On a historical tour of part of the Wabash and Erie Canal, our group stopped at the preserved home of a prominent citizen. I spent most of the time there looking at the china cabinets. With my little bit of knowledge, I recognized flow blue, ironstone and transferware from the Nineteenth Century. There were many colors and patterns in the collection, and I began thinking of the dishes chosen by first families.
If you were fortunate enough to be a guest for dinner at the White House sometime in the past 200 years, you would have been eating from some pretty special plates. At first, the china used for visitors was a mixture of English and Chinese imports. Then, during President James Monroe’s administration, the first official presidential dinner service was ordered.
In 1889 First Lady Caroline Harrison, who was a history buff, had the ambition to save for posterity the presidential china that’d been used. A few years later when William McKliney was president, a writer named Abby Baker researched it in great detail. She became involved in acquiring and preserving the place settings until her death in 1923.
Mrs. Theodore Roosevelt ordered two cabinets made for china which had come back through auctions and donations. These were seen by White House visitors at the east end of the mansion. What was to be done with damaged pieces, though? There were plenty of those, which Mrs. R directed to be broken and scattered in the Potomac River. Mrs. Wilson oversaw the completion of the current China Room in 1917.
During the Eisenhower era, new cabinets were made; Mamie’s service plates were rimmed with a wide gold band that could be used with any of the previous designs. Jacqueline Kennedy was instrumental in creating Public Law 87-286, which made the dishware “inalienable and property of the White House.”
Today newlyweds don’t dwell mucn choosing good china for company. Many of my generation hang on to ours and the memories that gleaming cups, saucers, plates and a few goblets bring back. For Americans, presidential china does the same. We hope that it continues for a long, long time.
Unless otherwise noted the photos are from architecturaldigest.com. Information comes from that site and from whitehousehistory.org.
In 1997 I was in a car with three other elementary school teachers on the way to a workshop in Grand Rapids, Michigan. We came to a traffic slowdown with lots of police cars and flashing lights, but there was no accident, so we figured someone important must be in town. They were. Later that night, we saw on the news that five living presidents: Richard Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush had come to celebrate a building expansion of the Ford Museum. Had I known, I probably would have ditched the morning session of the workshop and gone to catch a glimpse of history.
What do presidents do after leaving office?
George Washington, once a farmer, was always a farmer. In his brief retirement he daily inspected his land on horseback: crops including wheat and corn, and hemp for repairing fish nets. He had an impressive whiskey distillery which produced 11,000 gallons in 1799. Visitors to Mount Vernon from all over the world sought his advice on matters of state.
“There is nothing more pathetic in life than a former president,” John Quincy Adams once bluntly stated, but in his case we beg to differ. The second Adams president was elected to nine terms in the House of Representatives after he left office. He fought for years to repeal the gag rule for discussing slavery in Congress, finally succeeding in 1844. Four years later the “Old Man Eloquent” collapsed on the floor of the House and died shortly afterwards.
Theodore Roosevelt was not only a candidate four years after he left the presidency, but for the same office with a new party. In 1912 political bosses were successful in keeping him from the Republican nomination, so his follwers created the Progressive or “Bull Moose” Party. He got more votes than the Republican incumbent William Howard Taft, but less than professor Democrat Woodrow Wilson. Wilson went on to institute much of TR’s platform under his own titles.
Taft had never wanted the presidency, anyway. One term was enough for him. “I don’t remember that I was ever president,” he once said, relishing his last years as a Supreme Court Justice of the United States.
“Sllent Cal,” President Calvin Coolidge, who often answered questions with just a few words, probably wrote more in print than he ever said aloud. He had a syndicated newspaper column after he held the office.
Herbert Hoover was an unlikely advisor to President Harry Truman, who asked him to reorganize the executive offices for better efficiency. Ronald Reagan was knighted by Queen Elizabeth – many Americans thought the title appropriate – and Barack Obama has turned to filmmaking in a wide variety of topics for Netflix.
No one can argue that the post-presidential work of Jimmy Carter has not been far-reaching and long-lived, whatever you may think of him as chief executive. He has written 32 books, approaching Theodore Roosevelt’s record. The Carter Center is involved in conflict mediation with other countries. He and his wife, Rosalyn, volunteer one week a year with Habitat for Humanity, enabling poor families to own their own homes.
