Teachers Should Not Be Constrained, Classrooms Should Be Able To Dialogue About Abraham Lincoln And Joshua Speed Relationship

Upon finishing Courting Mr. Lincoln my first thought was how great writers seemingly allow words to flow effortlessly.  The amazing work by Louis Bayard combined historical facts with an author’s elaboration using dialogue and moods to convey larger topics for exploration. The second thought I had was this book, so beautifully written and constructed, sadly will not be found in school libraries where book banning runs wild.

Central to the story as Mary Todd enters the world of Springfield in 1839 and meets Abraham Lincoln, is the tight friendship and deeply personal relationship between Joshua Speed and Lincoln. Lincoln shared a bed with Speed for four years over a general store that the latter owned.  While the sharing of such close quarters by men was not uncommon at the time, it is the narrower story of bonds and shared closeness between the two that has placed the question of what their actual relationship was into the minds of historians and writers for many decades.   

Historians have tried to grapple with understanding Lincoln in more books written about him than any other president. The books range from his efforts being portrayed as highly patriotic and grounded in the words of the Founding Fathers to the wildly outlandish that try to paint him as a dictator. Over 15,000 titles have been published, all in an effort to better define and dissect what many consider (including myself) the most important leader this nation had in the White House. Bayard stepped into this arena and added context to the possible (and a growing number of researchers think probable) homosexual relationship between Lincoln and Speed.  Though we will never know with absolute proof through evidence that a relationship occurred, this discussion allows students insight into social structures that mandated secrecy at the time over such relationships.  Students are left to beg the question that if Lincoln had committed himself to Speed, and given the mores of the era meaning he would not have been elected president, what might have happened with the Union and the issue of slavery?  Contrasting that to 2020 when Pete Buttigieg, an openly gay married man, sought his party’s nomination is exactly the role of a history student studying the patterns and forces that shape(d) our nation.

Given how the rhetoric in our nation about teaching Black history or gay history or tackling anything that might make certain parents upset in some regions of the nation, the idea of broaching the topic of Lincoln with a homosexual side to his life surely seems an uphill trek. If merely suspecting Lincoln to have a male love interest riles feathers, pray tell, how does that same school teach Oscar Wilde in literature class?!

My deep respect for Lincoln started in my school years when learning his determination to show the world that the United States’ brave attempt at democracy must not fail, as it would then allow despots to think people could not rule themselves successfully. My high school library had a copy of Carl Sandburg’s Abraham Lincoln. (I recall the larger book’s wonderful black and white drawings depicting places and people as the story unwinds.)  It was there that I first read any hint and in only a few sparse words, of Lincoln’s potentially gay feelings. Sandburg had studied the letters and wrote of Lincoln and Speed having “a streak of lavender, and spots soft as May violets”. 

I had questions so I turned to, Marge Glad, my history teacher, a woman who so positively impacted my life I went back as a young adult to thank her for what she did in her classroom.  There was no internet to search (as this was 1977) or a huge collection of other books in a rural community so I sought a teacher for a further explanation.  She told me that lavender was a way (especially in Britain) for how gay people would be referred to so as not to seem ‘vulgar’ in society when speaking of the topic.  I recall she used the word pregnancy as another example of what was not used in ‘polite company’ in times past. I never once considered such a discussion with a teacher to be out-of-bounds or anything other than just another day at school. It was rather just another educational experience.

The points I made are two-fold in this post.  First, a school library should have books that promote learning and bring forth ideas that foster more research along with discussions. Banning books is meant to constrain or undermine learning, which is simply unacceptable.  Secondly, teachers must have the ability to educate and speak openly and factually about a wide array of topics with their students. Schools must be a place where ideas are able to be explored and questioned. In so doing a new generation of minds with broadened perspectives will become the sturdy adults this nation requires.

Where Did President Lincoln Stand For Gettysburg Address?

Several years ago, during a 10-day trip to Washington, D.C., James and I took a bus tour to Gettysburg, the most iconic Civil War battlefield. I recall as a teenager reading about the high numbers of battlefield casualties in some of the fighting during the Civil War.  I recall my sensations upon learning for the first time about the piles of bodies at Gettysburg, reading journal entries from the townspeople about the stench and the burial trenches. Trying to process the enormity of the number of deaths is something that we all came to terms with during our history classes.

