Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Abraham Lincoln Enloe, Part 2

Kentucky Cabin

A strange set of principles govern the news business. Take, for instance, the marvels of modern aviation. Thousands of airplanes will land today at airports all around the country. Aside from a little jet lag, travelers will arrive safely at their destinations. But those stories won't make the nightly news. However, if, God forbid, one of those planes happened to crash, the story would make headlines on the internet, television, and in tomorrow's paper. "News" is often a collection of unusual stories.

For the past several weeks, reporters have been drawn to the story of Abraham Lincoln's birthplace. Of course, the traditional story is well-known. The future president was born in a humble one-room Kentucky cabin to Nancy Hanks and her husband, Thomas Lincoln. However, that is not the sort of story that makes the paper. Remember, a dog bite is not news, but the man or woman who gets on all fours and takes a bite out of a dog deserves to be interviewed.

The recent Lincoln headlines tell an unconventional story:

"Lincoln's Birth Site Disputed," Fort Wayne News-Sentinel

"Group Says N. C. is Lincoln Birthplace," Lexington Herald-Leader

"North Carolina Dares to Rewrite Lincoln Story," The Indianapolis Star

All of the stories are reprints of the original Associated Press story regarding the new Bostic Lincoln Center in North Carolina, which claims everything you thought you knew about Lincoln's birth is wrong. You may recall, I reported on this story a few months ago and weighed-in on their many dubious conclusions.

However, the recent story adds an interesting twist to the tale. The folks who believe Lincoln was born in North Carolina also believe that Abraham Enloe, not Thomas Lincoln, fathered the future president. Therefore, according to the AP, these folks are now "petitioning the federal government to run a DNA test of Lincoln's father, Thomas, to see if it matches some of the 16th president's saved genetic material."

While their request begs a number of intriguing legal and ethical questions, I doubt the folks in North Carolina will indeed “rewrite the Lincoln story.” However, one thing is certain: their efforts will continue to make headlines.

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

"A Warning," December 3, 1864


This political cartoon is something of a counterpoint to the one I wrote about last week.

“A Warning” appeared in a British publication called Fun on December 3, 1864, just a few weeks after Lincoln’s victory in the Election of 1864.

The artist portrays Lincoln as a war monger who is bent on prosecuting a costly and pointless war. The knife he is holding carries the words “Yanke LIBERTY.”

The woman leading the president away from the battlefield is, once again, Lady Columbia, who represents the nation. She tells the president:

“Lincoln, you have brought me to this, yet I have not flinched to perform my part of our contract. I still cling to you, that you may fulfil yours. You have swollen the earth with the blood of my children. Show me what I am to gain by this, or look for my dire vengeance in the future!”

Click Here to view a much larger version of this political cartoon.

Monday, April 28, 2008

If Obama is Lincoln, then Clinton is Seward

Clinton and Obama

I want to call your attention to a very interesting article published by this morning.

The author, Manisha Sinha, sees a parallel between the 2008 Democrat nominees and the Republican nominees of 1860. Specifically, Sinha pictures Obama as Lincoln, while Clinton most closely resembles William H. Seward.

I'm not sure if I buy Sinha's analogy, but her observations certainly got my mind running in an interesting direction. I could see a productive classroom discussion coming from this article.

Friday, April 25, 2008

Illinois Harvest Collection: Full Text Lincoln Books Online


Regular readers of know that I'm always on the prowl for useful research tools. I've found another one.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has digitized a great many books and they have made their collection available online. I gave the site a look and I was so pleased to see a rich collection of Lincolniana.

The Illinois Harvest collection boasts 369 digitized books on Lincoln, Slavery, and the Civil War. Much like Google Books, you can search this collection, read, or even download entire books. Many of these books are rare, most are out of print, and a good many of them are unavailable anywhere else on the internet.

Just a word of advice when using this collection: when you click on a book and decide you want to read it, I suggest using the "Flip Book" feature, it is marvelous!

I have included a link to the Illinois Harvest collection on our Links page. If you haven't given that page a look yet, check it out.

I think it is the finest page of Lincoln research links anywhere on the internet. As always, whenever you come across useful research links, send me an email and I will consider adding them to the page.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

"Compromise with the South" by Thomas Nast

I’ve been busy lately preparing a series of lectures on late nineteenth century political life. As I was searching the rich collection of images and audio files (yes, there are audio samples of speeches by Benjamin Harrison, Grover Cleveland, William McKinley, and Teddy Roosevelt!), I came across this political cartoon. It really captured my attention.

It appeared in Harper’s Weekly on September 3, 1864. The date is important.

As you know, these were incredibly dark days for the Union. The war showed no sign of slowing down, the Election of 1864 was quickly approaching, and Lincoln did not think he would succeed. In fact, about a week before this cartoon was published, Lincoln drafted his well-known “Probable Failure Memo.”

The 1864 Democratic platform called the war a failure and criticized emancipation. They advocated a cease fire with the South and called for negotiations.

Many within the Union thought the Democrat platform made sense. Prominent politicians of both parties, vocal newspaper editors, as well as mothers, fathers, friends, and families of the soldiers called for an end to the bloodshed. Go to the negotiating table, they said, and end this devastating conflict.

Thomas Nast directed this political cartoon to the folks who called for “Compromise with the South.”

As with any political cartoon, the symbols throughout this piece are incredibly significant.

The cartoon is divided in half. Nast reserves the left-hand side for the North, while the right depicts life in the South.

The Union side features a tattered American flag hanging upside down in an obvious signal of distress. Images of a ravaged Northern city, a home on fire, and a dead body complete the background.

The foreground is more complicated. A Union soldier on crutches is missing a leg. His head hangs low and he holds his hat in his hand. He shakes a Confederate soldier’s hand, but notice their embrace. The Union soldier merely holds out his hand, while the Confederate soldier maintains a firm grip.

A sobbing woman kneels beside the soldier, but notice: she is at the foot of a grave. The tombstone reads, “In Memory of the Union Heroes” who fought “in a Useless War.” The woman is Lady Columbia, a common nineteenth century representation of the United States. Both the Union soldier and Lady Columbia seem to recognize the scene for what it truly is. This is no “Compromise with the South,” this is a Union surrender.

The right side of the cartoon depicts the South. The Confederate soldier, who looks a lot like Jefferson Davis, stands tall with his head held high. He has a firm grip on the handshake and rests his foot on the grave of the Union dead. Notice too: his foot has broken the sword that represents Union power.

Nast saves his most powerful commentary for the images in the background. While the Confederate flag is tattered, it is flying right-side up. But on close examination, there is writing on the flag. The words are hard to make out, but they list several supposed crimes the South had committed throughout the sectional conflict.

There are dead soldiers and civilians in the background, but three people are among the living in the South. A man in a Union uniform, a woman, and a young child. On close examination, they are all African American. They are in chains. With the Union surrender, they are re-enslaved.

The Republican Party reprinted this powerful political cartoon and used it during the campaign of 1864.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Stephen A. Douglas at 195

Stephen A. Douglas

Abraham Lincoln's arch-rival, Stephen A. Douglas, was born in Brandon, Vermont 195 years ago today.

Douglas eventually settled in Illinos, where he went on to become one of the most well-known political figures of the nineteenth century. Illinois elected him to the state legislature and eventually elevated him to the position of Illinois Secretary of State. By age 27, Douglas becamae an associate justice of the Illinois Supreme Court.

