Episode 5, Mr. Lincoln’s Presidential Seal: Once again, we sit down to talk with Dr. James Cornelius. This month, we discuss Mr. Lincoln’s Presidential Seal.
Episode 5, Mr. Lincoln’s Presidential Seal: Once again, we sit down to talk with Dr. James Cornelius. This month, we discuss Mr. Lincoln’s Presidential Seal.
Just before Christmas 1859, the 50-year-old Lincoln looked back at his previous decade and noticed that it was split into two roughly equal parts. For the five years after 1849 (the year he wrapped up his single term in Congress), he’d “practiced law more assiduously than ever before.” So assiduously, that by 1854 he “was losing interest in politics” as a career.
But in that year he was “aroused again” as a potential candidate for office by “the repeal of the Missouri Compromise.” The specter of slavery extension north of the Missouri Compromise line of 36°30” — made possible by the Kansas-Nebraska Act — revived his taste for electoral battle.
Win or lose, he’d seized the issue that would crystallize his sharpest thinking, his strongest feeling, and his deftest political calculation. He would stake out a position at the center of northern opinion on slavery and cling to it with fierce resolve, hating slavery with the passion of an abolitionist, and loving union with the moderation of a conservative.
The rekindling of his political aspirations in 1854 gives the period 1849-1854 a special poignancy in the arc of his public career. It’s the last bloc of time in his life when he wasn’t sure how to proceed with his life. Ambitious for public service but lacking concrete options, Lincoln had settled into the law.
Yet for all his relentless activity on the legal circuit, this was a time of vocational limbo, perhaps even (as Michael Burlingame argues in Abraham Lincoln: A Life, vol. 1, pp. 357-62) a forty-something’s passage through a “mid-life crisis.”
His striking eulogy for President Zachary Taylor in the summer of 1850 suggests how his mind was churning. He was roaming widely and deeply in thought and feeling, connecting political and military affairs to timeless quandaries about the human condition.
Taylor died in the White House on July 9, after only 16 months in office. Two days earlier, Lincoln had arrived in Chicago to defend a client in U.S. District Court. On July 10, with the trial just under way, news of Taylor’s demise reached the city by telegraph. That evening, a meeting was held to pick the city’s eulogist, and the visiting lawyer and wordsmith from Springfield was promptly chosen.
Lincoln agreed to do the job — he didn’t “feel at liberty to decline” — but he warned the selection committee not to expect much. “The want of time for preparation,” he wrote, “will make the task for me a very difficult one to perform, in any degree satisfactory to others or to myself.”
When the trial ended on July 24 with exoneration for his client Charles Hoyt (found not guilty of infringing on another man’s water-wheel patent), Lincoln put the final touches on his speech and delivered it the following afternoon at City Hall.
In the main body of the eulogy, Lincoln dramatically recounted Taylor’s exploits in the Mexican War, going out of his way to praise him as an intrepid fighter in the very war Lincoln himself had opposed. This was one general, he said, who had fearlessly taken the battle to the enemy. This was also a leader who instinctively put the needs of the whole army, and nation, ahead of personal pique. By the usual standard of military honor, Taylor would have deprived Colonel William Worth (who’d spoken ill of Taylor in Washington) of further opportunities for heroism. Instead, he thought only of putting the best officers in place, and he judged Worth one of the best.
Lincoln was praising Taylor for selflessness as much as courage. Moral stature mattered in war and politics. It mattered in part, said Lincoln, because with his death, all that was left of Taylor or any other man was “the fruits of his labor, his name, his memory and example.”
Taylor’s sudden end called to Lincoln’s mind both the fragility of the republic — which other leader would now step forward to help rein in the people’s discordant passions? — and the evanescence of human life. The death of a great man like Taylor forced everyone to confront the brute fact “that we, too, must die.”
High office or privileged station offered no protection against the final leveling. Yes, personal virtue was revealed by the grandeur of one’s civic accomplishments, but it was also measured by a humble acceptance of life’s brevity. Lincoln pitched no rosy outcome for Taylor beyond the grave, and sang no hymn to the permanence of his fame.
