Tuesday, May 19, 2009

In Memoriam: David Herbert Donald

I was saddened this morning to read of David Herbert Donald's death at age 88.

I first encountered Donald's work 25 years ago as a student, in the form of his edited collection Why the North Won the Civil War . As a professor, I've taught his Lincoln biography. This semester, for an undergraduate course on "Abraham Lincoln in History and Memory," I used his Lincoln Reconsidered. The first edition of that book appeared more than 50 years ago, and it wears its age extremely well. Despite the flood of Lincoln scholarship over the past half century (and the mini-tsunami in this bicentennial year), Donald's insights remain vital and provocative, and his prose sparkles and delights in a way that few historians can match.

Obituaries are here and here; a tribute from one of his former students is here.

Monday, April 06, 2009

In Love with Abe, NSFW Edition

Maira Kalman's love for Abe was chaste, reverential, and fully clothed.

Painter Justine Lai's love is none of those things--nor is it reserved for the 16th president.

For the past three years, Lai has been working on a series entitled "Join or Die," which she explains thus:

In Join Or Die, I paint myself having sex with the Presidents of the United States in chronological order. I am interested in humanizing and demythologizing the Presidents by addressing their public legacies and private lives. The presidency itself is a seemingly immortal and impenetrable institution; by inserting myself in its timeline, I attempt to locate something intimate and mortal. I use this intimacy to subvert authority, but it demands that I make myself vulnerable along with the Presidents. A power lies in rendering these patriarchal figures the possible object of shame, ridicule and desire, but it is a power that is constantly negotiated.

Lai began the series while an undergraduate at Stanford and is now up to U.S. Grant. The images are here, but consider yourself forewarned--the headline is no joke.

Lincoln Roundup

The Washington Post magazine carried a story this weekend about the unhappy fate of Major Henry Rathbone and his fiancee, Clara Harris, the Lincoln's invited guests at Ford's Theatre on the night of April 14.

A pair of upcoming conferences in DC will put on display the very different ways that the members of two professions will remember the Lincoln bicentennial:

  • First up are the doctors: on Saturday and Sunday, April 18-19, the National Museum of Health and Medicine is sponsoring A Symposium on President Lincoln’s Health, on the grounds of the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Takoma, DC. Registration is free but space is extremely limited (in fact, the event is no longer listed on their "Upcoming Programs" page, which perhaps suggests that it's already fully booked. But for those interested, it's worth a query).
  • The lawyers get their turn on Thursday, April, 30, when the American Bar Association hosts a program at the Newseum, Lincoln as Lawyer, Lincoln as Orator. Registration is free but space is limited. The ABA is sponsoring the event as part of The Leon Jaworski Public Program Series and in conjunction with its Law Day 2009, which this year focuses on the theme, "A Legacy of Liberty: Celebrating Lincoln's Bicentennial."

Thursday, April 02, 2009

Abraham Lincoln, Extreme Makeover Edition



Those curious about the whys and wherefores can find them here.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

So If Mao Was Lincoln, That Makes the Dalai Lama ...

... Jeff Davis?

China marked 50 years of direct control over Tibet on Saturday, raising the national flag in the regional capital and commemorating a new political holiday honoring what it calls the liberation of slaves from brutal feudal rule.


March 28 marks the date when Beijing ended the 1959 Tibetan uprising, sending the Dalai Lama over the Himalayas into exile and placing Tibet under its direct rule for the first time.

In China's official version of events, Tibet in mid-century was a remote medieval backwater where most people lived in servitude to the Buddhist theocracy and nobility until the Communist government stepped in.

"Just as Europe can't return to the medieval era and the United States can't go back to the times before the Civil War, Tibet can never restore the old serf society era," Zhang Qingli, the Communist Party boss of the region, told the crowd of more than 13,000.

The ceremony followed a host of articles in the state-run media and shows on TV extolling Communist reforms and economic development. They have likened the end of the Dalai Lama's rule as akin to late U.S. President Abraham Lincoln's emancipation of slaves.