But Douglas had national ambitions. He served two terms in the United States House of Representatives and three terms in the U. S. Senate, where he helped pass the Compromise of 1850 and the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

Lincoln and Douglas were opposites in nearly every respect. They were members of opposing political parties, held different views on slavery, economics, and the territories. Their differences continued down through their personal attributes as well; despite being just 5’4” and weighing around 100 lbs., Douglas had a deep baritone voice, while Lincoln was 6’4”, but his voice was high-pitched.

Of course, they opposed one another in 1858 in their famous race for the U. S. Senate and, just two years later, they ran against one another again, but this time for the presidency.

Though Douglas beat Lincoln in 1858, he was not so fortunate in 1860. To Douglas’ credit, he handled defeat gracefully. Not only did he attend Lincoln’s inaugural, but he held his long-time rival’s hat while he spoke.

Finally, in the days leading up to the Civil War, Douglas toured the country and delivered a speech commonly known as the “Save the Flag” speech. Douglas pleaded with his fellow countrymen to put party aside and rally around the cause of preserving the Union.

Unfortunately, the speaking tour wore Douglas down and he died prematurely, at the age of 48.

CLICK HERE to visit the Stephen A. Douglas Association.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Upcoming Events

National Presidents Wax Museum in South Dakota

There is quite a bit going on in terms of Lincoln activities. I thought I'd spend a moment this morning to pass along a few of the most interesting events planned for this weekend:

62nd Annual Boy Scout Lincoln Pilgrimage

Join the Boy Scouts of America on Friday April 25 through the 27th as they walk where Lincoln walked. They will visit sites throughout central Illinois, from Lincoln's New Salem to the Old State Capitol and Oak Ridge Cemetery in Springfield.

For more information, call Randy Scott at 217.546.5570 or visit their website

Pioneer Days

The Lincoln Pioneer Village in Rockport, Indiana will host their Pioneer Days Celebration on Saturday, April 26 from 10 AM to 4 PM.

For more information, call 812.649.9147 or visit their website

Lincoln Circuit Ride 2008

You may recall last year's post about this group. They're back!

Illinois' Old Eighth Judicial Circuit provided the life experiences that made Abraham Lincoln immortal. Over 2 weekends, we will make every attempt to ride the same roads and visit the same court houses as did Abe. Bring your children, grandchildren, friends and neighbors. On weekend 1 the tour leaves at 9 am April 26th, 8th & Capitol in Springfield. We will overnight in Lincoln and end at the Piatt/Champaign County Line Marker on April 27th.

For more information, call Rose at 217.891.6297 or visit their website

Our American Cousin

Sterling, Illinois invites you to their production of Our American Cousin, the play Lincoln was watching when he was assassinated.

Show times are Friday, April 27, 7:30 PM. Saturday, April 28, 7:30 PM. and Sunday, April 29, 2:00 PM.

Tickets are $10 for adults, $8 for students.

For more information, call Tim Tedrick at 815.622.3248 or visit their website

The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln

Professor George Hopkins, retired Western Illinois university, will present a lecture and slide show on the Lincoln assassination on Sunday, April 27, 2008 at 2pm in Peoria, Illinois.

The event is free and open to the public.

For more information call Mr. Leslie Kenyon at 309.674.7121

Monday, April 21, 2008

Four Volume Analysis of Lincoln's Legal Career

Time Magazine Cover, 2005

Congratulations to my friends at the Papers of Abraham Lincoln Project in Springfield.

They have released their long-awaited four-volume analysis of Lincoln's legal career.

The publisher describes this collection:

Many in politics began their careers in the law; no one has cut such a distinguished path in this regard as Abraham Lincoln. Before his presidency, from 1836 to 1861, Lincoln practiced law in the courts of central Illinois. Part of an ambitious undertaking to collect and publish the surviving documentary record of Lincoln's life, this four-volume set addresses his quarter-century law career.

Arranged chronologically, the four volumes present documents from more than fifty of Lincoln's most interesting, important, or representative cases, all of which are transcribed and annotated. The edition features illuminating essays on Lincoln's career as a lawyer and as a court official, as well as a biographical directory, an extensive legal glossary, and a cumulative index covering all four volumes.

Lincoln first studied the law, through private reading, during an early stint in the state legislature. His passion was evident from the start--he felt that a reverence for the law should be "the political religion of the nation"--and he distinguished himself rapidly. By his early thirties, he was already considered one of the finest attorneys in Illinois. The move of the state capital to Springfield (a shift that Lincoln, as a legislator, helped effect) brought the state supreme court, as well as the U.S. circuit and district courts, to Lincoln's hometown. This played an important role in his later political career; it also brings a useful federal dimension to the documents collected in this edition.

Rather than specializing, Lincoln practiced general law, and so we see him taking on both civil and criminal cases, with breaches of contract and patent infringements sharing space with bootlegging, assault, even murder cases. Much of his work concerned debt collection, for which Lincoln was known well beyond Illinois, and these cases provide a unique window on nineteenth-century business. Lincoln also went out on the road twice yearly to try cases in the state's circuit courts; this edition documents some of these tours in detail.

The cases represented paint a vivid picture of America in the decades leading up to the Civil War. The nation's surging expansion is reflected in cases over land speculation, property disputes, construction, and, of course, the railroads, whose interests are a consistent theme throughout. Other trials touch on domestic law, the Black Laws, even the California gold rush.

This collection will appeal to all scholars and students of the law and its history, as well as to anyone interested in antebellum America or presidential biography. No understanding of Lincoln is complete without a look at the great career in law that preceded his remarkable presidency. Published in association with the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency

Read More about this significant achievement at the State Journal-Register's website.

Friday, April 18, 2008

My Childhood's Home

Lincoln Boyhood, Indiana

Most people knew Abraham Lincoln liked poetry. He was more than willing to recite a poem for anyone who cared to listen. That is, as long as the poem was written by someone else.

He committed long passages written by Shakespeare and Byron to memory. However, his favorite poem, an obscure piece by William Knox titled, “Mortality,” usually made a deep impression upon his audience. On many occasions, people asked Lincoln if he had actually written the piece.

“Beyond all question, I am not the author,” Lincoln replied. “I would give all I am worth, and go in debt, to be able to write so fine a piece as I think that is.”

Few of Lincoln’s contemporaries knew he wrote verses of his own; he did not share his poetry.

April 18, 1846 was an exception. Lincoln had been corresponding with Andrew Johnston, a Quincy newspaper editor with a fine literary reputation. Lincoln told the editor that he had written a series of poems. He explained what inspired him:

In the fall of 1844, thinking I might aid some to carry the State of Indiana for Mr. Clay, I went into the neighborhood in that State in which I was raised, where my mother and only sister were buried, and from which I had been absent about fifteen years. That part of the country is, within itself, as unpoetical as any spot of the earth; but still, seeing it and its objects and inhabitants aroused feelings in me which were certainly poetry; though whether my expression of those feelings is poetry is quite another question. When I got to writing, the change of subjects divided the thing into four little divisions or cantos, the first only of which I send you now and may send the others hereafter.

Lincoln enclosed the following poem, known as “My Childhood’s Home,” in his letter to Johnston. The editor was impressed. He asked Lincoln if he could publish the piece in his newspaper.

Lincoln gave his consent, but told the editor to publish it anonymously. "I have not suffficient hope of the verses attracting any favorable notice to tempt me to risk being ridiculed for having written them," Lincoln explained.

