Rationality and the Origins of Myth: Bayle, Fontanelle, and Toland

Pierre Bayle, Bernard de Fontanelle, and John Toland; all images in the public domain or free for noncommercial use

This is an extended version of a blog post I recently wrote for my seminar class Myth and the History of Scholarship in Early Modern Europe. It’s a more formal style than I generally like to write in since it’s for an academic blog, but I thought I’d share it with you just in case you’re interested in what I’ve been working on at the University of Edinburgh lately ~ Amy

From the ancient philosophers of Greece and Rome to the European Renaissance to early modern Europe in the Age of Discovery, thinkers and scholars attempted to make sense of mythology and the multiplicity of belief from ancient to modern times, in light of their own understanding of the nature of God and the workings of the universe. The Renaissance saw the humanistic attempt to understand mythology as allegories, repositories of ancient wisdom in fable form which conveyed essential religious truths to those discerning enough to perceive them. Then, missionaries to the New World and theologians wrestled with the fact that vast numbers of human beings had no knowledge of the biblical God or of Jesus Christ. They attempted to reconcile this with their beliefs about God’s justice and mercy by recasting pagan myths as expressions of natural theology.

The years leading up to the Enlightenment saw another significant shift in ways of thinking, a rationalist approach that we now associate with the rise of skepticism and the scientific method. In the decades straddling the turn of the 17th century, Huguenot scholar Pierre Bayle, French scientist and writer Bernard de Fontanelle, and British freethinker and religious critic John Toland offered their own critical approaches to the myths of the ancients and of the New World.

‘…People began, in various countries, to write histories in a more reasonable manner and generally with more verisimilitude. So no new fables appear; people are satisfied with preserving the old ones. But can this ever stop those who are infatuated with antiquity? They imagine to themselves that under the fables are hidden secrets of the physical and moral world (Fontanelle 18)’

In On the Origin of Fables, Pierre Bayle (1647–1706) applies ‘natural reason’ and Aristotelian method to myths and ancient philosophy to determine whether they are worthy of belief or useful in promoting a rational understanding of God and the world. Bayle’s approach is to offer critical examinations of particular myths. Through these examples, Bayle intends to demonstrate that mythology is not a vessel of truth, allegorical or otherwise. For one, he considers the ancient Greek philosopher Anaximenes’ idea that the gods were produced by the air, which is the primary and original cause of everything. Bayle rejects this idea as absurd because natural reason doesn’t allow us to believe that a thing’s efficient cause (Aristotle’s term for that which is responsible for another thing’s state of being) to be inferior to that which gave rise to it (Bayle 110). Even more ridiculous, for Bayle, is the idea that a non-thinking thing like air could give rise to a thinking thing like a god (p 113). (I suspect that Bayle would have little use for the theory of evolution.) Other myths such as the birth of Venus, who arose from the foam created when Saturn cut off his father Chaos’ genitalia and threw them into the sea, or that  thunder and lightning is caused by Jupiter’s hurling thunderbolts to earth, aren’t only immoral and brutish, but entirely useless for understanding the rationality of the universe.

Bernard de Fontenelle (1657-1757) sees mythology as the product of the childishness of the human mind at the dawn of reason. When humans observed some amazing or unexpected thing that they couldn’t explain, they naturally embellished it a little so that they could (Fontanelle 11). These embellishments often consisted of positing beings with human-like capacities causing the phenomenon in some recognizable way. Fontanelle, like Bayle, uses the example of thunder and lightning, a mysterious phenomenon that could be explained by imagining a being very like a human but more powerful, who throws arrows of fire like humans do but much larger ones from higher up (p 11-12). He also uses the example of rivers: they originate somewhere, so why not from pitchers like these we use to make water flow? (p 11) But to make rivers, the being(s) who pour the pitchers must have much larger ones, with added power that can keep them flowing plentifully and with force. With each subsequent retelling of these stories, they took on more and more fantastic elements they passed from one person to the other (Consider Michel de Montaigne’s passage about un/reliable testimony in his essay ‘Of Cannibals’), resulting in elaborate and fantastic myths.

But Fontanelle doesn’t judge these almost accidental mythmakers harshly; rather, he makes an interesting and astute observation: it’s actually harder to adhere strictly to the truth than to embellish a tale, especially when it’s about something exciting. It’s harder because 1) ‘our imagination gets heated up with its subject’ (Fontanelle 11) and begins to elaborate the tale all on its own and 2) the more marvelous details you add, the more interest, encouragement, and admiration you arouse in your audience. But though rationality is hard and the imagination is lively (p 15), Fontanelle insists that it’s still essential that we resist ignorance. David Hume would later elaborate on Fontanelle’s idea about myths and miracles, making it one of the centerpieces of his skeptical philosophy in his Enquiry concerning Human Understanding.

John Toland’s (1670-1722) theory also cites human ignorance and frailty in the origins of myth, but he offers a less general account. In his view, myths spring from the honor paid to the dead. Worship of the gods is an extension of the respect, fear, and supplication of powerful rulers, warriors, magicians, and so on (Toland 72). He accepts Euhemerus’ idea that the gods of myth refer to real people but that, over time, their origins were forgotten (p 85). Toland observes that the honor paid to the gods closely resemble the honors paid to dead heroes and princes, so he postulates a common origin for these practices.

Toland further explains that the gods, based on exceptional humans now dead, are also based on human ideas and virtues (p 88). Here, both Toland and Bayle reflect the ancient philosopher Xenophanes, who argues that all gods are devised to resemble their creators. If animals had gods too, they would look, act, and have the same mental features as those animals—at least, the strongest, best, most admired animals among them. Fontanelle also takes a Xenophanean view in his description of how the gods evolve over time: the gods of the earliest, most primitive myths were as irrational, lustful, and brutal as the people themselves. But just as societies became more civilized, more rational, and more virtuous, so did the gods (Fontanelle 13).

Fontanelle, Toland, and Bayle all take a rationalist approach to the subject of myth, as they do to the sciences and all other areas of inquiry. All myths and idolatry are born from irrationality, and if we are to understand the world as it really is, as a rational place created and designed by a rational God, it’s important to demonstrate the irrationality of the myths and remove their power to promote irrationality in the general public. This will result in a more rational, moral, and free society.

