What’s Wrong With The Gettysburg Address?

152 years ago this afternoon, President Lincoln delivered one of his most famous speeches. At the time, it was considered a flop (or “The Flop That Popped” in the words of Salvador Litvak), but today we treat it like the gold standard of Presidential communication.

Now that’s not to knock it; it’s an important speech. But by today’s writing standards, it’s anything but clear. Don’t believe me? Check out what happens when you run the address through Hemingway:

GettysburgFollow along for more Lincoln fun at @HonestAbeBlog!

 

 

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Turning 204 Years Old

What kind of gift do you give to a friend who is turning 204? Well, a blog post seems like a good enough present to me!

I try and make it down to the memorial for Lincoln’s birthday every year since I’ve lived in the District – some year’s it’s been easier to accomplish than others – and it waits to be seen whether or not I’ll be able to make it over today but here is a picture of one of my favorite birthday visits back in 2009:

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A lot of people ask me why Abraham Lincoln? Sometimes I come up with a quippy answer (“Because he’s such a babe!” or “He keeps me honest!” or “I’m just a nerd-girl!”) but in truth it’s deeper than that.

Lincoln wasn’t a perfect figure, and hagiography is never a good idea, but I think it’s important to recognize when a figure touches on so many facets of culture. It’s in the cultural connections we make as a society that we most clearly discover who we are – and in turn discover how we can improve. Lincoln has been appropriated (and maybe even misappropriated) by many different people representing many different opinions – but maybe if we look critically at his use – we’ll be able to find that middle ground that so many out there are seeking.

It was exactly that spirit of compromise with a guiding light that Lincoln brought to the position of Presidency – and so I think that’s what we should focus on as we celebrate his 204th birthday.

So happy birthday old friend – I look forward to your many, many, many returns.

A Sacred Effort

I try to visit the Lincoln memorial down on the National Mall once a month. While I don’t always have the time – every time I’m there I at least make an effort to go and read the text of one of my favorite Lincoln speeches engraved on the north side of the inner chamber of the memorial: the Second Inaugural.

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In just a few days, President Barack Obama will be sworn in for his second term – using bibles from Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Lincoln.

Of course, prior to the 1933 passage of the Twentieth Amendment, inaugurations took place in early March, but still on the occasion of the Second Inauguration of our nation’s first African American president – it feels right to reflect on President Lincoln’s words. If it’s been a while since you’ve read it I recommend checking it out here.

Lincoln himself was purportedly concerned that the speech didn’t have the desired effect. In a letter to Seward friend Lincoln political advisor Thurlow Weed – Lincoln wrote of his speech:

“Everyone likes a compliment. Thank you for yours on my little notification speech and on the recent  Inaugeral Address. I expect the latter to wear as well as – perhaps better than – any thing I have produced; but I believe it is not immediately popular.”

From what we can tell though, Lincoln may not have been the best judge of his own popularity in this instance. The fantastic anecdote of a conversation between Lincoln and Frederick Douglass portray’s this most clearly:

“As I approached him, he reached out his hand, gave me a cordial shake, and said: ‘Douglass, I saw you in the crowd today listening to my inaugural address. There is no man’s opinion that I value more than yours; what do you think of it?’ I said ‘Mr. Lincoln, I cannot stop here to talk with you, as there are thousands waiting to shake you by the hand’; he said again: ‘What did you think of it?, I said ‘Mr.Lincoln, it was a sacred effort,’ and then I walked off.” (More on this quote here.)

A sacred effort. Of course with all of the religious overtones and references to God’s role the sacred is easily explicable. For me however, it is the effort of that speech that stirs me. The effort to objectively distinguish the moral truths and ambiguities of the Civil War. The effort to shape a narrative from within the waning moments of the conflict – these are the things that make this speech special for me.

I want to hear from you in the comments:  what are your thoughts and reflections on Lincoln’s Second Inaugural?

Whatever You Are, Be A Good One: A look at Spielberg’s Lincoln

Being an amateur film-lover, Lincoln pop-culture fan-girl, Daniel Day-Lewis enthusiast, and recognized Joseph Gordon-Levitt friendship daydreamer – the release of Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln was easily given the title “the Cinematic apex of my life.” With that combination, it is likely impossible for me to ever objectively review Lincoln – but in retrospect I think that is for the best.

