In November 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected president of the United States. By the time he turned 52, on February 12, 1861, the Union was crumbling. The day of his inauguration, March 4, had yet to arrive. Continue reading
Fogarty (1873-1938) imagines a group of female well-wishers paying Lincoln their respects on his birthday. Girls and a fashionable lady cluster affectionately about the president, who holds a beaming child on his arm.
Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
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February is seldom as fun as I hope it will be. I dream of escaping to the sledding hill or spending an afternoon out ice-skating, but instead I end up trapped at my desk, thinking of dead presidents, the white and black races, and slavery.
Its calendar page filled with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and George Washington, the birth and death dates of Frederick Douglass, and the observance of Black History Month, February is a minefield of historic associations, of significance buried but waiting to explode. Continue reading
How fortunate we are that Lincoln’s presidency came just after the development of photography! Of course, by the time he first took office in 1861, certain photographic processes, notably daguerreotypes, had been around for decades. But only around mid-century did photography develop into a versatile, practical, and widely circulating medium. As a consequence, whereas photographs of Lincoln’s predecessors in the White House are scarce, Lincoln and his political contemporaries had their pictures taken many, many times. Some even became shrewd retailers of their mechanically reproduced selves.
The result, from the point of view of the present, is an opening-wide of the window onto history. Whereas details of James Buchanan‘s 1857 inauguration come down to us mainly through artistic and verbal description (there is this one blurry photograph), good photographs documenting both of Lincoln’s inaugurals survive. From 1861, for instance, there are several fine distant views of Lincoln taking the oath of office, though none of them is close enough for us to make out his great defeated rival, Senator Stephen A Douglas, who, according to historical testimony, is said to have been looking on from a seat nearby.
These photographs remind us of the immature, precarious state of the Union at the time. The great addition of the new Capitol dome was incomplete, and, even as Lincoln moved to forward to assume his elected office, the elements that made up the nation were breaking apart. Prior to March 4, 1861, when this picture was taken, seven pro-slavery states had seceded, and afterward, four more southern states would depart. On April 12th, with the firing on Fort Sumter, the nation would descend into a state of war.
The crowd gathered for the swearing-in knew that they were witnessing a momentous scene. The crowd was thick; most had furled their umbrellas; men, straining for the best possible view, mounted light poles and trees. Motionless, they strained to hear the unamplified proceedings, the camera preserving the style of their hats and clothing. Two men turn to face the camera, cannily.
The succeeding years saw a widening use of open-air photography, so that we know with some immediacy the Civil War’s corpse-strewn scenes. Photographers like Alexander Gardner (by then working for Mathew Brady) tirelessly trailed the armies, unflinchingly recording the realities of camps, hospitals, and battle-fields. By the time of Lincoln’s second inaugural, in 1865, the war was in its final months, slaves had been liberated, and the nation had become accustomed to seeing itself through the lens of photography.
This wonderful photograph by Gardner captures the look of that later crowd. Here, the people themselves, not the government nor the army, nor their most powerful representatives, are recognized as camera-worthy, as they gather on an inauguration day that is once again wet and muddy. Great coats and banners billow in the breeze, as knots of spectators stand about, chatting or strolling as they please. In time, they part to make way for the inaugural parade, in which Union regiments of both races proudly march.
Is it my imagination, or is there a touch of jubilation here, missing from the earlier proceedings? Though the war had yet to end, the prospects for the Confederacy were dwindling sharply, and Americans who had fought to keep the nation together knew that their victory was sure.
Bare-headed, Lincoln reads his message of reconciliation to a crowd radiating around him like magnetic filings, the dais overflowing with dignitaries. A miscellaneous crowd of watchers stands beneath him, studying the crowd while listening. It is a homely scene with little pageantry, suited to a federal republic that, though riddled with conflict, has endured trials to grow in confidence and power. Outside the frame, the Capitol dome has been completed, and stands triumphantly capped with the Statue of Freedom.
All images from the collections of the Library of Congress.
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New Year’s has often been a working holiday for American statesmen. More than a day of moral resolution, January 1st marks the anniversary of several bold, ambitious actions that have opened new eras and horizons for Americans as a people.
1. SCOUTING THE WEST
New Year’s Day in 1803 found Thomas Jefferson secretly laying the groundwork for the Lewis and Clark Expedition, a scheme that had to be covert because it proposed scouting out vast tracts of land that at the time belonged to other countries. The French lands now referred to as the Louisiana Purchase would not belong to the United States until the spring, while the Oregon Territory would remain the property of England for many decades. Yet Jefferson was undeterred in his determination to familiarize himself with, and strengthen American claims to, these unknown neighboring regions.
So he began crafting a confidential message to Congress, describing the possible benefits of reconnoitering these lands and asking for an appropriation of the $2,500 necessary to supply the journey. Congress looked with favor on his request, thus inaugurating a initiative that pioneered knowledge of the West’s lands, resources, and native peoples.
The government was rewarded with a treasure-trove of maps and documents that facilitated its later dealings with, and gradual displacement of, native American tribes. Today, we tend to discount the expansionist ambitions that motivated Jefferson, instead lauding the Expedition as an early model of the many progressive scientific projects and surveys the US government would subsequently fund.
2. FREEING THE SLAVE
Sixty years later, President Lincoln spent New Year’s Day greeting callers to the White House and putting his signature on the final version of his Emancipation Proclamation, which was sent out over the telegraph wires later that day. Not unlike the Lewis and Clark expedition, Lincoln’s statement had had a long fruition, with earlier drafts of the measure being floated and discussed the previous fall. Lincoln’s determination to associate the waging of the Civil War with the moral cause of ending slavery marked a tipping point in the long struggle to secure for African-Americans personal freedom and civil equality, a struggle begun decades earlier and continuing on for more than a century, even down to today.
The executive order, which famously declared the freedom of all slaves held in rebel states, was on display at the National Archives in Washington yesterday, on the occasion of its 150th anniversary. Though limited in its scope and practical effects, the proclamation spelled liberation for a people who had suffered oppression since colonial times. Lincoln’s deliberate blow to slavery paved the way for its complete and permanent abolition, accomplished through the ratification of the 13th Amendment to the Constitution.
3. WELCOMING THE IMMIGRANT
Finally, on New Year’s Day in 1892, the first immigrant (of some 16 million) passed through the doors of Ellis Island. It is commonly said that “American is a nation of immigrants,” but the establishment of Ellis Island and other formal points of entry gave that rite of passage a dignity and regularity that was previously missing.
Located near the Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island bestowed welcome and the necessary paperwork on immigrants who had previously been less distinguishable from American citizens. At a time when many born Americans went through life without the legal documentation of a birth certificate, Ellis Island conferred a bureaucratic identity on the newly arrived, routinizing a more paper-bound and legalistic conception of Americanness that is with us still. Today, however, Ellis Island stands as a cherished symbol of the rational means the government employed to bind its disparate population into one people.
May these complex and impressive projects inspire today’s political leaders to lift up their sights and grapple bravely with the issues confronting the nation now.