Presidential Material

Of the many photographs taken of Theodore Roosevelt reading, this one is perhaps the most beguiling.  It was taken in 1905, when the president was on vacation.  He used his time off to go bear hunting in Colorado on horseback with a small group of friends.  While there, he stayed in the “West Divide Creek ranch house,” a simple log cabin.

Roosevelt was famous as a man of action. Few presidents had his love of ‘roughing it,’ though many were endowed, as he was, with physical courage and military zeal.  Roosevelt’s love of adventure sprang from wanting to prove himself by facing elemental challenges.  This passion fueled his love of sport (such as boxing) as well as his famous excursion toward the end of his life to find the headwaters of the Amazon.  As president, he was resolute, tackling the prickliest dilemmas in a forthright, all-out way.

At the same time, Roosevelt’s effectiveness derived from his great intellectual capacities.  He was a  voracious reader, devouring information and knowledge like a large fish feeding with mouth open wide.  He read and wrote compulsively, regardless of his official duties.  Being intellectual was intrinsic to his identity.  Knowledge clarified the problems he confronted, undergirding Roosevelt’s confidence and leadership skills.

Photographers accompanied Roosevelt on his Wild West vacation.  This allowed the public to see another side of the president, barren of conventional symbols of prestige.  Yet beneath the ratty clothes and ridiculous hat, Roosevelt’s big-heartedness, joie de vivre, and seriousness remained much in evidence.  The dog on his lap joined the Roosevelt household, when Teddy took him back to the White House to stay.   

Image: from this source.

Lincoln’s Body (1901)

The casket of Abraham Lincoln being lifted from a temporary resting place in Springfield, IL 1901.

After Abraham Lincoln was assassinated on 14 April 1865, his body was carried by train to Springfield, Illinois, where Mary Todd Lincoln, his widow, had determined the late president would be buried.  The progress of his remains by rail was sedate and lengthy, as his casket was paraded through many cities and the funeral train traveled at a top speed of 20 miles per hour.  Lincoln’s journey to the grave was an unprecedented national spectacle, as tens of thousands of citizens turned out to view his cortege.

Yet, even as they mourned, conflict over Lincoln’s final destination brewed.  On the one hand, the leading lights of Springfield had formed a plan to place his body in a tomb in a highly visible location that could be seen from a train.  These men, acting without consulting Lincoln’s widow, raised $50,000, bought 6 acres of land, and set crews to work night and day building a vault that would be ready to receive Lincoln’s body on May 24, the date appointed for his funeral.  This tomb, located on land called “the Mather Block,” was built into the hill where the Illinois statehouse stands today.

Their plans did not sit well with Mary Todd Lincoln.  She recalled Abe once saying that he would like to be buried at Oak Ridge, a secluded rural cemetery two miles away.  Mrs Lincoln had a terrible time convincing the prominent men who had backed the Mather Vault to commit to burying Lincoln at Oak Ridge instead.  Eventually, though, she prevailed.  On the day of Lincoln’s funeral, his remains were laid in Oak Ridge’s receiving vault.  More funds were raised and a fit memorial to Lincoln rose.  An imposing granite obelisk with a statuary group at its base declared the location of his resting place.  Lincoln’s body was moved from the receiving vault to this tomb in 1874.

Two years later, a group of men taking orders from Chicago counterfeiter Big Jim Kennally tried to steal Lincoln’s body.  Kennally wanted the body as ransom for $200,000 in cash and the release of his partner-in-crime, convicted engraver Benjamin Boyd, then doing time in the Illinois “pen.”  When Kennally unwittingly hired a government informant to join in as a grave-robber, the plot was exposed.

The incident prompted the tomb’s custodian, John Carroll Power, to form a secret band of local men to help him guard Lincoln’s remains.  Power and his men managed to move Lincoln’s heavy cedar-and-lead coffin from its proper spot to an undisclosed hiding place in Memorial’s basement.  The remains of the three Lincoln boys who had predeceased their father remained in the upper burial chamber.  When Mary Todd Lincoln died in 1882, her body was interred there too.  Paradoxically, the secrecy surrounding the exact location of Lincoln’s coffin (hidden downstairs under a woodpile) fed doubt as to whether it still contained his corpse.

In 1899, Robert Todd Lincoln, the Lincolns’ only surviving child, visited the memorial and directed that the entire structure be razed and rebuilt.  Abraham Lincoln’s coffin and those of his family members were removed from the memorial and buried nearby in a temporary grave (shown in the foreground of the picture above).  In April 1901, several photographers were on hand to record the proceedings as Lincoln’s heavy coffin (said to weigh between 400 and 500 pounds) was lifted out of the grave and re-interred in the new and improved memorial.  Over a hundred people and several children watched as a crane operator opened the temporary grave, removing the enormous stone slabs covering it, and revealing the Lincoln family coffins for all to see.

