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.

Fade To Biden

It’s been over a week since the presidential race was called for Biden, yet the loser in the White House refuses to concede.  The victor’s camp has had to watch endless analyses of the loser’s situation, which with time grows more pathetic and bizarre.  The media continues to cover Trump, take his words to heart, and repeat them when they don’t deserve repeating.  A few sycophants continue to treat him as if his wishes and grudges matter.  Meanwhile, Rudy Giuliani’s scatter-shot press conference in defense of the President, held mistakenly at Four Seasons Total Landscaping, sandwiched between a dildo shop and a crematorium in a banal corner of suburban Philadelphia, offers a visual metaphor for how dodgy and disreputable Trump’s protestations are.

Meanwhile, the victor and the victorious electorate have been cheated of the whoop and holler of all-out jubilation.  Yes, Biden backers partied in the streets the day the election was called and rallied to cheer Biden’s sweet victory later that night.  Yet a cloud hangs over Biden’s lawful assumption of the presidency, because the current president refuses to acknowledge what Biden has accomplished—refuses to acknowledge the people’s choice.  Until someone chops down Trump’s tree of refusal, Biden’s win remains in the loser’s shade.

It’s incontrovertible that Biden defeated Trump.  As of this morning, Biden has 306 electoral votes to Trump’s 232.  Biden won by flipping five states that Trump won in 2016: Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Georgia.  His margins could have been fatter in Arizona and Michigan, but only in Georgia are the results close enough to justify a recount, which is occurring now.  Even if Georgia were to go to Trump instead of Biden, it wouldn’t be enough to touch Biden’s win.

An astonishing number of Americans (about 73 millions) turned out for Trump.  He received the highest number of votes ever cast for a Republican candidate, but, in this year of astronomical turnout, Biden far eclipsed him, winning roughly 78.8 million votes out of some 152 million cast.  Biden received over 5.6 million more votes than Trump.

Trump’s childish inability to accept the results is unfortunate, but far more dastardly is the behavior of others in the Republican party, who indulge Trump instead of pressuring him to concede.  Of particular moment is the formal beginning of the transition process.  Once the formal transfer of power begins, we can all breathe a sigh of relief.  The incoming administration will then be privy to what is going on in the Trump White House, greatly reducing the risk of any dangerous lame-duck shenanigans.  So far, though, a single Trump appointee, GSA administrator Emily Murphy, has held up this process, by declining to ascertain that Biden won.  She is siding with the defeated incumbent instead of with the American people.

Yet the moment is coming: Power is drifting away from Trump and incrementally consolidating around president-elect Biden.  The news outlets are debunking Trump’s claims of fraud.  Secretaries of state and other officials all across the US are explicitly defending the integrity of the elections they conducted.  The New York Times reported on a group of election officials who say this was the most secure election in US history.  Makes sense, given the fears raised over interference in 2016.  Since then. states have made substantial progress in improving election security and defending against any type of interference or fraud.

Meanwhile, Trump voters are shrugging off the loss.  As of November 10, 79 percent of Americans had come to accept that Biden had won the presidency, and 13 percent thought it hadn’t yet been decided, whereas only 3 percent believed Trump had won.  By now, the number who believe Trump’s claim to a second term is meager indeed.  The Newshour’s William Brangham, talking to Trump voters in Michigan after the election, found that many were weary of politics and ready to move away from the chaos and heal the social wounds they’d sustained.  Over the weekend, pro-Trump demonstrators planned a MillionMAGA march in Washington, DC, but the crowd numbered in the tens of thousands at best.  Hey, most of us have lived beyond voting for a candidate who lost.

It’s time for the Trump era to fade to Biden.  Catcalls, boos, and rotten tomatoes will rain down on Trump, if he can’t improvise a graceful exit tout suite.  Only a buffoon enjoys being humiliated: whether Trump is one will become evident now.