The eulogist took heart instead from a steadfast stoicism, reminding the audience of Taylor’s last words: “I have done my duty, I am ready to go.” (As reported in the press on July 10, the president had said, “I die. I am ready for the summons. I have endeavored to do my duty. I am sorry to leave my old friends.”)
Lincoln went on to state that if they had served their nation with “singleness of purpose,” dying leaders would know they had secured “that country’s gratitude” and “its best honors.” Lincoln sealed his eulogy by reciting 6 of the 14 stanzas of William Knox’s 1818 poem “Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud?” He selected verses stressing the common “pilgrimage road” that the living shared with the dead:
So the multitude goes, like the flower or the weed,
That withers away to let others succeed;
So the multitude comes, even those we behold,
To repeat every tale that has often been told.
By 1865, thanks to the wide reprinting of the eulogy, many people associatedthis poem with Lincoln. Some people thought he’d written it himself. After his death, hundreds of newspapers around the country ran the complete poem, many of them attributing it to him. They noted how often he’d recited it from memory, remembering his lost friends and family members. The final stanza got the most play, and it comforted many readers in part because they knew it had comforted him:
’Tis the wink of an eye, ’tis the draught of a breath,
From the blossoms of health, to the paleness of death.
From the gilded saloon, to the bier and the shroud,
Oh, why should the spirit of mortal be proud!
The first part of the post was published on May 30, 2011.
In April 1865 everyone knew that temporary quarters were needed for the immediate housing of Lincoln’s remains along with those of his departed sons Willie and Eddie. Willie’s casket accompanied Lincoln’s back to Springfield from Washington and was carried out to Oak Ridge Cemetery with Lincoln’s on May 4, 1865, both being placed in the temporary receiving vault in the cemetery.
Edward Baker Lincoln had been buried in Hutchinson Cemetery in 1850. This was a six-acre area immediately west of the old four-acre city graveyard. As Springfield grew, Hutchinson Cemetery was no longer sufficient, having become surrounded by town development. In 1856 the original portion of it was closed to further burials, and by 1866 all burials in these grounds were closed and all the bodies were removed to Oak Ridge.
At Oak Ridge what began as a modest 28 acres in the late 1850s eventually encompassed 115 acres of scenic rolling hills. City officials followed the national trend of placing cemeteries in bucolic rural settings outside of the noise and commotion of daily life. Cemeteries became places where people could commune with nature and see that life, like nature, was cyclical.
The formal dedication of Oak Ridge occurred on May 24, 1860, and was a major public event that Abraham and Mary Lincoln likely attended. Mary vividly recalled a conversation with her husband shortly before his death as they were taking a carriage ride. Approaching an old country graveyard, Lincoln turned to her and said: “Mary, you are younger than I. You will survive me. When I am gone, lay my remains in some quiet place like this.” This memory of Lincoln’s burial preference became the source of controversy between Mrs. Lincoln and the National Lincoln Monument Association in 1865.
The Association began negotiations to acquire property in the Mather block, a site near Springfield’s public square and visible from the Chicago and Alton Railroad tracks. A temporary receiving vault was begun with the intent that Lincoln’s remains would reside there, not at Oak Ridge. Mrs. Lincoln objected, and her cousin John Todd Stuart consented to her immediate wishes that Abraham and Willie Lincoln’s bodies reside in the temporary vault at Oak Ridge. Most Association members continued to push for the construction of the permanent monument on the Mather property and hoped to persuade Mrs. Lincoln of the merits of their position.
She refused to meet with them and gave the Association an ultimatum: either build the permanent tomb in Oak Ridge, or else she would have her husband’s remains removed to Chicago or to George Washington’s crypt in the United States Capitol. While there had been some talk immediately following Lincoln’s death that his remains should be placed in Washington’s crypt, nothing was done. The overwhelming indicators had favored Springfield. But now it appeared that the dispute between Mary Lincoln and the Association might identify the memory of Lincoln with someplace other than Springfield. Jesse Fell, one of Lincoln’s closest associates, warned the Association that they should defer to Mrs. Lincoln on the subject lest their efforts be seen as tending “more to the enhanced value of town lots than to the dictates of patriotism.”