Bayle, again, takes the approach of examining particular examples of myths to show that their origins are irrational and that they cannot, even as allegory, be seen to impart anything good or true, or to promote understanding in any way. He continues his exploration of ancient ideas about air, this time the myth that equates the goddess Juno with the air. Despite all attempts to understand this myth as a way of understanding a truth about the workings of the world, it does nothing but confuse and confound. Bayle again invokes Aristotle, who says that if it’s a thinking being, it must have a soul, and if that being is a part of nature and has a soul, it must be an animal. Therefore, if Juno is the air, she’s a sort of animal being constantly being torn and wounded by things passing through her, which he offers as such a patent absurdity that the myth couldn’t possibly promote a rational understanding of nature. (p 117-118)

Fontanelle argues that his time was one of the most intellectually vigorous (p 13), no doubt because he saw it as an age of rationality. He has a progressive view of the human capability for rationality (p 17), and sees it as the way of the world that all human societies will become more rational over time, just as the Greeks did, and just as he suspects that the Native Americans encountered by the Spanish would if given the time to develop their capabilities (p 16). This is consistent with Fontanelle’s view that creation itself is a rational system. It would make sense, then, that the more human beings come to understand it, the more rational they become as well. That’s why it’s a mistake to perpetuate irrationality by continuing to teach the myths through the arts such as poetry, fine arts, and theater (p 17).

Toland argues that a multiplicity of gods and objects of worship, which is characteristic of the less rational belief systems, is correlated with irrationality, less freedom, and more autocracy. The more gods a society creates, the more autocratic and the less free and rational the society – (Toland 98) (Noted scientist and religious skeptic Richard Dawkins would likely point out that in that case, the most free, rational, and democratic societies would have no gods at all.)

‘So [the well-meaning Philosophers] proceeded to explain away the rest of the Gods; and, as Allegorys are as fruitful as our Imaginations, scarce any two Authors cou’d wholly agree in their Opinions. But supposing the Truth of the matter had bin as any or all of ’em wou’d have it, yet their Religion was not a whit the better, and deserv’d to be abolished; since, what ever were the Speculations of a few among the Learned, ‘cis evident that the Vulgar took all these to be very real Gods, of whom they stood in mighty fear, and to whom they paid Divine Adoration…’ (p 122)

So even if the myths could be interpreted as allegories by the learned, their dissemination spread ignorance and irrationality and so did far more harm than good.

‘But if any shou’d wonder how Men cou’d leave the direct and easy Path of Reason ‘ton wander in such inextricable Mazes, let him but consider how in very many and considerable Regions the plain Institution of Jesus Christ cou’d degenerate into the most absurd Doctrins, unintelligible Jargon, ridiculous Practices, and inexplicable Mysterys…’ (p 129)

Bayle goes further than Toland, and believes that myth not only correlates with barbarous societies, but that they promote acceptance of bad behavior. The myth of Jupiter, for example, deifies a being guilty of just about every crime you can think of: murder, rape, incest, lies, and cruelty of every sort (Bayle 107). Fortunately, Bayle observes, most people behave better than the gods of mythology, an observation that extends beyond his close examination of many mythological beliefs.

Fontanelle also observes that belief does not necessarily inform moral convictions or behavior; in fact, they seem to be quite separate:

‘What is strange is that Christians, whose system of religion is so pure, yield almost nothing to the gentiles in respect to engaging in vices. It is a mistake to believe that the moral practice of a religion corresponds to the doctrines of its confession of faith. (p 107)’

People, then as now it seems, accept those religious beliefs that accord with their own principles and moral characters more than the other way around.

~ Thanks to Dr. Felicity Green for inspiration and insight

Bibliography

Bayle, Pierre, ‘Jupiter’, in Historical-Critical Dictionary: Selections [1697], trans. Richard Popkin (Indianapolis, 1991), pp. 107-119.

‘Bernard Le Bovier, sieur de Fontenelle.’ (2017, 25 January), In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from www.britannica.com/biography/Bernard-Le-Bovier-sieur-de-Fontenelle  ; accessed 09 November, 2017.

Falcon, Andrea, “Aristotle on Causality”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2015 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). Retrieved from https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2015/entries/aristotle-causality/ ; accessed 09 November, 2017.

Fontenelle, Bernard de, De l’origine des fables [wr. c.1691-99, pub. 1724]. English trans. Of the Origin of Fables by Burton Feldman and Robert D. Richardson, The Rise of Modern Mythology 1680-1860 (Indiana, 1972), pp. 10-18.

‘John Toland’. (2017, 17 August), In Encyclopædia Britannica. Retrieved from www.britannica.com/biography/John-Toland ; accessed 09 November, 2017.

Lennon, Thomas M. and Hickson, Michael, ‘Pierre Bayle’, In The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2014 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2014/entries/bayle/ ; accessed 09 November 2017

Toland, John, Letters to Serena (London, 1704), part III

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The Bodies of Men Who Have Perished: Reading the Iliad in the 1980s, by L.D. Burnett

“Achilles Lamenting the Death of Patroclus,” Gavin Hamilton, ca. 1763

Queer love lies at the heart of the Iliad as a work of art.

This was not the claim of my fall quarter Western Culture prof, though he certainly tried to explain the nature of the relationship between Achilles and Patroklos, and how that fit into Greek ideas of manhood, and how it fit (or didn’t) with our own ideas of sexuality.  I don’t think he used the word “queer,” but he did emphasize that to call those two heroes “a gay couple” or “gay lovers” would be both anachronistic and inattentive to the complexities and resonances of the intimacy between them.  Or something like that.

But “queer” as a word that points to a body of scholarly theory and “queer” as a word reclaimed by folk whose intimate relationships, whose inner and intertwined lives, don’t fit neatly within simple binaristic categorizations – that’s a fitting enough word for a consideration of Patroklos and Achilles and the Iliad and the canon and the culture of the 1980s.

What struck me on this re-read of the Iliad was the distinctive portrayal of Achilleus’s grief.  Many warriors fall in these few days of battle, and many Greek heroes, and Trojan heroes too, lose men dear to them – perhaps as dear, indeed, as Patroklos was to Achilles.  Warriors on both sides are smitten with sorrow to see their brothers in arms fall, and warriors on both sides fight fiercely to retrieve the bodies of their fallen comrades – though no battle rages as fiercely or as long as the battle for Patroklos’s body.

And when that broken body is returned to the tents of Achilles – there grief pours forth from different, deeper streams. It is all the grief of brothers in arms, and more.  It is the grief of a lover for not only the life, but the very body, of his beloved.

Achilleus’s anguish over the broken body of Patroklos is compelling.  In a way, I suppose, it is echoed in Priam’s grief as he later pleads for Hector’s body.  But I think rather Priam’s grief harmonizes with Achilleus’s sorrow – it is grief in a different register, or maybe a different key altogether, and they share but one note in common between them:  an unfathomable tenderness toward the body of their own fallen warrior, beloved, though loved in different ways.