Day 4: Extrapolating from 2016: Why I Expect A Biden Win

The only presidential poll that counts is the one Americans vote in.  That being the case, are there ways (other than opinion polling) to evaluate whether Biden will win?  In the run-up to Election Day, I’m thinking of the odds of his victory in terms of all that has happened since 2016, when Donald Trump scored an electoral-college victory despite Hillary Clinton’s greater popularity. About 137 million people participated in that election.  How will roughly the same electorate behave in the matchup between Trump and Biden?

Of the 65 million people who voted for Clinton, few are going to switch over to Trump this time.  Clinton voters remain firmly opposed to Trump–to people who identify as liberals or Democrats, he is completely anathema.  Knowing that they constitute a numerical majority, they are highly motivated to defeat him this time.  Clinton voters want to see someone of their kind in the White House.

In the past four years, I have never met or heard of a Clinton voter believes Trump is a good guy.  So I can’t imagine there will be many defections from that solid Democratic column.  At a minimum, Biden can count on capturing at least as many popular votes as Clinton.

In addition, he will enjoy the support of many Americans who did not turn out for Clinton in 2016.  Many male voters will turn out for Biden who either went for Trump or refrained from voting in 2016.  Some voters perceived Clinton to have character issues; others harbored intense animus toward her, dating from her husband Bill’s presidency.  For some, Clinton’s sex was itself disqualifying.  Biden is not a better candidate or person than Hillary, but he is male.  He lacks the tangential but still consequential negatives that turned off some of the Democratic voting base.

Biden will also likely do better with supporters of Bernie Sanders than Clinton could.  Sanders voters shunned Clinton in 2016.  This time around, they are somewhat more likely to vote for Biden because of the urgency of defeating Trump, because of Sanders’s urging, and because it’s evident that the progressive agenda is gaining ground within the Democratic Party.   Young voters are mobilizing themselves to save the world.  They are more likely to cast a vote this time around than to sit it out.  And for those who mind Biden’s age and moderation, Kamala Harris represents a conditional promise that the White House will be occupied by a fairly progressive woman of color should Biden die.

Finally, Biden will get the vote of every Trump “resistor.”  Notably, black Americans hate Trump for turning a blind eye to racism and police brutality, threatening military action against protestors (whom he branded as terrorists), and encouraging white supremacy.  Tens of thousands of blacks who didn’t care about the last election and/or don’t particularly care for Biden will nonetheless turn out for him.  It appears they are already vote at higher rates and with more enthusiasm than they did in 2016.

So that is it for Biden’s positive voting base.  Now, when we look at Trump’s support what do we see?

Trump’s margin of victory in 2016 was narrow–very narrow.  The percentage of Americans who approve of him has remained below 50 percent for throughout his presidency.  This verdict on Trump has remained remarkably stable:  Trump was marginally more popular when he was inaugurated than he’s ever since.  Today, he has the good opinion of only 43 percent, and those fans are not necessarily distributed advantageously across the country.  As president, Trump has done nothing to “make friends” or broaden his appeal.  On the contrary, he has gone out of his way to alienate many Americans, specifically by treating everyone who opposes him as an enemy.  Now, the majority who dislike Trump have a chance to act.  This majority comprises not just Democrats but infrequent and independent voters who are likely to go for Biden this time around.

Meanwhile, cadres of Republican voters and officials have repudiated Trump in favor of Biden.  The open defection of elder statesmen, leading scientists and intellectuals, distinguished civil servants, military brass, and former Republican officials (including a number of former governors) is one of the more extraordinary aspects of the 2020 race.  It is a sign of the Republican party’s general decrepitude.

For, while Trump has dishonored the Republican party, the Republican-controlled Senate has shocked and disappointed Americans of all stripes in failing to check Trump or to stand up for the Constitution or the rule of law.  Senate Republicans have instead executed the president’s evil will, siding with him and enabling him to prevail in ways that are contrary to our values and the national interest.  So Trump will suffer because the entire Republican brand is poisoned.  Voting Republican has become synonymous with being provincial, hateful, and anti-modern.

