President Abraham Lincoln, The Moral Politician

In honor of Presidents’ Day weekend and African-American History Month, I am revisiting this post from last year on Abraham Lincoln.

Until the 1850s Abraham Lincoln was a frustrated one-term congressman who had decided to focus on his law practice. Lincoln was drawn into politics again during the Kanas Nebraska Act controversy. While he accepted slavery where it existed, he couldn’t abide its expansion into new territories.

He was not in favor of giving blacks full citizenship, however. In 1840 he criticized Martin Van Buren for voting to enfranchise blacks, and he did not support giving blacks the vote in his bid for the U.S. Senate against Stephen Douglas. He believed that blacks had the right to earn their own living without it being taken away by their masters. Though he lost to Douglas, the debates helped raise Lincoln’s political profile.

Although he did not officially campaign for the nation’s highest office, Lincoln cleverly placed himself in the public eye. Prior to the election he had the debates with rival Stephen Douglas published; the volume became a national bestseller. He also travelled to New York so people in that part of the country could listen to his arguments and see his talent as a public speaker.

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Photo of President-elect Abraham Lincoln, 1860

While in New York he had his photograph taken so it could be handed out just in case his name was mentioned at the Republican convention. After he was elected, more than sixty photos were taken of Lincoln, making him the most photographed president up to that time. Though opponents often made fun of his plain, slightly unkempt appearance, Lincoln also poked fun at himself. After being called two-faced, Lincoln said, “If I had another face, do you think I would wear this one?”

Unlike Buchanan, who claimed that he could do nothing if a state wanted to leave the Union, Lincoln refused to bargain with secessionists and sent supplies to the federal fort in South Carolina. He also rejected the idea that the president could do nothing about slavery. While maintaining the Union was his first objective, he said that if freeing the slaves would save the Union he would free them.

Lincoln remained a great politician during the Civil War. He gave out contracts and government offices in exchange for votes. Yet he also knew how to unite people behind a moral cause such as the constitutional amendment that abolished slavery.

As the war drew to an end, he offered friendship to the defeated Southerners “with malice toward none, with charity to all.” Americans can only imagine what Lincoln would have accomplished during his second term in office. On April 14, 1865, he was the first president to be assassinated.

Comments on Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass

In the Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, the slave Douglass searches for a sense of identity on a Maryland plantation. He is unsure of even the most basic things such as his birthday because slaveowners did not want to tell their slaves when their birthdays were. Even as a child this bothers Frederick. He estimates his age as about 27 or 28 years when he’s writing this narrative. Douglass also has a crisis of identity because he is half black and half white. While his mother was black and a slave, his father was white and also very possibly one of his former masters. He suggests that mixed-race children have a particularly difficult time fitting in in 19th-century society. For one thing, their mistresses resent them because they are a constant reminder of their husbands’ unfaithfulness. As a result, few children of slave owners can please their mistresses.

Douglass is also deprived of having a relationship with his mother, which would give him a sense of self. He is separated from her when he is a baby and only sees her a few times in his entire life. As a result, he reacts to his mother’s death the same way that he would react to hearing about the death of the stranger. Cutting family ties was another way that slave owners used to deprive slaves of their identity.

Slaves could not even distinguish themselves through their clothing since they all received the same clothing allowance. As a child Frederick and the other slave children only had two coarse linen shirts each year. When they outgrew them, children went naked until the next allowance came around.

One of the only ways that a slave on the plantation could distinguish him or herself was by being chosen to run an errand at the main building on the plantation. It was called the Great House Farm. Douglass states, “Few privileges were esteemed higher, by the slaves of the out-farms, than that of being selected to do errands at the Great House Farm…A representative could not be prouder of his election to the American Congress than a slave on one of the out-farms would be of his election to do errands at the Great House Farm. They regarded it as evidence of great confidence reposed in them by their overseers; and it was on this account as well as a constant desire to be out of field from under the driver’s lash, that they esteemed it a high privilege, one worth living for.” It’s difficult to imagine feeling one’s life worth living simply to run an errand, but such was the state of slaves on Col. Lloyd’s plantation.