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NOTE: This post WILL contain spoilers for Stephen Spielberg’s Lincoln.

I managed to see the film the week before it was released nationally, which means the same week as the Presidential election – which is just to say that going into – it partisanship was on the mind. In thinking about the film in the past months I realize how beautifully Spielberg was able to capture the transcendent power of Lincoln’s leadership.

Immediately after the film – I was somewhat disappointed. I felt as though the inclusion of humor was trite and that the writing was a tad too saccharine to ring true to the issues at hand. But now I wish to recant my initial feelings. It was a good film – and more than anything an excellent thought provoker. In writing this film as Tony Kushner did, he was able to capture a microcosm of sentiment not easily manifested – he transported the audience with ease to a world of political division where the means needed to achieve vital and fundamental changes to the fabric of our nation were dirty, manipulative and still downright patriotic.

For most people the scope of the film was the biggest challenge – why call it Lincoln when the main subject of the film is actually the 13th amendment?

While the 13th Amendment was a monumental change to our nation and cemented the inklings of equality laid out in Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation – it was also a fascinating case study into the kind of politics that gets things done. Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (which apparently Spielberg got the movie rights to long, long ago) outlines the deft maneuvering and really outside of the box politicking that defined Lincoln’s presidency.

The “team of rivals” philosophy of leadership is a popular one – but perhaps too simplistic to describe the universe you can create within a film. Instead this philosophy, this Lincoln-style Presidential-innovation that comes across so clearly in the telling of the passage of the amendment to end slavery – is, simply-put, defined by Lincoln himself.

Defining Lincoln is a monumental task (pun-intended) – but luckily, Spielberg wrangled in the one actor out there today who was without a doubt capable of bringing the persona and thoughtful creature of Lincoln to life: Daniel Day-Lewis. More than nuanced, his performance was raw. In his eyes you saw the lingering pain of losing a child and the turmoil of a challenged marriage. His slightest movements echoed the myth of Lincoln that we want to be true – while also mapping it gloriously on to the reality of an imperfect man.

It was in those challenged moments – a fight with Mary Todd, the disappointment of Robert, the doubt of his colleagues – that Spielberg managed to capture something we haven’t seen quite so frankly in most portrayals of leadership on film: vulnerability. Seeing that vulnerability made him that much more real. At no point was I in awe of the man, rather I felt for a moment I was able to step in his shoes – which seems to be the clear intent of the film in the opening sequence shot from that Presidential POV.

You have to ask yourself- what would you do were you in Lincoln’s position? What are the limits of the means you can use that would still be justified to achieve a noble end?

While the film gives you little time to ponder these issues – they sit with you, they linger and they resonate with the world around us today. As an audience, we becomes drawn into the tender exposure of the day to day life and political operations of the Presidency during war and we learn to steel ourselves with resolve – which waivers only with the one dubious decision to display Lincoln’s body in repose. (Which even Sam Jackson took issue with).

My list of complaints was initially lengthy: why include Robert Todd at all (despite my love of JGL), why show his body, why squander the fantastic opportunity to use two actors capable of great depth like John Hawkes and James Spader on roles written in the style of bumbling Disney villains. But ultimately my list of loves were stronger: a beautifully relatable portrayal of Mary Todd, a Congressional conversation worthy of the best minutes of C-SPAN and of course a once in a lifetime bringing to life of a long gone hero.

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to take some friends to the Presidency exhibit at the National Museum of American History. While there I found a short spot discussing previous portrayals of the Presidency on film. In that film there was one line that stuck with me which said: “It’s not accuracy, but drama that drives most American films.” And while we cannot look at Lincoln as a historical text, it captures a flavor rarely seen on the big screen and nearly impossible to convey in text – a mélange of history, drama and emotion. Whatever we want to call Lincoln, a movie, a masterpiece, a poorly-titled film – it fulfilled its namesake’s declaration to be a good one.