On June 14, 1865, a vote of the board of directors decided to concede to Mrs. Lincoln’s wishes that the monument be built in Oak Ridge. This vote passed by a slim margin of 8 to 7. The City of Springfield donated the land, and a temporary receiving vault was completed by December to free up the space in the cemetery’s public receiving vault. The remains of Abraham, Willie, and Eddie were all placed in the private temporary vault that month. Mary had carried out her husband’s wishes for “a quiet place.”
Some of our ‘knowledge’ about Lincoln comes along later rather than sooner. The newspaper page pictured here is in Hebrew, dated 9 January 1979 (5739 in the ancient Jewish calendar). This was given to the Presidential Library many years ago without a source, but it seems to have been published in New York. It is in fairly simple language, likely meant for recent Russian-Jewish immigrants learning Hebrew. Tens of thousands of people made that migration in the 1970s, many of them to Brooklyn.
Teaching immigrants about their new culture requires history, humor, and perhaps a little fudging. The paper is called Gate to the Beginning and the column shown here is “Little Stories About Great Men.” It includes an anecdote about Hans Christian Anderson with a Danish Jew, and another about a Zionist. The Lincoln story does not mention that his birthday would occur the next month, but perhaps in 1979 that anniversary was still so well ingrained in all American life (before the confected ‘Presidents Holiday’ that mushes Washington and Lincoln together) that even an immigrant knew.
The story puts Lincoln in the White House blacking his own boots. In walks an important politician who blurts, “What! You shine your own boots?” To which the humble railsplitter quips, “And what did you think? That I would shine the boots of others?”
We owe Rabbi Michael Datz of Springfield, Illinois, many thanks for translating this tale. To his ear the wording trades on the old-New York Yiddish phrasing heard in so many movies and plays, ‘And what should I / And why would I …?’ The historian of Lincoln might recognize a couple of other themes. First, Paul Zall’s highly useful Abe Lincoln Laughing: Humorous Anecdotes from Original Sources by and about Abraham Lincoln (1995) traces the origin of this tale to an unsigned 1909 magazine piece. Two other works the next year retold and reworded it. In the three versions, the shocked visitor to the White House was variously said to have been Senator Sumner, Secretary Chase, and British minister Lord Lyons.
With confusion like that, we can never say if the incident occurred. Lincoln’s Centennial spawned a profusion of dubious ‘new sources’ like this. But the second theme a Lincolnist can divine is that immigrants old or new might need this ‘teachable moment’ after arriving in an American city where the sight of black men shining others’ shoes was not uncommon. This particular ‘Great Man’ of the American past had been strong enough to free the slaves and humble enough to do his own menial chore. Whether the exact quip about the boots was authentic, or somehow got fudged in the retelling, it harmonizes with what we veritably know about Lincoln’s character and deeds. Lincoln believed in the political and legal equality of black and white; many people believed it in 1909; more believed it in 1979; still more believe it today. And why should we doubt such tales?
In April, Steven Spielberg announced Sally Field as his choice to play the president’s wife in Lincoln, the feature film coming in 2012 to a theater near you. The director said he’d always wanted her for the part. Why? Because the two-time Oscar recipient could capture “all the fragility and complexity that was Mary Todd Lincoln.”
There’s no telling how much screen time Sally Field will actually get in the picture, based on Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals. Goodwin’s story centers on Lincoln, his 1860 Republican presidential competitors (Edward Bates, Salmon Chase, and William Seward), and his Secretary of War Edwin Stanton. But selecting Field to star opposite Daniel Day-Lewis, an “Abraham” with two Oscars of his own, suggests that Spielberg may intend more than a passing glance at Mary.
Given Field’s stature in American popular culture, even a few scenes in such a high-profile venture will affect the image of Mrs. Lincoln for a long time to come. Let’s hope that the screenplay by Pulitzer Prize-winner Tony Kushner, and Spielberg’s direction, will bring out the full “complexity” of Mary’s “fragility.”
