“Gift of the Books”
by Mike Norris
(This play was performed June 2008 at the Great American Brass Band Festival in Danville.)
RELEASED: June 19, 2008
A banner or large sign at the back of the stage or somewhere prominent with the name of the play and the Kentucky Historical Society logo and the Year of Lincoln logo. A person (not a performer in the play) comes to the front of the stage and announces, “Our location is Weisiger Park next to the courthouse in downtown Danville. Our play begins with a selection by the Saxon Cornet band.
[band plays short number—‘Old Dog Trey’] – [located on stage]
[As the tune ends the historian walks distractedly, in an old man’s gait, from behind the stage toward the raised lawn in front of the stage.]
HISTORIAN: I remember that tune. [He continues toward the highest point of the lawn.]
‘Old Dog Trey’…it was very popular during the Civil War. [he stops and looks at the audience, becoming aware of them for the first time] Who are these people?...Where’s my student assistant?...Shirley?
[A young woman runs from the side of the stage to the historian.]
HISTORIAN: [nodding toward audience] Shirley?
HISTORIAN: Of course, Leslie.
[She whispers in his ear and runs off stage.]
HISTORIAN: Ah, yes. You’re here because of the birthday. Well, today is…sometime in June, and on February 12th of 2009, we’ll celebrate the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth…which took place 53 miles from Danville – I’ve made the drive many times – near Hodgenville. Lincoln – I’ve spent most of my life studying him…a long, long time now. Let me start at the start: I’m a historian.
Now Voltaire defined history as “the lie commonly agreed upon.” If we accept that, I am, by definition, a liar. I hope that’s not the case, but you must appreciate the difficulty of history. A historian such as myself must look back at a time before he was born and try to stitch together truth from the bits and pieces left behind by people who wanted posterity to understand it not necessarily as it was, but as they wish it was. And each succeeding generation layers on their own biases and prejudices. It’s like trying to see an image reflected in a series of mirrors and all the glass is – to one degree or another – crooked. Still, we do the best we can. Some of the mirrors – original documents, photographs, autobiographical writings – are straighter than others. So there are things I can tell you – things that may have a surprisingly direct connection to you. For example, had it not been for Centre College – one block west of here – Abraham Lincoln might never have been president, might have been, in fact, a name you wouldn’t recognize.
How so? Well, six blocks the other way up Main Street, is the home of Stuart Wilson Sanders, community services administrator of the historical society. In 1826, Stuart’s great great great great-uncle graduated from Centre.
He then studied law, passed the bar, and set up practice in Springfield, Ill. That practice was interrupted in 1832 when Stuart enlisted to fight in the Black Hawk War (like all the Indian Wars, not America’s noblest moment, but that’s another story).
The Black Hawk War took Stuart from Illinois up into Wisconsin where the action he saw mainly consisted of U.S. soldiers and Indians avoiding each other. The experience was not inconsequential for Stuart though, as he met a tall, thin 21-year-old militia captain named Abraham Lincoln. The two were very different. Stuart was a major, two years older, from a somewhat aristocratic background, and formally educated at Centre – an institution that claims to this day – with some justification – to be one of America’s finest colleges. Lincoln was inexperienced, dirt poor, had no formal education. But Stuart recognized Lincoln’s keen mind, his insatiable desire for knowledge, the respect he drew from the volunteers under his command. The two men hit it off and cemented their friendship by walking together part of the way from Wisconsin back to Illinois.
Two years later, when Lincoln was poorer still – having failed miserably as a storekeeper – he went to Stuart and confided that having been unsuccessful in all other attempts to earn a living, he was considering becoming a blacksmith. (This account is one of our ‘straighter mirrors’ because it’s written in a sketch by Lincoln himself.) Stuart told Lincoln he was far too intelligent to spend the rest of his life in the company of horses and that he should study for the bar. When Lincoln protested that he had nothing to study, Stuart loaned him a set of law books. He took them home and – in his own words, “Went at it in good earnest.” Lincoln passed the bar, Stuart became his first law partner and mentor in politics, the rest – as they say – is history.