Fifteen years ago as I faced a small reading group around a U-shaped table, we read a short biography of Jimmy Carter, the children pretty amazed at what he was doing. They wrote to him (another lesson in writing), and he sent a letter back, answering their questions and encouraging them to be good citizens.
Who knows what Abraham Lincoln or John F. Kennedy might have done in later years. We remember their monumental efforts in office. But many of those before and after lived up to the faith Americans had in their collective character.
Leslie Gore’s hip song of the 60s has nothing to do with politics, but its opening words are strangely appropro today. The complete line is, “It’s my party, and I’ll cry if I want to,” which many Americans are feeling when it comes to Republicans and Democrats.
Perplexed at who to vote for because we don’t agree with all of anybody’s platform, what are we supposed to do? Not vote at all?
Would you be surprised to know that our founding fathers were opposed to political parties? “Let me now take a more comprehensive view, and warn you in the most solemn manner against the baneful effects of the spirit of party generally,” George Washington said in his 1797 farewell address.
The next president, John Adams, dreaded nothing so much as a “division of the republic into two great parties, each arranged under its leader, and concerting measures in opposition to each other.”
Then came Thomas Jefferson, who pretty much caused the big split as he disagreed with Alexander Hamilton on how much power the federal government should have. “A man under the tyranny of party spirit is the greatest slave upon the earth, for none but himself can deprive him of the freedom of thought.” Of course, he was speaking of the party he opposed.
James Madison, our fourth president and Father of the Constitution, warned of “mischiefs of factions” and believed that the government could prosper without parties. “I have always considered their existence as the curse of the country,” he stated.
George Washington chose Hamilton for Secretary of the Treasury and Jefferson for Secretary of State, hoping he could get the opposing leaders to work together in the country’s interest. Hamilton wanted a national bank, and more federal power, which he got. Jefferson, the Virginian, who wanted more power for the states, believed New England would benefit financially at the expense of farmers.
The first two political parties were the Federalists and Anti-Federalists, which soon were known as the Whigs and the Democratic-Republicans.
In 1828 the Democratic-Republicans became the Democrats. Andrew Jackson won on their ticket. In 1834 the Whigs became the National Republicans, and by Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860 we were in our current two-party system, the Democrats and the Republicans. The big issue then was, of course, slavery. Other issues, including entering the first world war, the Great Depression, and abortion, have headlined the liberal and conservative divide since then.
Third party experiments have been compared to bees: “They sting, then they die after one or both parties restructure in response.” An example is Theodore Roosevelt’s Progressive (Bull Moose) Party, second in 1912 to the Democrats and Woodrow Wilson. Businessman Ross Perot took 20 million votes away from Bill Clinton and George Bush Sr. in 1992.
Party bosses such as the Daleys of Chicago and the Tweeds of New York fulfilled some John Adams’ fears.
A topical list of the roles of a political party includes: running candidates for office, checking the other party, informing the public, and organizing the government. One source states that what they agree on are liberty, equality and individualism, maintaining the Constitution, and the election process. After the last election, who is sure of any of that?
Yuval Levin, a director at the American Enterprise Institute, stated in March of this year: “Trust in our highest institutions is broken..a lot of elite journalists now step out on their own onto a platform like Twitter…building their own following.” I remember concluding in a paper I wrote in college that the biggest thing affecting mass media in the future would be the public’s relationship with them. I wasn’t far off.
Remember the absence of civility in the 2016 presidential debates? Civility is, as defined by Martin Luther King Jr.: “If you want to persuade your enemy, you must redeem your enemy.” Other advice includes these statements: The people you disagree with will still be there tomorrow, so don’t cut every tie. We shouldn’t disagree less, we should disagree better.
“We can only do good by not trying to do the impossible good,” Theodore Roosevelt said, under the theme of Practical Politics.
Voters have traditionally changed their thinking as they age. When young they leaned toward the Democrats, but turned towards the right as they experienced home ownership, marriage and children. In 2020 many red states turned blue, possibly showing a switch in attitudes of Generation Xers and Milleniums.
Maybe in the mess, someone who was never elected to anything had the best idea: “In truth, I care little about any party’s politics — the man behind it is the important thing.” –Mark Twain
May better men step up to leadership of our country. We can still hope.
We are so tired of negative news. That blanket statement, I believe, is based on the experience of most of us.
But do you remember the term “muckrakers” from high school or college history class? I always paralleled them with writers who liked to dig up dirt on other people, more specifically really bad dirt that you’d find in an animal’s stall on a farm.
