Tag Archives: Abraham Lincoln

Sarah Vowell’s ‘Assassination Vacation’

review of Sarah Vowell’s ‘Assassination Vacation’In “Assassination Vacation,” Sarah Vowell writes in the first person about visiting various historical sites relating to the assassinations of Presidents Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley. She travels extensively, as far away as the Dry Tortugas, where Dr. Mudd was imprisoned in the 1860s. She stops by to examine plaques in locations at which incidents of historical significance took place, she goes on guided tours, she visits museums and universities, and she offers many clever insights. It’s an entertaining book to read. It was published in 2005, which is before smart phones and GPS technology. It’s also during the height of George W. Bush’s war in Iraq, and the author sprinkles in plenty of criticism of the then current president into her narrative.

For me, “Assassination Vacation” was even more interesting for two reasons. First, I recently finished reading biographies of our nation’s first 25 presidents, three of whom were assassinated. So I was familiar with many of the names and events described. And second, I happen to live near Gramercy, Madison Square and Union Square parks, which are among the locations mentioned often in the book.

The author offers a number of keen observations. One of them is that Robert Todd Lincoln, President Lincoln’s oldest son, was present at the assassinations of not only his father but also of those of Garfield and McKinley. (She jokingly refers to him as “Jinxy McDeath.”) Another is that Lincoln’s last conscious moment was likely one of laughter. That’s because John Wilkes Booth, an actor who knew the play “Our American Cousin” by heart, waited for the exact moment at which a line that would have elicited audience laughter to fire his gun. She surmises that Lincoln himself therefore would have been laughing when he was shot. Another fun notation she makes is that the powerful Senator from New York, Roscoe Conkling, was arguably more famous than President Chester A. Arthur, as evidenced by the inscriptions at the bases of their respective statues in Madison Square Park. Conkling’s, she points out, just gives his name while Arthur’s states that he was 21st President. I’ve walked by these statues hundreds of times and never considered this juxtaposition.

She devotes one chapter each to Lincoln, Garfield and McKinley, then she concludes with a chapter on the architectural design of the Lincoln Memorial. She also ties in Kennedy’s assassination and the famous Lincoln-Kennedy coincidences. It’s this last chapter, which concludes with the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial, taking place in 1922, that is the most poignant. Robert Todd, who by that time was an old man, was present for that as well. It brought a tear to my eye.

If I ever write a book myself about the presidents and someday I just might, I hope that it would be as fun, informative and heart-warming as “Assassination Vacation.”

‘The Wiz’ at Ford’s Theater

This coming weekend is the American Association Orthodontists annual event in Washington. D.C., and I’m in town to cover the event for Dental Tribune. I came down on the train to a day early so that I could see “The Wiz” on Thursday night at Ford’s Theater with my friend Craig. He and I very much enjoyed the musical.

Before the show, we looked around a bit. The presidential box is adorned as it was on the night of April 14, 1865, when Lincoln was shot, with flags and a portrait of George Washington. There’s a museum in the basement. A few days later, after our work commitment, I returned to the Theater with my co-worker Kristine, and we attended their one-act play, “One Destiny,” about the events surrounding the assassination and how it affected the theater owner, the actors and many others.

Here are a few pictures. Click on any to open larger:

Visiting Ford’s Theater

Lincoln as wartime president

Lincoln went through many generals in the first few years of the Civil War. Many frustrated him by. McClellan gave him the most trouble, with his constant delaying and complaining. But Grant didn’t complain or blame others.

In my goal to read at least one book about each president in order, I am about a third of the way through. Before I move on to Andrew Johnson, however, I wanted to read more about the Civil War. “Tried By War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief,” by James M. McPherson, focuses on Lincoln as a wartime president.

Fred Mick

The Civil War encompassed the entire presidency of Abraham Lincoln. He was a hands-on military leader who got deep into planning, strategy and personnel decisions. He spent many long hours in the telegraph office, monitoring news from the battlefield. He visited troops in person, met with his generals at their camps, and he even participated in a few campaigns. He and Mary Todd often visited the wounded soldiers at military hospitals.

Thanks to Richard Dalglish for recommending that I add this to my reading list! I am glad I did!

Handbook on the Lincoln Memorial

For me, it’s always been an emotional experience to visit the Lincoln Memorial — and it will be even more so next time, now that I have read books about our 16th president. In my view, Lincoln was our nation’s greatest leader. Not only that, but he was one of the greatest persons ever to live.

