Lincoln

Lincoln was my father's hero. “We’re both from Illinois,” he would say. When I visited my Dad at his stone house in Redhill Park, he invariably drove me to the nearby town of Salem—Lincoln's home in his formative years.

On more than one occasion, we drove to Springfield and visited the Lincoln house. This was sacred ground to my father whose ancestors were Chicagoans.

My mother’s side of the family had a somewhat different perspective. The Hudsons, my mother's maternal ancestors, were descended from Spanish Jews whose original name, the name they possessed in Cordova, was Peretz. But after the Inquisition started, they relocated to Holland, as Hudson.

My mother's father's family was a different story. Although they came to America over one hundred years before the Revolutionary War, by the time they took up residence in Atlanta, they had changed their name to “Dickey”.

Six generations ago, George and Hannah Dickey had twenty-six slaves whom they are buried with in a graveyard on Hogback Mountain, Georgia. They are buried there with their slaves because they had the audacity to build a school for them.

Their mission in life, according to journals I possess, was “to civilize our Africans."

(Google Descendants Return to Fix Cemetery for more information and photos.)

Perhaps, because of their liberal views according to southern standards, one of their two sons became an Abolitionist and was so committed to the cause that he drove a covered wagon pulled by four mules to southern Illinois. There, he freed his eight slaves and founded the Dickey Dynasty in that part of the country. The Dickeys became most prominent in the town where I was born—Fairfield, Illinois.

The older brother stayed on in Atlanta and became the ancestor of the great Southern writer, James Dickey (Deliverance) the Poet Laureate author of Buckdancer’s Choice—and the winner of the National Book Award of 1966.

Those are my connections, however oblique, to Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War Period.

Sunday night, February 24, Lincoln and the Civil War will be the subject of much interest at the Academy Awards. In light of that, let me say the following:

There are many misconceptions about Mr. Lincoln; here are some of the truths. He made money when he married Mary Todd from a wealthy Lexington, Kentucky family. Besides being wealthy, she was witty and cultured. By that time, Mr. Lincoln’s true love, Ann Rutledge, was many years’ dead.

On the day of his wedding, he encountered a friend while walking to the church. When asked, “Where you going?” He replied, "To hell, I suppose."

He was not, contrary to the popular notion, an Abolitionist at all. He did not feel that black men were the equal of white men and in the famous Lincoln-Douglas Debates, he said as much. Speaking of these debates, Lincoln, who was tall and gangly, debated standing on the ground while Douglas, short and pudgy, often stood on a tree stump—ergo the phrase "stump speech."

The turning point in Lincoln's career was a speech he gave at Cooper's Union in New York City. It was, in those times, a speech equivalent to that of Barack Obama's 2004 Democratic Convention Speech. People began to ask “Who is this man from the Western frontier?”

Lincoln was a quick study and he had served a term in Congress. He learned a great deal while in Washington and much of what he learned was about publicity. Lincoln was the most photographed man of his times and he cultivated a wise ethereal image. Once he became president, the storytelling skills he had developed on the Illinois Prairie served him beautifully, both in political discourse and in the writing of speeches.

Illinois English, due largely to an influx of German immigrants, was straight forward and precise, devoid entirely of the florid expolations of Eastern speech.

Lincoln was not shielded from the political currents of the time. Although the North and the South were economically intertwined—Southern cotton fed the textile mills of the North (Massachusetts in particular) that is where similarities ended. The regions were culturally very different.

The north was composed primarily of small farms and villages who practiced a highly democratic form of governance—town hall meetings, etc. The general mood and attitude was not aristocratic. The Pilgrims and others were in conflict with the English class structure.

The south, on the other hand, was ruled, by and large, by men with aristocratic pretentions and little regard for democracy. Most southern towns and cities were the fiefdoms of prominent families. This was exacerbated by the ethnic duality of the south. The ruling class was Anglo-Saxon with strong cultural and familial ties to England. They were supported, by and large, by a lower caste made up primarily of Scotch-Irish. The current white population of the south is three-fifths Scotch-Irish, descended primarily from chattel labor. That is to say, Celtic folk from Great Britain who, in return for their Atlantic passage, agreed to work without wages for seven years.

Of course, there were, according to a survey in 1861, three million nine hundred fifty-two thousand eight hundred thirty-eight slaves in southern counties. The south was, therefore, not as cohesive as the north. The average southerner had less to say about his fate than did his northern brethren. In effect, a vote in the north carried more weight than did a vote in the south. Southern voting was often tampered with as it still is to this day.

What’s the point in my saying all this? It is my way of saying that more divided the north from the south than slavery—much, much more. In a word, it was attitude.

Attitude is everything. I lived for a time in London, a place separated from America mainly by attitude. Americans would never put up with the royal class hogwash that the British seem to thrive upon, but in spite of the differences between north and south, Lincoln felt that the most important issue was preservation of the Union. He fought the Civil War for this reason. It was not fought to abolish slavery in the beginning. Lincoln was prepared to let the south continue slavery in order to end the insurrection. From the beginning, he was content to allow states such as Kentucky and Maryland continue with slavery as long as they sided with the north.