President Theodore Roosevelt assigned that word, which he found in Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, to certain journalists. Historical accounts say that he was talking about an unusual reporter, Ida Tarbell, and her colleagues at McClure’s Magazine in the early 1900s. But not so fast.
Ida Minerva Tarbell (thoughtco.com)
Tarbell was different, for one thing, because she was a female professional writer. Most women of the day married and took care of their families for the rest of their lives. But Ida loved science as a high school student, going on to study at Allegheny College in Pennsylvania. She was one of five female students on campus and the only one in her freshman class.
She worked as a teacher for a time, and then as an editor for a regional publication. Then she sailed to France to see more of the world. Sharing a small flat with friends, eking out a living as a freelance writer, she produced remarkable work, including biographical sketches of Madame Roland and Napoleon. Samuel McClure convinced to to move back to New York to write for the magazine named for himself.
McClure was not an ordinary publisher. He gave his writers two very important things to carry out their assignments to the best level they could: time and money. To Tarbell fell the job of to investigating John D. Rockefeller and Standard Oil Company, a story which grew into 23 installments, a book, and ultimately anti-trust legislation in America.
Ray Stannard Baker (thoughtco.com)
Ray Baker, another prolific member of the McClure’s team, wrote a series about the manipulation of union members. He was described as a good listener whom “you could not ruffle or antagonize.”
Lincoln Steffens, more outspoken, was fascinated by the relationships between the police and politicians, the law and city officials, and business and the church. Readers were drawn to his stories, which included the corruption of politicians in Minneapolis and Cleveland.
Lincoln Austin Steffens (wikimedia.org)
In two separate 1906 speeches, Theodore Roosevelt lambasted “muckrakers.” He later said he was talking about employees of William Randolph Hearst’s Cosmopolitan. In a letter to a friend, he wrote, “Hearst edited a large number of the very worst type of sensational, scandal-mongering newspapers…he preaches the gospel of hatred, envy and unrest…cares nothing for the nation, nor any citizen in it.”
As a point of reference, one of Hearst’s writers, David Graham Phillips, wrote a scathing story called “Treason of the Senate.” Author William Harbaugh later said that TR was just plain afraid that the reform movement was getting out of hand.
Of course newspapers were defensive in general. Public sentiment was leveraged toward the institutions and corporations being attacked. Baker lost respect in many ways for TR, later becoming an advisor to Woodrow Wilson. Steffens ended his career sympathetic with communism.
In a simple analysis, the muckraker speech backfired on President Roosevelt. He didn’t mention it in his autobiography but he did say a lot about “practical politics,” which means the philosophy of giving consideration to both corporations and individuals.
And Ida Tarbell, in her memoirs, chided TR, whom she felt “had misread his Bunyan.” The man with the muck rake was an allegory for someone who “would only peer down at the debris and dust” — rather than looking up to his purpose in life.
Tarbell, Baker and Steffens left McClure’s soon after TR’s speech, a move probably not directly caused by it. Their boss was scheming for a large, multi-faceted corporation with which they could not agree. The three writers bought another magazine in New York for which they wrote and edited several more years.
Today scandals in government and big business seem more common and dirty than ever. Most writers of a century ago would be indignant, even embarrassed, of what now appears in print and on the the nightly news. Twenty-four hour a day cable channels and social media have desensitized many readers so that the bad stuff becomes larger and more visible. But least for Tarbell and others like her, the old word “muckraker” did not do justice. She said she should instead be called an historian. And there are still a few investigative journalists around who would agree.
Six years ago when I started this blog, I wanted to publicize my study of our twenty-sixth president to a larger audience. I’d finished my book about his childhood as a naturalist but continued to find he was more fascinating with each new thing I read about him.
Not only did TR like to talk, but he put 35 books and 150,000 letters down on paper (not counting personal letters before and after his presidency). At one point, thinking his political career was going nowhere, he referred to himself as a “literary feller.”
You may or may not realize his common catchphrases still in use today. “Good to the last drop,” “the right stuff,” “throwing my hat into the ring,” and “lunatic fringe” came from him. His political programs, “The New Nationalism” and “The Square Deal” sound familiar, don’t they? Cousin Franklin, a TR wannabe from the time he was in college, combined them to make…The New Deal. Seems the country wasn’t ready to adopt Theodore’s progressive ideas until it was in such a hole in the 30s.