Here is how Achilles mourned, and what he feared:

Peleus’ son led the thronging chat of their lamentation
and laid his manslaughtering hands over the chest of his dear friend
with outbursts of incessant grief. As some great bearded lion
when some man, a deer hunter, has stolen his cubs away from him
out of the close wood; the lion comes back too late, and is anguished,
and turns into many valleys quartering after the man’s trail
on the chance of finding him, and taken with bitter anger;
so he, groaning heavily, spoke out to the Myrmidons….
So speaking brilliant Achilleus gave orders to his companions
to set a great cauldron across the fire, so that with all speed
they could wash away the clotted blood from Patroklos….(XVIII, 316-323, 343-345)

The poem goes on to describe in detail the tender care Achilles and his companions take in cleaning and preparing Patroklos body for his eventual funeral.

Yet no mortal effort can overcome decay. The body of the beautiful, the beloved one, his spirit shorn from the world of the living, will see corruption, Achilles fears, before he has a chance to return from avenging Patroklos’s death.  And he is not resigned.

His mother cannot comfort him, but she can help him.

Thetis, the water nymph, the immortal, does two things for her son in his grief:  she commissions for him immortal armor from the Olympian forge of Hephaistos, and when she returns with the enchanted shield – that immortal aesthetic object, art that literally captures the full round of earthly life, a frieze of figures in constant motion, the whole world of human meaning and meaning-making to live on and on past the death of the hero who will bear it on his shoulders – she gives her son what aid she can in caring for the body of his friend.

Achilles, after receiving the armor, tells his mother,

I am sadly afraid,
during this time, for the warlike son of Menoitios
that flies might get into the wounds beaten by bronze in his body
and breed worms in them, and these make foul the body, seeing
that the life is killed in him, and that all his flesh may be rotted.”(XIX, 23-27)

Achilles’ love for Patroklos does not transcend the burdens of embodiment.  This a feature that some other readers, maybe from another time or maybe now, might see as a great flaw. But in Achilles I see a mother’s son grieving for his lover, and like his mother, I find in this no cause for reproach.

In turn the goddess Thetis the silver-footed answered him:
“My child, no longer let these things be a care in your mind.
I shall endeavor to drive from him the swarming and fierce things,
those flies, which feed upon the bodies of men who have perished….
Go then and summon into assembly the fighting Achaians,
and unsay your anger against Agamemnon, shepherd of the people,
and arm at once for the fighting, and put your war strength upon you.”
She spoke so, and drove the strength of great courage into him;
and meanwhile through the nostrils of Patroklos she distilled
ambrosia and red nectar, so that his flesh might not spoil. (XIX, 28-39)

Ambrosia is an Olympian gift, the drink of the immortals – but that was not the gift we talked about when we discussed this work in reading group in the 1980s.  Instead, we talked about that shield, about how the poet celebrated art and storytelling as something immortal, with the shield of Achilles a stand-in for the poet’s work itself: a made thing through which life immortal moves.  That was our focus:  understanding the meaning of the shield of Achilles.

But the years during which Stanford freshmen were asked to read the Iliad were the very years when AIDS was ravaging queer communities, sweeping away queer lives (and hemophiliacs’ lives, and needle-sharing heroin addicts’ lives and unsuspecting partners’ lives) in an ever-advancing tidal wave of utter destruction.  Imagine the keening grief of Achilles magnified by the millions.  Imagine the great immortal shield, the Solace of Art, clattering to the ground, unfinished and undone, because the artists – the writers, the painters, the set designers, the actors, the sculptors, the dancers, the poets, the singers, the writers of songs – were literally wasting away.  Often they were mourned by the friends, their comrades in arms, their partners in love.  But often they died, as Patroklos did, and Achilles too, far away from home – disowned, despised, abandoned.

“David Kirby on his deathbed, Ohio, 1990,” Therese Frare / LIFE

We were reading this text against that background, but I’m not sure how many of us made the connection.  At the time, I did not. Seeing they do not see…

Now, though, every time I teach the second half of the U.S. history survey, I talk at length about the AIDS crisis.  I talk about the murderous neglect of the Reagan administration, and the vile hatefulness pouring forth from many key leaders on the religious Right, who called AIDS a punishment from God and a fate that gays deserved.  I talk about how many in mainstream American culture, out of prejudice and fear, had turned their backs on their own fellow citizens, and how AIDS activists and allies incessant advocacy and hospice training and political work and lobbying and protesting and constant painful heartrending public appeals to shared humanity and common decency combined to force the nation to take heed, to take care, to pour research and resources into finding a cure, a treatment, a ray of hope.

I tell my students that in the 1980s and 1990s, AIDS was seen as a sure death sentence, and many saw it as a sentence that its sufferers deserved.  But now there is preventative treatment, and treatment for symptoms, and maybe even hope of a cure.  And on the final exam, every semester, I have one or two students who tell me some version of, “I’m gay [or, I’m queer, or, I’m a LGBTQ ally] and I didn’t know anything about this history. Thank you so much for teaching this.  We didn’t cover the AIDS crisis in high school.”

And at first I think, How could you not cover the AIDS crisis in a high school U.S. history class?  On the other hand, how could you begin do it justice?

And who am I to judge?  I read Achilles mourning for Patroklos, lover for beloved, and my thoughts turned to abstractions like Art and Immortality, Great Books and Canonicity, when matters of much greater import were at stake.

Learn, and live – live.  There were too many who did not.

This piece was originally published at the Society for U.S. Intellectual History Blog

~ L.D. Burnett received her Ph.D. in Humanities (History of Ideas) from the University of Texas at Dallas (2015), where she is currently employed as the 2017-2018 Teaching Fellow in History. Her book, Canon Wars: The 1980s Western Civ Debates at Stanford and the Triumph of Neoliberalism in Higher Education, is under contract with University of North Carolina Press. (Bio credit: S-USIH)

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Happy Birthday, John Jones!

John Jones, portrait by Mosher & Baldwin, 1882, courtesy of the Chicago History Museum

When I visited Springfield, Illinois this summer, I found a very interesting plaque at the Old State House downtown. It told the story of John Jones and his activism against Illinois’s Black Laws, a set of legal codes that pertained only to black people, and, as you likely and immediately supposed,  were terribly oppressive. Such laws have a long history in the United States and as long as they’ve been around, lovers of justice have been around to fight them. John Jones was one such person.

Born on November 3rd, 1816 to an American black mother and German white father, Jones had to make his own way early in the world. Jones’ mother did not trust his father to do right by his son so she apprenticed him to a tailor when he was very young. The resourceful Jones taught himself to read and write and, having learned what he needed to, he released himself from the tailor’s service by age 27. He then obtained official free papers for himself and his wife, née Mary Jane Richardson, and secured their freedom to live and travel by posting a $1,000 bond in 1844. While he and his wife were both born free, they had to worry about the numerous ‘fugitive’ slave catchers and kidnappers prowling around, all too happy to capture as many black persons as they could get ahold of, passing them off as escaped slaves in exchange for a substantial payoff.