My childhood's home I see again,
And sadden with the view;
And still, as memory crowds my brain,
There's pleasure in it too.

O Memory! thou midway world
'Twixt earth and paradise,
Where things decayed and loved ones lost
In dreamy shadows rise,

And, freed from all that's earthly vile,
Seem hallowed, pure, and bright,
Like scenes in some enchanted isle
All bathed in liquid light.

As dusky mountains please the eye
When twilight chases day;
As bugle-notes that, passing by,
In distance die away;

As leaving some grand waterfall,
We, lingering, list its roar---
So memory will hallow all
We've known, but know no more.

Near twenty years have passed away
Since here I bid farewell
To woods and fields, and scenes of play,
And playmates loved so well.

Where many were, but few remain
Of old familiar things;
But seeing them, to mind again
The lost and absent brings.

The friends I left that parting day,
How changed, as time has sped!
Young childhood grown, strong manhood gray,
And half of all are dead.

I hear the loved survivors tell
How nought from death could save,
Till every sound appears a knell,
And every spot a grave.

I range the fields with pensive tread,
And pace the hollow rooms,
And feel (companion of the dead)
I'm living in the tombs.[1]


[1] A second canto was sent in Lincoln's letter of September 6, 1846. Both cantos were published in the Quincy Whig, May 5, 1847. See letter of February 25, 1847, infra.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

New Statues at the Lincoln-Douglas Debate Site in Jonesboro

Jonesboro, IL Debate Site

I have good news to report this morning. The Lincoln-Douglas debate site in Anna-Jonesboro has a brand new pair of statues!

The folks in Jonesboro have worked very hard to get the site ready for the 150 year anniversary celebration, which will take place in September. I will pass along the information as it becomes available, along with some more photots of the statues.

Good job Jonesboro!

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

An Unpleasant Story from New Mexico

Fort Craig Cemetery, New Mexico

I really don’t like to read stories like this one. I’ll relay the information because I think it is important to be aware of these things, but be warned, this is not a fun story.

According to the Associated Press, federal archaeologists in New Mexico have been forced to exhume the graves of 67 Civil War era men, women, and children buried in an unmarked cemetery surrounding the ruins of Fort Craig, a nineteenth century structure with a rich history dating back to the Civil War and Indian Wars.

What would make the archaeologists do such a thing?

Well, they received a tip: grave robbers were operating in the area. Really? Grave robbers?

It gets worse.

Allegedly, an amateur historian had displayed “the mummified remains of a black soldier, draped in a Civil War-era uniform, in his house.”

The AP gives further details, but I’ll let you read them on your own if you wish.

After investigating the tip, archaeologists determined that 20 of the graves had indeed been looted.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

"Now He Belongs to the Ages"

Death Scene

April 15, 1865. The president dies.

They found a pulse. The president was unconscious, but still clinging to life. They wanted to move him so the doctors could properly examine him, but the White House was out of the question. Someone suggested Taltavul’s saloon next door, but the owner objected, saying it would not be right for the president to die in a saloon. He was thinking clearly.

Instead, they carried the president from Ford’s Theater to a house across the street owned by tailor William Petersen. They laid the president diagonally across a bed with his head closest to the door. The doctors went to work. The bullet had entered behind the left ear and lodged behind the right eye. They cleared the clotting in the entrance wound, which seemed to improve the president’s respiration and pulse. But there was little else they could do.

Mary Lincoln knew that her husband was dying. She was inconsolable. They sent for Mrs. Elizabeth Dixon, the wife of the Connecticut Senator, who stayed with Mary throughout the night in the front parlor. The president’s oldest son, Robert, made his way to the Petersen House, as did members of the cabinet and government officials.

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton set up an interrogation room in the back parlor. He interviewed eyewitnesses and tried to unravel the night’s events. Everything was still so uncertain. There were rumors of a widespread conspiracy.

Secretary of State William Seward had been a target. An assassin had entered his house, tried to kill him and anyone who stepped in his way. Were assassins roaming the city looking to decapitate the federal government?

Stanton stepped in and took control. At 1:30 am, his interviews were complete. An hour and a half later he telegraphed:

Investigation strongly indicates J. Wilkes Booth as the assassin of the President.

Just before 7 am, Mary entered the room one last time. An army surgeon described the scene:

As she entered the chamber and saw how the beloved features were distorted, she fell fainting to the floor. Restoratives were applied, and she was supported to the bedside, where she frantically addressed the dying man. "Love," she exclaimed, "live but one moment to speak to me once—to speak to our children."

At 7:22 am, a doctor put his hands across his chest and whispered, “He is gone.”

Everyone in the room knelt by the bedside and placed their hands on the bed as a minister asked God to accept his humble servant Abraham Lincoln into His glorious Kingdom.

The room remained silent until Stanton proclaimed, “Now he belongs to the ages.”

The president was dead at 56, struck down by an assassin's bullet.

Monday, April 14, 2008

"My God, that's John Booth!"

Abraham Lincoln, 1865

April 14, 1865, Good Friday. Assassination.

8 A.M. Breakfast.

Robert Todd Lincoln had been at Appomattox for Robert E. Lee’s surrender, but he arrived back at the White House in time to have breakfast with his father this morning. After four years of national suffering, it looked as if the Civil War was finally drawing to a close.

Today would be another busy day.

The president met with Congressman Colfax, Senator Hale, General Grant, lawyer William A. Howard, Maryland Governor Swann, and Sen. Creswell.

11 A.M. Cabinet meeting.

Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles, Secretary of the Treasury Hugh McCulloch, Acting Secretary of State Frederick Seward, Postmaster General William Dennison, Attorney General James Speed, Secretary of the Interior John P. Usher, and Secretary of War Edwin Stanton were present, as was a special guest, General Ulysses S. Grant, who related the details of the surrender at Appomattox.

The cabinet discussed what should be done about Confederate leaders like Jefferson Davis. Secretary of War Stanton said they should be arrested and tried for treason, but Lincoln indicated a preference for Confederate leaders to simply flee the country. The topic then shifted toward the other Confederate armies in the field. When would they surrender?

Unexpectedly, Lincoln told the cabinet that good news was coming. He had a dream the night before, the same dream that preceded major events in the war, such as the attack on Fort Sumter, and the battles of Bull Run, Antietam, Gettysburg, Stones River, Vicksburg, and Wilmington. Secretary Welles asked the president to describe the dream.

Lincoln said he was “in some singular, indescribable vessel…moving rapidly toward an indefinite shore.” “I had this strange dream again last night, and we shall, judging from the past, have great news very soon,” he concluded.

Grant reminded Lincoln that Stone’s River was not a Union victory, nor were several of the other battles that occurred after the dream.

Nonetheless, the president said, something significant was going to happen.

2 P.M. Invitation number one and two.

The Cabinet meeting finally came to a close.

Lincoln asked General Grant if he and his wife would care to join he and Mary at the theater that night. Grant declined.

Later, the president asked Assistant Secretary of War Major Thomas Eckert to join him at the theater. Eckert declined.

Afternoon. Paperwork.

Lincoln spent the afternoon doing paperwork. At least two condemned Confederate soldiers received pardons from Lincoln dated April 14, 1865.

3 P.M. Carriage ride.

Lincoln and Mary took a carriage ride. Later, Mary claimed her husband was “almost boyish, in his mirth & reminded me, of his original nature, what I had always remembered of him, in our own home—free from care,…I never saw him so supremely cheerful—his manner was even playful…” She said to him, “Dear Husband, you almost startle me by your great cheerfulness.”