A good friend and superb re-enactor of Theodore Roosevelt, Larry Marple, set to sharing TR’s thoughts on his Facebook page during the past month. With his permission, I have copied some of them below. Larry and his wife, Julia, who portrays Edith Roosevelt, spend the summers in Medora, North Dakota, enlightening visitors about the Roosevelts’ time in the West.
“There is no effort without error and shortcoming…”
“There must be honesty in public life…”
“That land of the West has gone now…”
“Some of my supporters sent me a small bear…”
I will share more of these delightful vignettes in a future blog. Check out the Marples’ re-inactments on troosevelt1904.com.
Ruins of Aristotle’s Lyceaum in Athens. factsanddetails.com
Educated: A Memoir is a current bestseller written by a young lady who broke away from her family’s systematic brainwashing, graduated from Harvard and Cambridge Universities, and gave the world of readers plenty to think about.
But being educated has much more to it than finding the right teachers and environment, as families are discovering in the present shut-in days of e-learning.
A child learns to read, and then reads to learn. A very simple statement, but it embodies the whole idea of independent education. Teachers, mentors and coaches are needed for modeling, encouragement and advice. It is important for them to promote independent learning as much as they can. Students will go much further than solely completing requirements of the best elementary schools, high schools, and universities.
The ancient Greeks are responsible for the finest education “best practices” in history. Socrates’ method was questioning, Plato had an academy in a garden next to a gymnasium, and one of the first think tanks. His student, Aristotle, worked in a building called the Lyceaum (pictured above) in which he had a big library and regular “serious” morning classes, but also symposiums, or festive meals in the evening. Nothing like food you get your protoges’ attention. He emphasized the hands-on, including studying habits of insects and dissecting larger creatures.
Movers and shakers in our nation’s past were prime independent learners. James Madison, the Father of the Constitution, spent his sickly childhood reading all the books in his father’s library; Theodore Roosevelt, also pretty much an invalid until he willed himself into better health, taught himself to be a naturalist with knowledge comparable to that of a supervisor in the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History.
On the back cover of The Amazing Bird Collection of Young Mr. Roosevelt which I published in 2014, I listed some of his traits: curiosity, learning from playing and imitating animal sounds, making up his own games, taking risks, making observations in notebooks, sketching, and sharing the information he found with family and friends. Sound familiar? Your kids do the same.
If you look up characteristics of independent learners, you will find some of these —
Being active instead of passive
Being ready to change rapidly and apply new skills
Structuring learning time themselves
Assessing themselves, focusing on process rather than product
All right on.
In Indiana the Lilly Foundation provides teacher fellowships every summer for instructors’ and administrators’ independent study, but are not required to be in the recipients’ field: just something they are curious about. I can tell you from participating in two of these grants that the knowledge and experiences I gained go far beyond any course or plan of study. And I have learned much from other fellows in all areas.
Emotion drives learning, as parents and caregivers are realizing with every day of current stay-at-home rules. One source I looked at said that a drawback of independent study is cost, but that’s bunk. Field trips to the back yard can be enlightening, and so many resources are available on the Internet. History.org from Colonial Williamsburg has scads of things to offer about American History, as does The Library of Congress (loc.gov). Book lists, especially those of Newbery Award winnners, are a good place to start for reading selections. Babble Dabble Do on Facebook offers art, math and science activities which I would be using in the classroom if I were not retired. I’ve seen many others shared by excellent teachers.
I do not suggest that the 20,000 hours children spend in the classroom from Kindergarten through Grade 12 are not needed. However, kids require more exploring time rather than testing time. They should be excited to experience more about anything which interests them. Pedagogical terms and guidelines are OK, but the way to get a kid to learn is to inspire him to find out things on his own.
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Sources of information include eutopia.org, factsanddetails.com,law.uchigago.edu, opencolleges.edu. I was disappointed to find I could not read articles from National Geographic and The Washington Post unless I subscribed.
This post is the complete opposite of my last one about an old time Christmas celebration, which came easily and took a short time to write. A month’s wave of procrastination does not change the will to begin it.
You may notice, while you’re reading, that these words exist in a slightly more streamlined format. This is I suppose in part due to the style of someone I’ve been thinking about for many weeks – a writer whom I admired greatly – Sylvia Jukes Morris.
The Morrises chat with President and Mrs. Reagan in the 80s. (NY Times)
It was a shock to learn in early January that she had passed away at her sister’s home in England, only eight months after her husband’s death from a sudden stroke.