Ah, history. I’ve spent my whole life pursuing it, and [taking the audience into his confidence]– let me tell you a secret – my dream is that once – just one time before the final sentence of my history is written, I could experience it directly – actually meet some of the people I’ve tried to view through all those crooked mirrors. Last night – I don’t know what came over me – I actually prayed to Clio that my wish would be granted. What?...You don’t know who Clio is? The muse of history. (threatenly) That could be on the test…uh…if there was a test.
But there’s more – history – as long as we’re around to record it – never ends. Lincoln, as my 5th grade history book said, freed the slaves. But did he? Were they free when they were forced to attend “separate but equal” schools, forced to worship in different churches, forced when traveling to ride in separate cars – away from the ‘more equal.’
In 1892 Homer Plessy, an African American traveling in Louisiana via railroad, said that by being required to ride in a separate car, his freedom was being infringed upon. The authorities said that as long as he was being provided with accommodations that were ‘separate but equal’ (the lie commonly agreed upon at the time) the railroad company was within its rights. The case went to the Supreme Court. And there the justices, in their wisdom, declared in a near unanimous decision, that Plessy’s case was without merit and ‘separate but equal’ was constitutional – Abraham Lincoln not withstanding.
Near unanimous. One justice, John Marshall Harlan, Centre College Class of 1850, said that separate was inherently unequal and that the law was colorblind, or the principle of equality under the law was violated. For his dissenting opinions – and Plessy was one of the greatest and most far sighted in American history – Harlan became known as “The Great Dissenter.” A sign, about 60 paces to the south behind you provided at the expense of the Commonwealth of Kentucky, honors Harlan for having the wisdom and courage to challenge the lie commonly agreed upon.
But, despite Harlan’s dissent, ‘separate but equal’ remained the law of the land for the next six decades. It provided legal cover for separate but unequal schools, separate drinking fountains, riding in the back of the bus, and all the other infringements of freedom known as Jim Crow, that persisted nearly a century after Lincoln freed the slaves.
It persisted until 1954, when the Supreme Court agreed with John Marshall Harlan that separate was indeed inherently unequal and directed that the public schools in Topeka, Kansas – and the rest of America – would have to be desegregated. Earl Warren presided over that historic court, but in the two years leading up to the Brown vs. Board of Education decision, the court was guided by Fred M. Vinson, Centre Class of 1909. Most scholars now agree that under Vinson’s plodding, methodical leadership, the court inched its way toward the judicial earthquake that was Brown v. Board of Education. If you attend the first Centre home football game this September, you’ll see a group of students giving a seat of honor in the stands to a portrait of Fred Vinson – they call it Dead Fred. Indeed, according to the historical record, or at least the lie commonly agreed upon, Fred Vinson hasn’t missed a home football game since his death in 1953.
But I’ve gone too far afield. I began in February of 1809, and now I’m three months into the future at a football game. I want to go back and share with you some of the more subtle attitudes we can detect regarding Constitutional law in a close reading of Lincoln’s correspondence. Let me think…ah. We begin by…
[John Todd Stuart, who has been approaching from behind the stage, taps the historian on the shoulder.]
HISTORIAN: And who might you be?
STUART: John Todd Stuart.
HISTORIAN: You don’t say!
STUART: I do say.
HISTORIAN: You’ve come to Danville, Ky., from the 19th century, have you?
STUART: Returned to Danville, sir. Will you allow me to address the audience?
HISTORIAN: Certainly not! You’re dead!
STUART: And yet here I stand.
HISTORIAN: [Touches Stuart’s shoulder and then shakes his head] [to himself] Maybe it’s the new medication. [pause] Well, I’m standing here talking to you. I’m not aware of anything in the 1st Amendment that restricts its application to the living. Have at it.
STUART: Thank you sir. This could be the day you’ve dreamed about.
As my friend the historian says…
HISTORIAN: [who has begun to walk away, looks back over his shoulder and interrupts] I’m allowing you to speak, but I’m not so far gone as to claim an individual who died in 1855 as a friend.