For more on "Serf Emancipation Day" and the Lincoln analogy, see the website of the official news agency of the Chinese government. For a different perspective on this anniversary, with no apparent references to Abraham Lincoln or the American Civil War, see the website of the Dalai Lama's government in exile.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Why Is This Man Glowering?

The one on the wall, that is:

(From today's Washington Post.)

Monday, March 16, 2009

Who Owns Lincoln?

A few months ago, historian Eric Foner published a piece in the Nation entitled "Our Lincoln" (not coincidentally, Foner edited a collection of essays by 11 historians that was published under that title last fall). In the Nation piece, Foner wrote that:

Lincoln is important to us not because of his melancholia or how he chose his cabinet but because of his role in the vast human drama of emancipation and what his life tells us about slavery's enduring legacy. The Nation, founded by veterans of the struggle for abolition three months after Lincoln's death, dedicated itself to completing the unfinished task of making the former slaves equal citizens. It soon abandoned this goal, but in the twentieth century again took up the banner of racial justice. Who is our Lincoln?

In the wake of the 2008 election and an inaugural address with "a new birth of freedom," a phrase borrowed from the Gettysburg Address, as its theme, the Lincoln we should remember is the politician whose greatness lay in his capacity for growth. Much of that growth stemmed from his complex relationship with the radicals of his day, black and white abolitionists who fought against overwhelming odds to bring the moral issue of slavery to the forefront of national life.

Foner was doing what legions of Americans have done for the past 140 years--trying to find something usable for present political purposes in Lincoln's legacy. Frederick Douglass and W. E. B. DuBois did it. James Vardaman and Thomas Dixon did it. Ronald Reagan did it. Barack Obama is doing it still (although he's slowed down considerably since Feb. 12). Foner's very means of posing the question--"Who is our Lincoln?"--implicitly recognizes the multiplicity and variety of Lincolns out there.

Still, Foner's essay was too much to bear for Lincoln historian Allen Guelzo, who fired back in a post last month at the National Review Online, entitled "Whose Lincoln?":
The difficulty is that Lincoln himself never confessed any awareness of “growth,” nor did those who knew him best. “If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong,” Lincoln said in 1864, “ I can not remember when I did not so think, and feel.” Far from needing growth, Lincoln (according to Illinois congressman Isaac Arnold) “had it in his mind for a long time to war upon slavery until its destruction was effected.” Lincoln did not end slavery by repentantly abandoning his conservative ideas; he ended it by tenaciously applying those ideas according to a blueprint of classical political prudence.

I suppose it is better that Foner wants to re-upholster Lincoln as “our Lincoln” rather than trashing Lincoln completely, as so many other Left historians do. But even Foner must recognize that this is an uphill task. In a collection of essays published last month under the title, Our Lincoln, Foner recruits a contingent of fellow Left historians to endorse the “growth” Lincoln. But only one of them is actually a Lincoln specialist, and the others show varying degrees of reluctance to embrace the growth thesis. (Bona fide Lincolnites — think of Michael Burlingame, Lucas Morel, Thomas Krannawitter, the great Harry Jaffa — were conspicuous by their exclusion). Foner’s Lincoln is not really Lincoln at all, but a wax-work progressive. The real Lincoln is the conservative, after all — our Lincoln, and not theirs.

The political dimension of this ownership dispute is obvious enough: the Nation vs. the National Review, the Left vs. the Right. There are also a number of scholarly disputes here. Most immediately, there is the longstanding debate about how to reconcile Lincoln's views regarding slavery and race before the war with his actions during it. Foner sees "growth"; Guelzo sees "classical political prudence" in the service of an unchanging agenda. Both are good enough historians to present arguments that other historians have found plausible.

Underlying debates about this or that aspect of Lincoln's career is a more fundamental question still, and one not unique to the study of Lincoln--how do historians balance the study of the individual's life with the study of his times?

Guelzo claims ownership of Lincoln in the name of "bona fide Lincolnites" and criticizes the presence of "only one ... Lincoln specialist" among the contributors to Foner's edited volume. On the face of it, that might seem a bizarre complaint, as the collection includes essays by three winners of the Lincoln Prize (which Guelzo has won twice), one second-place finisher, and one finalist--all for books with Lincoln's name in their titles. If these are historians who have written about Lincoln, however, most haven't made the study of his life the exclusive or predominant focus of their scholarly work.