The Joneses moved to Chicago from Alton, Illinois in 1845, where there was an established community of black entrepreneurs and therefore, more opportunities for families such as theirs. Jones worked hard and savvily, building up a very successful tailoring business and amassing an impressive fortune within just a few years. The Joneses used their success to help their fellow black citizens, making their home one of the key Chicago stops on the Underground Railroad. Jones poured much of his money and time into civil rights activism, working for the abolitionist cause and to overturn the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the already decades-old Black Laws of Illinois, sometimes with his fellow autodidact and activist Frederick Douglass. For the rest of his life, Jones was a prominent intellectual, moral, religious, and political leader in the black community of Chicago and beyond.

Learn more about the courageous civil rights leader John Jones at:

John Jones (1816–1879): Activist, politician, tailor, entrepreneur  ~ by Jessie Carney Smith for Encyclopedia.com

Jones, John ~ by Cynthia Wilson for Blackpast.org

Historical placard for John Jones, Old State House, Springfield, Illinois

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Photobook: Missouri Constitutional Rights Flag Captured by Union Soldiers on June 14th, 1861

Missouri Constitutional Rights Flag captured by Union soldiers on June 14th, 1861, Old State Capitol Building, Springfield, Illinois.

The claim that the Southern states seceded primarily over the Constitutional issue of states’ rights issues is an oft-repeated one, and I think a troubling one for many reasons. For one thing, it’s part of a long tradition of trying to sidestep or minimize the problems of race-based slavery and the resulting intransigent racism that has plagued our country since its formative years, often on the part of people who don’t want to support laws that promote racial equality. For another, this states’ rights claim was as disingenuous then as it is now: the Southern states seceded not because the federal government was trying to stop slavery in their states. There was, as yet, no concerted attempt to do so. They were incensed that the federal government, in their view, was not doing enough to enforce the legal right to own slaves in free states: by forcing local governments and private individuals, against their own philosophical and religious convictions, to return escaped slaves; to allow slaveowners to retain their rights to own slaves when they traveled and even moved to free states; and to extend the rights to own slaves to new territories.

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Should Life in Jail be Worse than Outside, on Principle? By Chris Barker

Sheriff’s House and Jail in Easton, Maryland, c. 1881

Approximately 2.3 million people in the United States are currently in prison or jail. (Prisons are run by federal or state authorities; jails are run locally.) China, a non-democratic regime with a population four times larger than the US, incarcerates fewer persons in per-capita and absolute terms. What’s more, most people in US jails today have not been convicted, meaning that they are being punished without trial. Since US jail admissions number approximately 11 million per year, pre-trial incarceration is, arguably, the real problem of ‘mass incarceration’.

The crucial concept governing carceral practices is something called ‘less eligibility’. The idea dates back to the English Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834, which codified English practices of dealing with the indigent. In 1832, the economist Nassau William Senior described how the ‘first and most essential of all conditions’ in administering relief to the poor (often by moving them into a workhouse) is that the indigent’s ‘situation on the whole shall not be made really or apparently so eligible as the situation of the independent labourer of the lowest class’. That is, the conditions in the workhouse should be awful: worse even than the poorest of the poor.

But even before Senior’s famous line, a different carceral ideal was afoot: equality. In 1791, writing specifically about criminal offenders, the English utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham argued that ‘the ordinary condition of a convict doomed to a punishment that few or none but the individuals of the poorest class are apt to incur, ought not to be made more eligible than that of the poorest class of subjects in a state of innocence and liberty’. As the historian Janet Semple observed in Bentham’s Prison (1993), his rule of severity is not ‘less eligibility’ but a more commonsense equality principle – offenders should have access to no more resources than they had while free. ‘Bentham,’ Semple wrote, ‘did not envisage grinding his convicts down to below the level of the poorest of the poor.’

Other countries do not run their jails and prisons according to a principle of less eligibility. German prisons operate under an ‘approximation’ principle, wherein offenders’ rights to privacy, dignity and property are protected. Norwegian prisons use a similar ‘normality principle’, which holds that daily prison life should be, as far as possible, no different from ordinary life. Fellow Englishman and Bentham disciple James Mill embraced the normality principle in 1825 by arguing that inmates in pre-trial incarceration should be allowed to lead the same life that they enjoyed prior to arrest, including access to employment and freedom to make small purchases with their own money. Today, US jails and prisons have rejected these examples in thrall to ‘less eligibility’, and not just for the poorest of the poor.

Why are the carceral practices in the US so harsh? Part of the reason is the vestige of a Christian-inspired desire to reform the offender’s soul. Around the time of the Revolution, the penitentiary’s ‘unsocial manner of life’ based on order, obedience and silence could seem plausible only to those who thought that they could achieve a ‘new victory of mind over matter’. Today, prolonged solitary confinement is coming to be seen for what it is: torture. Another reason, identified in James Whitman’s book Harsh Justice (2005), is populism. Elected prosecutors and judges are guided by popular, punitive attitudes in a way that unelected bureaucrats in countries such as Germany (or Canada) are not. Survey research shows that Canadian and US attitudes about punishment are similar, but Canada has much more lenient sentencing policies than the US because bureaucratic appointees, not elected officials, make decisions about punishment. Another layer is race. Warehousing black males is clearly an outcome, and perhaps also an important aim, of US criminal justice. The result of this grab-bag of influences is segregation without soul-craft, and discipline and surveillance without reform.

If, as I think, the aim of punishment is rehabilitation, it is hard to justify less rather than equal eligibility. But not all agree that rehabilitation is the primary aim of punishment. Deterrence theorists think that controlling crime is the most important aim of punishment. Retributivists hold that punishment should repay the harm done to another in a like manner: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.

As evidence that precisely the opposite happens in US prisons, The End of Punishment (2013) by the present-day retributivist Robert Blecker’s recounts an interview with a Tennessee Death Row correctional officer who feels like a waiter, and a guard who complains that Florida’s Death Row is ‘the best deal in the building’. Blecker is right that we should classify offences and offenders according to the severity of their crime. Perhaps the ADX Florence supermax prison should even be, as its ex-warden described it to CNN, ‘far much worse than death’ for the worst of the worst. But think about this: county jail is ‘hard time’, and harder than state prison, as I am told by a local jail administrator. Almost 500,000 held in US jails are being held pre-trial. The average jail time served is short. Offenders quickly return to their communities, but they are not prepared for re-entry. Even the average jail and prison time might actually help offenders to become worse.

Too often, the US conversation about criminal justice is about principles and theories of punishment: rehabilitation, retribution, deterrence. What I am arguing here is that these theories amount to little if we ignore less eligibility, or how we punish. Visiting a jail without an outdoor yard, where offenders have no physical contact with friends and family during their incarceration, or a prison where life unfolds within coils of obtrusive razor wire, is not a normal life, and doesn’t prepare you to return to normal life. As opinion in the US starts to move away from some punitive strategies such as solitary confinement, we should reconsider which of our other carceral practices meet or violate the crucial secondary principles (leniency, proportionality, egalitarianism) of a just criminal justice system.

