A Very Personal Memory Of This Day Fifty Years Ago

Tomorrow, the minds of millions and millions across the country and around the world will be focussed upon and will recall a day of national tragedy, and well that day should be remembered. However, I am today thinking of a more personal recollection.

On the evening of Thursday 21 November 1963, my family sat down to dinner at the big kitchen table in our house at 8417 Crown Place in Fort Hunt, Virginia, just a short walk from the Potomac River, and a short drive to Washington, D.C. The table at which we sat was actually made from a heavy wooden door mounted on a steel frame; Mom had gotten it on sale at The Door Store in Georgetown. It was a practical and inexpensive solution to accommodate a large family. We were at that time a family of eight: Mom and Dad, and in order of age, Bill, Anne, Chris, Susan, and Rob and me. Two benches along the length of the table sat three kids each, Mom and Dad sat at the ends. On that evening, Rob and I and Anne were on one side, Dad to my left, Mom to my right. After saying Grace, Dad cut up a substantial meatloaf, and we passed the mashed potatoes and the vegetable (Brussels sprouts! No one really enjoyed them …) And, naturally, we began talking about events of the day and other matters.

It is perhaps unusal that I have a vivid memory of a family dinner of fifty years ago, but I have good reason to recall it.

We engaged in the usual dinner hour conversation. Rob and I were excited because we were to celebrate our fifth birthday in two days with a party to which several of our friends were invited. Our birthday was actually not until the following Tuesday, but the Party was scheduled for that Saturday for logistical reasons. My Mom and Dad asked the “big kids” about their day at school as they typically did. Brother Bill complained about an assignment in Latin class; Chris asked about getting help with his science homework.

My sister Anne began to talk about a book that she was reading. The book was Jim Bishop’s classic, hour by hour dissection of 14 April 1865, The Day Lincoln Was Shot. Anne asked my Dad about many of the troubling questions the book raised, especially about the inadequate security provided for the President that day. A lively discussion ensued.

Because we lived so near to where these events had unfolded almost a century earlier, the discussion seemed more like a conversation about current events than a digression into the distant past. We had seen Ford’s Theater, for example. Washington D.C. and its environs were familiar indeed.

I recall my Mom explaining about Booth’s flight from the capital, Doctor Mudd’s alleged complicity, and Booth’s ultimate death in a Virginia tobacco barn, shot by Sergeant Boston Corbett. My Mom told us that Booth’s death was a terrible loss, since it meant that so many questions were unanswered.

“They should have arrested him and put him on trial,” Mom said.

And I shall never forget my Dad’s observation that, “It seems they always shoot the assassins.”

Given the tragedy which unfolded the next day, this particular dinner hour has always remained starkly clear in my memory.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

Those who do not know history are condemned to repeat it.

— George Santayana

Rare Political Courage

It was on this day, 16 June 1858, that Illinois Senatorial Candidate Abraham Lincoln delivered one of his greatest speeches – indeed, one of the landmark speeches in American history. Known as the “House Divided” speech, Lincoln’s address to some 1,000 Republican delegates in Springfield, Illinois included the Biblical reference: “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” It aroused the most ardent Republicans at the convention with the extreme position that Lincoln adopted, expressed in such phrases as: “I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved — I do not expect the house to fall — but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other.” After this speech was published, Abraham Lincoln rocketed to the forefront of national public awareness, and he became a lightning rod for criticism for almost every quarter.

As history soon unfolded, Lincoln’s speech was nearly prophetic. The issue of slavery, which would admit no political compromise, in the end was decided by fire and sword in one of the most devastating and deadly wars of the 19th Century. The fame Lincoln had earned as a Senatorial candidate for a distant “Western” state ultimately secured for him the Republican Party’s 1860 presidential nomination. In a deeply divisive election, he became the 16th President of The United States of America, one who is continually ranked among the three greatest men to have ever served in that capacity.