In addition, Trump’s full-bore attacks on the press and journalists (many of them women); reports of his nasty remarks about fallen soldiers and those who have served in the military; his lack of concern for the poor, the ill, and elderly; and his obvious inability to deal with smart women have cost him many votes and sent many once-loyal Republicans to the other side.  His explicit attacks on Governor Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan and discriminatory approach to COVID relief, which has prompted him to withhold vitally needed aid from Democratic-leaning parts of the polity, are insults and injuries fresh in voters’s minds as they go to the polls.

In the end, how many Americans will decide that their best interest lies in allowing Trump to continue to lead the US?  What will they get out of his being in charge for another four years?  The social and cultural landscape of the US is withering away, along with its vibrant economy, because Trump has no definite economic or social vision.  His lack of executive ability and essentially corrupt mentality have been especially evident since the coronavirus epidemic hit.  Biden is more open, more compassionate and fair.  He can lead a suffering nation; Trump can’t.

Early voting augurs a historically high turnout for this election.  The high volume makes it more likely that Biden will sufficiently improve on Clinton’s margins to prevail in states like Michigan, Wisconsin, and Arizona, where Trump won largely as a result of apathy.  The spread of COVID-19 in rural and red portions of the US will likely dampen enthusiasm and turnout for Trump among Republicans, who are said to prefer voting in person on Election Day.

The 2020 election is a critical one.  I believe that most Americans are good, that most accept and want to live by a time-tested political creed of fairness and toleration.  I believe that most want the US to be governed by the rule of law.  Sadly, millions of Americans support Trump because they do not care about these values enough to embrace social changes they bring.  I believe that Americans want to step into the future, that they want to become a fully multiracial and forward-looking country.

It’s hard to know what will happen if voters elect Biden, but if the US doesn’t move forward it’s going to go down.

RELATED:
“Trump Confronts His Fifty-Percent Problem.” (Politico)

Day 32: Trump Tests Positive?

Written at 9:00am. Americans woke to the news that Donald and Melania Trump have both tested positive for COVID-19. We are told they are isolating at the White House. Their illness follows that of staffer Hope Hicks, whose positivity was being reported late last night. Given the president’s cavalier attitude toward protective measures and his persistence in bringing unmasked people together in numbers, it was perhaps only a matter of time before he contracted the disease. Ronna McDaniel, the head of the Republican National Committee, also tested positive for the virus on Wednesday.

The stock market is falling, pundits are jabbering, and speculations about the outlook for Trump and the US itself are multiplying. Trump could end up with a very mild case of COVID and recover quickly; he could get very sick and die. He could be afflicted in a way that makes it unclear whether he is capable of governing. It’s even possible his illness is fake news.

In the meantime, we are brushing up on the rules of presidential succession. Suddenly, vice-president Pence, who has tested negative, is in the spotlight. The vice president has the power to invoke the 25th amendment if need be. He would also become president for the remainder of Trump’s term should the latter die.

As for the election: Americans are casting their ballots, even as the consequences of Trump’s reckless inaction on COVID mount. Trump’s chances of scoring a clear honest victory over Biden were dim already. The president’s on-going efforts to subvert voting, his failure to condemn white supremacy during Tuesday’s debate, and his ever-louder claims that the election will be a hoax: these are fearful, desperate strategies. Most citizens are intent on ridding themselves of his hateful, un-American leadership. Regardless of Trump’s fate, this latest blow to national order will undoubtedly drive more voters toward Biden.

Even now, Twitter is awash with speculation over whether Trump is really sick or using illness as a gambit to stay in power. If a takeover is afoot, Americans must do all they can to stay ahead of the curve. Never has a president been less trusted.

The nation could be in great danger.


At 5:35 pm. The president has left the White House for Walter Reed Hospital. He reportedly received an antibody cocktail from Regeneron (the CEO is an old friend) earlier in the day. The drug is not yet FDA-approved. The company’s stock began trending higher in after-hours trading.