In Germany, there are restrictions on types of uniforms, on partitioning visitors from offenders, and on the use of bars and peepholes in cells. There are also protections of offenders’ rights to privacy, information, public exposure, and leisure and culture, that do not exist in the US. In the US, courts have upheld the constitutionality of expressive punishments that demean offenders, pre-trial incarceration that looks punitive, and denials of privacy and dignity.

It is a tragedy if the attempt to have a just society with a suitable criminal justice system has been transformed into criminogenic warehousing, based on surveillance and discipline, which achieves few or none of the goals of punishment. It is foolishness to countenance such a system merely because it has not yet touched you. The road to the present state of affairs leads through less eligibility, which, on the surface, is a principle that makes sense: treat offenders to a life that is worse than life on the outside. After all, why should offenders have air conditioning if the farmer ‘living in innocence and liberty’ does not? But the answer is that it is too easy to forget the other constraints on the dignity, privacy and autonomy of those incarcerated in jails and prisons.

Our present system is costly and ineffective; it creates aberrant economies and empowers prison gangs that in turn influence street gangs. Prisons reproduce the cultural inadequacy of life on the inside on our streets and in popular culture, and when offenders are released into communities, their lack of rehabilitation justifies further segregation and other collateral consequences, such as employment and housing discrimination.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

~ Chris Barker is assistant professor of political science at Southwestern College in Kansas. (Bio credit: Aeon)

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Happy Birthday, John Adams!

John Adams by John Trumbull, 1793, National Portrait Gallery, Washington, D.C.

Like many who watched the excellent 2008 miniseries John Adams with Paul Giamatti in the title role and Laura Linney as Abigail Adams, my interest in the United States’ second president increased quite a bit. And when I read John Ellis’ Passionate Sage: The Character and Legacy of John Adams last year, I found myself thoroughly engrossed. I read of a man who was brilliant, insecure, honest, vain, visionary, retrograde, loving, selfish… all character traits which I believe are often found in the most interesting and accomplished people. The same traits that drive people to do wonderful and unusual things are often the same as, or found in conjunction with, those which make people thoroughly insufferable. For example, the insecure egoist’s need to be loved and admired provides the drive for accomplishment, and those who are intelligent enough to surpass most others in this regard are also intelligent enough to recognize it, resulting in vanity. Perhaps because I don’t have to put up with him personally, I can freely admire and even feel affection for Adams as the sensitive, flawed human being  revealed in his massive correspondence; an egoist who nevertheless was obsessed with justice and did his best to see it done in the world, who sacrificed his own posterity and a second term in office to preserve his new country from the existential threat of an ill-conceived war; whose dignity was far too easily wounded but at times proved himself a loyal friend even to those that betrayed him – Thomas Jefferson being a prime example.

Americans may have more easily forgiven all of this if he hadn’t championed the Alien and Sedition Acts and signed them into law, parts of which are seen today as contrary to essential American principles. In his fear that the bond between the states in his newly united country would break apart under the strain of war and the spiraling controversies of party politics, Adams overreached. But his legacy shouldn’t be overshadowed by this one, though admittedly significant, mistake. As Ellis writes for Encyclopædia Britannica,

Although Adams was regarded by his contemporaries as one of the most significant statesmen of the revolutionary era, his reputation faded in the 19th century, only to ascend again during the last half of the 20th century. The modern edition of his correspondence prompted a rediscovery of his bracing honesty and pungent way with words, his importance as a political thinker, his realistic perspective on American foreign policy, and his patriarchal role as founder of one of the most prominent families in American history.

Learn more about our oh-so-human, brilliant president John Adams at:

John Adams ~ Miniseries by HBO, 2008

John Adams As He Lived: Unpublished Letters to Dr. Benjamin Waterhouse, Professor of Physic at Harvard College ~ published in The Atlantic, May 1927

John Adams: The Case of the Missing John Adams Monument ~ Lillian Cunningham for the Presidential podcast series presented by The Washington Post

John Adams: President of the United States ~ Joseph J. Ellis for Encyclopædia Britannica

Plain Speaking: In David McCullough’s Telling, the Second President is Reminiscent of the 33rd (Harry Truman) ~ by Pauline Maier for The New York Times: Books, May 27, 2001

Sorry, HBO. John Adams Wasn’t That Much of a Hero ~ Jack Rakove for The Washington Post, April 20, 2008

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

Springfield, Illinois, In Search of Abraham Lincoln, Part 5

Downstairs hallway in the Lincoln Home with the Lincolns’ original hatstand – but no, not Abe’s original hat

Springfield, Illinois, Saturday, July 30th, 2017

I sleep in then linger over a continental breakfast-of-sorts in my rented room as I catch up on some rest, writing, and research. When I finally bestir myself in earnest, I head over to D’arcy’s Pint to enjoy a local delicacy for lunch. My brother John lived in Springfield for a time some years ago and told me I must eat a horseshoe while I’m in town. The internet tells me that this gastropub is the best place to enjoy this decadent regional take on the open-face sandwich, so here I am. I order a full-size one with the works, spicy, and a pint to wash it down with. They bring me a small mountain on a plate composed of Texas toast, french fries, ground meats, chopped tomatoes and other veggies, and cheese sauce, the spiciness added at the discretion of the diner from the little cup of (mildly) hot sauce on the side. It’s tasty enough, I can’t deny, and the cheese sauce is very good and appears to be homemade, not at all like the waxy bright yellow kind that comes from a can or jar. But it’s not the tastiest thing I’ve ever eaten: it’s really starchy. Potatoes and bread in one dish? Hmmm. Still, it’s plenty good enough to pack up the other half to eat later. The physically-demanding, hiking-heavy portion of my journey is far enough behind me now that I just can’t digest a heavy meal of this size all at once.

The Lincoln Home at the corner of Eighth and Jackson Streets, Springfield, Illinois. Abraham Lincoln planted the elm tree at the left.

Feeling pleasantly languorous, I return to the Lincoln Home Historic Site. The house where Abraham Lincoln, Mary Todd Lincoln, and their children lived from 1844 to 1861 stands at 413 S 8th St. It’s the only house where Lincoln lived that’s still standing except for the White House.  I park in front of the Visitor Center at 426 S 7th Street and buy my ticket for the next available tour. In the intervening forty-five minutes or so before my tour starts, I wander through the exhibits in the small museum/bookshop of the visitor center and obtain a little more information for the rest of my Illinois trip. There’s lots of great stuff here.

Another view of the exterior of the Lincolns’ home in Springfield, Illinois

A view of the front parlor at the Lincoln Home, Springfield, Illinois.