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Frederick Douglass, 1856

Slaves were almost always illiterate. They did have other ways of expressing themselves however, particularly through their singing. Douglass notes that slaves did not, as some whites thought, sing because they were happy. In fact, they sang most often when they were unhappy. He writes, “every tone was a testimony against slavery and a prayer to God for deliverance from chains. The hearing of those wild notes always depressed my spirit, and filled me with ineffable sadness.”

At around seven years old, Douglass leaves the Lloyd plantation to live with his master’s son-in-law in Baltimore. He is now a town rather than a plantation slave, which gives him a few more privileges such as additional food. His mistress teaches Douglass his ABC’s and he learns a few short words. She is stopped, however, by her husband, who suggests that Douglass would not be fit to be a slave if he learned to read and write. “He would at once become unmanageable and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.” Douglass writes, “from that moment I understood the pathway from slavery to freedom.” Douglass understands that he’ll be able to forge a new life and identity for himself if he learns how to read. He can’t use his mistress as a teacher, but he manages to get reading lessons from the poor white children in the city. He had one advantage over them. Bread was given freely to him, and so he exchanged bread for as he calls it the bread of knowledge.

To some extent, his master is right. The ability to read does make Douglass more unhappy as a slave. “It had given me a view of my wretched condition, without the remedy.” He now has knowledge but is powerless to use it just yet. He dreams of escaping from his master but in the meantime determines to learn how to write. Again he uses the boys in the town to help them accomplish this by challenging them to write more words than he can. By the time he is between 10 and 11 years old, Douglass can read and write. He now has two of the tools he’ll need to forge his new identity as an escaped slave.

Why it Matters that Donald Trump did not Mention Jews on Holocaust Remembrance Day

Fact: Donald Trump failed to mention Jews in his statement on International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Question: does his failure to mention Jews make a difference?

In an opinion piece, The Jewish Journal says that since Mr. Trump asked a descendent of Holocaust survivors to write the statement, it must be acceptable. It is possible that the original draft might have mentioned Jews and Mr. Trump simply decided not include them in the final statement. Yet historically what presidents say, or fail to say, does have consequences.

For example, in the 1940s some of FDR’s staff members urged him to make statements emphasizing the importance of rescuing Jews, but he would either have those words buried in a later paragraph of his speech or chose not to use them at all. FDR’s prevarications ensured that the rescue of Jews would not be a priority.

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Entrance to Auschwitz Concentration Camp Photographer: Jochen Zimmerman

Even when nearly all the Jews had been murdered, FDR preferred to use the term “victims of enemy oppression” rather than refer to Jews specifically when he created the War Refugee Board, an agency that was designed to help victims of the Holocaust from 1944-1945. Most of the victims, though certainly not all, were Jews.

The Jewish Journal suggests that Mr. Trump deserves an apology from his critics. After all, he is not Jewish, so how could he be expected to know that more Jews died in the Holocaust than any other group, or that the Nazis employed “unprecedented resources” to “identify and annihilate the Jews?” Well, I am not Jewish, and yet I know these facts.

I might be more willing to give Mr. Trump the benefit of the doubt if he had shown any love or tolerance for any other group of people than rich white men during his campaign and thus far, his presidency. Yet he fails to denounce the Ku Klux Klan and threatens to create a Muslim registry. These are not hopeful signs. Should Mr. Trump change course, however, I would be happy to acknowledge it.

Sources:

Statement by the President on International Holocaust Remembrance Day January 27, 2017.

https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/01/27/statement-president-international-holocaust-remembrance-day

#Never again by Jonathan Greenblatt CEO of the Anti-Defamation League January 29, 2017.