It is worth noting, though, that Lincoln’s speech of 154 years ago, however much public attention it gained him, failed to win him a Senate seat. Lincoln lost to his famous opponent, Stephen Douglas. The voters of Illinois were not yet ready, in 1858, to send such a radical thinker to represent them in Washington. Two years later, the mood had shifted greatly. They say a week is a year in politics, so two years must be as centuries. By 1865, Lincoln’s “divided house” had nearly fallen in two, yet somehow survived. But slavery – that soul-searing, paramount issue – could not endure.

It is also worth noting that some key Illinois Republicans had advised Lincoln against making that speech. They were correct, politically: taking so firm a position cost him the Senate seat. But making that speech gained Lincoln the presidency, and it ultimately gained for America a new birth of freedom. The work is not even now complete, but Lincoln’s courage in saying what he had to say, rather than what was politically prudent to say, made a difference, and changed history.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

I will prepare and someday my chance will come. — Abraham Lincoln

Further Reading:

More books have been written about Abraham Lincoln than any other figure in American history except, perhaps, Benjamin Franklin. My own small collection of Lincoln books runs to 17 volumes, some fairly hefty. In 1992, Garry Wills published Lincoln At Gettysburg about Lincoln’s most famous speech. This treatment started something of a trend, and subsequently several historians have published books devoted to just a single one of Lincoln’s speeches or proclamtions. Herewith, my own sampling:

Lincoln At Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, Garry Wills; Simon & Schuster, 1992: ISBN: 0671769561

This is a detailed history of Lincoln’s speech and its impact. Wills includes analysis of the speech from the perspective of 19th Century oratorical standards, and he discusses the effect of Lincoln’s brief and concise style upon later oratorical trends. The other speeches delivered at Gettysburg that day are included in the extensive appendices.

Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural, Ronald C. White, Jr.; Simon & Schuster, 2002: ISBN: 0743212983

White examines Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, and assesses its unique place among all of Lincoln’s speeches; it was, as Frederick Douglass observed, “more like a sermon than a state paper.” This relatively short book (about 200 pages) is by no means the last word on this important speech, but White provides an interesting and thought provoking contribution to the discussion of Lincoln’s speeches.

Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End Of Slevery In America, Allen G. Guelzo; Simon & Schuster, 2004: ISBN: 0743221826

Guelzo received the Lincoln Prize for his 2000 biography of Lincoln. This work, despite its rather glib subtitle, is by no means so simple as to assume that Lincoln’s proclamation actully itself ended slavery. Indeed, Guelzo looks carefully at the politics which influenced the proclamation, and the results, both political and social, which the proclamation produced.

Lincoln At Cooper Union: The Speech That Made Abraham Lincoln President, Harold Holzer; Simon & Schuster, 2004: ISBN: 0743224663

Because Lincoln’s speech at Cooper Union in February 1860 has faded from modern memory, Holzer felt it was time to give a book-length treatment of the speech which Lincoln and his contemporaries identified as the one that gained him his party’s nomination. The speech contains many well-known Lincoln quotations, but its overall importance is given its due in the entertaining and enlightening work. I like Holzer’s emphasis on Lincoln’s political courage in carrying his campaign platform into New York City and the heart of his rival William Seward’s strong home base. (I obviously admire Lincoln’s political courage.)

A 3-Minute Speech With A 148-Year Impact

On Thursday November 19, 1863 — 148 years ago this day — in the small, war-battered Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln delivered the renowned “Gettysburg Address.”

The occasion was the dedication of the battlefield cemetery which was to be the final resting place of more than 6,000 casualties from the fierce fighting that took place from July 1 – 3 that year. The Civil War Battle of Gettysburg proved to be the decisive turning point of that great war; Lincoln’s brief speech proved to be a turning point in the development of this great nation.

