Craig L. Symonds is Professor Emeritus of History at the U.S. Naval Academy and the winner (with James M. McPherson) of the 2009 Lincoln Prize for his book Lincoln and His Admirals: Abraham Lincoln, the U.S. Navy, and the Civil War. In the post below Symonds discusses his experiences at the Lincoln Bicentennial celebrations.
A few Thursdays ago I spent the day with Abraham Lincoln. Of course I had spent most of the last four years with Lincoln while writing my book about him. As Doris Kearns Goodwin said about the many years she spent working on her book Team of Rivals, every day I got up excited about the notion of spending the day with Abe.
February 12th was Abe’s 200th birthday, and everybody, it seemed, wanted to spend the day with him. In the nation’s capital, a number of Lincoln scholars and other dignitaries spoke at a breakfast and a wreath laying at the Lincoln Memorial in the morning; a more formal celebration in the Capitol Rotunda followed at noon with music by the U.S. Army chorus and, of course, more speeches—including one by President Obama; the Library of Congress opened its new Lincoln exhibit at 1:00, an event marked by a luncheon, ribbon cutting, and more speeches; and dinner that night featured, what else, more speeches.
The historic Willard Hotel where Lincoln himself had stayed in as a Congressman in 1847 and again as president-elect in 1861 hosted the dinner. It is not the same building that existed then, but it stands on the same site, and has the same social and political pedigree.
Willard’s was at the very center of the dramatic and pivotal events of the 1860s. Most politicians stayed there when they were in town, and advocates for various causes would hang out in the lobby to buttonhole Congressmen in order to promote their agendas, a practice that created the term “lobbyist.” Many Union generals and admirals stayed at the Willard, too. By 1864, the desk clerk at the Willard had grown blasé about the appearance of yet another brigadier or major general, of whom there were then hundreds. That February, a scruffy looking major general showed up and asked for a room for himself and his son. The clerk assigned him a back room and asked him to sign the desk register. Then, spinning the register around, he read the name: “U.S. Grant and son, Galena, Ill.,” and discovered that he had a much nicer room available after all.
The dinner at the Willard last Thursday began with the usual lengthy acknowledgment of all those who had helped put the evening together. Almost every one of the 160 guests was introduced, some more than once. A string quartet played 19th century music, and of course there were speeches.
I gave one of them. I talked about Lincoln’s early political career that was marked by his opposition to the Mexican War, then at full flood. President James K. Polk had insisted that war with Mexico was justified because American blood had been shed on American soil by Mexican soldiers. Lincoln disputed that assertion. His resolution called for Polk “to establish whether the particular spot of soil on which the blood of our citizens was shed, was, or was not, our own soil.” The gangly western Congressmen made something of a nuisance of himself in these resolutions, called “The Spot Resolutions” at the time, and earning Lincoln the nickname “Spotty Lincoln.”
It is ironic that this man who began his political career as a kind of war protester, subsequently presided over the bloodiest war in our national history. We are fortunate that he did, for he possessed exactly the temperament needed for our country to survive: a willingness to accept expert advice, remarkable patience, and a sensitivity to what public opinion would accept as he moved forward toward union and emancipation.
After I finished, the second speaker came to the podium. It was George McGovern, looking remarkably fit and dignified at age 86. McGovern, too, had spent the last several years with Abe, writing a book of his own on Lincoln. Assessing history comes second nature to McGovern who earned a Ph.D. in History at Northwestern University back in 1953 and subsequently taught at his alma mater, Dakota Wesleyan University. After his political career, he returned to teaching, succeeding Stephen Ambrose at the University of New Orleans.
Listening to George McGovern talk about Abraham Lincoln in the Age of Obama was fascinating, even a bit disorienting, but also reassuring, clear evidence that Lincoln’s legacy reaches across the generations. That very day I had heard President Obama acknowledge his own debt to Lincoln: “I owe a special gratitude to this figure that made my position possible.” Now I listened as McGovern acknowledged his admiration of, and obligation to, Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln would no doubt have been surprised by the attention he still attracts. He knew he was not history’s prime mover. Late in his presidency he famously said, “I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me.” He was not being modest. He was acknowledging that History is a force we can only influence, not control. All of us who study history eventually become humbled by the appreciation of how complex it is, and that it has many fathers. Lincoln was great because he was confident enough to be humble, wise enough to be patient, and responsible enough to honor the opinion of the public he served.