Lincoln replied, “and well I may feel so, Mary, I consider this day, the war has come to a close.” But Lincoln continued.

“We must both, be more cheerful in the future—between the war & the loss of our darling Willie—we have both, been very miserable,” he concluded.

5 P.M. Invitation number three.

The Lincolns arrived back at the White House. Lincoln invited the Illinois Governor Richard Oglesby to the theater. Like Grant and Egert, Oglesby declined.

7 P.M. Dinner.

8 P.M. Enroute.

The Lincolns started or the theater in a carriage. Apparently, Mary found a young couple willing to join them at the theater. Their carriage stopped at the corner of Fifteenth and H Streets to pick up Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancée Miss Clara Harris.

8:30 P.M. Arrival.

Though it was Good Friday, Ford’s Theater was full. Our American Cousin, starring Miss Laura Keene, started around 8 pm, but the person everyone came to see entered the presidential box about a half hour late.

When the audience saw the president and first lady enter the box, they stood and cheered. The orchestra even joined in the welcome and played “Hail to the Chief.” Lincoln responded with a “smile and bow.”

10:30 P.M. Act 3, Scene 2.

Harry Hawk was the only actor on stage. As he delivered the most humorous line in the play, a gunshot rang out.

Later that night, Secretary of War Stanton interviewed him. The actor described what he saw:

I was on the stage at the time of the firing and heard the report of the pistol. My back was towards the President’s box at the time. I heard something tear and somebody fell and as I looked towards him he came in the direction in which I was standing and I believe to the best of my knowledge that it was John Wilkes Booth. Still I am not positive that it was him. I only had one glance at him as he was rushing towards me with a dagger and I turned and run and after I ran up a flight of stairs I turned and exclaimed “My God that’s John Booth.” I am acquainted with Booth. I met him the first time a year ago. I saw him today about one o’clock. Said I, “How do you do Mr. Booth” and he says “how are you Hawk.” He was sitting on the steps of Ford’s Theatre reading a letter. He had the appearance of being sober at the time. I was never intimate with him. He had no hat on when I saw him on the stage. In my own mind I do not have any doubt that it was Booth. He made some expression when he came on the stage but I did not understand what.

James P. Ferguson was sitting in the dress circle when the president was shot. Like Hawk, he was interviewed and described the horrific scene:

I then heard the report of the pistol and saw Mrs. Lincoln catch [the president] around the neck. I saw him throw up his right arm at the same time I saw Booth with his hand in his side and pull a knife and move between Mrs. Lincoln and a lady in the same box. He put his hands in the cushion of the box and threw his feet right over. As he jumped over he pulled part of a state flag off and had part of it under his feet when he fell on the stage. The very moment he struck he exclaimed “Sic Semper Tyrannis.” As he came across the stage facing me he looked me right up in the face and it alarmed me and I pulled the lady who was with me down behind the banister. I looked right down at him and he stopped as he said, “I have done it” and shook the knife…

Friday, April 11, 2008

"That is the Last Speech He Will Ever Make"

Satan Tempting John Wilkes Booth

April 11, 1865. Washington, D. C.

A celebratory crowd gathered on the White House lawn. Abraham Lincoln peered out from a second floor window. He had something important he wanted to say:

We meet this evening, not in sorrow, but in gladness of heart. The evacuation of Petersburg and Richmond, and the surrender of the principal insurgent army, give hope of a righteous and speedy peace whose joyous expression can not be restrained.

The end of this terrible war was finally at hand; however, the president did not want the country to lose sight of the hard road that lay ahead:

We all agree that the seceded States, so called, are out of their proper practical relation with the Union, and that the sole object of the government, civil and military, in regard to those States is to again get them into that proper practical relation.

But what would that mean?

Lincoln cited the Louisiana example. Under his “Proclamation of Amnesty and Reconstruction,” Louisiana had already made great progress toward reentering the Union:

  • As many as 12,000 Louisiana residents had already “sworn allegiance to the Union."
  • The state held elections, organized a state government, and adopted a free-state constitution, under which both black and white children could attend public schools.
  • The state legislature had also already ratified the thirteenth amendment, abolishing slavery throughout the nation.
  • In essence, the 12,000 people who had already taken the oath were “committed to the very things, and nearly all the things the nation wants—and they ask the nation's recognition, and it's assistance to make good their committal,” Lincoln explained.

Voting rights was another issue, but now, for the first time in public, Lincoln endorsed a controversial idea:

It is also unsatisfactory to some that the elective franchise is not given to the colored man. I would myself prefer that it were now conferred on the very intelligent, and on those who serve our cause as soldiers.

Actor John Wilkes Booth was one of the many faces in the crowd that night. When Lincoln spoke about voting rights for African Americans, Booth promised a companion, "That is the last speech he will make.”

The president had been thinking about Reconstruction for a long time. He definitely had ideas about how it should occur, but he needed more time to work them out. Of course, fate had different designs.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Lincoln's Legacy: Sinner or Saint?

Lincoln Caricature

The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky recently took a look at Lincoln’s place in American history. I encourage you to give the article a look.

The piece examines the way historical interpretations change over time; in other words, the article traces the way Lincoln historiography has evolved.

The piece does a fine job of putting the argument over Lincoln’s legacy in particularly stark terms. The article begins: “Great Emancipator or calculating politician? Principled champion of human rights or flawed compromiser?”

Indeed, many individuals have adopted this sinner-or-saint approach, which I think, is terribly unfortunate. When we reduce the past to mere caricatures, we do a great disservice—not simply to Lincoln or to the past itself—but to all of us living in the present.

Take, for example, the anti-Lincoln crowd. The two most prominent individuals are, of course, Lerone Bennett and Thomas DiLorenzo. While Bennett portrays Lincoln as a “white supremacist” who would sooner “deport” African Americans than give them basic civil rights, DiLorenzo argues that Lincoln was America’s greatest tyrant who shredded the constitution, shattered the republic, and replaced it with an all-powerful, oppressive federal government.

Like Bennett and DiLorenzo, neo-Confederates have a penchant for misinterpreting the past, but I find their criticism of Lincoln scholars particularly interesting. They often dismiss Lincoln scholars as simply “court historians” who stick to a “predetermined script” in which they “sweep the truth under the rug” and “glorify” all things Lincoln, while “denigrating his opponents.”

Though these critics paint with far too broad a brush, their observations are not entirely delusional. You see, there are far too many Lincoln folks (I hesitate to use the term scholars, though there are some who fit in this category), who take the term “great figures in American history” a bit too far.

Lincoln was never infallible. Like those who came before him, his contemporaries, and yes, like all of us today, he had serious limitations. He was not the quintessential man, lawyer, or politician. He was human, no more no less. By definition, we are all imperfect beings. To those who argue otherwise, I sharply disagree.

As we approach the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, I would encourage everyone, including my students, peers, and readers of this website, to toss this sinner-or-saint model onto the historical trash heap. Let us approach Lincoln studies from a more sophisticated direction.

Lincoln studies is interested in historical evidence and interpretations; we have no desire to silence critics, but we will engage them in debate. Lincoln studies is not interested in hero worship, nor does it engage in character assassination; we understand that distorted history is little more than fiction in disguise.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Surrender at Appomattox

Painting by Thomas Nast

One of the most significant scenes in American history took place 143 years ago today.

Why not let someone who was there explain what happened? The following account comes from the Personal Memoirs of U. S. Grant (New York, 1885), 555-560.