(More thoughts may be coming — but wanted to at least get my initial feelings out there before the Golden Globes and in the wake of the Oscar noms,)

I Do Not Want to Appear As If I Hesitated

Sometimes it’s hard to believe how in so many ways we are still so close to the Civil War. So yesterday, when I read historian Eric Foner’s op-ed in the New York Times on the importance of the the Emancipation Proclamation I found myself for the first time in a long time struck by that easily definable and so proximate value of “one hundred and fifty years.”

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While we have certainly made a lot of changes in the past 150 years – and we’ve seen a lot of progress – that number lingers in my head as something that still seems so close and I find myself asking — how is it that the Emancipation Proclamation is only 150 years old?

Foner aptly assesses that the Proclamation – which functioned primarily as a military order declaring all enslaved persons in Confederate territory to be free – was “the crucial turning point in this story.”  While for many the importance of the proclamation was overshadowed by the ratification of the 13th amendment – we are still rightly taught the value of the Proclamation as the first decisive move towards shifting this war to more than just a battle between the states.

In case it’s been a while since you read it, below I’ve copied and pasted the text of the Proclamation — as we continue on our endeavor to remember the sesquicentennial, I urge everyone to reflect on what it is that these turning points have actually meant for our nation.

The Emancipation Proclamation – January 1, 1863

By the President of the United States of America:

A Proclamation.

Whereas, on the twenty-second day of September, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-two, a proclamation was issued by the President of the United States, containing, among other things, the following, to wit:

“That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.

“That the Executive will, on the first day of January aforesaid, by proclamation, designate the States and parts of States, if any, in which the people thereof, respectively, shall then be in rebellion against the United States; and the fact that any State, or the people thereof, shall on that day be, in good faith, represented in the Congress of the United States by members chosen thereto at elections wherein a majority of the qualified voters of such State shall have participated, shall, in the absence of strong countervailing testimony, be deemed conclusive evidence that such State, and the people thereof, are not then in rebellion against the United States.”

Now, therefore I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States, by virtue of the power in me vested as Commander-in-Chief, of the Army and Navy of the United States in time of actual armed rebellion against the authority and government of the United States, and as a fit and necessary war measure for suppressing said rebellion, do, on this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and in accordance with my purpose so to do publicly proclaimed for the full period of one hundred days, from the day first above mentioned, order and designate as the States and parts of States wherein the people thereof respectively, are this day in rebellion against the United States, the following, to wit:

Arkansas, Texas, Louisiana, (except the Parishes of St. Bernard, Plaquemines, Jefferson, St. John, St. Charles, St. James Ascension, Assumption, Terrebonne, Lafourche, St. Mary, St. Martin, and Orleans, including the City of New Orleans) Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia, (except the forty-eight counties designated as West Virginia, and also the counties of Berkley, Accomac, Northampton, Elizabeth City, York, Princess Ann, and Norfolk, including the cities of Norfolk and Portsmouth[)], and which excepted parts, are for the present, left precisely as if this proclamation were not issued.

And by virtue of the power, and for the purpose aforesaid, I do order and declare that all persons held as slaves within said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward shall be free; and that the Executive government of the United States, including the military and naval authorities thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of said persons.

And I hereby enjoin upon the people so declared to be free to abstain from all violence, unless in necessary self-defence; and I recommend to them that, in all cases when allowed, they labor faithfully for reasonable wages.

And I further declare and make known, that such persons of suitable condition, will be received into the armed service of the United States to garrison forts, positions, stations, and other places, and to man vessels of all sorts in said service.

And upon this act, sincerely believed to be an act of justice, warranted by the Constitution, upon military necessity, I invoke the considerate judgment of mankind, and the gracious favor of Almighty God.

In witness whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty three, and of the Independence of the United States of America the eighty-seventh.

By the President: ABRAHAM LINCOLN
WILLIAM H. SEWARD, Secretary of State.

 

Making the Move.

It’s been a few weeks in the making… but today I finalized everything and made the move from Tumblr to WordPress.

I’ve been pretty busy the past couple months – but now that things have calmed down a bit, I’m hoping to be able to refocus on all of the Lincoln press.. ESPECIALLY considering what happens tomorrow (hint: the cinematic apex of my life.)

So here you have it Lincoln fans… I’m one step closer to being fanatic-official.