STUART: As my acquaintance the historian says, history is a tricky business, and as an attorney, I can assure you that even eyewitnesses to the same event can see it quite differently. That not withstanding, my memories of Abraham Lincoln are vivid. I’ll endeavor to be a credible witness.
As my fr….my acquaintance, the historian says, I first met Lincoln when we served during the Blackhawk War.
My rank – that of major – and station in life were different than those of Lincoln, and – though by only two years--I was his senior.
Now Lincoln loved conversation – he would sometimes repeat an unfamiliar word and roll it around in his mouth as if he were actually tasting it – but I confess that on the journey back to Illinois – I did most of the talking.
Lincoln’s conversation consisted principally in asking questions, and he covered every conceivable topic – from law, to military strategy, to mathematics. When I related the particulars of my formal education, he didn’t bother to conceal either his admiration or his envy.
Over the next years our paths crossed frequently, and we never met but that he enthusiastically grasped my hand and greeted me with a heartfelt, “Major Stuart!”
After a time – for I had long since left the military – I gently told him that the war was over, and as my friend, he must now call me ‘John.’ On my insistence, he at length agreed, but it was a good while before he could greet me in that familiar way without awkwardness.
When his venture as a merchant failed – he had borrowed what was for him a significant amount of money – he confided to me his thoughts of becoming a blacksmith. I won’t repeat the incident that history [nodding at the historian] – however imperfectly – has recorded, but suffice it to say that when I told him he should set his sights on passing the bar and offered him the loan of my law books, he embraced the challenge.
He was ill at ease about taking the bar exam, but passed easily, as I knew he would. And he seemed surprised when I invited him to become my law partner. In truth, I made the offer as much for my benefit as his.
Lincoln was in those days trepidatious regarding many things – not the least of which was asking a woman to dance – but work held no terror for him. He took on every assignment with good appetite and, though I did a share of the labor, it would not be inaccurate to say that in the main, I acquired the work and Lincoln performed it.
I had other interests – in a word, politics. When I defeated Stephen Douglas for a seat in the US Congress, Lincoln took on even more of the work back in Springfield. He was good at everything, except, I must say, billing. Once a case was decided, he quickly moved on to the particulars of the next one. He was good at getting the verdict, but not at getting the money.
An ever-ready source of delight was his humor. No man ever had a sadder, more somber countenance than Abraham Lincoln and none ever loved more to laugh – characteristics, perhaps, not unrelated. Lincoln relished jokes and collected them like arrowheads. To my knowledge he never forgot one and, in debate, if his opponent provided an appropriate opening, he was not averse to pulling a jest from his quiver and shooting the punch line into his adversary. Once when Stephen Douglas accused him of being two-faced, he turned to the audience and gravely inquired, ‘I ask you, if I had two faces, would I be wearing this one?’
And for all his wit and humor, there was forever an air of sadness about him. I have no doubt that the early loss of his mother and his beloved sister contributed to this.
Then, too, there was Abraham’s humble origins and his lack of formal education. He was rising up in society and with his sensitivity and powers of observation was painfully aware that there were many ways of the world about which he was uninformed.
I tried to be of some help to him here, though obliquely rather than directly, making a point, for example, to sit next to him at a dinner in company and taking up first this fork and that spoon in a manner he could readily observe. He was an apt student. A lesson, once introduced, seldom had to be repeated and, at the next occasion, he would emulate what had been modeled for him with perfect fidelity.
With one exception, I should note, and that was when he met my first cousin Mary Todd after she had moved to Springfield from Lexington, Kentucky.
HISTORIAN: 35 miles to the north, you can visit her home to this day.
STUART: On this occasion – it was at a dinner hosted by Mary’s brother-in-law, Lincoln became flustered when I introduced him to Mary, and pronounced his name in a halting manner that was nearly unintelligible. Later, seated next to Mary at dinner, he actually took several small bites of soup with a fork until I corrected him with a nudge and reproving look.
But Mary, a perceptive observer herself, knew that Lincoln’s awkwardness was, in fact, a tribute to herself and was not altogether unpleased by it.