I had known General Lee in the old army, and had served with him in the Mexican War; but did not suppose, owing to the difference in our age and rank, that he would remember me; while I would more naturally remember him distinctly, because he was the chief of staff of General Scott in the Mexican War.

When I had left camp that morning I had not expected so soon the result that was then taking place, and consequently was in rough garb. I was without a sword, as I usually was when on horseback on the field, and wore a soldier's blouse for a coat, with the shoulder straps of my rank to indicate to the army who I was. When I went into the house I found General Lee. We greeted each other, and after shaking hands took our seats. I had my staff with me, a good portion of whom were in the room during the whole of the interview.

What General Lee's feelings were I do not know. As he was a man of much dignity, with an impassable face, it was impossible to say whether he felt inwardly glad that the end had finally come, or felt sad over the result, and was too manly to show it. Whatever his feelings, they were entirely concealed from my observation; but my own feelings, which had been quite jubilant on the receipt of his letter [proposing negotiations], were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse. I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us.

General Lee was dressed in a full uniform which was entirely new, and was wearing a sword of considerable value, very likely the sword which had been presented by the State of Virginia; at all events, it was an entirely different sword from the one that would ordinarily be worn in the field. In my rough traveling suit, the uniform of a private with the straps of a lieutenant-general, I must have contrasted very strangely with a man so handsomely dressed, six feet high and of faultless form. But this was not a matter that I thought of until afterwards.

We soon fell into a conversation about old army times. He remarked that he remembered me very well in the old army; and I told him that as a matter of course I remembered him perfectly, but from the difference in our rank and years (there being about sixteen years' difference in our ages), I had thought it very likely that I had not attracted his attention sufficiently to be remembered by him after such a long interval. Our conversation grew so pleasant that I almost forgot the object of our meeting. After the conversation had run on in this style for some time, General Lee called my attention to the object of our meeting, and said that he had asked for this interview for the purpose of getting from me the terms I proposed to give his army. I said I meant merely that his army should lay down their arms, not to take them up again during the continuance of the war unless duly and properly exchanged. He said that he had so understood my letter.

Then we gradually fell off again into conversation about matters foreign to the subject which had brought us together. This continued for some little time, when General Lee again interrupted the course of the conversation by suggesting that the terms I proposed to give his army ought to be written out. I called to General [Ely S.] Parker, secretary on my staff, for writing materials, and commenced writing out the following terms:

Appomattox C. H., Va.,

Ap'l 9th, 1865

Gen. R. E. Lee,

Comd'g C. S. A.


In accordance with the substance of my letter to you of the 8th inst., I propose to receive the surrender of the Army of N. Va. on the following terms, to wit: Rolls of all the officers and men to be made in duplicate. One copy to be given to an officer designated by me, the other to be retained by such officer or officers as you may designate. The officers to give their individual paroles not to take up arms against the Government of the United States until properly exchanged, and each company or regimental commander sign a like parole for the men of their commands. The arms, artillery and public property to be parked and stacked, and turned over to the officer appointed by me to receive them. This will not embrace the side-arms of the officers, nor their private horses or baggage. This done, each officer and man will be allowed to return to their homes, not to be disturbed by United States authority so long as they observe their paroles and the laws in force where they may reside.

Very respectfully,

U.S. Grant,


When I put my pen to the paper I did not know the first word that I should make use of in writing the terms. I only knew what was in my mind, and I wished to express it clearly, so that there could be no mistaking it. As I wrote on, the thought occurred to me that the officers had their own private horses and effects, which were important to them, but of no value to us; also that it would be an unnecessary humiliation to call upon them to deliver their side arms.

No conversation, not one word, passed between General Lee and myself, either about private property, side arms, or kindred subjects. He appeared to have no objections to the terms first proposed; or if he had a point to make against them he wished to wait until they were in writing to make it. When he read over that part of the terms about side arms, horses and private property of the officers, he remarked, with some feeling, I thought, that this would have a happy effect upon his army.

Then, after a little further conversation, General Lee remarked to me again that their army was organized a little differently from the army of the United States (still maintaining by implication that we were two countries); that in their army the cavalrymen and artillerists owned their own horses; and he asked if he was to understand that the men who so owned their horses were to be permitted to retain them. I told him that as the terms were written they would not; that only the officers were permitted to take their private property. He then, after reading over the terms a second time, remarked that that was clear.

I then said to him that I thought this would be about the last battle of the war -- I sincerely hoped so; and I said further I took it that most of the men in the ranks were small farmers. The whole country had been so raided by the two armies that it was doubtful whether they would be able to put in a crop to carry themselves and their families through the next winter without the aid of the horses they were then riding. The United States did not want them and I would, therefore, instruct the officers I left behind to receive the paroles of his troops to let every man of the Confederate army who claimed to own a horse or mule take the animal to his home. Lee remarked again that this would have a happy effect.

He then sat down and wrote out the following letter:

Headquarters Army of Northern Virginia,

April 9, 1865

Lieut.-General U. S. Grant.


--I received your letter of this date containing the terms of the surrender of the Army of Northern Virginia as proposed by you. As they are substantially the same as those expressed in your letter of the 8th inst., they are accepted. I will proceed to designate the proper officers to carry the stipulations into effect.

R. E. Lee,


While duplicates of the two letters were being made, the Union generals present were severally presented to General Lee.

The much talked of surrendering of Lee's sword and my handing it back, this and much more that has been said about it is the purest romance. The word sword or side arms was not mentioned by either of us until I wrote it in the terms. There was no premeditation, and it did not occur to me until the moment I wrote it down. If I had happened to omit it, and General Lee had called my attention to it, I should have put it in the terms precisely as I acceded to the provision about the soldiers retaining their horses.

General Lee, after all was completed and before taking his leave, remarked that his army was in a very bad condition for want of food, and that they were without forage; that his men had been living for some days on parched corn exclusively, and that he would have to ask me for rations and forage. I told him "certainly," and asked for how many men he wanted rations. His answer was "about twenty-five thousand": and I authorized him to send his own commissary and quartermaster to Appomattox Station, two or three miles away, where he could have, out of the trains we had stopped, all the provisions wanted. As for forage, we had ourselves depended almost entirely upon the country for that.

Generals Gibbon, Griffin and Merritt were designated by me to carry into effect the paroling of Lee's troops before they should start for their homes -- General Lee leaving Generals Longstreet, Gordon and Pendleton for them to confer with in order to facilitate this work. Lee and I then separated as cordially as we had met, he returning to his own lines, and all went into bivouac for the night at Appomattox.

Soon after Lee's departure I telegraphed to Washington as follows:

Headquarters Appomattox C. H., Va.,

April 9th, 1865, 4:30 p.m.

Hon. E. M. Stanton:

Secretary of War,


General Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia this afternoon on terms proposed by myself. The accompanying additional correspondence will show the conditions fully.

U. S. Grant,


When news of the surrender first reached our lines our men commenced firing a salute of a hundred guns in honor of the victory. I at once sent word, however, to have it stopped. The Confederates were now our prisoners, and we did not want to exult over their downfall.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

New Record...a $3.4 Million Document at Auction

Lincoln to Mrs. Horace Mann, 1864

You might recall my post a few weeks back about a letter for auction that was expected to fetch as much as $5 million. Not only did the auction take place last week, but it also set a record.

The winning bidder paid a whopping $3.4 million for the letter, which I'm happy to report, is a new record for any American manuscript!

