Tuesday, February 17, 2009

In Search of A. Lincoln

Lambert Field, St. Louis, MO (Feb. 14, 2009)--I'm writing from a slightly different venue: Springfield, Illinois. Yes, it’s the week of the Lincoln Bicentennial and Noah Griffin and I planned on spending it here, he leaving from San Francisco and I from DC. So far the weather has cooperated—after all, this is the Midwest in February—with one rain day Wednesday and the threat of snow showers late Friday night on our drive back to catch Southwest flights in St. Louis.

No sooner had we arrived Tuesday than we got to hear a presentation by Daniel Mark Epstein, author of The Lincolns and We Are Lincoln Men at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum and Library. Epstein believes that the Lincolns’ marriage—best known for its storminess—was much like other marriages with high and low points. His other book is about Lincoln’s staff—his three secretaries (quite a contrast with today’s White House staff of hundreds) John Nicolay, John Hay, and William Stoddard. This has become a focus of modern Lincoln scholarship because Nicolay and Hay, in particular, constitute a primary source—they themselves turned their experience into a 10-volume biography of Lincoln, but now their letters and other documents are being combed for new information.

Then yesterday we spent the morning at the museum, which is fantastic. It has a life-size log cabin of the kind in which Lincoln was born, a gruesome slave auction block, a show on how the 1860 election might have been covered (including ads) by modern electronic media featuring the late Tim Russert as anchor/analyst, and a summary (four minute) presentation of the Civil War. We then had lunch at a hundred-year-old restaurant that made great meatloaf!

That same afternoon we managed to squeeze into a reenactment of Lincoln's leaving Springfield at the restored Great Western Depot ("I leave not knowing when or if I shall ever return...") complete with Lincoln dress-up artist Fritz Klein. Then we went to the Lincoln Home for a tour, attended a huge Let Freedom Sing! concert next door in the Prairie View Convention Center , led by the Illinois State Symphony (trying on the part of the brass section occasionally to sound like the great Chicago Symphony), and finally to the all-night vigil at the museum where they brought out their originals of the Emancipation, Gettysburg Address and the 13th Amendment. Then there were readings from lots of sources including Herndon's recollections of Lincoln and his contemporaries and the Robert Sherwood play that made Raymond Massey famous, Abe Lincoln in Illinois.

On Thursday—Lincoln’s 200th Birthday—we went to the Old State Capitol to get special post office cancellation of new Lincoln stamps and hear a roundtable in the old House chamber (complete with candles, quill pens and spittoons) by five prominent Lincoln historians, who included Michael Burlingame, Orville Burton, Elizabeth Varon, and others. The discussion, which went on for most of the morning, is the annual roundtable of the Abraham Lincoln Association, and plumbed all areas of contemporary Lincoln scholarship. One of the historians was as interested in the other world figure born on exactly the same day as Lincoln—Charles Darwin—and compared the two in many respects.

Presiding was Michael Burlingame, a retired professor from Connecticut College, who appears to be the reigning Lincoln historian of the day. He has just published a two-volume biography that appears to be the next major generational standard in Lincoln history since David Herbert Donald and Benjamin Thomas wrote their bios in the 1980s and 1950s, respectively. Burlingame did triple duty yesterday—also appearing as the Association’s lunch and dinner speaker! He had a rather tough act to follow at dinner—fellow named Obama, and then he didn’t get to speak until two hours after the Prez departed—but more on that below. Probably the most impressive conclusion about Lincoln one might draw from the discussion was the consensus on his demonstrated ability for growth, even after arriving at the White House.

We then toured the only surviving Lincoln law office building right on the square around the Old State Capitol where lawyers then and now have their offices in Springfield. Many of the courts are still nearby as well although it was illuminating to learn that this small structure that housed Logan & Lincoln and later Lincoln & Herndon (one of four buildings Lincoln occupied as a lawyer, but the only surviving one) also housed (in the 1840s) the U.S. Post Office on the first floor and the U.S. District Court on the second. Those two institutions often used to share buildings and lawyers commonly rented the space that was left, thus being truly “courthouse lawyers,” but this building was amazingly small for all of this activity! Most of it is still being restored but as in the museum’s rendering of Lincoln’s law office, each of the different rooms used as law offices by the partners always had pictures of (as Noah put it) the Big Whigs—Henry Clay, Lincoln’s political model, and Daniel Webster, also admired politically as well as being recognized as the greatest lawyer of his generation. Lincoln, of course, always said to Herndon, his last partner and first biographer, that this is where he intended to return and resume practice after the presidency.

There has been a huge amount of work done here in recent years to assemble not only all of Lincoln’s papers and correspondence, but every legal paper in every case he handled. The results of this massive project based out here are now being disseminated and reflected in newer works. The total amount written on Lincoln is becoming, as one commentator said here, second in volume possibly only to Jesus. What’s most interesting is that the work has upgraded the image of Lincoln as a lawyer. Not only was he well-regarded on the 8th circuit here and in the state but even beyond that (contra, of course, recall the major case in Cincinnati where lead counsel Edwin M. Stanton, later Lincoln’s Secretary of War, treated Lincoln like a country bumpkin, in the account in Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals), but perhaps indicative of the current state of the profession, he also managed to make a good living at the practice by the time he left it for the White House.
On then to visit a great old book store next door called Prairie Archives, whose owner told us that at least 50 new Lincoln books come out each year. Shelves, of course, of Lincolniana and Civil War volumes, but also, for this increasingly crazed collector, lots of Horatio Algers and old juveniles, including a good Alger edition. I had previously written to the widow of Judge Harlington Wood, a U.S. 7th Circuit judge whose chambers were in Springfield and with whom I had become friendly when working with him during my years at the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts on the first federal courts long range plan, to obtain a copy of his memoirs, published shortly before his death at 88 late last year. A stack of these confronted me right when I walked into the shop and the owner told me that Judge Wood had frequented the restaurant next door for years. Judge Wood had an amazing life that saw him turn up all over the world but also at Wounded Knee, where as an official in the Justice Department—Deputy Attorney General—he helped to ensure that the confrontation did not end in bloodshed, and earlier on the deck of the U.S.S. Missouri on September 2, 1945, where his Lincolnesque features—mainly his height—led MacArthur’s cadre to assign him to stand right on the deck during the Japanese surrender ceremony. I still would love to learn how (as reported in his obituary in The Times) his performance at an amateur production at New Salem, near where he lived, playing Lincoln as a young man many years ago, was (well) reviewed by the legendary N.Y. Times critic Brooks Atkinson.