And therein lies the rub. For Guelzo--who has complained recently of the dearth of college courses that focus just on Lincoln--to be a Lincoln specialist is, quite literally, to specialize in the study of Lincoln. For Foner, that's exactly the problem with too much recent scholarship on the 16th president, which seems to assume that "[t]o understand Lincoln ... one has to study only the man himself." Our Lincoln, Foner writes in the preface, aims instead "to bring to bear on the study of Lincoln some of the new interpretations of Lincoln's era, in the hope of producing a more nuanced understanding of the man and his world."

Readers can reach their own judgments about the merits of the two approaches--in general and in this case specifically. I'll close by offering one bit of unsolicited advice to Guelzo: if you're really determined to scoff at the non-specialists, you'd better get your own Lincoln facts right. The line about Lincoln having it "in his mind for a long time to war upon slavery" came from Joseph Gillespie, not Isaac Arnold. At least, that's what I read somewhere.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Another Post Hoc Prophecy Revealed

As is being widely reported, the Smithsonian Institution today cracked open Abraham Lincoln's pocket watch to reveal a hidden inscription inside.

And therein lies a tale of the vagaries of human memory and the meaning of the Civil War.

The story goes like this:

In the midst of the secession crisis in 1861, Abraham Lincoln found time to send out his pocket watch to be repaired. It was sitting on the watchmaker's bench when news reached Washington of the bombardment of Fort Sumter, and the watchmaker, Jonathan Dillon, seized the moment to etch a message inside the time piece before returning it to the president.

Dillon never mentioned the inscription to his customer, but he passed on stories about it to his family.

Here's what Dillon inscribed inside the watch (view the inscription):

"Jonathan Dillon April 13, 1861. Fort Sumter was attacked by the rebels on the above date. Thank God we have a government."

And here is how he later remembered it, according to a 1906 newspaper report:

"The first gun is fired. Slavery is dead. Thank God we have a President who at least will try."

Dillon, in other words, had mis-remembered the inscription and credited himself with foreseeing slavery's demise even before the Stars and Stripes had come down in Charleston harbor. He injected his later understanding of the war's outcome and significance into his furtive act of April 1861.

This sort of thing is hardly surprising. In terms of Lincoln lore, it reminds me of his cousin John Hanks's claim--35 years after the fact--that a youthful Abe, upon seeing a slave auction in New Orleans, had declared "if ever I get a chance to hit that thing I'll hit it hard."

The moral of both stories: there's no foresight like hindsight.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Loving and Hating Abe

Loving Abe is artist Maira Kalman, who recently prepared a visual op-ed for the New York Times, "In Love with A. Lincoln":

Hating Abe is ... Maryland--or at least, the state's official song, "Maryland, My Maryland," which begins:

The despot’s heel is on thy shore,
His torch is at thy temple door,
Avenge the patriotic gore
That flecked the streets of Baltimore,
And be the battle queen of yore,
Maryland! My Maryland!

You might think that referring to Lincoln as a "despot" and "tyrant" (verse 7) is a bit much to stomach as the country celebrates the bicentennial of his birth. But a legislative hearing last week drew a crowd largely opposed to one state Senator's proposal to change the lyrics:

The Senate hearing was packed with Confederate re-enactors, amateur historians, teachers and a seventh-grader who said she loves the state song, which taught her the meaning of "despot."

For more than 50 years, lawmakers have periodically tried to dethrone Maryland, My Maryland, written in 1861 by James Ryder Randall and codified as the state song in 1939. Randall, 22 at the time, penned the lyrics after learning that his former college roommate had been killed in a Pratt Street riot between Confederate sympathizers and Union soldiers from Massachusetts, the history goes.

Many of those testifying yesterday said they were present seven years ago, the last time [State Senator Jennie] Forehand unsuccessfully tried to do away with Randall's words. She wants to replace them with a more pacifist version written in 1894 by John T. White, an Allegany County teacher.

The Lincoln-Douglas Debates Reinterpreted

or at least caffeinated: