Lincoln’s Lost Speech

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On May 29, 1856, Abraham Lincoln spoke “like a giant enraged” for 90 minutes before a crowd of a thousand people at a political convention in Bloomington, Ill. Strangely, no one knows what he said. According to legend his oratory held the audience so spellbound that no one thought to record a word of it; more likely it was such a passionate denouncement of slavery that his political advisers thought it wisest to suppress it. But it electrified the audience, and the convention led to the establishment of the state Republican party.

“What actually did Lincoln say that evening in May, 1856, that made such a stupendous impact … and in ninety minutes transformed Lincoln from a circuit-riding Illinois lawyer and office-seeker into a national leader?” asks Elwell Crissey in Lincoln’s Lost Speech (1967). “Here we encounter a fascinating enigma in American history.”

Ulysses Grant, by contrast, had a “perfect speech” that he used on several occasions beginning in 1865. From Grant: A Biography (1982), by William S. McFeely:

In the afternoon there was a dinner at which tediously predictable worthies of New York — John A. Dix, Horace Greeley, and a divine or two — gave speeches. At the close of the tributes, Grant rose and, as he had done in St. Louis more than a year earlier, gave the speech which was to become his trademark. The New York Times report included the response of his audience: ‘I rise only to say I do not intend to say anything. [Laughter] I thank you for your kind words and your hearty welcome. [Applause].’

Damnatio Memoriae

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Image: Wikimedia Commons

In October 1780, a month after Benedict Arnold defected to the British, this acrostic appeared in American newspapers:

B orn for a curse to virtue and mankind,
E arth’s broadest realm ne’er knew so black a mind.
N ight’s sable veil your crimes can never hide,
E ach one so great, ‘twould glut historic tide.
D efunct, your cursed memory will live
I n all the glare that infamy can give.
C urses of ages will attend your name,
T raitors alone will glory in your shame.

A lmighty vengeance sternly waits to roll
R ivers of sulphur on your treacherous soul:
N ature looks shuddering back with conscious dread
O n such a tarnished blot as she has made.
L et hell receive you, riveted in chains,
D oomed to the hottest focus of its flames.

Arnold’s perfidy so blackened his name that he’s strangely absent even from his own memorials. A monument (above) at the site of the Battle of Saratoga depicts only a boot, to reflect the leg wound that ended Arnold’s fighting career. His name appears nowhere in the inscription:

In memory of
the “most brilliant soldier” of the
Continental Army
who was desperately wounded
on this spot the sally port of
BORGOYNES GREAT WESTERN REDOUBT
7th October, 1777
winning for his countrymen
the decisive battle of the
American Revolution
and for himself the rank of
Major General.

A second monument at Saratoga includes four niches: Three contain statues of Horatio Gates, Philip Schuyler, and Daniel Morgan, but the fourth niche is empty.

And West Point displays a commemorative plaque for every general who served in the revolution. One plaque bears a rank and a date (“Major General / Born 1740”), but no name.

A New Life

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Life was so hard in Puritan New England that children who were abducted by Native Americans often refused to come back. Eunice Williams, abducted in 1704 at age 7, refused to leave the Kahnawake Mohawks despite her father’s pleas — he found she had forgotten the English language and adopted Indian clothing and hairstyle. “She is obstinately resolved to live and dye here,” he wrote, “and will not so much as give me one pleasant look.” The Mohawks were much more indulgent to children than the colonists, and women were counted equal to men and played an integral role in society and politics. Eunice married a Mohawk and lived with him for half a century.

A returned captive named Titus King reported that many young captives responded similarly: “In Six months time they Forsake Father & mother, Forgit thir own Land, Refuess to Speak there own toungue & Seeminly be Holley Swallowed up with the Indians.” In 1753 Ben Franklin wrote:

When an Indian Child has been brought up among us, taught our language and habituated to our Customs, yet if he goes to see his relations and makes one Indian Ramble there is no perswading him ever to return. … When white persons of either sex have been taken prisoners young by the Indians, and lived awhile among them, tho’ ransomed by their Friends, and treated with all imaginable tenderness to prevail with them to stay among the English, yet in a Short time they become disgusted with our manner of Life, and the care and pains that are necessary to support it, and take the first good Opportunity of escaping again into the Woods, from whence there is no reclaiming them.