CNN is reporting that the White House knew by yesterday morning that Hicks had tested positive, yet the president flew off for a fundraiser with a hundred people in New Jersey, and press secretary Kayleigh McEnany held a briefing that afternoon without disclosing the facts to those present or herself wearing a mask. It is being reported that the president delayed making his test results public for several hours last night, in order to first notify other Republican officials. He finally tweeted about having COVID at 1am this morning.

President, Public, and Press: A Romance Gone

Harry Dart’s charming cartoon from 1911 conjures up a vision of the US president, public, and press bound together in a happy if inescapable relationship.  William Howard Taft was then president, and the nation’s falling into a star-struck frenzy as he fled Washington to spend a few weeks at a “summer White House” in New England supplied the theme for Dart’s cartoon.  Between 1909 and 1912, the 300-pound Taft and his wife Helen summered in the Massachusetts town of Beverly, generating headlines and intense local curiosity.  In making a resort community “the nation’s summer capital,” Taft was following long-established custom.  Presidents at least as far back as Buchanan and Van Buren had traded stifling conditions on the Potomac for the salubrious pleasures of a few weeks by the sea, in the hills, or at a fashionable watering hole.

No matter how “ordinary” the Tafts sought to be, their presence turned the starchy enclave of Beverly all circus-y.  Journalists and others clogged its byways to glimpse the President passing in his car or the First Lady patronizing the local shops.  According to the Boston Globe, “motorists in goggles and dusters formed a half-mile line outside the president’s cottage awaiting his emergence for a Sunday drive.”  Gawkers paddled skiffs out into the harbor to inspect the grand presidential yacht, The Mayflower, a 273-foot vessel with a staff of 166 under eight officers.  Mrs Taft claimed that only by boarding the yacht and sailing up the coast could the president get a short interval of rest, “steaming away out of the reach of crowds.”

In fact, the pressure of the Tafts’ celebrity affronted Beverly’s carefully cultivated aura of exclusivity.  “Secret service men patrolled the grounds” around the president’s temporary residence, “trampling the flower beds and generally spoiling the serene summer atmosphere.”  Souvenir hunters snatched the prayer books the president had used while worshiping at the local Unitarian church.  All the while, Taft kept up with his official duties, visiting the executive offices set up for him at Pickering House when not indulging in his well-known passion for golf.

Yet the hoopla surrounding the president’s appearance spoke to the prestige of the presidency itself.  The comical aspects of the public’s love affair with the president are gently satirized in Dart’s cartoon, which imagines George Washington, the first president, similarly circumstanced at “the first Summer Capital” of Mount Vernon.  Messengers dart across the grounds, delivering urgent messages to an executive office set up in one of the plantation’s outbuildings, while on a veranda, man-servants tote trays of cold martinis.  Temporary quarters have been set up for the Departments of Justice, Treasury, and War on Mount Vernon’s front lawn, where Washington, dangling a tennis racket, ponders an urgent communique that has interrupted his game.

Radical dames crusading for the right to vote crowd around outside, bearing signs reading “Our Rights Are Paramount; Let Congress Wait” and “If We Don’t Get Our Rights This Year, We Will The Next” (which is funny because women’s perennial effort to gain the franchise had been going on for more than seventy years and would not culminate in success until 1920).  The president’s security detail is badly outnumbered, allowing groups such as the Daughters of the Revolution and suppliants for pensions to breach the sanctity of the presidential compound.  The presidents’ friends lounge at a table in the shade, trading political intelligence and waiting to get away with G. W. for a round of golf.

Dart’s cartoon evokes nostalgia, because no American would think of drawing or publishing such a cartoon today.  Over the past decades, changes in the press, the public, and the presidency have made the gentle affection that infuses this cartoon a rarity.  The press, the public, and the president are no longer united in a virtuous dynamic of mutual dependence and trust.  Above all, President Trump’s meanness and talent for alienating others makes such a happy scene unthinkable.

 

Image: Harry Grant Dart, “Mount Vernon, The First Summer Capital,”
Puck, vol. 70, no. 1798, 16 August 1911,
from this source.