HTTP://blog.ADL.org/Greenblatt/neveragain

Back story behind the Holocaust statement proves Trump’s a mensch. By Rabbi Dov Fischer, Jewish Journal opinion, January 31, 2017.

http://jewishjournal.com/opinion/214118/back-story-behind-Holocaust-statement-proves-trumps-mensch/

 

Book Review: Fallen Skies by Philippa Gregory

In her historical novel Fallen Skies Philippa Gregory takes the reader to 1920s England. We meet Lily Valance, a chorus girl with ambitions to become a singer. She meets Capt. Stephen Winters, a World War I veteran, at one of the clubs where she performs. Stephen hardly knows Lily, but believes he is falling in love with her because she seems so unspoiled by World War I. Haunted by his experiences in Belgium, Stephen wants nothing more than to forget the war. He believes Lily’s insistence that no one talk about the past will help him to move on.

Lily enjoys his attentions. She especially likes when he takes her and her mother out in a car driven by his chauffeur. Yet she is also attracted to Charlie, her director. Charlie has a physical injury from the war that will not allow him to have children. Although he loves Lily, he thinks he is doing the noble thing by letting her go.

When Lily’s mother dies, she just wants someone to take care of her. She is convinced that Stephen will do this, so she accepts his marriage proposal.

Soon, however, there is trouble in their marriage. Lily is embarrassed by Stephen’s behavior when a car backfires during their honeymoon. Convinced he is in a war zone, Stephen hits the ground and starts rolling. Onlookers tell Lily he is shell-shocked. She gets him back to the hotel and when he feels more like himself, he acts as though nothing has happened and violently insists that Lily do the same. He pays off the hotel staff with money, and Lily finds herself trapped with a man she fears rather than loves.

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British army at Battle of Ypres, Aug. 1917

When they return home to Stephen’s parents’ house, Lily discovers that she is expected to sit at home with her mother-in-law or to pay boring calls on other ladies while Stephen goes to work. One day she manages to slip out of the house and audition for a production that Charlie is directing. When he realizes what Lily has done, Stephen tries to rape her. With a little help from an unlikely friend, Lily is both saved from rape and allowed to continue performing at the theater. She decides she will let Stephen do what he likes with her at home but lives for her work—at least until she discovers that she is pregnant.

With a baby on the way, Lily and Stephen both have to confront their past. Stephen cannot avoid his war memories and the knowledge of what he and his chauffeur did while at a farmhouse in Belgium. He has to decide what is more important: keeping his past secret or keeping his family together. Lily also has to decide what is most important in her life: her baby or her career. Ultimately the decisions they make will have live-or-death consequences for themselves and their son.

Overall I would recommend the book, especially to anyone who wants to learn more about how World War I affected soldiers when they returned home. The novel also does a good job of describing gender expectations in the 1920s, which basically involved men working and women staying home. Given some of the subject matter, however, I would recommend it for ages 12 and up.

 

Limited Time Book Sale for Holocaust and U.S. History Buffs!

My book Passionate Crusaders: How Members of the U.S. War Refugee Board Saved Jews and Altered American Foreign Policy during World War II is ON SALE until Christmas here: http://amzn.to/2gBVVD8

It’s the story of a few good men who tried to save Jews and others from the Holocaust at the last minute. These ordinary people had hope in the face of impossible odds, and isn’t that what we could all use this holiday season?

Available for $0.99 on Kindle and $8.99 paperback. Happy holidays to my readers.

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Making Sense of Election 2016

For the past week I have been trying to process what happened in last week’s presidential election. I apologize for the misleading title, but I haven’t been able to make sense of it. For those who study history, the past 9 days have seemed like we stepped into a time machine and traveled to the 1960s, and that’s on a good day.

I know people in their 90s who voted for Hillary Clinton, and people in their 30s who voted for Donald Trump. I also know people who didn’t vote at all. Now I’m not suggesting that everyone in their 90s supported Hillary, but of those who did, I think I understand why. They lived through the women’s rights movement, the civil rights movement, World War II, and plenty of other wars. Having lived through so much history, they don’t wish to relive it. As one senior citizen told me, the good old days sucked.