A few minutes before our scheduled time, I meet the little tour group outside on a bench on the grass-edged wide walkway leading from the Visitor Center to the Lincoln Home. It sits among a very tidy little neighborhood of historic homes from around the Lincolns’ time here. Houses from later periods were not preserved, and a few stand empty and neatly painted, but not yet restored. Since the only activity at the streets and houses here are visitors strolling and gazing, guided and informed by the signs erected in front of some of the homes and other points of interests, it feels more like a nice outdoor museum or park than a neighborhood.

The Lincoln Home dining room

The Lincoln Home living room, with a closeup of Mary Todd Lincoln’s sewing table at the right

A view of the Lincolns’ extra-long four-poster bed in their bedroom at the Lincoln Home. It was the best shot I could get given I had to wait for the crowd to pass, then had only a few seconds before they ushered me along.

It’s a two-story house and, with the additions that the Lincolns added over the years, a decent size for a household of two adults and three children. Mary bore four sons; as you may remember, Robert was born the year before they moved here. Sadly, little Eddie died just short of four years old in 1850. He was the Lincolns’ second child and the first to be born in this house. Almost ten months after Eddie’s death, William was born, followed by Thomas, called Tad, in 1853.

The house originally consisted of just the front two-story section, tall but narrow, and this part feels as small today as I’m sure it did for the growing Lincoln family. It may seem roomier if I was here without my fellow visitors all herded together to one side of each room by the guardrail. Still, everything seems just a few steps away. The relatively small rooms would be practical for the time: they were easier and cheaper to keep warm in winter, hard to do since double-pane windows weren’t a thing yet. And since they had no modern appliances, the smaller rooms would have made cleaning the house more manageable as well.

We wind our way upstairs to the bedrooms. Each has its own wallpaper pattern, which modern tastes would generally find too ‘busy’, but these patterns were very French and therefore, very fashionable. It was very important to Mary that her homes be stylish enough to welcome and impress visitors even from the highest and wealthiest social classes. She continued this practice of elaborate home decorating at the White House, and she was reviled by many, and still is, for being an irresponsible, image-obsessed spendthrift.

One of the children’s’ bedrooms on the upper floor of the Lincoln Home

But I don’t believe that Mary Todd’s insistence on style and elegance was the simple result of vanity or thirst for luxury. One of the things that originally drew Mary Todd and Abraham Lincoln to one another was their love of politics, and Mary, like Abraham, was ambitious; he on his own behalf, she mostly on his, since he was the only one who could engage actively in politics. She, like Abraham, was practical, and a woman’s sphere of influence then was in the home and in the entertainment of guests. She knew that her husband was more likely to be respected and admired as a political leader if he lived in homes that displayed taste, culture, and yes, money, since that was emblematic of responsibility, ability, and power. She was only one of many First Ladies who recognized this and who likewise put a lot of energy and money into making the White House a symbol of national pride and success. But she, I believe, has been the most reviled for it.

After viewing the upper floor and its bedrooms, we return to the ground floor and pass through the little kitchen. I think I would find it inconveniently small, but Mary was a petite woman, so perhaps that helped. At least everything was in easy reach! She did most of the household cooking, a new feature of her life once she married Abraham.

The cozy little kitchen in the Lincoln Home

Many considered their courtship and marriage a poor fit: Mary had grown up with all of the advantages of wealth while Abraham very much did not. But she, like many others once they got to know him, was impressed enough with his intelligence and character that his long background of debt and poverty didn’t seem to deter her much. But married life with Abraham was not always so easy for Mary. It wasn’t just that she had to learn to cook and to perform many of the household duties that the team of domestics at her parents’ house used to take care of. Over time, as Abraham became a more financially successful lawyer and then politician, they enjoyed a much more comfortable middle-class lifestyle and Mary had money to spend on her household and personal effects again. But Abraham was notoriously ‘deficient in those little links which make up the chain of a woman’s happiness,’ as one of his prior sweethearts observed, and often much less demonstrative of his feelings than Mary would wish.

Mary Todd Lincoln, ca 1860 – 1865, Brady-Handy Photograph Collection, public domain via the Library of Congress

Yet especially during the early and middle years of their marriage, despite Lincoln’s law partner and eventual biographer William H. Herndon‘s many negative portrayals, the couple were very loving, respectful, and supportive of one another. Yes, they quarreled at times; both of them were moody, willful people. When angered, Mary would vent her frustrations but Abraham would bottle his up and withdraw, which, no doubt, sometimes made matters worse. Abraham may have had to put up with a lot sometimes, but at least for much of their marriage, Mary had to put up with more. She had a lot more character and a lot less selfishness and vanity than Herndon and many others later gave her credit for later. After all, this was a woman who gave up a life of ease and wealth to marry an awkward-with-women, undemonstrative, unromantic, funny-looking guy of little means and few signs of promise besides his intelligence and charisma. She ended up with a faithful and hardworking but often absentee husband and father as he went out on the law circuit sometimes for weeks at a time, laying most of the household burdens on her shoulders. Their children were hard to deal with too: Mary and Abraham could not agree on a consistent method of discipline so they mostly gave it up, to the dismay of Lincoln’s colleagues at his law office and the White House since he’d sometimes bring his rambunctious kids to work.

Later on, the heartbreak at losing two of her children by the time she left the White House and the strain of public life took their toll on Mary. Mary was outspoken and decisive, and Victorian America was not yet accepting of such overt displays of will and opinion by women, especially by the First Lady, expected to be a model of decorum, of womanly modesty and restraint. But Mary would have none of it, and she made many enemies with her cutting wit, sarcasm, and displays of temper. She stood up for herself, not always gracefully, and this did not make her popular. Mary’s emotions, her depressions and passionate outbursts, became more volatile and frequent over time, and the Lincolns’ relationship was often more severely strained than ever. But although they very different ways of expressing themselves, Mary and Abraham shared the sources of their pain and remained as supportive of one another as they knew how to be, and loyal to one another, for the rest of their lives.

Site of Abraham and Mary Lincoln’s second home on 4th St just north of Adams, Springfield, IL 2017 Amy Cools

We complete the tour of the house and I zigzag north and west, returning to central downtown Springfield. I had confirmed the location of a few more sites in my research this morning, and in books and maps I found at the Lincoln Home Visitor Center while I was waiting for the tour to begin. The next site I visit is on 4th St, just north of Adams St, on the east side. There’s only a parking lot here now, where used to stand a modest three-room frame house. Search as I may, there seems to be no photo of the house, or, as the historical plaque at the site describes it, cottage. The Lincolns and their infant son Robert moved here in the fall of 1843. They didn’t want to raise their children in a bustling hotel, though the Globe Tavern was a nice enough place for a young couple, so they moved into the best home they could afford until Lincoln’s practice began bringing in enough money again for something better. They were here only about a year before they moved into their permanent home on 8th St.