Over 50,000 Americans were killed in those massive battles that spanned for days on a plot of land in Pennsylvania. Over the decades the war, and the cause for it, have become better understood with many books and lectures.  When I had the opportunity to walk the battlefield and listen to a Civil War military expert speak of the efforts to secure a victory for the North the weight of the war from those days in 1863 when the heat of the sun and the smell of cannons along with the sound of muskets firing as men groaned in death came very much back to life.  It is impossible to stand on that ground and not feel it all.

James Wilson at Gettysburg

I had read long ago of the moldering bodies that still were present from the July battle when President Lincoln gave his address in November 19, 1863. (I write this post on the anniversary.) We passed the hotel where he stayed and saw the second-story window of the room where he finished his short speech. But to see the bluffs and hear the stories of battle and grasp how the winds blew that day and carried the smoke of cannon and musket, as bodies lay strewn about was most powerful.

While I have always loved history, my least favorite part of the past is the military engagements that occurred on the battlefield. How the people of the small town felt and reacted, or how the news of the battles was sent to Washington, and of course, the simple short, and exceedingly powerful message from President Lincoln afterward are the aspects of the story that most interested me. But to see the bluffs and hear the stories of battle and grasp how the winds blew that day and carried the smoke of cannon and musket, as bodies lay strewn about was most powerful.

Like everyone else that day as our tour bus moved about and made for stops the question most asked was exactly where did President Lincoln stand when he delivered the Gettysburg Address? The speech, which ran a mere 272 words, took about two minutes. It went so fast that the three photographers in attendance, “with their clunky wet-plate cameras, missed the moment entirely”.

The most famous of the photographs is attributed to David Bachrach, who was positioned in front of the speaker’s platform. Discovered in the 1950s by Josephine Cobb, an archivist at the National Archives, it remains the only undisputed image of Lincoln at Gettysburg — seemingly taking his seat on the platform hatless, his head bowed.

The photographers may have missed Lincoln’s speech, but sometimes they inadvertently captured one another, providing clues to their exact position. During a preview of his research, Oakley pulled up one of Gardner’s shots, zooming in on a window in the Evergreen gatehouse to point out a blurred figure and a box: the photographer Peter Weaver with his camera, he said.

Since the 19th century, scholars and armchair obsessives alike have pored over every aspect of the Gettysburg Address, from the meaning of its soaring rhetoric to the kind of paper Lincoln drafted it on.

Now, a researcher claims to have settled a question that can be seen, quite literally, as foundational: Where exactly did Lincoln stand?

Since the 1990s, visitors to Gettysburg National Cemetery have been told the hallowed spot actually lies just over an iron fence, in Evergreen Cemetery, the town’s burial ground. But Christopher Oakley, a former Disney animator turned Civil War sleuth, has combined intense analysis of 19th-century photographs with 21st-century 3-D modeling software to argue that Lincoln was standing inside the national cemetery after all.

To build his 3-D model, he entered a 3-D map made from geographic information system, or G.I.S., data and a Google satellite map into Maya, and then layered in the historical photographs. After years of trial and error, he said, when he toggled between each photograph and the corresponding camera positions in his model, everything finally lined up.

His research was unveiled on Friday at the Lincoln Forum, a gathering of some 300 scholars and enthusiasts who meet in Gettysburg each year, during the run-up to the official commemoration of Lincoln’s address on Nov. 19. As he clicked through his presentation, there were whispered “Wows,” capped with a standing ovation.

A diagram by Oakley, showing where the photographers who took four of the six known photographs of the cemetery dedication were standing. The indicate the positions for Peter Weaver (1 and 2), Alexander Gardner (3) and David Bachrach (4). Oakley’s placement of the platform is visible in the center.

The skillset and determination that Oakley has employed allow for countless history buffs to take another large step forward in better understanding a question that has long been the center of debate in academic circles. There have been more books written about Abe Lincoln than any other president, and something tells me this research and its conclusions will make for yet one more. As it should!

Gregory Humphrey and his favorite president.

A Weekend Read Of History And News Reporters, Harold Holzer Delights (Again)

Looking for a weekend read that is timely, filled with history and press relations galore? Governing on the one hand is very important while understanding at the same time the absolute necessity of having a Fourth Estate as the ultimate “guarantor of freedom”.