I admit, I was a bit surprised by the final price. Pleasantly surprised, but suprised nonetheless. It is a charming letter.

I like to watch how various news outlets cover these stories. If we tracked enough newspapers from different sections of the country over a long-enough period, I suspect we could form some interesting observations about how modern Americans view the sixteenth president. We might even extend our research to include foreign newspapers. What an interesting project that would be! If anyone is so inclined, feel free to steal it and fill out an application for graduate school right away.

Anyway, who had the best news coverage of the $3.4 million Lincoln auction?

The major news agencies reported the story. The Associated Press offered a fairly straightforward account. The lead stressed Lincoln's name, the phrase "little slave children," and the record-setting price:

NEW YORK (AP) -- Abraham Lincoln's heartfelt reply to a group of youngsters who asked him to free America's "little slave children" has sold for $3.4 million.

Sotheby's auction house said Thursday that the 1864 letter set a record for a Lincoln manuscript, as well as for any presidential and American manuscript.

It was purchased by an American private collector bidding over the telephone.

Lincoln's hand-penned reply is contained in a letter to a woman who mailed the children's petition from Concord, Massachusetts.

In it, Lincoln says: "Please tell these little people I am very glad their young hearts are so full of just and generous sympathy."

Several newspapers picked up the concise AP story, among them:

Chicago Sun-Times

Lexington Herald-Leader [KY]

Charlotte Observer [NC]

New Zealand Herald

Contrast the AP's story with a more substantive story by UPI:

NEW YORK, April 4 (UPI) -- A letter written in 1864 by Abraham Lincoln, the 16th president of the United States, has been sold at an auction in New York for $3.4 million.

NY1 said the letter was a reply to a group of young students who pleaded with him to free the country's "little slave children." An unidentified private collector bought it Thursday.

The year of the letter is significant because it was the one in which Lincoln later signed the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed millions of slaves.

Sotheby's auction house in New York said the amount was the most ever paid for a U.S. manuscript, the Springfield (Ill.) State Journal-Register reported.

"We believe this to be an auction record not only for Lincoln, but for any presidential manuscript -- indeed for any historical American manuscript," said Selby Kiffer, senior vice president of Sotheby's books and manuscripts department.

"The previous record-holder, to my knowledge, was an 1865 manuscript of a Lincoln speech sold in the Forbes sale by Christie's in March 2002 for a hammer price of $2,800,000 -- or $3,086,000 with the buyer's premium included," Kiffer said. "I don't apologize for this price. This is the best Lincoln document available for purchase in many, many years."

However, of all the major news agencies, I have to give the nod to Reuters. Consider their coverage:

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A stirring 1864 anti-slavery letter from Abraham Lincoln was auctioned for a record $3.4 million on Thursday, Sotheby's auction house said, setting a new record for the 16th U.S. president.

Lincoln's hand-written reply to a petition by children to free "all the little slave children in this country" surpassed the previous record for a Lincoln manuscript -- the $3.1 million for a document sold by Christie's in March 2002.

It was purchased by an American collector bidding by telephone, Sotheby's said.

"Please tell these little people I am very glad their young hearts are so full of just and generous sympathy, and that, while I have not that power to grant all they ask, I trust they will remember that God has, and that, as it seems, He wills to do it," Lincoln wrote in the letter.

Sotheby's called the letter "arguably Lincoln's most personal and powerful statement on God, slavery and emancipation."

He was responding to a petition signed by 195 children.

In 1862 and 1863, Lincoln signed two executive orders known together as the Emancipation Proclamation, which declared free slaves held in some Confederate states. The 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which formally abolished slavery was ratified in December 1865, eight months after Lincoln's assassination.

The letter was the centerpiece of an auction entitled "Presidential and Other American Manuscripts from the Dr. Robert Small Trust."

Several media outlets picked up the Reuters story, among them:

Yahoo! News

The Straights Times [Australia]

The West Australian

Other news outlets prepared original articles, but in nearly every case, they resemble the work of at least one of the three major news agencies:


BBC News

Honorable mention for the best coverage of this story goes to an original piece, written by, Kate Augusto of the Boston Globe:

Letter from Lincoln fetches $3.4m

By Kate Augusto

April 4, 2008

Abraham Lincoln's addresses are still making history.

A private American collector bought a letter at auction yesterday that Lincoln wrote to some schoolchildren in Concord in 1864. The $3.4 million purchase set a record for an American manuscript, said James Cornelius, curator of the Lincoln collection at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, Ill.

In 1864, the country's 16th president received a petition from 195 schoolchildren from Concord, asking him to "free all the little slave children in this country."

In a handwritten letter to the petition's collector, antislavery advocate Mary Mann, Lincoln wrote, "Please tell these little people I am very glad their young hearts are so full of just and generous sympathy, and that, while I have not the power to grant all they ask, I trust they will remember that God has, and that, as it seems, He wills to do it."

The trust of retired New York physician Richard Small sold the letter dated April 5, 1864, through Sotheby's New York. Small's collection also included a book with Lincoln's autograph on the day of his Gettysburg Address.

Leslie Wilson, curator of special collections at the Concord Library, said the letter's greater significance is its illustration of antislavery sentiment in Concord. "There's always a great tendency to put a lot of emotional importance into something like this . . . but there was a bigger story: the organized antislavery movement. And Concord was only a part of that," she said.

But, without a doubt, the best coverage of the $3.4 million Lincoln auction goes to...

Lincoln's hometown newspaper, Springfield's State Journal-Register. Pete Sherman not only recapped the details of the story, but he interviewed the person in charge of the auction at Sotheby's, Selby Kiffer. More importantly, at least in my view, Sherman spoke with a Lincoln studies expert, Kim Bauer. Bauer is currently the director of Decatur's Lincoln Heritage Project, but before that, he was the curator of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. I can't think of too many people who could do a better job of putting a Lincoln document into perspective.

Lincoln Letter Fetches $3.4 Million

Amount sets record; some local scholars doubted it would sell for that much



Friday, April 04, 2008

Abraham Lincoln’s 1864 letter to Horace Mann’s widow, responding to her students’ request that he free slave children, was sold by Sotheby’s auction house in New York Thursday for $3,401,000, the most ever paid for an American manuscript, according to the auction house.

We believe this to be an auction record not only for Lincoln, but for any presidential manuscript — indeed for any historical American manuscript,” said Selby Kiffer, senior vice president of Sotheby’s books and manuscripts department and the person in charge of the auction Thursday.

The identity of the buyer, who was bidding over the phone, has not been revealed. Kiffer said even he doesn’t know the buyer’s name.

However, Kiffer said, the Lincoln-Mann manuscript was purchased by a collector, not an investor.

“This is someone who fell in love with the letter,” Kiffer said.

“The previous record-holder, to my knowledge, was an 1865 manuscript of a Lincoln speech sold in the Forbes sale by Christie’s in March 2002 for a hammer price of $2,800,000 — or $3,086,000 with the buyer’s premium included,” Kiffer said.

“I don’t apologize for this price. This is best Lincoln document available for purchase in many, many years.”

According to Sotheby’s Web site, a commission of 12 percent is charged for purchases exceeding $500,000. That puts the hammer price (the winning bid) for the Lincoln-Mann letter at about $3 million.

Some Lincoln scholars in Springfield suspected the 1864 letter to Mary Tyler Peabody Mann would not fetch anywhere near the $3 million to $5 million the auction house was expecting.