Lincoln was still paying off old debts, and as you may remember from the last installment of my Lincoln story, his law partner at the time, Stephen T. Logan, was a little tightfisted with the practice’s money. But as Lincoln became better known and more in demand; with a little help from Mary’s father, who liked Abraham despite the fact that he couldn’t yet provide his daughter a more comfortable lifestyle; and with Lincoln’s new senior partnership with Herndon in late 1844, they felt able to afford the 8th St house that same winter.

Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, Springfield, Illinois. The Library building stands on the site of Mr. and Mrs. Simeon Francis’ home, where Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd renewed their courtship.

Then I return to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. On my first day here, I missed the sign that indicated that the Library stands on the house site of Eliza and Simeon Francis; the sign is across the street on the sidewalk next to the business building and PNC bank parking lot. Simeon Francis was the editor of Sangamo Journal and had become close friends with Lincoln in this capacity. Lincoln was a regular contributor to the editorial page through much of the 1830’s. After Mary Todd moved to town in 1839, she and Eliza Francis became close friends as well. Within the first year of their courtship, Lincoln panicked and broke off his engagement with Mary Todd on New Year’s Day, 1841 (what a day to choose, Lincoln!), and they didn’t speak much for a while.

Close-ups from the Looking for Lincoln sign for the Francis home site

But they shared so many acquaintances, friends, and interests that they were inevitably brought together again, especially by their friend Eliza. They were reconciled in this house the next year and met regularly here to renew their courtship in secret. They didn’t want their relationship to be the subject of gossip and public speculation as to the reasons for the breakup and the renewal of their relationship. I’m guessing this may have been caution especially on Mary’s part: she was pretty head over heels for this guy; her family didn’t approve of him as a match for her however much they may have liked him personally; and she had observed how the normally gregarious and social Lincoln became awkward, shy, and skittish in the presence of most women. But when they were alone, Abraham and Mary got along excellently and had much to talk about. It all went so well this time around that Abraham and Mary Todd were married on November 4th, 1842.

Site of the old Baptist Church at the southwest corner of 7th & Adams Sts where the Young Men’s Lyceum was held. Lincoln delivered his famous Lyceum Address here on January 27th, 1838.

I continue two blocks south and one block east to the northwest corner of 7th and Adams Sts. There’s a Looking for Lincoln sign here on E Adams which points out the site across the street.

The Young Men’s Lyceum used to meet here at the old Baptist Church from 1838-1840. Early on during their tenure here, on January 27th, 1938, Lincoln addressed the young men with a speech titled The Perpetuation of Our Political Institutions. Now known as the Lyceum Address, Lincoln spoke against the ‘mobocracy’ which he feared was becoming too common a substitution for reasoned debate and institutional reform in American life. The rancor between abolitionist and pro-slavery sympathizers was growing, breaking out in increasing numbers of violent episodes. The Lyceum Address revolves around the lynching of Francis McIntosh, a young freeman of mixed-African and European descent, who was lynched in St. Louis less than two years before Lincoln’s address here.

Lovejoy on the lynching of McIntosh in The Observer, May 5, 1835

McIntosh was working on a steamboat that docked in St Louis, and on his way to visit his girlfriend, he stumbled upon two policemen pursuing another man who had been in a drunken brawl. McIntosh did not obey the policeman’s shouted orders for his to help them catch the man. Like the average American of African descent, free or enslaved, McIntosh was very likely not in the habit of mixing himself up in any circumstance that involved police or government officials, for the simple reason that very few of them had any interest in dispensing justice to people like himself, especially in slave states like Missouri. The drunk man got away and McIntosh was arrested instead. When the police officers threatened him with five years in jail, in a slave state, remember, McIntosh panicked. He grabbed a knife and fled, killing one officer and wounding the other. He was caught and jailed again. A mob gathered, broke him out, chained him to a tree, and burned him alive. At first McIntosh begged for someone from the crowd, anyone, to shoot him and release him from his torture; when no one was willing to show even this level of mercy, he prayed and sang hymns until the pain and the flames silenced him for good.

Abolitionist minister and editor of The Observer Elijah Lovejoy picked up the story and, contrary to most of the press, condemned this episode as an episode of wickedness and lawlessness. Proslavery sympathizers ran a sabotage campaign against his St Louis press until he was forced to move across the Missouri River to Alton. But he was not safe there, either, and on November 7, 1837, a mob attacked the warehouse where he had hidden his press in a vain attempt at safety. They shot into the warehouse while Lovejoy and his supporters were inside. Forced to defend themselves, they shot back, wounding some members of the mob and killing one. In revenge, the mob tried to burn down the warehouse with the men still inside it, and Lovejoy was shot to death when he emerged to stop them. As was the case with McIntosh, the judge voiced his support for the mob and no-one was convicted of the murder.

Lincoln feared that his beloved country would devolve from an enlightened union of states founded on principles of reason and reverence for the rule of law into an association weakened and fractured by the same ideological intolerance and strife which marked old Europe. He did not fear that any European, or Asian, or African nation, or any other foreign power, could destroy the United States: he recognized that in this, the only thing Americans had to fear was themselves. Lincoln’s fear was prescient: Bleeding Kansas was still twenty-six years away, the Civil War thirty-three. When he delivered this speech, Lincoln was just short of 29 years old. He had been first elected a state legislator less than four years before and had been a practicing lawyer for less than a year. While ambitious for high office, I doubt that even Lincoln’s prophetic skills could help him foresee that he would be leading his nation to the ‘new birth of freedom’ he spoke of in his even more famous 1863 Gettysburg Address, with strengthened political institutions that could, it was hoped, better serve a government ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people’ – but all the people this time around. We’re still working on it.

The Gettysburg Address on the Wills House wall in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania; photo taken during my visit there in 2016

The foyer of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, Springfield, Illinois

It’s early evening, and those leftovers are sounding pretty good right now. The last places I’d like to follow Lincoln here in Springfield will be open tomorrow, so I return to my lodging.

Springfield, Illinois, Sunday, July 31st, 2017

I begin my day at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and get a little writing done. I would love to dig into the archives here, which now include the Robert Ingersoll Papers, but I’m itching to get back on the road. I have this big comfy rental car (a free upgrade since the first one broke down) and only a certain number of road trip days left before I leave the U.S. for a while. But I’ll certainly be back here again.