When the Emancipation Proclamation was finally written, one hundred fifty years ago, it was not written as a moral document, so much as a strategic document designed to help the northern war effort. The thirteenth Amendment which followed is the gist of Spielberg’s movie based loosely on the book Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin. This massive book written with the help of Mrs. Goodwin’s husband, Richard Goodwin,* seemed to concentrate, by and large, on Lincoln’s impressive political skills.

It goes without saying, that writing the screen play adaptation of this book was a daunting task, but Tony Kushner did a fairly good job in my opinion. I actually read the book and saw the movie twice. There are mistakes. He has Representative Thaddeus Stevens saying, “This is what must be done in pursuit of a righteous cause,” referring to Lincoln’s bare-knuckled tactics. In actuality, these remarks were not made known until after the turn of the century. Kushner’s attempt to make Lincoln a saintly man is also unwarranted. I wonder if the idealism imbued to Lincoln is a reflection of Kushner’s own state of mind.

Whatever the case, the Kushner/Spielberg movie is intent on myth building. Lincoln was not a saintly man; he was a man of many flaws. And one of them may have been the pursuit of the Civil War.

My great Aunt Molly, who was born in 1860, said the Civil War should never have happened. Approximately seven hundred fifty thousand men died in this war.

Steven Spielberg, in a speech in Gettysburg in November, 2012, said that the men who had perished at Gettysburg; (and I paraphrase) “had given their lives for freedom.” This, of course, is a very presumptuous statement. The men who died at Gettysburg died because they had been ordered to fight there. There were no ideological manifestos read before the battle and the question still arises in my mind, “Was it all necessary?” All major nations had outlawed slavery by the 1880’s without the benefit of a ghastly war. Was getting it done fifteen years sooner worth seven hundred fifty thousand lives? Did this bloodshed bring this country together; I think not.

My wife’s relatives in West Virginia, still mourn relatives killed in that war. One of the first stories told to me by Karen’s grandfather was the story of a young man who came home on leave to see his “mommy and daddy” and while riding horseback was shot to death by the Home Guard. This was in a part of West Virginia where northern and southern sympathies crisscrossed.

Of course, how can one expect Spielberg and Kushner to understand this war, lacking as they do any familial historical or blood relation to it?

Lincoln’s assassination immortalized him. Ironically, modern medical science believes that Lincoln was very ill at the time of his death and would have died in any case. He showed symptoms of Marfan syndrome, not to mention symptoms of MEN 2B. 918 mutation. DNA extracted from samples of his blood that flowed onto Laura Keene’s dress (she cradled his bleeding head in her lap) are still being tested; but one thing that must be said about victims of assassination, is that they bear some responsibility for their own deaths.

With the tremendous assets at Lincoln’s disposal, he should never have been killed due to carelessness. The consequences of this were overwhelming. Reconstruction of the south was stymied. All of the blacks elected to Congress were expelled by 1874 and the south was victimized by night riders who terrified blacks for a hundred years. All of this for the lack of a handful of guards at Fords Theater.

What many modern people do not realize was that certain forms of slavery such as peonage; convict leasing; involuntary servitude and other forms of brutal exploitation continued in the south until laws against peonage were passed in 1942. Just think how different things would have been without a war—race relations in Brazil, for example, are something to contemplate.

As for Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Kushner, they both would have benefited from a trip to Illinois, a land of verities which produced a man of verities.

Having said all that, I'll take a minute to talk about the movie, Lincoln. Mr. Spielberg opens his film with five combat troops -- black and white -- who recite the Gettysburg address in Harvardian accents over the somber major chords of John Williams’ score. This is so improbable that I nearly laughed out loud in the theater. First of all, the Gettysburg address at that time was not well disseminated. It was not yet taught in school and not part of the general knowledge of the day. This was due largely to the fact that at the time it was not thought to be a good speech. Speeches in the mid-19th century were long, very long, long enough to give an audience its money's worth. Stephen Douglas, Lincoln's adversary, in a race for the Senate, was well known for that type of speech. The Gettysburg address, on the other hand, is only 263 to 268 words according to which version is chosen. None the less, it is in my opinion, the greatest political speech in American history. It sounds like Shakespeare, and it is no coincidence that Lincoln loved Shakespeare and had memorized most of Shakespeare's tragedies.

As I said earlier, Mr. Spielberg made a movie to fit the great Lincoln myth which is on a par with the great Pilgrim myth. (No one told me in grade school that there were English-speaking Indians around) Daniel Day Lewis, who will undoubtedly get an Academy award, spent a considerable amount of time during the film pronouncing lines with histrionic delivery, the way they are delivered in high school plays. He, too, is a soldier in the Lincoln myth.

I do not believe that all I have said in this blog will be popularly received because the world is governed by myths. Myths are the basis of much worship. But if you are connected to the Civil War as was my family, you want the truth to be told. Otherwise, there is a danger that our history will be lost.

*Richard Goodwin was the reporter that exposed the fraud committed by the TV Show 64 Thousand Dollar Question.
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