President George Washington had the nation’s longest honeymoon in the White House, but with his second term the press, in part, turned their ink towards him in ways that stunned and scarred. He mostly stayed above the fray, above the articles, as opposed to how later presidents, who were even more thin-skinned would rebuke reporters and snarl on camera at them, such as with President Richard Nixon. “You don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.”

The press was rash and fresh in 1792 and just as the executive branch took root and gained power and federal reckoning over the decades, so too did the journalism profession mature and strengthen into what can only be correctly termed, as the British do, the Fourth Estate. I am finding the book perfect as I have a long and deep interest in the dual rise of the American presidency and the media that shaped it. As I am reading it I just know that Bill Safire, the wordsmith and media-oriented writer, would thrill to the book. There is no way not to feel drawn back into the time when Abraham Lincoln made use of the new “instant communication” technology of telegraphy. No way not to smile and read on and just warm to the narrative.

If you know Harold Holzer from his Abe Lincoln and Civil War books you are most aware of his keen intellect, a research knack that shows in his works, and a narrative style that draws a reader into the pages. I very much think for the history and media types who are readers of this page The Presidents vs. The Press will be a real delight.

Qualities Voters Should Demand Of Candidates On Mid-Term Ballot

I have been thinking about the values voters should expect of candidates who ask us for our votes. I need not state the lack of character some candidates are demonstrating or the lack of any leadership being employed by party officials in making it clear there is behavior that simply can not be countenanced. Character and leadership matter in equal parts both during campaign time and also when serving in office. Those qualities can be measured and weighed within the context of history and in line with our shared American values.

“Young Abe Lincoln on Horseback” (Anna Hyatt Huntington, 1963)

Abraham Lincoln is the man I showcase below as he embodied leadership and empathy. I argue that Lincoln’s actions during the Civil War ran in sharp contrast to how Donald Trump abdicated responsibility during the COVID-19 pandemic. What Trump called ‘his war’. In making my points it becomes more clear what qualities candidates should embody and why voters should desire such people to be elected in the mid-term races.

Even the most jaded high school history student knows the first year of the Civil War was beset by the failures of the Union Army to marshall their military might or demonstrate a clear capacity to engage the Confederates. Bull Run was the most prominent battle in 1861 and we are very aware it was not a success for Lincoln.

The generals of the North were not always known for aggressive behavior. This led Lincoln to undertake a growing responsibility within the White House in waging war. He often changed generals and even championed a more forward-leaning engagement with the South in 1862. But how he came to the point where he felt comfortable within his own skin to use his office in such a manner is due to one factor that speaks volumes about Lincoln. And what we should desire from our elected class this fall, too.

Lincoln had limited military experience from his time in the Black Hawk War. Longtime readers know of my strong recommendation of A Self-Made Man by Sidney Blumenthal where that period of Lincoln’s life is researched and written about in much detail. So, to fill in the empty places of his education Lincoln got his hands on each and every military text he could find. He then read and studied them. He then consulted with his military advisors and learned from experts.

All of that is diametrically opposite to how Trump handled the pandemic, which killed over 1 million Americans. Those who lost their lives in 2021 were caught up in the absurdity of mocking science and adhering to the uneducated discourse which was started in the early months of 2020. By not immersing himself in the science and data, or heeding the advice of professionals in this nation we have all paid a price. What we witnessed was not only Trump’s desire to take no responsibility in dealing competently with the virus but also to not show any empathy for a staggering loss of life among the citizenry.

Lincoln, on the other hand, wore empathy on his sleeve. There could be a book on nothing other than Lincoln’s ability to put himself in the place of another, and the result would be a tome too heavy to lug around. If you want to be moved emotionally read the accounts of mothers who met with Lincoln and urged that their sons not be sent to war and how it pained him so much. Or read the words of his personal assistant, John Hay, regarding how Abe lingered long and hard over letters about those sentenced to die after a military tribunal so ordered it to be done.

What we must acknowledge is the importance that each candidate and elected officeholder must be a reader, a thinker, and have a deep well of empathy. Tribal politics has brought our nation to the dysfunctional place it now resides. Voters have an obligation to be more serious at undertaking their role in electing candidates with character and a compass pointing in the direction of reason and logic.

How Many Hands Are You Shaking On New Year’s Day?