A five minute’s drive north from the Library takes me to the Edwards Place Historic Home, now owned and operated by the Springfield Art Association. I enter the visitor center to the right of the house, and though I don’t have anything scheduled, a woman on staff there was kind enough to take me on a one-on-one tour. My timing is lucky: before long it will be closed to the public for restoration, at least until May 2018. As it is, I get to see some of the rooms decorated and ready for the public complete with nice carpet, wallpaper, artifacts original to the family and to the time period, as well as other rooms and passageways in various stages of disrepair, construction, and deconstruction. I see layers of plaster, wood, wallpaper, and paint peeled and cut away, little doorways into its history. Particularly revealing to me, familiar with vintage and antique textiles, I recognize various attempts at recreating the house’s antebellum history more or less successfully in the wallpapers, with 1990’s, 1960’s-1970’s, 1920’s, and other eras’ ideas of what wallpaper from the time would look like.  None of it looks at all like the Edwards’ own wallpaper peeking out from where bits of it had escaped the remodelers’ scrapers.

Edwards Place Historical Home, Springfield, Illinois

A view inside the Edwards Place Historical Home before planned restoration

The house was originally built in 1833 and expanded to its current grand dimensions after Benjamin and Helen Dodge Edwards bought the house in 1843. Benjamin Edwards was the brother of Mary Todd’s sister Elizabeth’s husband Ninian, named for the Edward brothers’ father. When Mary Todd moved to town in 1840 and settled in with her older sister Elizabeth, Mary and Helen became good friends. When Helen and her husband moved to this house three years later, Mary and her new husband Abraham were regular guests.

As Springfield Art Association says on their website, the

‘Edwards Place was a center for social activity in Springfield. Prominent citizens and politicians such as Lincoln, Stephen A. Douglas, David Davis, and numerous governors, judges, lawyers, and politicians were entertained at lavish dinner parties and the grounds played host to many summer picnics and political rallies…. Although the Lincolns did not court or marry here, Edwards Place is currently home to the “courting couch” on which Lincoln and Mary Todd sat during the early days of their romance, originally the property of Ninian Edwards.’

The Lincolns’ courting couch at Edwards Place Historical Home, Springfield, Illinois

The website’s article points out that I made the same mistake many people do: I mixed up the Edwards houses. This Edwards house, which currently houses the famous black horsehair couch where Abraham and Mary courted, is not the same house where that couch originally was, where the Lincolns originally courted and were married. These Edwards moved into this house the year after the Lincolns were married. The other Edwards house site, where Ninian and Elizabeth Edwards welcomed Elizabeth’s younger sister Mary into their home in 1840, is where the Michael J. Howlett building now stands. That’s downtown near where I just came from. Well, no matter. It’s only a five-minute or so backtrack.

Michael J. Howlett Building, Springfield, Illinois

I find a parking spot near the Michael J. Howlett building–not easy to do since its a workday–and look for a plaque or marker. There’s sure to be one since it’s the site of such significance in Lincoln’s life. I don’t see one at first, so I visit the Illinois State Archive, the next building to the west of the Howlett building. The man at the front desk there doesn’t know of such a thing but hazards a few guesses. However, before I go on that little goose chase, the man looking after the state employee parking lot passes by. I tell him what I’m looking for, and he knows right off. Of course! He spends his days out here where it’s likely to be found. I follow his directions: if you start from the Howlett building sign on E Edwards St, head north on the driveway towards the Illinois State Capitol Building following the west side of the Howlett building. Turn right at the corner of the building, then look low on the outer wall of the accessible ramp. That’s why I missed it: it’s well below eye level, and not on a structure, or rather, the part of the structure, that I expected it to be on.

North (back) of the Michael J. Howlett building where the Edwards house site historical plaque is set low in the on the ramp wall

Mary Todd Lincoln returned to this house many years after her years in Springfield as a vivacious debutante, fiancée, wife of a lawyer and congressman, mother of a brood of wild young boys, and new First Lady. Her sister Elizabeth discovered that her oldest son Robert had her committed to an insane asylum in 1875 and was dismayed. Mary had lost her husband and three sons and had increasingly had a terrible time after each one. She may have struggled with what today we might call a mental illness, but since emotional issues were so poorly understood by the medical establishment at the time (as they are, in many ways, in our time) and there was no one to give a qualified assessment at the time, I won’t repeat modern diagnostic speculations here. Robert and Mary had not gotten along for a long time, and we can’t know for sure if he thought she really needed to be committed or if he was just wanted to get her out of the way and out of the bank accounts. She had adopted many unsettling habits, such as consulting spiritualists and alternating heavy spending on trifles she never used with eccentric miserly behavior, fearing poverty despite her generous government pension. Mary was able to get herself released from the asylum into the care of Elizabeth. She lived here for a time then moved to France for awhile until her health significantly declined, then returned to live with Elizabeth. She died here on July 16th, 1882.

Edwards House site historical plaque on the north (back) side of the Michael J. Howlett building

Having visited all the sites on my list as well as a few I discovered during this journey, I continue on from Springfield to one more very important place associated with Lincoln’s life and ideas, and then arrive at another amazing place this evening. Stay tuned!

Ordinary Philosophy and its Traveling Philosophy / History of Ideas series is a labor of love and ad-free, supported by patrons and readers like you. Please offer your support today!

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Sources and inspiration:

Abraham Lincoln Online: Edwards PlaceLincoln Family TimelineLincoln Legal Career Timeline, Lincoln Timelines and Highlights, and Lyceum Address

Andreasen, Bryon C. Looking for Lincoln in Illinois: Lincoln’s Springfield. Southern Illinois University Press, 2015

Baker, Jean H. ‘Mary Todd Lincoln: Managing Home, Husband, and Children.Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Volume 11, Issue 1, 1990, pp. 1-12

Carwardine, Richard. Lincoln: A Life of Purpose and Power. New York: Random House, 2003

Central Springfield Historic District‘ National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, Prepared by Nicholas P. Kalogeresis for the National Park Service.

Donald, David Herbert. Lincoln. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995

Edwards Place Historical Home website and page on the Springfield Art Association website

Graham, Beckett and Susan Vollenweider. ‘Mary Todd Lincoln,’ Parts One and Two. The History Chicks podcast

Gourevitch, Philip. ‘Abraham Lincoln Warned Us About Donald Trump‘. The New Yorker, March 15, 2016

Herndon, William H. and Jesse W. Weik. Herndon’s Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life. 1889

Lehrman, Lewis E. Lincoln at Peoria: The Turning Point. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2008.

Lincoln Home National Historic Site, Illinois, website by the National Park Service

Looking for Lincoln: various historical/informational placards throughout the Springfield, Illinois and surrounding areas about the life and legacy of Abraham Lincoln at their associated sites

MacLean, Maggie. ‘Elizabeth Todd Edwards: Sister of Mary Todd Lincoln.’ Civil War Women blog, Jul 28, 2013

Nicolay, John George. An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln: John G. Nicolay’s Interviews and Essays. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2006

Simon, Paul. Freedom’s Champion-Elijah Lovejoy. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, 2004

Wright, John Aaron. Discovering African American St. Louis: A Guide to Historic Sites. St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society Press, 2002