Sylvia was the author of three definitive biographies, one volume on Edith Roosevelt, and two on Clare Boothe Luce. The latter, of the twentieth century elite, is probably not a household name, but her life story embodies the society and politics of the time.
Sylvia was married for fifty years to Edmund Morris, Pulitzer Prize winner and prolific biographer of Theodore Roosevelt, Ludwig von Beethoven, Ronald Reagan and Thomas Edison. Like his wife, he found the research on Roosevelt too much to present in a single book, so ultimately he composed a trilogy. The sum of their work adds much to our knowledge of the 1800s and the 1900s.
Sylvia and Edmund were a team unequaled in talent, poise and personality. They invited my daughter and I to their Manhattan home in 2006. We were doing research at the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace, and I’d asked for an interview. It helped that my husband had created a model of Sagamore Hill, the Roosevelt family home, for Mr. Morris.
I remember a spectacular, monochromatic apartment with stairs leading up to a bookcase-lined mezzanine which overlooked Central Park. The couple pulled some of their books and autographed them for us. My daughter identified a modern artist whose original painting hung on their dining room wall, with Edmund complimenting her, “Good eye!”
We saw them again at a Theodore Roosevelt Association book talk in New York City a few years later. “Margaret!” she said warmly in her beautiful British voice. I was pleased she remembered me, and we told her we’d seen her recently on C-Span’s Book TV.
I was hoping very much to go to a book signing when Edmund’s Edison was published, but it was not to be. The first bound book was delivered to their home in Connecticut shortly before he died. Then, I hoped we could see her after her period of grief subsided, but that was not to be, either. “It doesn’t get better – it gets worse,” she told a friend in the fall.
They were so close. And perhaps it was merciful that she didn’t have to face her first Valentine’s Day without him, but instead join him where their marriage had been made.
I’m not sitting at the monthly meeting of a help group, but if I were there would be a hatstand at the door, and a bowl and pitcher sitting on a sideboard in the center of the room, circled wagon train style by old wooden chairs of different sizes.
In recent years the “simplify” movement has hit us all. I have downsized (really, kids) some of the things I’ve held on to for many years. I was able to say “Goodbye” and thank them for the memories. But there are other things that have a lot of meaning for me, connections to history, both mine and the world’s. I need them.
For example, a few years ago at my aunt’s sale I was able to buy her grandmother’s, my great-grandmother’s, commode. My mom said that as a little girl she remembered it in her bedroom. Crafted of oak, it has carved acorn drawer pulls; I put it in our guest room. Over it hangs a photo collage of the family farmhouse from which it came.
My great-aunt’s dishes are something else I will keep until it’s time to hand them to one of my daughters. They are ivory bone china with a golden wheat pattern and rims. If you haven’t read my book, “Folks on the Home Front,” this is the lady who was a single schoolteacher during World War 1, and who wrote letters to her brother, my grandfather, in the service. I published many of them alongside his and my grandmother’s. She was funny, feisty, and beautiful. She battled rheumatoid arthritis all her life, and as far as I know it never conquered her spirit. That’s what I see when I look through the glass of the dining room hutch doors at her plates, cups and saucers.
I’ve been able to get a few momentos which remind me of Theodore Roosevelt, whose life is deeply embedded in my love of history. From eBay I bought a copy of the “Our Young Folks” magazine, which Teedie and his brother and sisters read during their childhood in Victorian America. To think that a child read this at the same time he was reading his subscription just melts my heart. And they are really good stories, too. I wish somehow I could publicize it to kids today. Hey, that’s a good idea. I will work on it.
Personal possessions of my dad keep me in touch with him, although he has been gone for 35 years. I have his push mower that I used to cut our grass with when I was 12. I’m going to get it fixed up this summer and use it again. It will be good exercise; I will remember him every minute I’m straining to move it across the yard. The grass will have to be pretty dry, though.
I love jewelry but don’t wear much of it myself. My aunt’s collection was immense. I bought some pieces at her auction which she wore to work in her 55-year career as a secretary on Capitol Hill. I wonder, which ones were she wearing when she “bumped” into General Eisenhower in an office doorway in the 40’s? Or when young Jacqueline Bouvier stopped by Senator Jenner’s office with her Graflex camera one time during the McCarthy Hearings?
Old photos fill a large trunk in my house (I actually bought this one at my favorite store, Paper Moon, in Roanoke). They represent a century and a half of photography. Every time I look through them I see some in a new way.