For all her temperamental swings and failures of judgment, this perpetually insecure soul — emotionally shredded, like her husband, by the death of their 11-year-old son Willie in early 1862, and badgered by Washington critics as a pathetic Western parvenu, if not also a closet secessionist — managed somehow to keep her husband’s health and the Union’s welfare hovering near the front of her mind.
Too often her ups and downs are reduced to individual craziness, the product of her Todd family’s history of mental distress, aggravated by personal setbacks beginning when she was six with the loss of her mother. A discombobulated Mary is easily positioned, after Willie’s death, as a spiritualist crank and a continuing burden on her long-suffering spouse.
Lincoln’s forbearance in the face of her tongue-lashings and manic shopping binges bolsters his image as a selfless saint, safely detached from her disorders. But anyone who has ever been in a decades-long relationship will suspect this picture is one-sided.
Her splenetic displays, and his high-minded silence or forlorn withdrawal, were likely built into the relationship they’d created with one another. The sparks were part of the substance.
The essential corrective to the portrayal of Mary as an out-of-control, self-aggrandizing deviant — the perfect foil for a charitable servant of the people — is to insist on her intimate ties with Abraham over 22 years of marriage. In Springfield those ties included political as well as domestic intercourse. In Washington, she gradually lost her political role, but her civic enthusiasm, and her ardor for her husband’s success and well-being, never waned.
There’s no reason to think their “scenes,” as Mary labeled one of their White House spats, prevented them from enjoying, and needing, one another’s company. There’s every reason to believe their angry standoffs were followed, at least some of the time, by eager reconciliation. Their complexity as a couple helped shape her fragility as an individual.
Any depiction that takes Mrs. Lincoln as the nutty nuisance, the bothersome drag on the forgiving Mr. Lincoln, distorts their quarter-century of impassioned partnership. So does any portrayal that misses Mary’s ongoing public engagement after Abraham stopped soliciting (or even listening to) her political judgments.
Goodwin’s engrossing Team of Rivals devotes only a few pages to Mary, but it gives Kushner and Spielberg all the evidence they’ll need to show that this long marriage kept being renewed by mutual fervor for politics and public service.
Mary and Abraham had both fallen for Henry Clay’s Whig politics long before they fell for each other. They fell for each other in part because of their shared political vision. Once in the national capital, she sought out new ways to exercise her political passions. After Willie’s death, she poured herself all the more intensively into one of them: hospital work.
As historian Michael Burlingame points out in his biography Abraham Lincoln: A Life (vol. II, p. 495), “she won [occasional newspaper] praise for ‘the generous devotion with which she has tenderly cared for the sick and wounded soldiers.’” Praise came from her husband too, writes Burlingame: “Lincoln gave her $1,000 out of his own pocket to buy Christmas turkeys for the hospitalized troops and helped her distribute them.”
Catherine Clinton (Mrs. Lincoln: A Life, p. 196) observes that Mary “visited the hospitals two or three times a week,” undeterred by what one newspaper called “the fear of contagion and the outcries of pestilence.”
In Team of Rivals (p. 457), Goodwin notes that Mary brought the men “baskets of fruit, food, and fresh flowers . . . to mask the pervasive stench of disinfectant and decay.” She sat down beside them to write letters to their families. One young man learned who she was only after the letter bearing her signature had been delivered.
Urged by Lincoln secretary William Stoddard to curry general favor for her labors, Mary stuck with relative anonymity, having found, as Goodwin writes, “something more gratifying than public acknowledgment (p. 459).” She got the reward of registering firsthand the soldiers’ devotion to her husband and their fidelity to the Union cause.
In Lincoln, Spielberg and Kushner have the rare chance to give us the Mary who made her husband proud alongside the Mary who made him fret. The Lincolns collaborated in family building and public service. She shored him up even as she weighed him down. He let her find new purpose even as he left her aside, to embark on a presidential calling all his own.
A film centered on civilian leaders in wartime cannot attempt a full treatment of the Lincoln marriage. But it can let Sally Field signal a fully human Mary, courageous as well as distraught.