Lincoln’s presidency.

Lincoln had close friends there from the early years in which he had learned his profession and built a political following. James Speed attended, undoubtedly remembering the younger Lincoln who had roomed with his brother and visited the older James at his law office in Kentucky to talk business. Two of Lincoln’s friends from his early days in Illinois also came: Senator Richard Yates, with whom a young Lincoln had plotted for political advancement, and General John F. Farnsworth, who was a fan of the off-color jokes Lincoln used to appeal to rural voters.
There were wartime political rivals like Salmon P. Chase, whom Lincoln had recently neutralized by appointing him Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, who arrived to administer the oath of office to Lincoln’s successor.

There were political associates who understood the difficulties Lincoln had suffered under for the past four years, and who had wished him well. Frank and Montgomery Blair, father and son, former Democrats and strong Lincoln supporters from border regions had come; hot-tempered Montgomery had been Lincoln’s Postmaster General for three years. Also there was Secretary of the Treasury, Hugh McCulloch, who had seen Lincoln the morning of the assassination and was relieved to see that that war-weary president seemed happier and more cheerful than McCulloch had ever seen him.

Solomon Foot, president pro tem of the recently adjourned Senate, and Senator Alexander Ramsey of Minnesota, who was not especially close to the president, lent the gravitas of the party organization to the occasion.

Newcomers eager to underline their connection to the famous president were represented by Senator William M. Stewart, of Nevada, who had shaken Lincoln’s hand the night before outside his carriage as he left for the theater, and who later claimed to have received the very last lines Lincoln ever wrote: a note inviting Stewart to bring a friend to meet the president the next morning, a memo whose significance Stewart could not anticipate, and that he threw away as soon as he had read it.

Finally, staunch Republican Senator John P. Hale of New Hampshire was there, an unhappy symbol of Lincoln’s assassination. Hale’s daughter Lucy was a Washington belle, and was romantically involved in some fashion with John Wilkes Booth—possibly secretly engaged to the famous actor.

The eleven men gathered in Johnson’s rooms. Chief Justice Chase read the oath of office, and Johnson repeated it. Chase declared Johnson president, and those gathered gave him their best wishes.

“All were deeply impressed by the solemnity of the occasion,” the New York Times reporter wrote.


Friday, November 19, 2010

Lincoln and November 19, 1863… 1864… and 1865

Heather Cox Richardson

Seven score and seven years ago Abraham Lincoln brought forth on this continent a new sentiment, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Civil War historians know the Gettysburg Address so well that writing about it seems almost trite. We lecture about it; we teach it in discussion groups; we know it by heart.

It is hardly innovative to note that this famous speech marked a turning point in the meaning of the Civil War. With his masterful invocation of the Declaration of Independence, President Lincoln redefined the conflict. No longer would it be a fight solely to prevent the dismembering of the Union; from 1863 forward, it would be a struggle to guarantee that everyone born in America would have equal access to education, economic opportunity, and the law.
Lincoln’s declaration was truly a rededication of America. This, as much as anything, earned Lincoln a dominant place in the American pantheon. His words spoke directly to the true meaning of modern America.

But this belief in equality in America has never gone uncontested. It seems that Lincoln could have been speaking to the present when he warned at Gettysburg that the living must defend the legacy of the dead: “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. 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.”

A year to the day after delivering the Gettysburg Address, on November 19, 1864, President Lincoln offered another epigram about America.

Among the blizzard of correspondence that crossed his desk that day was a brief note the President jotted to General William S. Rosecrans. In it, Lincoln stayed the execution of Confederate Major Enoch O. Wolf, convicted of murdering Major James Wilson and six members of the cavalry of the 3rd Missouri State Militia.

The President freely admitted he did not know anything of the circumstances of the case, and that the decision about Wolf’s future was in Rosecrans’s hands. He had suspended the sentence because he wanted to make sure Rosecrans understood that the general’s own inclinations were unimportant, and that he must do only what was best for the nation. “I wish you to do nothing merely for revenge,” Lincoln wrote, “but that what you may do, shall be solely done with reference to the security of the future.”

After 1863, Lincoln turned his masterful political skills solely toward securing equality for all Americans. As he counseled Rosecrans to do, he lost himself in his vision for the nation. Lincoln took hit after political hit, deflected opponents’ wrath with wry stories, and tried to find middle ground with his enemies. As he indicated to Rosecrans, he had only one goal: to make the American dream accessible to all Americans.

In the end, Lincoln was unable to blunt the hatred of the men who saw his defense of equality as an assault on civilization. By November 19, 1865, the President was dead. But he left behind him a new vision of America, and a charge to those born after the night that he, too, died for it: “that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.”

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

150 Years Ago

Randall Stephens

The Chicago Tribune marks an interesting anniversary. It was 150 years ago on May 18, 1860, that the Republican Party nominated Abraham Lincoln for its national ticket. "From the perspective of 150 years," writes Richard Norton Smith, "it seems providential that Republicans should hold their 1860 convention in Chicago; that they should pass over their young party's most prominent figures, choosing instead a one-term congressman and unsuccessful Senate candidate who would go on to set the standard for presidential leadership." Lincoln, the rail splitter, took on a mythical air to supporters, a monstrous "black republican" aspect to his many critics.

