Monthly Archives: March 2012

Mary Todd Lincoln goes on trial

This fall, Mary Todd Lincoln will have two chances to prove that her son’s charges of insanity were unwarranted.  The mock trials will offer historians and mental health experts the chance to teach the public about changes in attitudes toward mental illness since the nineteenth century.  Click here for the details.

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Williams on Lincoln and Rhode Island

Frank Williams, a noted Lincoln authority and retired chief justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court, discussed his home state’s relationship to Lincoln and the Civil War at a recent public talk.  Click here to read an article about his remarks.

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Republicans should look to Lincoln, says Obama

While in Chicago a few days ago, President Obama told a fundraiser audience that Republicans should look back on the legacy of the first member of their party to occupy the White House:

Obama told the audience that while his GOP competitors were campaigning in Illinois, they should put aside their “avalanche of attack ads” and focus on the vision of the first Republican president, Abraham Lincoln.

“I hope that while my counterparts on the other side enjoy the outstanding hospitality of the people of Illinois and spend some money here to promote our economy. I hope they also take a little bit of time to reflect on this great man, the first Republican President,” Obama said.

Obama argued that unlike the Republicans of today who preach about the importance of less federal government, and more self reliance, Lincoln understood that “we are also one nation and one people and that we rise or fall together.”

You can read more about Obama’s remarks by clicking here.

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Booth on the shelf

By Michael Lynch

We seem to have arrived at a resolution to a brief controversy involving a souvenir item that went on sale at both Gettysburg National Military Park’s bookstore and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum’s gift shop.  The item in question is a John Wilkes Booth bobblehead doll, clutching a tiny derringer in his plastic fist.  (Click here to see it for yourself.)  Both institutions removed the item from the shelves in the wake of an online uproar.

Various commentators, including battlefield visitors and historians, have pointed out that a head-bobbling mini-monument to Lincoln’s assassin is not exactly the most tasteful thing to be selling at the ALPLM or at the place where Lincoln delivered his most memorable speech.  I wouldn’t disagree with that sentiment.  As some observers noted, you wouldn’t expect to see an Oswald gimmick on sale at the Sixth Floor Museum.  That’s the difference the passage of a century makes, I suppose.

I think the inventories of museum and historic site gift shops matter more than most of us realize.  Surveys indicate that people accord much more authority to museums than they do to books or other sources of knowledge.  An inaccurate item sold in a gift shop thus takes on a legitimacy that it would never have in another setting.  I’d like to see every museum and historic site put some sort of vetting process in place for the items they sell.

Having said that, I don’t think the Booth bobblehead trivializes Lincoln so much as it trivializes Booth.  It turns him into a comical little target of laughter and derision.  What we have here is not necessarily a celebration of the assassin or his deed, but the sort of commodification and trivialization of history that’s been going on in popular culture for quite some time.  I’m not sure the sale of a Booth bobblehead crosses any discernible line that souvenir manufacturers haven’t already crossed.  Let’s face it—those of us who work or have worked in public history can’t be accused of being too scrupulous about taste when it comes to stocking our gift shops.

Consider the schlock that we willingly peddle to tourists in an effort to offset operating costs: wooden rifles, felt kepis with pinned-on insignia, candy packaged in the form of musket cartridges.  There are plush Lincoln beards that kids can strap onto their faces, pencil sharpeners shaped like busts of Lincoln, and Lincoln teddy bears.  A few bucks will get you an ink pen filled with water containing tiny Confederate soldiers.  Turn the point downward, and the Rebels charge in one direction; turn it upward, and they retrace their steps.  Is the tawdry commercialization of the death of thousands of Civil War soldiers more acceptable than the tawdry commercialization of the death of only one man?

If we want to be brutally honest with ourselves, the answer is probably yes.  The butcher’s bill of the Civil War was so astronomically high in terms of other American conflicts that it becomes almost meaningless.  You can’t visualize hundreds of thousands of dead, but you can easily visualize one, especially when that individual was such a prominent and sympathetic figure as Abraham Lincoln.

If the Booth bobblehead fracas represents any sort of teachable moment, then hopefully it will prompt us to think about the trivialization and commodification of history as a whole, rather than the Lincoln assassination in particular.  We can all agree that turning political murder into a joke is in poor taste; maybe we should consider whether the frivolous invocations of the past we see on store shelves and in the media are just as inappropriate.

—Michael Lynch graduated from LMU with a degree in history, worked at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum as an assistant curator, and now teaches survey-level history courses on campus. He holds an M.A. in history from the University of Tennessee and blogs about historical topics at pastinthepresent.wordpress.com.

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“Technologist-in-chief”

The Washington Post has an item on technology and the Civil War, with an examination of Lincoln’s fascination with modern gadgets:

The telegraph came along in 1844, and information suddenly no longer moved at the speed of a horse. Since earlier in the century, the ancient sources of power — wind, water, human and animal muscle — had been to a great extent supplanted by the miracle of steam. Lincoln saw these changes and approved. He was a technophile, curious about contraptions, a student of machines. He became a promoter of railroads and an eager user of the telegraph.

He was even an inventor himself. He owned a U.S. government patent, which no other president before or since could boast. He had designed a mechanism for assisting a boat across shoals. He was quite obsessed with the importance of what people called “internal improvements,” meaning the building of roads, railroads, canals, harbors. He once told his best friend, Joshua Speed, that he wanted someday to be the DeWitt Clinton of Illinois – Clinton being the New Yorker behind the Erie Canal.

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An ironclad anniversary

Today is the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Hampton Roads, in which the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia became the first ironclad warships to meet in combat.  Although Harrogate, TN is a long way from the sea, the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum does have an interesting claim on the legacy of this battle.  The vault holds a substantial collection of papers and artifacts that once belonged to John Worden, who was in command of the Monitor during the engagement.

Worden himself was wounded during the clash with the Virginia when a shell struck the pilot house, partially blinding him.  Lincoln received a report of the battle during a cabinet meeting on March 10, and then went to visit Worden while the injured officer lay convalescing with his face wrapped in bandages.

You can learn more about the museum’s Worden collection by clicking here.

Battle of Hampton Roads, from a painting by J.O. Davidson via Wikimedia Commons

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Lincoln’s Confederate in-laws

The Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum is currently hosting a temporary exhibit from the Mary Todd Lincoln House about Lincoln’s Confederate relatives.  This is an unknown aspect of Lincoln’s life for many people, but it’s also one of the most fascinating; some of his relatives by marriage held important positions within the Confederate military, and they were a political liability for him during the war.

You can see an online version of the exhibit by visiting the Mary Todd Lincoln House website.

Benjamin Hardin Helm, a brother-in-law to Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln, was a brigadier general in the Confederate States Army who was killed at Chickamauga in 1863. His widow, Mary Todd Lincoln's half-sister Emilie, was a guest at the White House. Image from Wikimedia Commons

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