Lincoln was a man of great personal courage, drive, vision, and oratorical skill, and a savvy-enough politician to know that his speech which extolled not merely the dead, but the sacred cause they died for, had certain political risks. But he delivered the speech because he felt that it was necessary.

In a day and age when orators were valued for the lengths of their speeches, Lincoln’s address was a mere jot; it lasted less than 3 minutes. Some of those present were unimpressed by the speech, and there is a popular tale that claims the speech was scorned by the audience, but there is no evidence that this was so. True, one can find editorials written after that day which criticize the speech, but these were from distinctly anti-Lincoln papers. The vast majority of pieces written about the speech were decidedly positive. The renowned orator Edward Everett who preceded Lincoln that day, said to Lincoln, “I wish I had come as near to capturing the meaning of today in two hours as you did in two minutes.”

The United States survived that war as a stronger nation, and one that was more truly free, though there was and is more work to be done.

In September of 2003 I visited the Lincoln Memorial with a colleague. He took the time to read both the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address which are carved into the stone walls on the memorial. After he had finished he observed: “Maybe if I knew more history, I wouldn’t despair so much for the present.” And I have to think that in times such as these it is more important than ever to look back upon Lincoln, his vision, his courage, and remember that there is reason to be hopeful for our future. Always.

I know you’ve read it and heard many times before, but I think it does bear repeating:

LINCOLN’S GETTYSBURG ADDRESS

Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.

— Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln’s message remains meaningful even to this very day.

Jamie Rawson
Flower Mound, Texas

If I turn my enemy into my friend, have I not slain my enemy?

— Lincoln

FURTHER READING:

More books have been written about Abraham Lincoln than any other figure in American history except, perhaps, Benjamin Franklin. My own small collection of Lincoln books runs to 17 volumes, some fairly hefty. In 1992, Garry Wills published Lincoln At Gettysburg about Lincoln’s most famous speech. This treatment started something of a trend, and subsequently several historians have published books devoted to just a single one of Lincoln’s speeches or proclamtions. Herewith, my own sampling:

Lincoln At Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, Garry Wills; Simon & Schuster, 1992: ISBN: 0671769561

This is a detailed history of Lincoln’s speech and its impact. Wills includes analysis of the speech from the perspective of 19th Century oratorical standards, and he discusses the effect of Lincoln’s brief and concise style upon later oratorical trends. The other speeches delivered at Gettysburg that day are included in the extensive appendices.

Lincoln’s Greatest Speech: The Second Inaugural, Ronald C. White, Jr.; Simon & Schuster, 2002: ISBN: 0743212983

White examines Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, and assesses its unique place among all of Lincoln’s speeches; it was, as Frederick Douglass observed, “more like a sermon than a state paper.” This relatively short book (about 200 pages) is by no means the last word on this important speech, but White provides an interesting and thought provoking contribution to the discussion of Lincoln’s speeches.

Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End Of Slevery In America, Allen G. Guelzo; Simon & Schuster, 2004: ISBN: 0743221826

Guelzo received the Lincoln Prize for his 2000 biography of Lincoln. This work, despite its rather glib subtitle, is by no means so simple as to assume that Lincoln’s proclamation actully itself ended slavery. Indeed, Guelzo looks carefully at the politics which influenced the proclamation, and the results, both political and social, which the proclamation produced.

Lincoln At Cooper Union: The Speech That Made Abraham Lincoln President, Harold Holzer; Simon & Schuster, 2004: ISBN: 0743224663

Because Lincoln’s speech at Cooper Union in February 1860 has faded from modern memory, Holzer felt it was time to give a book-length treatment of the speech which Lincoln and his contemporaries identified as the one that gained him his party’s nomination. The speech contains many well-known Lincoln quotations, but its overall importance is given its due in the entertaining and enlightening work. I like Holzer’s emphasis on Lincoln’s political courage in carrying his campaign platform into New York City and the heart of his rival William Seward’s strong home base. (I obviously admire Lincoln’s political courage.)