As they grew better acquainted over time, his awkwardness diminished and Mary’s fascination grew for this ungainly, uneducated Kentuckian who could recite Shakespeare and quote entire passages from law books as if they stood open before him.
When Mary’s father heard of his daughter’s infatuation, however, he was quick to judge Lincoln too rough a character to be received into polite society, much less his own family.
Not wanting to come between father and daughter, Lincoln soon broke off the courtship. He later wrote to me, declaring himself “the most miserable man alive.” Saying nothing to him, I intervened with Mary’s father. At first he protested, almost to the point of violence, but as I countered each objection with an accolade – intelligent, kind, industrious, forthright – he at last softened, but drew up short of granting permission for Lincoln to seek Mary’s hand. I had one last card to play in this summation to the jury and, if I do say so, I played it rather well.
I asked Mr. Todd whether he believed that, if confronted with a choice of two possibilities, it would be wise to pick the less disagreeable of the options. He did believe that to be the wisest course.
I then inquired regarding his opinion of Stephen Douglas. I deem it advisable not to convey his complete response, but the phrase “lacking in judgment, integrity, and stature,” was included in his characterization.
When I then informed him that in Lincoln’s absence, Douglas had become Mary’s suitor, the verdict was mine. He not only urged me to communicate his change of heart, but to avoid any delay of the mail service by leaving Lexington for Springfield that very afternoon on his fastest horse.
After Lincoln and Mary were married in 1842, his hard work and natural ability began to receive their due reward. I should add that Mary, with her keen knowledge of politics and boundless faith in the ability of her husband, played no small part in his rise.
He was elected to state office and then to the U.S. House of Representatives. After a time, he withdrew from active politics, and his law career flourished. Yet even when he no longer sought elected office, he worked tirelessly to promote candidates of the Republican party and to prevent the spread of slavery.
And then in 1859, when his name began to be mentioned as a possibility to head the Republican presidential ticket, he confided to me being both honored and amazed. In truth, I was not a little surprised myself, but I knew him to be the equal in ability – if not in experience – of any candidate in the race.
History has accurately recorded subsequent events – how he spoke against the spread of slavery at Cooper Union in New York – for a full three hours – stunning the audience with his breadth of knowledge and the power of his logic, how he secured the nomination, and won the presidency with 40% of the vote in a four-man race.
HISTORIAN: His closest opponent was John C. Breckinridge, Centre College Class of 1838.
STUART: Just so. I must confess – now – a failing on my own part. I had up until then viewed Lincoln’s rise with a mixture of pride and self-satisfaction, knowing that I’d been among the first to recognize his abilities and that I had played no small part in fostering their development. But now – now when I heard Lincoln – the officer subordinate to me in the militia, the unmannered fontiersman who didn’t distinguish between a soup spoon and a salad fork, my junior law partner – when I heard him referred to as President of the United States, I confess that the green-eyed monster which doeth mock the meat he feeds upon, in fact, fed on me. Despite my best efforts, feelings of envy for a time soured my disposition and took away the satisfaction I should have felt at my friend’s amazing success.
This lasted until I was able to visit Lincoln in the White House. He greeted me there with such sincere affection and treated me with so much kindness and respect, that I could only feel remorse at having allowed such a base emotion to take possession of me. He even sought my advice regarding the terrible situation that confronted him as our nation stood poised to split apart.
I gave him my best council – which was that slavery, though a profoundly evil institution, was a question that should be decided at the ballot box and not at the point of a sword. Lincoln neither agreed or disagreed, but listened intently as I had seen him do so many times before, taking in all that was being laid before him for later consideration.
Shortly, the country was in fact split apart, and though I shared fervently his goal of preserving the Union, my differences with Lincoln sharpened. He knew this, as I was a public man and my views were in no way secret.
