This year brings all things Frederick Douglass to O.P., in celebration of the bicentennial of the great human rights activist’s birth, one especially dear to my mind and heart. So here I share my favorite episode of Drunk History, in which comedian and screenwriter Jen Kirkman drinks two bottles of wine before she tells Douglass’ story. It also stars Don Cheadle as Frederick Douglass, Will Farrell as Abraham Lincoln, and Zooey Deschanel as Mary Todd Lincoln. Directed by Jeremy Konner. Prepare for some aching ribs…
New Salem, Sunday, July 31st, 2017
From the Michael J. Howlett building in downtown Springfield (part of which stands on the site of the Ninian Edwards house where Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln were married and where Mary died), I head northwest on highway 97 to New Salem Historic Park. This is the site of New Salem, the small frontier commercial village which played no small role in Lincoln’s life as a young man striking out on his own. It’s a pleasant drive through farmland with homes and farm buildings and gas stations and tiny general stores scattered here and there. In a little under half an hour, I reach a wooded area, and soon after that, take the turnout to my left to New Salem. I stop for a snack at the little cafe offering a modest selection of hot dogs, nachos, sandwiches, and other things that take the edge off but don’t suffice as a meal. The park’s visitor center buildings are all closed because the air conditioning system isn’t working. I don’t blame them at all for not opening up: it feels very much like a summer day in the Midwest, hot and humid, and I imagine a full day indoors would get stuffy and miserable. But the park itself is open to roam, so I do… Read the written version here
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… Read the written version here
Let’s remember and salute the great Abraham Lincoln, father of our nation painfully reborn through the Civil War, on his birthday.
Born on February 12th, 1809, this child of a poor Kentucky farm family was largely self-educated yet rose to become our most revered President since George Washington. He was a hard-working man, from farm laborer and rail splitter to flatboat operator on the Mississippi River, then shop owner, militia captain, postmaster, lawyer, politician, then President of the United States. A popular man revered for his storytelling, conversation, intelligence, and general reputation for high integrity, Lincoln won his second campaign for political office and entered the House of Representatives in 1834. He was a successful and innovative lawyer and revered for his speechmaking. His series of debates with Democratic senator Stephen Douglas in 1858 thrust him into the national spotlight, and while he lost the race to replace Douglas in the Congress that year, his reputation continued to grow, and he defeated Douglas in the presidential race two years later. He won the Presidency as head of the newly formed anti-slavery Republican party.
Lincoln’s antipathy to slavery was heightened by a memory from his flatboat trip to New Orleans, where he witnessed its horrors first hand. Over the years, his political antislavery position fluctuated although the institution of slavery disgusted him personally. For most of his political career, he advocated the moderate policy of stopping slavery’s spread to the new territories, leaving it in place where it already existed in the expectation that economic and cultural changes would naturally lead to its demise. But the intransigence of the slave states and the contingencies of the Civil War, combined with his own moral hatred of slavery, caused him to change his mind. Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of January 1, 1863 freed all slaves in those states in rebellion, and nearly 200,000 freed black men fought for the Union Army, helping to ensure its eventual success.
Even given his childhood poverty and lack of education, I find Lincoln’s success even more remarkable in light of the recurrent and severe depression he suffered throughout his life. While it can be crippling, it can also make sufferers that much more attuned to the suffering of fellow human beings, deepening the understanding of human nature and increasing the capacity for sympathy. Lincoln was one of these, and his suffering refined his sensitivities and strengthened him, helping to make him the great man he became.
Having led the nation through the trauma and horror of the Civil War, Lincoln was assassinated only a month after his re-inauguration to the Presidency in 1964, shot in the head on April 14th by pro-slavery actor John Wilkes Booth while attending a play at Ford’s Theater.
Here some writings and works of art by, about, featuring, and inspired by Abraham Lincoln, including some of my own work.
Abraham Lincoln: President of the United States ~ by Richard N. Current for Encyclopædia Britannica
April the 14th, Part I ~ song by Gillian Welch
Lincoln’s Great Depression ~ by Joshua Wolf Shenk for The Atlantic: Abraham Lincoln fought clinical depression all his life, and if he were alive today, his condition would be treated as a “character issue”—that is, as a political liability. His condition was indeed a character issue: it gave him the tools to save the nation
To the Great Plains and Illinois I Go, in Search of Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Abraham Lincoln, and Other American Histories ~ by Amy Cools for Ordinary Philosophy
Abraham Lincoln also features prominently in my traveling history of ideas series about the life and ideas of Frederick Douglass. Here are the pieces in that series which feature Lincoln:
Frederick Douglass Lynn Sites, Part 2: Historical Society & Hutchinson Scrapbook
Frederick Douglass, Rochester NY Sites Day 2
Frederick Douglass Seneca Falls, Canandaigua, Honeoye, and Mt Hope Cemetery Sites
Frederick Douglass Chambersburg and Gettysburg PA Sites
Frederick Douglass Washington DC Sites, Day 1, Part 1
Frederick Douglass Washington DC Sites, Day 1, Part 2
Frederick Douglass Washington DC Sites, Last Day
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, Saturday, July 29th, 2017, continued
I leave the Myers Building at the former site of Joshua Fry Speed’s store and Abraham Lincoln’s last law office on S 5th Street, and head north, crossing E Washington St, and continue halfway up the block. On my left (west), at 109 N 5th St / NW Old State Capitol Plaza, is a historical marker for the Stuart & Lincoln Law Office. John Todd Stuart was Lincoln’s first law partner, the man from whom he borrowed the law books he needed for his legal training, and his future wife Mary Todd’s first cousin. Lincoln received his license to practice law two years after he began his studies, and joined Stuart’s law practice as a junior partner in April of 1837. He was living over Speed’s store, having moved here to Springfield to embark on his legal career, so he walked more or less the same route to get to work as I walk today from the Myers Building… Read the written version here
Robert Burns, aka ‘the Bard’, is, as you may know, one of Scotland’s most honored sons. His poems and songs are widely regarded as among the most beautiful and resonant literary creations of all of Scotland’s people. Some of the people I’ve written about for Ordinary Philosophy were inspired and influenced by Burns, notably Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. I’ll be writing much more and regularly about Burns before long in the context of my upcoming Frederick Douglass in Scotland series and pieces on the Scottish history of ideas, stay tuned!
In honor of Robert Burns’s birthday celebration, aka Burns Night, the National Library of Scotland put one of his original letters on display for a few hours today, with a little informational card that provides a brief context. I’ll be elaborating on the significance of his planned emigration to Jamaica in my next Douglass series as well.
The letter reads:
My Dr Friend,
I have been very throng every since I saw you, and have not got the wh[ole of my] promise performed to you: but you know [the old] Proverb “The break o’ day’s no the bre[ak o’ a] bargain” – Have patience and I will [pay you] all. – I thank you with the most heart-felt sincerity for the worthy knot of lads you introduced me to. – Never did I meet with so many congenial souls together, without one dissonant jar in the Concert. To all and each of them make my friendly Complnts particularly “spunkie, youthfu’ Tammy.” Remember me in the most respectful [manner to the] Baillie, and Mrs Niven, Mr Dun, and the two truly worthy old Gentlemen I had the honor of being introduced to on Friday; tho’ I am afraid the conduct you forced me on may make them see me in a light I would fondly think I do not deserve. –
I will perform the rest of my promise soon. – In the mean time, remember this, never blow my Songs amo[ng] the Million, as I would abhor to hear every Prentice mouthing my poor performances in the streets. – Every one of [my] Maybole friends are welcome to a Copy, if they chuse; but [I w]ish them to go no farther. – I mean it as a small [mark] of my respect for them: a respect as sincere as the [faith] of dying SAINTS. –
I am ever, My Dr Willm Your oblidged,
Springfield, Illinois, Saturday, July 29th, 2017, continued
After my visit to the Old State House, I notice one of those Looking for Lincoln historical placards on a building to my left as I walk towards my next destination. It’s an attractive three-story red and yellow brick Italianate building from the later 1800’s, too late to be from Lincoln’s time. I draw near and read the placard and the small house-shaped bronze plaque near it.
This building stands at the southeast corner of 6th and Adams, on the former site of the American House Hotel. It was the largest hotel in Illinois, admired for its huge size and praised for its lavish, exotic, ‘Turkish’ interior design. Despite its reputation and the fact that it was the hotel of choice for dignitaries and the better-off, there doesn’t seem to be any easy-to-find photos of it. There’s one on the placard of the Old State House with the plain white walls of the three-story, rather plain Hotel in the distance, but that’s about it. I can find no photos of its splendiferous interior either. It stood here from 1838-1870, a little too long ago for me to find a postcard image of it, my tried and true source type for images of historic buildings… Read the written version here