The memorial houses the great marble statue of a seated Lincoln within a Greek temple, with his Gettysburg Address and portions of his Second Inaugural Address inscribed on either side of the interior. From the steps you can see the Washington Monument and the United States Capitol. It was dedicated on Memorial Day 1922, by then President Warren G. Harding and then Chief Justice (and former President) William Howard Taft. It’s been the site of countless political demonstrations over the years, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous “I have a dream” speech during the Civil Rights March in 1963.

Fred Michmershuizen

This 50-page handbook, published by the National Park Service, is divided into three sections: An overview of the memorial, a brief biography of Lincoln, and a section about the how the monument itself was conceived and built. A map and historical photographs help tell the story.

Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln

In “Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln,” author Doris Kearns Goodwin focuses on how Lincoln assembled and worked with his cabinet, which was (in my view) the best cabinet since that of George Washington.

Fred Michmershuizen

Leading up to the Republican nominating convention in 1860, the front-runner was William H. Seward, who had been governor of New York and a United States Senator. Seward was a giant in the Senate, an elder statesman, the “heir apparent” to the nomination and the presidency. There was also Salmon P. Chase, who had also been a Senator and a Governor of his home state of Ohio, and Edward Bates of Missouri. But at the convention none of them could get a majority, so their delegates switched over to Lincoln, who got the nomination on the third ballot.

After he was elected, Lincoln immediately decided he wanted his three main political foes to join him. He had a party and a country to hold together, and he wanted the best and brightest, working with him. So he set aside all personal rivalry and chose Seward as Secretary of State, Chase as Treasury Secretary, and Bates as Attorney General. Later, he also brought in Edwin Stanton as Secretary of War. Years previous, Stanton had humiliated Lincoln during a court trial they were both involved with as lawyers. But again, Lincoln did not let his hurt feelings from the past get in the way of picking the person he thought was best for the country.

These choices turned out to be excellent ones. Lincoln became closest with Seward and Stanton, who were crucial in the war effort. Chase was an excellent manager of the nation’s finances and proved vital as well, but he was often complaining and scheming behind Lincoln’s back and kept threatening to resign when he did not get his way. Lincoln kept Chase because he felt the country needed him.

This is the book upon which the 2012 movie “Lincoln,” directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Daniel Day Lewis, was based. But the movie focuses mostly on Lincoln’s fight to get the House of Representatives to pass the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery, which does not come until the very end of this 750-page text. So it’s weird to say on the cover that this book is “now a major motion picture.” Perhaps it’s because, in many ways, the movie draws on larger themes in “Team of Rivals” — in that it shows how Lincoln thought through complex issues, how he often used storytelling to make a political point, and how he faced immense heartbreak in his family life.

The first third of this book is really four biographies in one, jumping between the careers and lives of Seward, Chase and Bates in addition to Lincoln. There is so much in the book that is not covered at all in the movie, so if you watch the movie and don’t read the book you’re really missing out. This was a long book that took me more than a month to finish, but I learned so much and I’m so glad I read it.

One thing I learned in my reading was that out of all the men around Lincoln, it was Chase who was the most anti-slavery, who held what would be called today the “most progressive” views of racial equality. That’s why I was especially touched that Lincoln named Chase to be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. Lincoln had finally accepted Chase’s resignation after Chase had schemed yet again behind his back. Seward, Stanton and Bates wanted the court seat and had been more loyal. But yet again Lincoln set aside what most others in his position might have done and picked the person he felt was best for the country.

Abraham Lincoln

It was during his second inaugural address that Abraham Lincoln used the words “with malice toward none, and charity for all.” The year was 1865, and the country had been in the grips of a tragic Civil War for the past four years. The Union was on the verge of victory over the Confederacy, and many who had assembled on the steps of the Capitol might have been eager to hear the Commander in Chief lash out at the secessionists. But instead this great man called on our nation to come together and heal. If Washington was the father of our country, Lincoln was its savior.

Lincoln was a gifted writer and orator. His second inaugural address is among the best speeches ever given. So is the Gettysburg Address. Today these words are inscribed in marble inside the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C.

I learned a lot reading about the 16th president, including a few things that some people (including myself until recently) might not know.

For example, the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates took place not for the presidential election of 1860, but for the 1858 Senate election in Illinois, in which Lincoln was running against the incumbent Democrat. There were seven debates in all, each attended in person by thousands of citizens and widely published in newspapers throughout the country. Although Lincoln lost the Senate seat to Douglas, it was the publicity from the debates that brought Lincoln to national prominence. It had been the second time Lincoln had run for the Senate and lost.