So Thursday night was the 200th Birthday Party for A. Lincoln, as it was dubbed, held at a large ballroom at the Crowne Plaza, a hotel located on the outskirts of Springfield and thus not very Lincolnian in any way. Apparently the A.L. Association only knew Obama would come shortly before the event (last week), because they undoubtedly could have filled a far larger space than this hall that had about nine hundred packed in, along with an overflow room. The major banquet in 1909 was held at the state armory.

Security was omnipresent as those of us in Washington are especially accustomed to dealing with. Despite that, it was fascinating to see Obama appear from a corner entrance to the main ballroom mobbed by well-wishers, cameramen, and media types. Illinois U.S. Senator Dick Durbin introduced him by video—the President enjoyed reporting that Durbin was too much needed for a vote in Washington to come to the banquet he had arranged for the President to attend—and the President was most generous in complimenting all politicos on hand of both parties, including the M.C. for the evening, former Gov. Jim Edgar, a Republican, who was, to this observer, a bit condescending to the President in his remarks. Obama’s speech, which you may have seen in part on tv, was brief and excellent, perfectly designed for the occasion and drawing from it just the right amount of historical comparison in urging all to recognize what we need to do together through government.

Today we drove 23 miles out of town to see New Salem, which is preserved as a park with most of the original cabins reconstructed. We learned that when the town folded around 1840, because the Sangamon River never became really navigable, people disassembled their cabins just as if they were built of Lincoln Logs (sorry, couldn’t resist that one) and rebuilt them elsewhere, all in the same day. Even at this time of year, some locals dress up in period costumes and explain what their persona occupying each house, did at the time. The tavern was a temperance house, so you could eat and sleep but not drink. For spirits you had to repair to the store co-owned by A. Lincoln. Much of New Salem was reconstructed by the CCC in the ‘30s (will we see it revived soon?) and the land was purchased many years before for preservation by none other than Wm. Randolph Hearst. I’m no usually very high on historic re-creations but this one really conveys to you—especially the warm fires inside the cold cabins on a day in February—what it was like living there back then.

The New Salem museum has an excellent exhibit of artifacts from the community and those relating to its most famous citizen. They also take a neutral position on the issue of what was the relationship, if any, between Lincoln and Ann Rutledge. There remains violent disagreement on this among historians and the first promoter of the story was the aforementioned Herndon, who conducted extensive interviews with everyone he could find who knew Lincoln. That Herndon had little liking for Mary Lincoln (nor did Nicolay and Hay) may account for some of his own ardor in advancing the view that Ann Rutledge’s death in 1835 was a tragic moment for Lincoln. However, Herndon as well as Nicolay and Hay are coming back into favor as the key sources—Herndon for pre-White House and N&H for the time in Washington. My grandfather discovered some hitherto unseen Herndon papers in the 1930s (published in his book, The Hidden Lincoln), so he’d probably be pleased to see Lincoln’s last law partner’s reputation renovated. Herndon had been disparaged since World War II by historians who noted how the Lincoln stories he collected became engrossed later in his life by his need for cash and his weakness for drink. The third major Lincoln biographer up through the 1930s—Carl Sandburg—will remain on the disapproval list for accuracy (no one matches his poetic style, of course) because today’s historians point out that he merely accepted every story anyone fed to him.

We made a stop at the Lincoln Tomb in Oak Ridge Cemetery. The tomb looked better on the outside than I had remembered but the inside is overdone marble and repros of statues of Lincoln. Tonight our finale was courtesy of the Springfield Theatre Company’s revival of Our American Cousin, which the Prez was presumably wise enough to pass up. I was pleasantly surprised to find that this true chestnut held the boards well. Granted, I don’t know how much adaptation the adaptor/director engaged in—original by Tom Taylor in the 1850s. The title character, as well as the female lead (played at Ford’s of course by the renowned Laura Keene), were excellent and the rest were adequate. And, of course, we got to see “the rest of the story”—that is, everything after that moment in Act III, Scene 2, when…In this production you hear a gunshot and the leading lady (out of character) explains what happened then. In addition, the star sang a song written by the show’s musical director to be performed by Laura Keene entr’acte on April 14, 1865. Miss Keene was not ready to sing it after either Act I or Act II, so this production presented it on stage for the first time. Having now heard it, she might have desisted even after Act III, had things been permitted to proceed that far.

It’s been a fantastic few days out here in the heartland, and I hope this conveys a bit of what’s it’s been like here. Our constant comment was the welcoming friendliness of the locals, of how on so many occasions someone was willing to squeeze us into a sold-out lecture or performance.

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