As COVID spreads like the wind at the start of this New Year, and most people have no desire for anyone to pass through the front door, much less shake their hand, here then is something to consider from the pages of history.

We have all read or heard of the handshaking with the public that President Abraham Lincoln did on January 1, 1863, leaving his hand sore and cramped. For three hours the president had conducted the then-annual event of greeting the public who wished to come to the White House so to start the New Year.

Later that day Lincoln goes down in history for signing the Emancipation Proclamation. He was concerned with a hand that was aching to not have his signature viewed as somewhat distorted or shaky and then to be construed as uncertain about the enormity of his decision. We know that once the ink was on the document it was completed with a steady hand.

But how did it start that hordes of people would converge on the White House at the start of each year?

President George Washington instituted the open house reception on the 4th of July, even when he was operating government in New York. When President John Adams moved into the newly constructed White House, the ‘people’s house”, for the 1801 New Year’s event it became a tradition in Washington for the doors to be opened to the public.

I started looking for pictures of this event and while there are many drawings and later photos with the advent of the camera, there is one that clearly demonstrates the size of the crowds better than any other I could locate.

The line for the New Year’s reception in 1922 reached down the White House sidewalk, wound out beyond the gates, and continued around the block bordering the old State, War, and Navy Building (now known as the Eisenhower Executive Office Building). Thanks to the Library of Congress for the grand picture.

The last New Year’s Day Reception was held in 1932. By 1933 who really wanted to warmly greet outgoing President Herbert Hoover?

Happy New Year!

And so it goes.

Donald Trump And The Second ‘Gettysburg Address’, Or Is He More Akin To James Buchanan?

I received my booster shot on Tuesday and am feeling great. The only thing noted about the past 24 hours that is a bit different is my raving hunger. Homemade chicken and rice at midnight (and pickles!) are not usual.

It was this morning as I was finishing the leftovers for breakfast–minus pickles–that I first heard a most outlandish news story.

In his new memoir, former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows compared former Donald Trump’s post-COVID hospitalization speech to the Gettysburg Address.

Meadows, whose book “The Chief’s Chief” was released on Tuesday, attempted to illustrate how Trump’s brief speech urging Americans not to fear the coronavirus reminded him of former President Abraham Lincoln’s magnum opus.

“Although the prose wasn’t quite as polished as the Gettysburg Address, delivered by President Abraham Lincoln after the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, it had the same compressed, forceful quality that had made President Lincoln’s words so effective at the time they were delivered,” Meadows wrote.

Had the news not been reported on NPR I would have thought the booster had caused a bit of mental confusion. When I did a quick online search I learned the booster was not the cause for my ‘hearing’ issue, as the information was, sadly, correct.

When one has no actual understanding of history, no grounding in substance and fact….well, this type of book happens. It was shockingly ignorant for Mark Meadows to have written such lines. And for an editor to let it slide. Or a publishing house to consent to roll it off the presses.

For those who do know history, the character and wisdom of President Abraham Lincoln, and the sacred nature of Gettysburg, will quickly grasp the utter insanity of what Meadows wrote. Likewise, we know that Meadows would have a far easier time connecting Trump to President James Buchanan.

Readers might say, ‘but was not it strongly rumored that Buchanan was gay’, while Trump is a known womanizer, even when married to his third wife? And we know from reading about the man who was in the office prior to Lincoln that he was always dignified. When was Trump ever accused of that?

So how, then, the comparisons?

The reason I consider it most fair to link these two is the air of sedition and treason that was rampant in both of their White Houses. Donald Trump was the center of the most dangerous attack on our nation’s foundation since the Civil War. We know from reading that Buchanan had fire-eaters in his cabinet who were fomenting succession. Trump had an array of wild-eyed and dangerous operatives pushing forward with undermining the results of a presidential election made by the people.

Had Meadows been, at any level, a reader of history he could have better found the analogy he was seeking for his book. James Buchanan.

Meanwhile for the bottom line.

“Donald Trump’s former chief of staff has been all over the news for all sorts of reasons, but his new book “The Chief’s Chief” is barely budging on the Amazon sales chart. At last check, the book is #1,436 on Amazon — a very disappointing start for a promising title that’s generating so much press” Per CNN’s Brain Stelter earlier this week.

And so it goes.