A 14-year-old named James McCullough, who lived with the Indians for eight years, had to be brought back in fetters, his legs tied under his horse’s belly and his arms tied behind his back. Even so he escaped and returned to his Indian family. Children “redeemed” by the English often “cried as if they should die when they were presented to us.” The Indians freed children of the work obligations they faced in the colonies — boys hunted, caught fish, and gathered nuts; and girls cultivated corn but had no master “to oversee or drive us, so that we could work as leisurely as we pleased.”

(From Steven Mintz, Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood, 2004.)

The Dancing Plague

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In July 1518, a woman named Frau Troffea stepped into a street in Strasbourg and began to dance. As onlookers gathered it became clear that she could not stop; after many hours of exertion she collapsed and slept briefly but then rose and again began the dance. After three exhausting days she was bundled into a wagon and taken to a shrine in the Vosges Mountains, but her example had had its effect. Within days more than 30 more people had begun to dance uncontrollably, and their numbers grew; according to one chronicle, within a month 400 people were dancing.

The fact of the plague is well attested; a manuscript chronicle in the city’s archives reads:

There’s been a strange epidemic lately
Going amongst the folk,
So that many in their madness
Began dancing,
Which they kept up day and night,
Without interruption,
Until they fell unconscious.
Many have died of it.

The sickness lasted until early September, when it passed away just as mysteriously. A number of explanations have been put forward, including convulsion brought on by ergot, a mold that flourishes on the stalks of damp rye. The most convincing was advanced by John Waller in his 2008 book A Time to Dance, A Time to Die: He found that a series of famines had preceded the dancing plague, spreading fear and anxiety through the city, and that a Christian church legend had told that a wrathful Saint Vitus would send down plagues of compulsive dancing on anyone who angered him. The dancing, Waller believes, was a “mass psychogenic illness” brought on by this belief.

Vanderbilt epidemiologist Timothy Jones says the plague is “of immense historical value”; it “tells us much about the extraordinary supernaturalism of late medieval people, but it also reveals the extremes to which fear and irrationality can lead us.”

Confederados

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When the Civil War ended, thousands of Confederates chose to leave the United States entirely and settle in Brazil. “Shall any Southerner be blamed, if he seeks a land where the night of vengeance has not come, that his day may not be one of threatening?” asked Ballard S. Dunn in Brazil, the Home for Southerners (1866). “Why should he? For, as surely as that these four years of disastrous war have left most of those who have been true to themselves and their ancestors penniless, homeless, despoiled, and bereaved, so surely the future, with its cumbrous disabilities, and fearful forebodings, promises nothing better than poverty and humiliation.”

About 10,000 Southerners made the trip to Brazil, where most settled in the state of São Paulo. Today their descendants form an ethic subgroup. In the city of Americana, the 300-member Fraternity of American Descendants holds an annual festival with Confederate flags, uniforms, and music, and a local cemetery holds the remains of W.S. Wise, the great-uncle of former First Lady Rosalynn Carter.

One on One

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Thomas Jefferson looks on nervously while Lyndon Johnson “confers” with Sen. Richard Russell (D-Ga.). At 6’4″, Johnson tied Abraham Lincoln as the tallest U.S. president, and he used his physical presence to advance his agenda, cornering his targets in out-of-the-way places and leaning “so close to you,” one staffer recalled, “that your eyeglasses bumped.” In their 1966 book The Exercise of Power, Rowland Evans and Robert Novak dubbed this The Treatment:

The Treatment could last ten minutes or four hours. It came, enveloping its target, at the Johnson Ranch swimming pool, in one of Johnson’s offices, in the Senate cloakroom, on the floor of the Senate itself — wherever Johnson might find a fellow Senator within his reach. Its tone could be supplication, accusation, cajolery, exuberance, scorn, tears, complaint and the hint of threat. It was all of these together. It ran the gamut of human emotions. Its velocity was breathtaking, and it was all in one direction. Interjections from the target were rare. Johnson anticipated them before they could be spoken. He moved in close, his face a scant millimeter from his target, his eyes widening and narrowing, his eyebrows rising and falling. From his pockets poured clippings, memos, statistics. Mimicry, humor, and the genius of analogy made The Treatment an almost hypnotic experience and rendered the target stunned and helpless.