This from Life and Speeches of Abraham Lincoln (New York, 1860):


The following is the correspondence between the officers of the Republican National Convention and the candidates thereof for President and Vice-President:

Chicago, May 18, 1860.

To the Honorable Abraham Lincoln, of Illinois:

Sir:—The representatives of the Republican party of the United States, assembled in convention at Chicago, have, this day, by a unanimous vote, selected you as the Republican candidate for the office of President of the United States, to be supported at the next election ; and the undersigned were appointed a committee of the convention to apprize you of this nomination, and respectfully to request that you will accept it. A declaration of the principles and sentiments adopted by the convention, accompanies this communication.

In the performance of this agreeable duty, we take leave to add our confident assurance that the nomination of the Chicago convention will be ratified by the suffrages of the people.

We have the honor to be, with great respect and regard, your friends and fellow-citizens . . .

Sir:—I accept the nomination tendered me by the convention over which you presided, and of which I am formally apprized in the letter of yourself and others, acting as a committee of the convention, for that purpose.

The declaration of principles and sentiments, which accompanies your letter, meets my approval; and it shall be my care not to violate or disregard it, in any part.

Imploring the assistance of Divine Providence, and with due regard to the views and feelings of all who were represented in the convention; to the rights of all the States and territories, and people of the nation; to the inviolability of the Constitution, and the perpetual union, harmony, and prosperity of all, I am most happy to co-operate for the practical success of the principles declared by the convention.

Your obliged friend and fellow-citizen,

Abraham Lincoln

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Abolitionism's Two Formulations

Donald A. Yerxa

Last night Andrew Delbanco gave the Alexis de Tocqueville Lecture on American Politics at Harvard’s Center for American Politics. His “Abolition and American Culture” was a provocative interdisciplinary assessment of antebellum abolitionists (‘the originals”) that also explored abolition as an enduring American cultural dynamic. Without detracting from the originals’ accomplishments, Delbanco believes that more measured approbation acknowledging the “limits of the abolitionist imagination” is needed. Their sacred rage, uncompromising fervor, and furious certitude, he noted, indeed broadened the horizons of the possible in American society—no small thing! But this needs to be considered in the light of the fact that it took the pragmatic Lincoln and a very bloody Civil War to end slavery.

One of the four scholars Harvard invited to respond to Delbanco was THS board member Wilfred McClay. In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that not only is Bill McClay a dear friend, in my opinion he is one of the finest historical essayists of his generation. And this was an ideal venue for his formidable skills. McClay observed that the Puritan-abolitionist style seems prone to a “strange combination of moral grandeur and nannying coerciveness.” In the main agreeing with Delbanco, McClay stressed the importance of the abolitionists’ millenarian religious fervor: “No religion. No abolitionism; it’s that simple.” And like Delbanco, McClay appreciates that abolitionism is amenable to two formulations. The prophetic moral clarity that single-mindedly has named evil as just that also exhibits overbearing and coercive tendencies that seemingly blind it to “the limits of human intentionality and the abyss of unknowable consequences.”

It was not hard to imagine Reinhold Niebuhr looking down on the proceedings last night at Harvard with a smile. And I was also reminded of David Brion Davis’s claim that history is a kind of moral philosophy, teaching by example. Single-minded devotion to noble ends stirs the moral imagination, but it also breeds a moral certitude that flirts with godlike mastery, which in some religious traditions is humanity’s besetting—even "original"?—sin. Much to ponder not only as we reflect on the 19th-century American experience, but also as we consider our present state of affairs.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

New Issue of the Journal of the Historical Society

The September issue of the Journal of the Historical Society has hit the streets/shelves. Copies are available from Wiley. Subscribe to THS and receive four issues/year plus five issues of Historically Speaking. This new issue of the journal includes a forum on Vernon Burton's The Age of Lincoln, along with essays on abolitionism, Christian missions, and the history of medicine.

The Journal of the Historical Society, September 2009

"Introduction to the Forum on The Age of Lincoln"
Eric Arnesen

"Vernon Burton's The Age of Lincoln: A New Approach to Religion, Reform, and Abolitionism"
Bertram Wyatt-Brown

"'I Always Thought 'Dixie' One of the Best Tunes I Ever Heard': Lincoln's Claims on the South and the South's Claims on Lincoln"
Stephen Berry

"The Southern Abraham?"
David Moltke-Hansen

"Author's Response to the Southern Intellectual History Circle Forum on The Age of Lincoln"
Orville Vernon Burton

"Confronting Abolitionism: Bishop John England, American Catholicism, and Slavery"
Adam L. Tate

"They Twain Shall be One Flesh: The Courtship and Marriage of Thomas Hudson and Mary Aulick, Baptist Missionaries to China in the 1890s"
Keith Harper

"Reticence in Action: The Antisepsis Controversy"
Stewart Justman