I was once in the background of a televised appraisal at the Antiques Road Show (if you’re interested, I can tell you the episode number and digital time). It was in Cincinnati in 2013, and of course the most valuable thing we brought was a little rocking chair my husband picked up at the last minute, a 75 year-old handmade Appalachian work of art that had belonged to his parents. They appraised it at $800 to $1000, and we were very pleased to find out its value.
But…you probably already know the bottom line that’s coming…the value of my antiques cannot be put into numbers. They are connections to the past, reminders of those I love and respect, tangible pieces to touch and look at. I like them. A lot.
In early November 1918, General John Joseph Pershing was in France, where the armies of that country, England and Germany had been obliterating each other in a stalemate for four years. He was an experienced soldier. He was gifted in leading men and respected for being steady and disciplined.
Appointed head of the American Expeditiary Forces (AEF) in 1917, he’d transformed an army of 130,000 into 2,000,000 — and announced that they’d be coming over there. As it happened, not all were shipped out, but news of the sheer size of our reinforcements probably began the end of World War 1. France and England ran out of men and the United States had their backs.
National Archives photo
Pershing intended for the AEF to fight in their own units instead of being amalgamated under the direction of foreign generals. He felt the differences in language and culture would hinder their effectiveness. He was constantly organizing and training soldiers and staff in the field. The American commander, whom President Wilson named “General of the Armies” (a title given later only to George Washington), was against the Armistice on November 11. He wanted unconditional surrender.
Instead there was a cease-fire. Afterwards, Pershing restructured officers’ schools, which made a difference in the leaders of the next world war. Many who had served under him in the first would remember his example: Patton, Marshall, MacArthur. Dedicated to honoring his soldiers for their sacrifice during the Great War, he oversaw the building of battlefield monuments across the Atlantic.
The stalwart Pershing grew up in Missouri and took an appointment to West Point to further his education. His mother puportedly said, “But Jack, you’re not going into the Army?”
He was president of his class at the United States Military Academy, though not the cadet with the highest grade point average. He participated in Indian campaigns, taught military procedure at the University of Nebraska, and commanded an African American unit in the Spanish-American War, for which he was nicknamed Black Jack. He also became a lifelong friend of Theodore Roosevelt.
During the Roosevelt administration he moved up in rank rapidly. He married and had four children, serving in the Philippine Islands. In 1915 his happy family life was shattered when his wife and three daughters were killed in a fire in California. Only his son, Warren, survived. In 1916 he took troops to Mexico to stop Pancho Villa from terrorizing the US side of the border.
Pershing asked that he be laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery with the men he was with in World War 1, and a headstone like theirs. http://www.washingtonwalks.com
It always bothered me when I was teaching that there were more biographies for children of pop stars and football legends than of people like Pershing, who had a great impact on our nation.
Also distressing is that some question his role instead of attributing accomplishment where accomplishment is due, or even conclude the Central Powers would have lost without our help. I guess people of this generation are into revisionist history. Of course there are many more details than I’ve presented here, so one needs to do a quite a bit of reading to begin to understand Pershing, his life and his times. I prefer accounts made by writers closer to the generation in which he lived. They knew.
FDR knew, too. During World War 2 he sent a greeting to General Pershing, who was living at Walter Reed Hospital and in declining health. “You are magnificent,” the president told him. All of America should agree. If they choose to take time with the facts.
People deal with emotions in different ways. There have been few so “acquainted with grief,” a phrase penned by Isaiah, as Abraham Lincoln, for whom a natural strategy was telling stories. “Gentlemen, why don’t you laugh?” he asked a group during the Civil War. “With the fearful strain that is upon me night and day, if I did not laugh I should die, and you need this medicine as much as I do.”
I was reminded of his storytelling skills during a recent performance at Huntington University’s Merillat Center for the Arts. Four talented costumed historians came from all parts of the country to present “Rushmore Live.” It was part of the celebration of Constitution Day and the city of Huntington’s founding anniversary.
Left to right, Carl Class as George Washington, Tom Pitz as Thomas Jefferson, Gib Young as Theodore Roosevelt, and Fritz Klein as Abraham Lincoln.
The reenactment cadre gives a program July 4 each year in South Dakota where they’re engraved in stone. It was a treat to see and hear them: methodical Washington, rebellious Jefferson, blustering Roosevelt, and witty Lincoln.