Yet, even after the day’s events, which restored the Lincoln family remains to the relative safety of the new vault, Robert Todd Lincoln was not entirely satisfied.  He remained worried that his father’s remains could be stolen or desecrated.  So, he decided to have a steel cage constructed around his parents’ coffins, deep underground.  Once the coffins were placed inside the cage, several feet of concrete would be laid above it, thick enough to insure their inviolable repose.

By September 1901, a crew was ready to execute this plan.  Local dignitaries were called together to witness this final transfer of Lincoln’s remains.  At this point, a spontaneous impulse arose among the group to open Lincoln’s coffin and verify the presence of his corpse.  Though opinion was divided, those in favor of opening the coffin prevailed.  Two local workmen were called out to cut open the section of the coffin lid over Lincoln’s head.  The crowd of 23 witnesses recoiled from the wave of a shockingly strong smell.  Then, as one, they instinctively leaned in to see what was inside.

Lincoln’s visage was completely recognizable.  Covered with a powdery white chalk (taken to be a funerary cosmetic), Lincoln’s flesh had turned a deep leathery bronze.  His whiskers, hair, and mole were all intact, though his eyebrows were gone.  Spidery bits of yellow mildew clung to the broadcloth suit he’d been buried in.  (He had worn it a week before his murder to his second inauguration.)  His gloves (which he hated to wear) had disintegrated, along with his pillow rest and a small flag that had been placed on his chest, but not his bow tie.  Some theorize that the body was in a remarkably good state of preservation owing to the repeated embalming necessary to preserve it during its long journey west in 1865.

 

Image: Photograph by Guy R. Mathis,
“Removing Lincoln’s Body, No. 9,”

from this source.

Lincoln’s Death Bed

pencil sketch of Lincoln's death bed by Union artist A. R. Waud

On this day in 1865, President Abraham Lincoln died of gun violence.  The previous evening, the president had attended the theater, where a Southern-born actor with rebel sympathies slipped into the private box where Lincoln was sitting and fired a bullet into the back of his head.  Stunned witnesses carried the badly injured president out of Ford’s Theater and across the street to a room at Peterson’s boarding house, where he died at 7:22 a.m. the next day.

It was a politically motivated crime, a vengeful coda to the Civil War, which had ended with the South’s surrender at Appomattox just one week before.  Even now, 156 years after Lincoln’s death, the despicable act that deprived this nation of one of its brightest lights casts doubt on whether our republican form of government, which depends on civility and a respect for the popular will, can prevail in the face of a vulgar resort to violence.

Image: from this source.

The Freed Slaves’ Prospects; or, The Copperheads’ Revenge

This drawing from 1863 encapsulates the dangerous anti-federal anti-black sentiment that bubbled up in the Civil War north once the slaves were freed.  Dominating the drawing is a figure resembling Lincoln, mowing the field with a scythe and in the process exposing some snakes in the grass.  The verse below identifies the snakes as venomous “copperheads.”

Copperheads were a faction of northern “peace Democrats” sympathetic to slaveholding who opposed the war to preserve the Union.  Their opposition to race equality and perverse sympathy for Southern rebels clouded the prospects of black Americans and threatened the realization of the Republicans’ plans.  (Since the South had seceded and taken up arms, the US government was left mainly in Republican hands.)

The Copperhead faction, whose adherents were mainly from Ohio, Indiana, and other Midwestern states, were vigorous dissenters during the worst crisis Constitutional government had faced to date.

Beyond the Mower, episodes of a national saga unfold.  The scenes depict the massive social and economic transformation that “Black Republicans” had hoped would follow from abolition.  They anticipated that former slaves, once freed from Southern bondage, would become equal participants in a prosperous “free labor” economy on the same terms as whites.

The two halves of the drawing envision this heartening progression, as chattel slaves, depicted on the right under a stormy sky, begin living into the promise of personal freedom and autonomy.  Formerly, blacks enslaved in the South lived in demeaning conditions, their well-being dependent on the will of their owners and overseers.  At center, a fugitive slave carrying a child is pursued by dogs.

On the left, emancipated slaves labor on the land with dignity.  Like other Americans, they are part of a prosperous “free soil” economy, more than sufficient to meet their needs.  In the distance, a substantial-looking farmstead telegraphs a “dream home,” come true.