And yet when I would visit Lincoln and Mary in the White House, and they invited me frequently, there was never a hint of anger or resentment. Lincoln had a way – and this was no small part of his genius – of letting you know – with a look, a smile, an affectionate remembrance of the past – that however you might diverge on matters of politics or religion or philosophy, it was a matter of honest disagreement, and that your friendship was inviolable – a thing set apart, not to be affected by conflicting views or differences of opinion. Indeed, I heard him say more than once when we were law partners, ‘attack the argument, not the man who makes it.’
My failure to heed fully the wisdom of this advice is without a doubt the one lasting regret that resulted from my friendship with Lincoln. On the question of issuing a presidential proclamation to abolish slavery, Lincoln himself was torn. Did the Constitution give the president the power to unilaterally change the law of the land without the consent of the voters or their representatives in Congress? I believed it did not and didn’t refrain from making my views known. When Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation I thought he had torn the Constitutional rudder from the American ship of state and that it would break apart on the rocks of anarchy or tyranny.
As the war continued through ’63 and ’64 I began to see that my worst fears were not coming to pass and that, in fact, Lincoln was honoring the principles of democracy as best he could in a time of crisis. I realized then that regarding the Proclamation…he was right and I was wrong. He may have, in fact, violated the letter of the Constitution, but he did it to preserve the spirit of the Constitution and the American democracy.
On several occasions I took pen in hand to write to Lincoln regarding my changed view – but for some reason – pride, stubbornness, a lawyer’s unwillingness to concede a point – the letter went unwritten.
Tomorrow, I would tell myself, or next week, or at the conclusion of the current case. Then suddenly, I had all the time in the world to write the letter and there was no one to receive it.
I’ve often thought of what I’d say to Lincoln if I could have five minutes with him. [Lincoln comes from behind the gazebo and walks slowly toward Stuart’s back]. And, then I’d bargain with myself – the human mind is capricious when troubled.
HISTORIAN: [suddenly sees Lincoln to his right and is taken aback]
STUART: What if I had only a minute – would that be sufficient? [Lincoln nears] Yes. Thirty seconds – would that do? [Lincoln nears] It would. Ten seconds? Yes. I’d simply say, “Mr. President…”
LINCOLN: [placing his hand on Stuart’s shoulder] Major Stuart.
STUART: [turns around and is temporarily speechless] I …I was just…
LINCOLN: Yes, I know.
STUART: Then allow me…
LINCOLN: There’s no need. I’ve been listening – you used to praise my ability in that endeavor.
STUART: [after a moment relieved and regaining his composure] I did…many times.
LINCOLN: And many more kindnesses than that you did for me.
STUART: As much as I appreciated you, it was not enough.
LINCOLN: It was enough for me, but we can sort that out later…Major Stuart, I see that we have an audience around us, and you, being a politician, will understand that when one who practices our profession is placed before an audience, well, it would only be natural [nodding at the audience]…do you take my meaning, Major?
STUART: I do Mr. President. Please address the audience. In as much as I’ve waited…what…
HISTORIAN: One hundred and thirty-four years.
STUART: Yes, thank you. A few more minutes won’t hurt.
LINCOLN: You are a scholar and a gentleman, Major. It’s good to be here in my home state – and in Danville, its first capital. And it’s good to be within a rock’s throw of Centre College that Major Stuart has told me so much about. Perhaps later I could take a tour.
MAN IN THE AUDIENCE: We can arrange that. At Centre, we hosted a vice presidential debate in two thou…
WIFE: Be quiet and let the president talk!
MAN: [sheepishly] Okay.
LINCOLN: What my friend Major Stuart has said about me contains a fair amount of truth – especially when you consider that the speech was made by a lawyer. But if he’s gone astray, it’s in being far too generous to my character. In the main, I simply did what I had to in order to survive, seeing little other alternative.
Now in 1847, I went to Congress as a member of the Seventh Congressional District while my friend Major Stuart was waging a successful campaign for the Illinois state house. The Constitution and public sentiment prevented us from doing anything about the institution of slavery.
As was the custom in my district at the time, I gave up my seat in Congress after one term, so that someone else could be elected. I returned to Springfield, and to my law practice and to the judicial circuit.