Two Paragraphs From Sidney Blumenthal To Hook Your Interest In History–Lincoln Style

I often use this blog to alert readers to books that rise above the rest due to their research and/or powerful narrative ability. One of the books that I presently am juggling absolutely can be so defined, and without doubt, therefore, gets a post on CP.

Sidney Blumenthal has taken on the daunting mission to dive deep into the political life of Abraham Lincoln. In a multi-volume set, the journalist and politico, has attained for my favorite president what Robert Caro did for Lyndon Baines Johnson. Having fallen in love with the biographical style of Caro–and yes, the book world is waiting for the final volume–I was certain no one could match him.

Well, I was wrong. Blumenthal also has the ability to weave into the political tapestry the elected officials, string-pullers, journalists, and events that revolve around the life of the central character. After all, there is no way to tell the story of Lincoln without crusty newspaper owners in New York and fire-eaters in Georgia.

I offer the opening paragraphs from two chapters in Volume Two as examples of what grabs the attention of lovers of history.

The 1852 election is playing out and one of the giants looks to satiate his ongoing case of Potomac Fever.

Over the years I have become more captivated by Henry Clay. The breadth and width of his political life is nothing short of remarkable, and the pragmatic nature of his style of politics has lessons for us all going forward.

The acclaim that Blumenthal has achieved is merited. There is an intensity of desire in his writing that we, too, should know and better understand not only what Lincoln did as a politician, but why. The fabric of Abe’s being did not just drop from above but developed with, at times, calm resolve while on other occasions anxiety and depression created a passion to live a life worthy of being recalled by history. Without his totality as a man and political leader, the nation would not have survived as it did.

Without Blumenthal to explore, explain, and better define Lincoln’s political life we would be less able to know him as the greatest of presidents.

And so it goes.

Abe Lincoln Recalled As Lack Of Herd Immunity Lessons Travels

Abe Lincoln and Gregory Humphrey, one of his fond admirers. 2017 Gettysburg.

David McCullough writes a line in his book, The American Spirit: Who We Are and What We Stand For that stands out as pure truth. “History is both now and then, today and yesterday.”

Several years ago McCullough appeared on the Charlie Rose show and spoke in his usually eloquent way about why people need to see this country’s national parks and historic sites. He spoke about the need to show young people the wonders of the past. Connecting with the touchstones of the past is exactly the very thing McCullough urged.

It has not been possible, given the pandemic, for any type of vacation which allows for historic sites to be seen up close. With too many places around the nation not understanding the medical and economic reasons to be vaccinated means we stay home and keep the money in the bank. With the logic of herd immunity not understood by too many means the bottom line for all sorts of tourist-related businesses will suffer as many folks around the nation feel as we do about personal safety.

But that does not mean fond recollections are not able to be tapped into and relived.

In 2017, for ten days, James and I made our way to the famed sites in Washington D.C. where monuments and buildings have awed millions. This morning as I poured coffee into my Gettysburg cup–a site we traveled to that year–I thought of the night we walked to the Lincoln Memorial.

To see the Lincoln Memorial in daylight is one thing, as I did on my first trip to D.C. in 1987, but to stand in the lighted wonder at night and ponder the man is quite another.  During that trip I found myself talking to many people day after day, and asking them their impressions. I sought out ones who I thought might lend the best insights.

As such I asked a black woman who was age 88 what she was feeling about the Lincoln Memorial as we both stood in the lights that summer night with humidity clinging all about. It was her first time to see it and being from Jamaica she spoke as one who knew of the power Lincoln’s words gave to those outside this nation. “It is very powerful for everyone,” she said with soft words and dark knowing eyes.

On the backside of the memorial looking out across the Potomac  I spoke to a father and then told his young teenage children about the battle of First Bull Run and how many townspeople took carriages and boxed lunches to watch the battle as many felt the war would be a short-term operation.  Hours later the beaten and badly wounded soldiers would be limping or being carried back over the river into Washington.  Some without shoes, others without guns, others without an eye or limb.   It was interesting to see the young look out and hear of the events and perhaps in their mind see history play out.   (As McCullough hoped would happen.)

I know at some point, not this year I fear, we will turn the corner on COVID, and find the ability to travel again and seek out the sites and memories from the pages of history. We will follow through, again, on the sage advice from McCullough.

Until then, we open the pages of our own personal histories and relive days of travel and discovery.

And so it goes.