America currently offers more freedoms to more people than ever, regardless of gender, race, class, religion, or sexual preference. More than ever, people feel that these rights are threatened since the election.

I can only encourage people who support equal rights for all to put their money or their time into organizations that will protect these rights. There are more comprehensive lists of organizations that other writers and bloggers have put together, but I will mention a couple of examples. If you’re concerned about First Amendment rights, visit the ACLU website at https://www.aclu.org. To combat anti-Semitism, visit the Anti-Defamation League www.adl.org; for African American rights, visit the NAACP www.naacp.org. Call your representatives to support or oppose legislation. Online petitions are great, but old fashioned phone calls stand out.

For those of you who feel that America is in crisis, remember John F. Kennedy said, “When written in Chinese, the word crisis is composed of two characters–one represents danger and the other represents opportunity.” Take the opportunity today to give someone who is hurting hope.

 

More Abraham Lincoln Pets and the First Presidential Turkey Pardon

Despite the fact that they left their dog Fido behind in Springfield, the Lincolns had other pets in the White House. Tad and Willie had two goats named Nanny and Nanko, both of whom had the run of the White House. The goats drove the staff crazy by chewing almost everything in sight and eating the flower bulbs in the garden. In addition, the Lincoln boys would hitch the goats to either chairs or carts and have the goats pull them around. On one occasion, Tad scared White House visitors by driving one goat-pulled chair through the East Room while shouting, “Get out the way!”

Lincoln told Elizabeth Keckley, his wife’s seamstress, “I believe they are the kindest and best goats in the world.” According to Keckley, Lincoln and the boys would play with the goats in the yard “and when he called them they would come bounding to his side.” The White House staff was so frustrated with Nanny, however, that she was taken to the Soldiers Home. Unfortunately, she also chewed up the garden there and was sent back to the White House. Nanny, probably confused by the move, disappeared one day. Lincoln reported the loss to Tad who was on a trip with Mrs. Lincoln. “Poor Nanny goat is lost,” he wrote. By the next spring, Nanny was either found or replaced by another goat. Lincoln sent his wife a telegram saying “Tell Tad the goats and father are very well– especially the goats.”

If goats made for unusual White House pets, Tad managed to find yet another exotic friend. In 1863 the Lincolns were sent a live turkey. It was to be eaten at Christmas dinner. Tad became attached to the turkey and named him Jack. When Tad found out his new friend was going to be cooked for Christmas dinner, he interrupted Lincoln during a cabinet meeting to plead for the bird’s life. Lincoln stopped the meeting and wrote an “order of reprieve” for the turkey. Jack continued to live at the White House.

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Lincoln and his Cabinet. William Seward, who gave Lincoln kittens, is seated in front of the desk.

The tradition of presidents pardoning turkeys was thus started by Lincoln even though his turkey was for Christmas dinner. The presidential turkey pardon did not become an annual tradition until years later. John F. Kennedy was the first modern president to let a Thanksgiving turkey go.

Lincoln himself seem to derive the most comfort from the company of cats. When asked if her husband had a hobby, Mary Lincoln might’ve answered cats.  Lincoln received two kittens as a gift from Secretary of State William Seward. He named them Tabby and Dixie. He reportedly spent quite a few hours of his time talking to them. At one point he exclaimed that they “were smarter than my whole cabinet.” During one White House dinner, Lincoln had Tabby seated next to him. This embarrassed Mrs. Lincoln but did not seem to trouble her husband.

Lincoln was also fond of stray cats, but he didn’t bring them home too often because Mary didn’t appreciate it. While visiting Gen. Ulysses S Grant at army headquarters in 1865, Lincoln spotted three stray kittens. He scooped them up and petted them. Before he left he made sure that someone would look after them. Grant aid Horace Porter stated that it was a “curious site at army headquarters upon the eve of a great military crisis” to watch the president “tenderly caressing three stray kittens. It well illustrated the kindness of the man’s disposition, and showed the childlike simplicity which was mingled with the grandeur of his nature.”