Not long after that, during a trip down the Ohio River in a steamboat, I had occasion to observe a fine example of the effect of condition on human happiness. A gentleman had purchased twelve Negroes in different parts of Kentucky and was taking them to a farm in the South. They were chained six and six together. Each Negro had around his left wrist an iron clevis, and this attached by means of a short chain to the main chain, so that they were strung together precisely like so many fish on a trot-line. In this condition they were being separated forever from the scenes of their childhood, their friends, their fathers and mothers, and brothers and sisters, and some of them from their wives and their children, and taken into perpetual slavery, where the lash of the master is proverbially more ruthless and unrelenting than any other place; and yet despite all these distressing circumstances, as we would think them, they were the most cheerful and apparently happy creatures on board. They danced, sang, cracked jokes, and played various games. How true it is that God tempers the wind to the shorn lamb, or in other words, that he renders the worst of human conditions tolerable, while he permits the best to be nothing better than tolerable.
A few years later, Judge Stephen Douglas, to whom Major Stuart has alluded, then democratic Senator from Illinois, managed to pass a repeal of the Missouri Compromise, and the Supreme Court issued the Dred Scott decision, which stated that Negroes are chattel, not human beings.
I was forced by my conscience to return to politics, running against Stephen Douglas for the United States Senate.
Although my new Republican party won a majority of the popular vote, the Democrats retained control of the Illinois legislature because of holdover Senators and district apportionments. They voted to return Judge Douglas to the United States Senate. A newspaperman asked me how I felt about being beaten. I told him, “I feel like the boy who stubbed his toe; too badly hurt to laugh, and to proud to cry.”
After I lost the Senate election, I was invited to speak at Cooper Union on behalf of the Republican cause. With the exception of billing records, [nods back toward Stuart] God blessed me with a good memory. I can still recall some of the lines from that speech:
‘Wrong as we think slavery is, we can yet afford to let it alone where it is. But can we allow it to spread into the National Territories, and to overrun us here in these Free States? If our sense of duty forbids this, then let us stand by our duty, fearlessly and effectively. Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the Government. LET US HAVE FAITH THAT RIGHT MAKES MIGHT, AND IN THAT FAITH, LET US, TO THE END, DARE TO DO OUR DUTY AS WE UNDERSTAND IT.’
The people of New England seemed rather surprised that this backwoods country lawyer could actually speak, and in complete sentences. After a time, my name began to be mentioned as a possible candidate for the Presidency. I must admit the taste was in my mouth a bit to be President.
In 1860, at their convention in Chicago, the new Republican Party nominated me as their Presidential candidate on the third ballot.
The telegram arrived, telling me of the nomination. “Well, gentlemen,” I said, “you had better come up and shake my hand while you still can; honors elevate some men, you know. There is a little short woman at our house who is probably more interested in this dispatch than I am. And if you will excuse me, I will take it up and let her see it.”
As a Presidential candidate, I, of course did not take a public part in the campaign, lest I appear too eager for the job. (I understand that’s not exactly the practice in this day and time.) So I stayed at home and helped run the campaign behind the scenes. Dick Yates, one of the men out stumping for me, liked to say “We know Old Abe does not look very handsome, and some of the papers say he looks positively ugly. Well, if all the ugly men in the United States vote for him, he’ll surely be elected.”
The voters in that election were very badly split. There were four candidates for the Presidency in that election, including, as has been noted, Centre College graduate John Breckinridge. In ten Southern states, not one single vote was counted for me, and I gained less than half of the total popular vote. But the rest were divided among the other candidates, and so I won the electoral college by a wide margin.
Mary and I packed up our things, rented out the house, and prepared to return to Washington. When we arrived at the Executive Mansion, all thoughts were anxiously directed to an impending civil war. All dreaded it, and all sought to avert it.
I labored a good deal over my inaugural address. Let me share a few lines:
‘Fellow-Citizens of the United States:
One section of our country believes slavery is right and ought to be extended, while the other believes it is wrong and ought not to be extended. This is the only substantial dispute. Why should there not be a patient confidence in the ultimate justice of the people? Is there any better or equal hope in the world?