Another thing I learned, is that the Emancipation Proclamation only freed slaves in the states and parts of states that were in rebellion. It did not apply to any slaves in the four border states (Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland and Missouri) that had not joined the Confederacy. Lincoln used his war powers to justify the Emancipation Proclamation. Shortly thereafter, it was under Lincoln’s leadership that Congress passed the 13th Amendment, ending slavery once and for all.

Oh, and I did not realize this either but Appomattox Court House is the name of the town in Virginia (not the building!) where Lee surrendered to Grant, thus ending the Civil War.

Nicknames included Honest Abe and the Rail Splitter. He was also sometimes called Father Abraham. Lincoln had opened a store in Illinois that went out of business, leaving him in debt when he was a young man. He could have skipped town, as most would have probably done, but Lincoln paid off all his creditors, which took him years. That might have inspired Honest Abe. The Rail Splitter had to do with Lincoln’s prowess in his youth with an axe, building fences. Lincoln was really good with an axe. He was strong. He could wrestle too.

More fun facts about Lincoln:

  • Born in a log cabin! The log cabin was in Kentucky, but his family moved to Indiana and then to Illinois.
  • He liked to read a lot, and when he read, he read aloud. So did Mary Lincoln, and they often read aloud to each other.
  • He did not drink, smoke or swear.
  • At various times in his early life, Lincoln slept in the same bed with another man. It’s not clear to me if he did this because it was the custom back in those days? Or maybe he liked to share a bed with another man? Or maybe there was a bed shortage in the 19th Century?
  • He was often photographed, but there are no audio recordings of his voice.
  • He started his political career as a member of the Whig party. He served in the Illinois state legislature, and then one single term as a Whig in the U.S. House of Representatives. Polk was president, and Lincoln challenged him on justification for going to war with Mexico.

Fred Michmershuizen

Thousands of books have been written about Lincoln. If you go to the Strand Bookstore on Broadway and 12th Street in New York City, the section is about five feet wide from the floor to way above my head. Online, you can find lists of the “Top 5 biographies” or the “Top 25 biographies” of Lincoln, there is even one list that includes 86 titles. I selected “A. Lincoln: A Biography,” by Ronald C. White. I was deeply moved by this book, and at many times it had me literally in tears. The book includes many helpful photographs and illustrations, and a few maps. In my view, White does an amazing job of sharing with the reader the way Lincoln thought about things and the way his views developed over time. As White explains quite well, Lincoln was constantly thinking things through, looking at a problem from all sides, trying to understand what his opponents might be thinking. This author demonstrates that while Lincoln made many mistakes, as all leaders invariably do, he always learned from these mistakes and rarely repeated them. White also explains in great depth the evolution of Lincoln’s moral and religious beliefs over time, and how he used the Bible as inspiration for many of his speeches.

I’m going to read more about Lincoln, and about the Civil War, but this book was an excellent starting point.

President Obama with the Emancipation Proclamation
President Barack Obama views a framed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation with a group of African American seniors, their grandchildren and local schoolchildren. This is an official White House photo taken in the Oval Office on Jan. 18, 2010.

The Lincoln Memorial

On Tuesday before heading back to New York City on the train, I had time to visit the Lincoln Memorial. This is probably my favorite spot in all of Washington, D.C.

Click on any of pictures to see them larger:

The Lincoln Memorial as photographed by Fred Michmershuizen
Approaching the Lincoln Memorial with the reflecting pool on the right. (Photo by Fred Michmershuizen)
Approaching the temple-like structure from the steps. (Photo by Fred Michmershuizen)
A view of the columns of the Lincoln Memorial looking up. (Photo by Fred Michmershuizen)
The stature of Lincoln. To his right and left are inscriptions of his Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural Address. (Photo by Fred Michmershuizen)
A political protest in front of the Lincoln Memorial, one of countless demonstrations to take place here over the many years. (Photo by Fred Michmershuizen)
Fred Michmershuizen
A view from the side of the Lincoln Memorial, with the Washington Monument in the middle distance and the U.S. Capitol building in the far distance. (Photo by Fred Michmershuizen)
A view looking out from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. (Photo by Fred Michmershuizen)
This is the spot at the base of the Lincoln Memorial from which Martin Luther Kind delivered his famous speech. (Photo by Fred Michmershuizen)