Unfortunately, emancipation ignited virulent opposition in some segments of white America.  The Copperheads couldn’t relate to a real shift in American sentiment that had led a majority of the electorate to reject slavery and the South’s “states-rights” defense of its “peculiar institution.”  Copperheads viewed the Union war effort as an abuse of federal authority.  They pleaded for a peaceful negotiated settlement with the South.

Copperheads were agrarians who feared that the modernization championed by eastern Republicans (which included industrialization) would jeopardize and eclipse their way of life.  Copperhead leader Clement Vallandigham was so vehement in opposing the federal government that he was tried for treason and exiled to live in the Confederacy.  Copperheads were understood to be active in the Knights of the Golden Circle, a fraternity whose goal was Southern expansion around the Gulf of Mexico to preserve the South’s distinctive way of life.  In the words of historian David C. Keehn, “The Knights were a militant oath-bound secret society dedicated to promoting Southern rights (including slavery) and extending Southern hegemony over the Golden Circle region,” encompassing the Caribbean Islands, Mexico, and Central America.

The Copperheads’ impolitic opposition to progressive forces at work in US society echoes across the ages, finding voice in the militant anti-federalism fueling Trumpism and other reactionary causes today.  Just as baleful was the underlying racism that led Copperheads to embrace the cause of slavery and white supremacy, a world view that justified the exclusion and prejudicial treatment of black Americans.

Image: from this source.

The Dawn of Modern American Race Relations

Sketch shows an officer of the Freedman's Bureau interposed between a group of violent whites threatening recently freed slaves.

This drawing from 1868 remains powerful.  It captures the virulent hatred of southern whites toward blacks (their former “property”) just after the South was defeated in the Civil War.  Because the South had given its all in defense of slaveholding, Southern defeat, coupled with the federal government’s freeing of the slaves, triggered a rage and resentment that still boils in some segments of the white population.

During the Civil War, the free part of the nation defeated the rebel states.  Beyond that, though, the free part of the nation rejected and discredited the ideas that the South’s slave-holding society had embraced.  The Northern states, which  controlled the federal government, warred against these ideas, defeating and ostracizing them, while protecting liberated slaves and taking numerous steps to outlaw slavery and rectify its wrongs.  The world the slaveholders made, which justified black enslavement by asserting whites’ natural superiority, was lost.

A value system at odds with the principle of natural equality: this is what the rebels lost in the 1860s, and what their descendants and admirers nostalgically pine for to the extent that they identify with the Lost Cause.

Of course, some Southerners were capable of shrugging their shoulders and moving on.  For most white Southerners, though, the loss was mortifying.  The consequences of losing were deeply humiliating and dire.  People who owned slaves had believed in their slaves’ native inferiority.  This supposed inferiority was the intellectual defense relied on to make slavery conscionable.

Furthermore, the belief that whites were naturally superior boosted the egos of all white southerners, most of whom were not wealthy and did not own slaves.  If all whites were superior, all were part of the master class.  The Civil War shattered this preposterous notion.  The federal government intervened militarily, breaking up the South’s “peculiar institution,” and declaring that blacks were equal to whites.

For more than a decade after the Civil War, the federal government engaged in an extraordinary effort to protect liberated slaves and ensure their freedom and equality.  The central figure in the drawing above  represents the Freedmen’s Bureau, a federal agency that ran refugee camps for slaves during the war.  The Bureau existed to protect newly freed slaves, to promote their well-being by providing shelter, food, and education.

For the times, Freedmen’s Bureau was an extraordinary welfare effort, but Southerners regarded it as an unwarranted federal intrusion into their affairs.  The bureau’s work went forward amid whites’ open resentment and vituperation.  The freedmen were freed, but now inhabited a fearsome milieu where the threat of violence, victimization, and re-enslavement was pervasive and real.  A segment of the white population became intent on denying black equality, because to accept black equality was to equate whites’ worth with that of slaves.

Change the clothes and the architecture, and the drawing could pass for an expression of the race hatred, fear, and resentment still roiling the US today.  The tragedy of slavery in the States far surpassed the terrible trauma it inflicted on the enslaved population.  Nor did the tragedy end when the Confederates surrendered.  It was not over when every slave was free nor when slavery was formally abolished.  Even when black Americans were granted equal rights on paper, it still did not end.  In the 1960s, when civil rights activists ended racial segregation and battled Jim Crow, when the federal government passed the Voting Rights Act and instated other protections, mighty progress was made.  And yet the tragedy of racism and racial prejudice endures.

Image: from this source.