We are not enemies, but friends. We must not be enemies. Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.’
But while the inaugural address was being delivered from that place, devoted altogether to saving the Union without war, insurgent agents were in the city seeking to destroy it without war--seeking to dissolve the Union, and divide effects by negotiation. Both sides deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.
Even though I always opposed slavery, my objective as President was to preserve of the Union. Without the union, anything else I might have accomplished as President would have been useless.
Let me read to you from a letter I wrote touching on this point: [pulls it from his top hat] Mary always called this my briefcase.
To the Honorable Horace Greeley, New York Tribune:
My Dear Sir.
As to the policy I "seem to be pursuing" as you say, I have not meant to leave any one in doubt.
My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone, I would also do that.
I have here stated my purpose according to my view of official duty; and I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free.
September 17th, 1862 was the single bloodiest day in the history of the Union. On that day in Sharpsburg, Maryland, near Antietam Creek, 22,000 brave young American men, on both sides, were killed and wounded on the field of battle, by other brave young American men.
Oh, my offense is rank – it smells to heaven. It hath the primal eldest curse upon it – a brother’s murder. Pray, can I not – though inclination be as sharp as will, my stronger guilt defeats my strong intent. What if this cursed hand were thicker than itself with brother’s blood. Is there not rain enough in heaven to wash it white as snow?
One of my favorite quotes, from William Shakespeare.
I determined in the third year that the time had come to free the slaves, at least as many as possible under the Constitution. Not only was it morally right, but now it was legal under the Constitution because it was a military necessity. We needed these Black men to help fight for the Union cause.
Let me read to you from the proclamation about which Major Stuart ultimately changed his view:
I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, by virtue of the power in me vested as Commander-in-Chief, of the Army and Navy of the United States in time of actual armed rebellion against the authority and government of the United States, and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion, do, on this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, order and declare that all persons held as slaves, within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons….
.…upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.
A wave of fury swept over the South and they, of course, condemned the proclamation, claiming that it violated property rights.
After the Emancipation Proclamation, nearly 180,000 Black men enlisted in the Union army. They were brave in action, patient under dangerous and heavy labors, and cheerful amid hardships and privations. Even though I had always opposed slavery, I had held with the conventional wisdom – the lie commonly agreed upon – that Negroes were of an inferior race. But after watching their courageous and quite honorable conduct during the war, I was able to see the lie for what it was.
Halfway into the third year of the war, the Union troops had yet to win a major and decisive battle. A second term as President appeared impossible. And yet I knew that a change in leaders at this critical time would mean the end of the Union. So I determined to spell out, to the American people, my course of action and my reasoning.
In 1863, I was asked to speak at the site of the particularly bloody battle, at a small town in Pennsylvania called Gettysburg. I was asked to make a few appropriate remarks to help dedicate a new military cemetery there. [to the band] Could I hear a few strains of “Taps?”
Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now, we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that our nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is rather for us, the living, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us. That from these honored dead, we take increased devotion to that great task for which they gave the last full measure of devotion. That we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain. That this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from this earth.
Gettysburg could have been our last battle. We had General Lee’s army trapped, but we let him escape. After General Meade had driven Lee’s army back across the Potomac, he wired me, “We have driven the enemy from our soil.” Why could my generals not understand that the entire nation is American soil?
Nevertheless, Gettysburg was a great Union victory, and it was a major turning point in the war. And on July 4, 1863, the same day General Meade was turning back Lee’s troops at Gettysburg, General Grant was capturing Vicksburg in the West, which opened up the entire Mississippi River for the Union.
At last I found my general, Grant. You see, the other generals, McLellan, Hooker, Burnside, Rosencrantz, and all the rest, had all been fighting for southern territory. But Grant understood that in order to win this war, we had to destroy General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
On Palm Sunday 1865 General Grant sent a wire to Secretary of War Stanton, “General Lee surrendered the Army of Northern Virginia this afternoon on terms proposed by myself.” General Sherman had not yet defeated Johnston’s troops, but it was just a matter of time.
