Lincoln and the Broken Politics of His Time

On this day in 1809, Abraham Lincoln was born.  He was born into an American heyday, when the new United States (having fended off the British in the War of 1812) were mushrooming.  In 1809, the nation consisted of seventeen states, the westernmost being Ohio, along with a vast territory that pioneers were flooding into, appropriating from natives, and organizing.  Lincoln was born to one such pioneer family and grew up in Illinois, which became a state when he was nine.

By the time Lincoln became president, the number of states had doubled.  The nation stretched to the Pacific.  His milieu was morphing as quickly as he was, a reckless proliferation the politicians could barely control.  The gargantuan Lincoln, with his terrible grooming, was a perfect embodiment of this rough hasty time. Continue reading

The Arrival of a Slave Family After the Proclamation

Union sketch artist A. R. Waud went to considerable pains to work up this engraving of a family arriving at a contraband camp soon after President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on New Year’s Day in 1863.  As I related in my previous posts, thousands of slaves had already sought refuge in the so-called contraband camps, beginning in June 1861, when the war was just a few months old.  Yet the arrival of this family in camp marked a significant difference in the ongoing migration of Southern slaves to freedom. Continue reading

Freedmen Leaving the Plough

During the Civil War, the movement of Union troops through the slave states brought emancipation to the enslaved.  This drawing by Union sketch artist A. R. Waud captures one such moment, as field slaves on horseback jubilantly greet advancing Union troops and leave  the plough they are hauling, knowing they are free.

Waud accompanied the Union army during virtually the whole of the Civil War, capturing the truths of the war with his drawing as no other medium could.  Thanks to his efforts and those of other documentarians, later Americans can catch glimpses of a wildly tumultuous period in black history, when millions who had endured the tragedy of bondage enjoyed self-possession for the first time.

Image: Waud’s “Negroes Leaving The Plough,”
published with descriptive text in
Harper’s Weekly, March 26, 1864,
from this source.

A Storybook Dream of Reconstruction

In the years immediately after the Civil War, the victors imagined that the US was on the verge of becoming a racially just society. For four long years, Americans had warred against one another over the issue of slavery and whether the states had a right to secede.  The Confederate states had staked everything on these ideas.  Their determination to cling to them became a matter of pride and at last shame and bitterness, because in the end, they could not carry the argument even with the aid of cannons and guns.  When the Union won in 1865, shouldn’t the argument have been over, too? Continue reading

Winter

Winter in a nineteenth-century village was a season of stilless and restoration.  Snow fell, waterways froze, earth hardened to stone.  Farmers envisioned next year’s crops, sat by the fire, visited neighbors.  They drank.  Women cooked from larders bulging after a harvest season they had spent cellaring root crops and preserving perishables with the help of smoke, vinegar, salt, fat, and alcohol.

When night fell, folks sat up a while, then went to bed, mainly because they were tired or cold, or because there wasn’t enough light to see.  Barn animals still had to be cared for in the morning, but otherwise winter was a time of reflection, togetherness, and relative leisure.  Young people, freed from helping in the fields, could study or play.  Sundays, people worshipped at church.  Afterward, if conditions were good, skaters ventured out to glide across ice.

Joesph Moriller’s 1869 lithograph depicts villagers engaged in peaceful winter routines.  This winter, my habits, homebound due to the pandemic, are more like those villagers’ than they’ve ever been.  I seldom go out.  My days, if busy, are sedentary.  I don’t commute to work.  I seldom drive.  I cook like crazy.  My circle of association is cherished and tiny.  I notice the moon in the limitless black sky.

Yet, the nineteenth century featured a type of serenity, an intensity of direct experience, we creatures of mass society cannot attain.  Its conditions were more elemental and earthy.  Illness, injury, and death loomed large, starkly menacing life, love, and prosperity.  Humans, defenseless against certain types of suffering, endured with a sincere and fervent reliance on Providence.  Modern people, so much more heavily equipped with knowledge and remedies, need faith less, living from cradle to grave without what’s divine.

Nor can we access the simplicity of a purely local, face-to-face society.  In the nineteenth century, the society of the village and household was strictly bounded, a condition the railroad and telegraph had just begun to break down.  Local people knew one another thoroughly.  The intimacy of home life was seldom punctuated, as ours is, with distressing communications of all sorts streaming in everyday.  Word traveled less.  The very mystery of what lay beyond the horizon, or beyond human ken, paradoxically promoted tranquility and intense personal joy.

Image: from this source.