But another local historian said never underestimate Sotheby’s.

“Sotheby’s is very good at this,” said Kim Bauer, director of the Lincoln Heritage Project in Decatur and the former curator of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.

“Getting the word out, fanning interest. The psychology of auctions is always the same, whether it’s a farm auction in Girard or at the highest end. As an auction house, you push, you push and push and you get people interested and inflamed, and they have to have that piece. The only thing that’s different is the price tag.”

Kiffer said the last time a copy of the Gettysburg Address was sold was in 1962 — for $54,000. If one went up for sale today, he estimated it would go for $25 million to $50 million. At another Sotheby’s auction last year, Carlyle Group co-founder David Rubenstein bought a copy of the Magna Carta for more than $21 million.

Lincoln’s letter was among 111 items Sotheby’s was selling Thursday as part of a collection of historic documents owned by the Dr. Small Trust. The collection included roughly 20 other Lincoln documents, one of which included the only known signature of Lincoln’s at Gettysburg. That was the second-highest sale, going for $937,000, including the commission.

Sotheby’s sold approximately 70 of the 111 items for a total of $5,649,326.

Kiffer said he thought the best value was the $937,000 paid for the Lincoln signature.

Bauer thought the best bang for the buck was the $25,000 paid for an 1862 letter by former President Millard Fillmore in which he called Lincoln a “tyrant.”

“The much more interesting letter was Fillmore’s,” Bauer said. “(The buyer) got a very good deal. Maybe the steal of the auction.”

Monday, April 7, 2008

The Tripp Thesis: An Interpretation and a Challenge

I want to thank Lewis Gannett for contributing such an insightful article to last week. The piece was both well-written and well-argued, but above all, it was well-received.

I was so pleased to follow the discussion on the Lincoln Studies Discussion Board throughout the weekend. The conversation was spirited, yet it remained respectful. As some of you may know, that is something of a rarity in the world of cyberspace. I want to thank both Mr. Gannett and those who participated. And, of course, the thread is still open for anyone who would like to weigh-in.

Though controversial, the Tripp Thesis is important. It challenges us to weigh historical evidence, debate controversial conclusions, and yes, it allows us to respectfully disagree with one another. Again, I say, the Tripp Thesis is important.

Tripp has introduced scores of people to the complex field of Lincoln Studies. People who previously had no interest in Lincoln heard a broadcast or read an article that detailed Tripp’s sensational claim. Lincoln was a homosexual? That certainly wasn’t in their high school textbook!

People bought Tripp’s book and learned about the characters from Lincoln's past. Ann Rutledge, Mary Owens, Joshua F. Speed, and Elmer Ellsworth all jumped off the page, as did the many scholars who Tripp quarreled with throughout the text. I have no doubt that many people who read Tripp’s book wanted to know more. I am a supporter of almost any book, film, or song that encourages people to learn more about Abraham Lincoln and the American Civil War.

Moreover, I think the Tripp Thesis is important because it has a great deal to teach us. However, I encourage you to read that statement carefully. Does the Tripp Thesis have a great deal to teach us about Lincoln? Well, yes and no.

There are certainly insightful observations throughout the text. For instance, I think Tripp’s book served as my introduction to Captain David Derickson. While I don’t necessarily think Tripp’s interpretation is accurate, I also acknowledge that I can’t tell you exactly what role the captain played in Lincoln’s life. In this respect, Tripp has encouraged me to re-examine evidence and seek out new sources.

Ultimately, however, I suspect that the Tripp Thesis tells us more about modern life than either Lincoln or nineteenth century America. Does the current political climate have anything to do with the Tripp Thesis? Are the 2004 presidential election and the gay marriage amendment connected to a study about Lincoln's sexuality? None of that, by the way, is a criticism of the Tripp Thesis. In fact, I think it gives us a powerful opportunity to discuss how historiography works.

More broadly, however, I would suggest that Tripp falls into a common trap. Throughout The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, Tripp views Lincoln as a contemporary. Both his methodology and his interpretations are thoroughly products of the twentieth century. Tripp sees something sexual in two men sharing a bed. If the incident had occurred in 2000 instead of 1840, I might agree, but it was not the case. I suspect Lincoln’s sleeping habits tell us more about the scarcity of beds or the frequency of his travels on the law circuit than anything to do with his sexuality. Context is so critically important, and on this score, the Tripp Thesis falls far short. At the same time, Tripp’s book encouraged me to re-examine several books about nineteenth century life and sexuality, among the most useful, I would recommend American Manhood: Transformations in Masculinity from the Revolution to the Modern Era by E. Anthony Rotundo, as well as, Joseph F. Kett’s Rites of Passage: Adolescence in America 1790 to the Present (both pictured above).

I have heard people argue that the Tripp Thesis has done more harm than good because it obscures the Lincoln who lived and replaced him with someone from Tripp’s fantasies. I strongly disagree with that view. The Tripp Thesis is a wonderful illustration of everything that makes history so exciting. Yes, history is exciting because it is such a vibrant field; history is always changing. How is that possible?

Historical interpretations are never the final word. The Tripp Thesis, like any original work of history, is both an interpretation and a challenge. Tripp has presented his case, now scholars must test his conclusions. I look forward to the new generation of scholars who accept Tripp’s bold challenge.

Friday, April 4, 2008

Lincoln's Sexuality: Why Does the Tripp Thesis Matter?

Shortly after I launched, I received a very intriguing email. “I assisted the late C. A. Tripp with his preparation of The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln, and thus occupy a controversial and tiny banlieu of Lincoln studies,” wrote Lewis Gannett.

He certainly had my attention.

Just a few months earlier, I spoke to a group about Lincoln's poetry. At the end of my talk, I fielded a number of questions, many of which fell far beyond the scope of my paper. I will never forget the last question. An older gentleman standing in the back of the room, who I must say had been waiting patiently, suddenly asked, “So, do you think Lincoln was a homosexual?”

I know I heard someone gasp, but I assure you, it wasn’t me. I expected the question. Actually, I would have been disappointed had the topic not come up.

The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln had just recently hit bookstores. News outlets such as CNN, The New York Times, and the Boston Globe covered the story; the Discovery Channel even weighed in.

But it was more than that.

People were talking about the Tripp thesis. I’m not simply talking about historians, though they certainly offered their perspective. I'm referring to everyday people. People who were not particularly interested in Lincoln’s life were now, suddenly, eager to join the conversation. Friends of mine, who normally wanted to talk about sitcoms or sports, were now asking me about Lincoln. Graduate students, who generally cringed anytime anyone mentioned anything to do with American history, now wanted to know more about this book. And yes, even local history enthusiasts wanted to know more about the most controversial thesis in the field of Lincoln studies.

“You want to know if I think Lincoln was a homosexual?” I asked the man in the back of the room.

He nodded. That's what he wanted to know.

“Really, what does it matter?” I replied. “Do the details of Lincoln’s love life help us understand how he guided a nation through its most tragic hour?”

Was I dodging the question? Was I trying to sweep a potentially embarrassing topic under the rug?

No, I was simply being honest. I can’t say with absolute certainty whether or not Lincoln was attracted to other men. But again, I come back to the same question. What does it matter? In other words, if we had absolute proof that Lincoln was indeed asexual, bisexual, heterosexual, or homosexual, what would that mean? Ultimately, why is it significant?

With these questions still fresh in my mind, I unexpectedly received Mr. Gannett’s email. Over the course of our correspondence, I posed the question to him. I found his response extremely intriguing.