Now I can see the people celebrating in the streets of Washington, but I could not and cannot forget the hundreds of thousands of families of the over six hundred thousand dead soldiers, who could not share in this celebration after four long years of war.
Then came the very tough questions of what to do next. My military advisors told me that Kentucky’s Jefferson Davis and the rest of the rebel leaders must be hung as traitors. But I had no stomach for further bloodshed.
I am reminded of story of the Irishman who was prone to drink too much, and who was finally persuaded by his wife to take an oath to stop drinking. A few days later he stopped off at a local drinking establishment, and he ordered a soda water. The bartender looked at him with some surprise. He explained his oath to the bartender, “But,” he said, “if you could slip a wee drap o’ whiskey into me soda water, unbeknownst to me, I’d be much obliged.” And so it was with Davis and Lee and the rest of the rebel leaders. I hinted broadly that if they could somehow be allowed, or even encouraged to escape, unbeknownst to me, I’d be much obliged.
Our job was to get the deluded men of the rebel armies disarmed and back to their homes. I determined to let them go, officers and all. My intention was to treat them liberally all around.
The end to that terrible conflict was the chance for Mary and me to relax a little. Mary was as handsome as when she was a girl, and I, a poor nobody then, fell in love with her. In truth, I never fell out of love with her.
We planned that after my second term of office was over, we would travel for a time in Europe. Mary and I both wanted to see that place. And then perhaps to California. Then we would return to Springfield, to my law practice and the company of good friends like Major Stuart and his wife, Virginia.
[nodding back at the historian] History is not composed of plans, but of what happens in spite of our best plans. I did return to Springfield, but not in the way Mary and I had foreseen.
I did not resume my old law practice, but became, in the words of the poet, “townsman of a stiller town.” Of course that was not Abraham Lincoln’s resting place, only the resting place of my body, for we are more than flesh and there are things in Heaven and Earth far beyond our understanding.
HISTORIAN: You can say that again!
LINCOLN: The grave went unmarked for a time and I wondered if perhaps the people had decided that the man who had presided over the bloodiest war in American history was best now forgotten so as not to be a reminder of that terrible time. But after a few years a monument appeared in that place and it made me feel that reviled as I was – at least in the minds of some, the part I had played in history was worth remembrance and perhaps even honor. I wonder, Mr. Historian, if you could tell me who was responsible for that monument.
HISTORIAN: [nods toward Stuart, who appears to be holding back tears]
LINCOLN: [who also tears up] Thank you, John. [Stuart nods toward Lincoln] [Lincoln composes himself and speaks in a louder voice] I heard my friend the historian say that trying to reconstruct history is like looking at a series of crooked mirrors. I would have to say that even in the midst of very momentous events, we strive with only limited success to see the real truth of things – that perhaps we find the purest truth not in the transactions of the world, but in our own hearts after much searching. That was certainly true in my own history.
But that’s a subject too deep to be decided today. We could no doubt say more, but I feel the need to revisit old times with my friend Major Stuart. [motioning Stuart to come forward; Stuart comes forward and Lincoln gestures to the historian to come forward also] And Mr. Historian, I have some questions for you.
HISTORIAN: I have some questions for you too. [to the audience] Don’t know if it’s the medication or praying to Clio, but I’m going to continue both.
What comes next? [looking around] Where’s my student assistant? [the assistant comes forward] What happens now, Shirley?
[the assistant whispers in the historian’s ear]
HISTORIAN: Ah, music. What would you like to hear, Mr. President?
LINCOLN: Well, during the Great War ‘Viva l’America’ was always a favorite of mine.
HISTORIAN: You heard that gentlemen. By executive order: Strike up the band.
[As the band plays the student worker, Lincoln, Stuart, and the historian turn their backs to the audience and, talking among themselves, walk on ground level toward the back of the gazebo.]
[When the band concludes, the announcer who opened the play comes out]
ANNOUNCER: If you’d like to learn more about John Todd Stuart, visit Centre College’s Stuart Hall, named in his honor, two blocks west on Main Street on the right.
- end -
600 W. Walnut Street
Danville, KY 40422