Klein interspersed stories, as the others did, when he replied to questions from the audience. His appearance, mannerisms, and timbre of voice rival Daniel Day Lewis in the recent movie Lincoln. I looked up more of Abraham Lincoln’s stories.
He often joked about himself:
This fellow, while riding one day, happened upon a woman who curtly remarked, “Well, for land sake, you are the homeliest man I ever saw.”
“Yes, madam, but I can’t help it,” he responded.:
“No, I suppose not,” she allowed, “but you might stay at home.”
When a group of men wanted him to close a St. Louis Church which supported the rebellion:
A man in Sangamon County had a melon patch that kept getting ruined by a wild hog. Finally he and his sons decided to take their guns and track the animal down. They followed the tracks to the neighboring creek, where they disappeared. They discovered them on the opposite bank, and waded through. They kept on the trail a couple of hundred yards, when the tracks again went into the creek, and promptly turned up on the other side. Out of breath and patience, the farmer said “John you cross over and go up on that side of the creek, and I’ll keep up on this side, because I believe that hog is on both sides of the creek!”
Another tale of church people:
Wa-al that reminds me of a party of Methodist parsons that was travelling in Illinois when I was a boy, and had a branch to cross that was pretty bad — ugly to cross, ye know, because the waters was up. And they got considerin’ and discussin’ how they should git across it, and they talked about it for two hours, and one on ’em thought they had ought to cross one way when they got there, and another another way, and they got quarrellin’ about it, till at last an old brother put in, and he says, says he, ‘Brethren, this here talk ain’t no use. I never cross a river until I come to it.’
From the depths of the Civil War in 1864:
A certain rough, rude, and bullying man in our county had a bull-dog, which was as rude, rough, and bullying as his master. Dog and man were the terror of the neighborhood. Nobody dared to touch either for fear of the other. But a crafty neighbor laid a plan to dispose of the dog. Seeing Slocum and his dog plodding along the road one day, the dog a little ahead, this neighbor, who was prepared for the occasion, took from his pocket a junk of meat in which he had concealed a big charge of powder, to which was fastened a deadwood slow-match. This he lighted, and then threw into the road. The dog gave one gulp at it, and the whole thing disappeared down his throat. The trotted on a few steps, when there was a sort of smothered roar, and the dog blew up in fragments, a fore-quarter being lodged in a neighboring tree, a hind-quarter on the roof of a cabin, and the rest scattered along the dusty road. Slocum came up and viewed the remains. Then, more in sorrow than in anger, he said, “Bill was a good dog; but as a dog, I reckon his usefulness is over.”‘ The President added, with a twinkle of his eye, ‘Hood’s Army was a good army. We have been very much afraid of it. But as an army, I reckon its usefulness is gone.’”
According to an article in the New York Times, Lincoln could also use his stories for practical reasons. “A distinguished visitor left the White House disgusted after being interrupted by ‘a silly, grotesque, and inapplicable anecdote.’ The visitor complained to one of Lincoln’s secretaries, ‘Now, you say that Lincoln’s stories always have some object or moral; please tell me what object or moral such an absurd, irrelevant, clownish story could possibly have?’
‘What object?’ exclaimed the secretary. ‘The most necessary object in the world at that time: to get rid of you and get to his business, and, according to your own story, he did it.'”
One Lincoln scholar said that during his wilderness years Lincoln told jokes without trying to prove anything at all; he told them “simply because it was natural for him to do so.” Some then, as in his presidency, were bawdy. After he became a lawyer he found that his sense of the ridiculous could be useful in the courtroom.
A frontiersman lost his way in an uninhabited region on a dark and tempestuous night. The rain fell in torrents, accompanied by terrible thunder and more terrific lightning. To increase his trouble his horse halted, being exhausted with fatigue and fright. Presently a bolt of lightning struck a neighboring tree, and the crash brought the man to his knees. He was not an expert in prayer, but his appeal was short and to the point:: “Oh, good Lord, if it is all the same to you, give us a little more light, and a little less noise.”
Lincoln, an expert in mimicry and timing, once told this to a clergyman:
There are two ways of relating a story. If you have an auditor who has the time, and is inclined to listen, lengthen it out, pour it out slowly as if from a jug. If you have a poor listener, hasten it, shorten it, shoot it out of a pop-gun.
Love of country. Love of mankind. Appreciation of laughter as a way to reduce stress. Consideration of the audience. Abraham Lincoln told more than funny sequences of events in obscure landscapes. He revealed the character and philosophy of a great statesman.