Presidential Pets: Abraham Lincoln’s Dog Fido

Abraham Lincoln’s dog Fido was the first presidential dog to be photographed. Lincoln had the photo taken in 1861 just before he left Springfield, Illinois for his presidential inauguration. He told his sons Tad and Willie that they could take the photo with them to Washington, but not the dog.

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Official Portrait of Fido, Abraham Lincoln’s Dog

During his time in Springfield Fido was a great companion to Lincoln. The yellow-and-brown mutt accompanied Lincoln on errands and often waited outside the barbershop for him. Unlike his master, however, Fido wasn’t meant for public life. After Lincoln’s presidential nomination, local politicians came to the house and tried to greet Fido, who retreated under the family sofa. Fido also was less than enthused about the fireworks and cannons going off when his master won the election.

Mary Lincoln was not a big fan of dogs and she was probably happy not to have to clean up after Fido anymore. Lincoln, however, loved dogs and made sure that Fido had a good home. Lincoln gave the dog to the Roll family who were friends and neighbors of the Lincolns and their children.

Before giving away his pet, Lincoln gave the Rolls strict instructions about Fido’s care. For example, Lincoln insisted that Fido never be punished for coming inside with muddy paws. He also wanted the dog to be allowed in the dining room where he could beg for table scraps. The Rolls were also given the Lincoln family sofa to make Fido feel more at home. It was his favorite place to sleep. Finally, the Rolls promised to give the dog back when the Lincolns returned to Springfield.

Fido was never reunited with his master, though he did watch the funeral procession in Springfield after Lincoln’s assassination. Several months later Fido ran away from the Roll’s home. John Roll wrote, The dog in a playful manner put his dirty paws upon a drunken man sitting on the street curbing. In his drunken rage the man thrust a knife into the body of poor old Fido. So Fido, just a poor yellow dog was assassinated like his illustrious master.” The Roll children buried Lincoln’s beloved dog in their yard.

 

Presidential Pets: Ronald Reagan’s Dogs Lucky and Rex

President Ronald Reagan didn’t immediately bring a dog with him to the White House. During his second term, however, Reagan got a Bouvier des Flanders puppy named Lucky. First Lady Nancy Reagan named the dog in honor of her mother, Edith Luckett (Lucky) Davis. Bouviers are high energy herding dogs that grow to be very large. As Nancy Reagan put it, Lucky grew from a black “ball of fluff” to “be the size of a pony.”

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Official Portrait of Lucky the Dog, 1985

The petite First Lady was quickly overwhelmed by Lucky’s size and strength. Hugh Sidney, a correspondent for Time Magazine, said that when the press saw Lucky and the First Lady on the White House lawn, “we would all wait for the lunge because the dog would drag Nancy along for a few feet as they raced to the helicopter.” Mrs. Reagan got no help from the president, who invariably laughed at Lucky’s antics.

To be fair, Lucky also did a good job of “walking” President Reagan when he was trying to have a conversation with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Neither leader seemed to mind, though.

Though Lucky was affectionate, she never adjusted to life in the White House. After a stint in obedience school, the Reagans sent Lucky to their ranch in California where she could roam more freely.

Despite having little luck with Lucky, the Reagans got another dog. This time they selected a smaller breed, a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel. They named the dog Rex after retired White House usher Rex Scouten. Like Lucky, Rex pulled on his leash, but his small size made him easier to handle.

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The Reagans with Dog Rex at Christmas

The name Rex means king, and Rex lived up to his name. A colonial-style dog house with red velvet curtains and pictures of his owners on the walls was designed for him by Theo Hayes, great-great grandson of President Rutherford B. Hayes. After President Reagan’s second term, Rex went with the Reagans to their California ranch.

Lucky and Rex had long lives—ten and thirteen years respectively. They both were buried at the Reagan ranch.