LBJ denied this. “I’d have to be some sort of acrobatic genius to carry it off,” he told an interviewer, “and the senator in question, well, he’d have to be pretty weak and pretty meek to be simply standing there like a paralyzed idiot.”

Shop Talk

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From a letter from Theodore Roosevelt to his son Kermit, Oct. 2, 1903:

There! You will think this a dreadfully preaching letter! I suppose I have a natural tendency to preach just at present because I am overwhelmed with my work. I enjoy being President, and I like to do the work and have my hand on the lever. But it is very worrying and puzzling, and I have to make up my mind to accept every kind of attack and misrepresentation. It is a great comfort to me to read the life and letters of Abraham Lincoln. I am more and more impressed every day, not only with the man’s wonderful power and sagacity, but with his literally endless patience, and at the same time unflinching resolution.

Absentee Ballots

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Can one generation bind another, and all others, in succession forever? I think not. The Creator has made the earth for the living, not the dead. Rights and powers can only belong to persons, not to things, not to mere matter, unendowed with will. The dead are not even things. The particles of matter which composed their bodies, make part now of the bodies of other animals, vegetables, or minerals, of a thousand forms. To what then are attached the rights and powers they held while in the form of men? A generation may bind itself as long as its majority continues in life; when that has disappeared, another majority is in place, holds all the rights and powers their predecessors once held, and may change their laws and institutions to suit themselves. Nothing then is unchangeable but the inherent and unalienable rights of man.

— Thomas Jefferson, letter to Maj. John Cartwright, June 5, 1824

Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes — our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking around.

— G.K. Chesterton

Grave Matters

In 1554 Sir James Hales drowned himself. The coroner returned a verdict of felo de se, meaning that Sir James was guilty of the felony of self-murder. His estate was forfeited to the crown, which planned to award it to one Cyriac Petit. Sir James’ widow, Margaret, contested this. So the case turned on the question whether the grounds for forfeiture had occurred during Sir James’ lifetime: Had his suicide occurred during his life, or after his death?

Margaret Hales’ counsel argued that one can’t be guilty of suicide while one is still living, practically by definition, so self-murder shouldn’t be classed as a felony: “He cannot be felo de se till the death is fully consummate, and the death precedes the felony and the forfeiture.”

But Petit’s counsel argued that part of the act of suicide lies in planning to do it, which certainly occurs during life: “The act consists of three parts: the first is the imagination, which is a reflection or meditation of the mind, whether or not it is convenient for him to destroy himself, and what way it can be done; the second is the resolution, which is a determination of the mind to destroy himself; the third is the perfection, which is the execution of what the mind had resolved to do. And of all the parts, the doing of the act is the greatest in the judgment of our law, and it is in effect the whole.”

The court ruled for Petit, finding that Sir James had killed himself during his lifetime: “The forfeiture shall have relation to the time the original offence began which caused the death, and that was the throwing himself into the water, which was done in his lifetime and this act was felony. That which caused the death may be said to be feloniously done. The felony is attributed to the act, which act is always done by a living man; for, Brown said, Sir James Hales was dead, and how came he by his death? It may be answered by drowning; and who drowned him? Sir James Hales; and when did he this? It can be answered, in his lifetime. So that Sir James Hales being alive caused Sir James Hales to be dead, and the act of the living man caused the death of the dead man.”

The case is remembered, and not charitably, in the churchyard scene in Hamlet:

First Clown: Give me leave. Here lies the water; good: here stands the man; good; if the man go to this water, and drown himself, it is, will he, nill he, he goes,–mark you that; but if the water come to him and drown him, he drowns not himself: argal, he that is not guilty of his own death shortens not his own life.

Second Clown: But is this law?

First Clown: Ay, marry, is’t; crowner’s quest law.

Zebras at Sea

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What is this? It’s the American cargo ship West Mahomet in port, circa November 1918. During World War I British and American merchant ships adopted “dazzle camouflage” in hopes that it would help to confuse their type, size, and heading in enemy rangefinders.

It’s hard to say how well it succeeded as camouflage, but it’s a notable episode in art history: The painting style employed ideas from cubism and vorticism, and English artist Edward Wadsworth, who had helped to direct the effort, continued to pursue these themes even after the war — below is his Dazzle-ships in Drydock at Liverpool from 1919.

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