Both Mr. Gannett and I see no reason why you, the reader, should be left out of this intriguing conversation.

Without further ado, I am proud to present the first “Guest Post” on!

After reading the following piece, Mr. Gannett and I invite you to join the conversation on the Lincoln Studies Discussion Board.

Abraham Lincoln: What Difference Does It Make If He Was “Gay”?

By: Lewis Gannett

If Abraham Lincoln found his primary sexual and romantic fulfillment with men, as Charley Shively, C. A. Tripp, and others have argued, does that matter?

In the grand sense of Lincoln’s historical achievements, no. Lincoln did not abolish slavery because he was “gay” (it must be pointed out that the word “gay,” with its social and political meanings as currently understood, didn’t exist in Lincoln’s time, and is used here only for the sake of simplicity). Lincoln did not win the Civil War because he physically loved men; to make that kind of claim is ludicrous. Of the few historical figures who, like Lincoln, have come to be seen as truly, everlastingly great, none did so on account of a particular sexuality—heterosexual, homosexual, or what have you. If Winston Churchill found his primary sexual and romantic fulfillment with women, which no one has bothered to argue, does that affect his place in history? No.

So, why might it matter that Lincoln had sexual relations with men?

Three main reasons, interrelated, come to mind.

First, anything pertaining to the life of our greatest president should be part of the historical record and available for study. This does not of course mean that Lincoln’s sexuality should be of consuming interest to everyone: people are free to decide what provokes a sense of curiosity. But the converse is also true. If some people are indeed curious about the 16th president’s love life—and it is evident that many are—then they should be able to learn about it. This is the most fundamental reason that Lincoln’s sexuality matters.

Second, the teaching of American history has until recently ignored altogether the role of homosexuals in the nation’s past. A reality since colonial times, same-sex love remained invisible for centuries, something that most students at all educational levels never encountered in their studies. This has changed, in some ways remarkably. But much of the change has been cosmetic. I found in the course of researching my master’s thesis that although current college-level American history textbooks vary enormously in terms of lesbian and gay coverage, not one identifies by name more than a handful of homosexual individuals. Yes, many textbooks have expanded the visibility of homosexuality, but it’s largely a faceless visibility. In this context the question of Abraham Lincoln matters quite a lot indeed.

But perhaps, to some, reason # 2 merely begs the question. Why should people care if America’s homosexual history is visible? The answer is simple: Hiding the past is never a good idea, especially if it involves hiding oppression. Take, for example, the evolution of the teaching of African-American history. Bizarre as it may now seem, until almost 1960 mainstream American historians bought the idea that under slavery, “Sambo was happy,” and even as recently as 1998, faculty at a North Carolina community college were claiming that “most slaves were happy in captivity” (a media firestorm led to the cancellation of the course in question). It goes without saying that black students deserve to know the truth about their past. This equally applies to lesbian and gay students, but with a twist. They deserve to know, just for starters, that they have a past—one that includes, by the way, villains as well as heroes. Few of the textbooks I examined mention that key ringleaders of the Second Red Scare were gay men. Although ostensibly a search for subversive Communists, this 1950s witch hunt targeted a far larger number of homosexuals. Does it “matter” that Joseph McCarthy, J. Edgar Hoover, and Roy Cohn were gay? I would argue that it matters on the general grounds that many Americans are unaware that homosexuals held senior government positions prior to the last couple of decades. But the fact that these three men fomented a panic that destroyed the lives of thousands of fellow gays, matters in a more particular and urgent sense. This is simply to say that the issue of Lincoln’s sexuality is but one facet of a complex historical puzzle. All of it matters for many different reasons, some of them in painful—but nonetheless instructive—ways.

Third, the “What difference does it make?” attitude about Lincoln’s sexuality carries with it the concession that Lincoln may in fact have had sex affairs with men. Implicit in the argument is, “Even if he did—so what?” Two of the more acute critics of C. A. Tripp’s The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln quite explicitly take this position: Richard Brookhiser in The New York Times Book Review and Christine Stansell in The New Republic. Brookhiser is the biographer of significant figures in early American history. Stansell, a professor at Princeton, specializes in 19th-century gender studies.

Both critics acknowledge that aspects of Lincoln’s life as described by Tripp are suggestive of homosexuality. Brookhiser goes so far as to concede, “On the evidence before us, Lincoln loved men, at least some of whom loved him back.” Stansell, referring to a notable Lincoln bedmate, writes, “Still, it’s what gets you through the night. If Captain Derickson helped the grieving father and the burdened president, we should only be grateful.” Both critics also end their reviews with a resounding, “So what?” Brookhiser refers to Lincoln’s achievements as president and concludes: “This is the Lincoln that matters. The rest is biography.” Stansell says of Lincoln sleeping with Derickson and other items in Tripp’s dossier: “[A]nd finally, it doesn’t matter much.”

It is startling that Brookhiser, a biographer, can so baldly state, “The rest is biography,” implying that it doesn’t really matter. At any rate, those who subscribe to the “So what?” school of thought can take heart from the positions of these distinguished historians. But there is something a bit odd going on here. To the extent that Tripp is right about Lincoln—and as Brookhiser and Stansell suggest, he is perhaps more than a little right—is the extent to which scholars have been not just wrong about Lincoln, but spectacularly wrong. How could that have happened?

Abraham Lincoln is the most-studied figure in American history. A vast and talented army of scholars tends to our memory of him, has done so for a very long time. How is it that a central fact of Lincoln’s life seems to have eluded the myriad of experts devoted to explaining that life? This is not a trivial issue. It raises serious questions about American historiography.

In fact, a number of scholars have looked at evidence relating to Lincoln’s sex life, found leads suggestive of same-sex affairs, hinted at those leads in their writings, but then seem to have said to themselves, “Hmm, I really don’t want to go there.” As Tripp points out in Intimate World, we have indications that the Lincolnists Ida Tarbell, Carl Sandburg, and Margaret Leech all came to that conclusion. It’s worth noting that these writers published many decades ago—Leech most recently, in 1941. What happened to their tentative lines of inquiry? They disappeared from Lincoln scholarship. Why?

One concludes that there has been, if not a cover up, exactly, then at least a willingness to look the other way. Those who espouse the “So what?” point of view do not acknowledge this problem; Brookhiser and Stansell don’t even seem to know that it exists. I can’t blame nonacademics for feeling indifferent about a “gay Lincoln.” During the furor following the publication of Tripp’s book it was a running joke among friends of mine that lots of people, including lesbians and gays, especially young ones, were groaning, “Oh, God—who cares?” So be it. But professional historians are another story. They have an obligation to pursue evidence no matter where it leads. In the case of Lincoln’s sexuality that hasn’t happened. The “So what?” reaction among scholars such as Brookhiser and Stansell is an amusing, and disturbing, testament to that fact. In essence they are saying, “Who cares if the history profession bungled its interpretation of Lincoln’s personal life?” To that I would say: Anyone who cares about history should care.

Lewis Gannett assisted the late C. A. Tripp with the preparation of his book, The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln (Free Press, 2005). Gannett’s article, “‘Overwhelming Evidence’ of a Lincoln-Ann Rutledge Romance?: Reexamining Rutledge Family Reminiscences,” appeared in the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association (Winter, 2005). He is a graduate of Harvard University, pursued postgraduate studies in political science at MIT, and recently received a master’s degree in history from the University of Massachusetts at Boston.

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