Friday, May 29, 2009

Lincoln Bicentennial

The Lincoln Bicentennial site is functioning again.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Long-lost Lincoln letter returned

An extremely valuable letter by Abraham Lincoln dated November 14, 1863 -- missing from public records for maybe 100 years -- has been donated today by a private collector to the National Archives.

The brief note on Executive Mansion letterhead in the President's handwriting signed "A.Lincoln" was sent to Treasury Secretary Salmon Chase. It was written five days before Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, providing insight into the president's regard for a personal friend and his interest in West Coast politics even in the midst of the Civil War.

National Archivists discovered the Lincoln letter being sold online in 2006. It originally had been torn or fallen from an 1880 bound volume of government correspondence to the Treasury Department. There is no evidence that the letter was ever stolen, and how it went missing remains a mystery.

When contacted by Archivists, the letter's owner, Lawrence Cutler, a private collector in Tempe, Arizona decided to donate it during the bicentennial of Lincoln's birthday. Cutler would not disclose what he paid for the letter at auction three years ago, but said a similar Lincoln letter sold for $78,000.

Lincoln's note concerns the misfortunes of Robert Stevens, the son-in-law of Lincoln's old friend, Oregon Sen. Edward Baker. Baker, a fellow Republican, died in battle in 1861. That year, Lincoln had appointed Stevens to a patronage job as head of the U.S. Mint in San Francisco. However, in April, 1863 Treasury Secretary Chase fired Stevens based on an investigative report listing six charges against Stevens:

1) the hiring of bad men
2) partiality as to the wages of clerks and laborers
3) encouragement of insubordination and contempt for authority
4) "Sponges and Barnacles" on the payroll
5) purchase of inferior supplies at exorbitant rates
6) being arrogant and discourteous to his managers.

Stevens protested his firing, finally resorting to writing to President Lincoln. While Lincoln was not willing to override Chase's decision, he did feel that Stevens deserved to see the charges againt him, and that prompted the President to write this newly returned letter:

Hon. Sec. of Treasury

My Dear Sir,

Mr. Stevens, late Superintendent of the Mint at San Francisco, asks to have a copy, or be permitted to examine, and take extracts, of the evidence upon which he was removed. Please oblige him in one way or the other.

Yours truly, A.Lincoln

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Obama Chooses Sotomayor for Supreme Court Nominee

First Off the Tee: Presidential Hackers, Duffers, and Cheaters

On a lighter side:

Presidents who cheat at golf? What's next? A Washington correspondent for the New York Times, Van Natta has the inside scoop on presidential golfers both then and now: who has game, who doesn't and who should lay down his clubs in deference to those who appreciate fair play. From the best (John Kennedy and Franklin D. Roosevelt) to the worst (Calvin Coolidge and Ronald Reagan), to the cheaters (Bill Clinton and Lyndon Johnson), Van Natta shares insights about our nation's leaders and their passion for the game. Lyndon Johnson used golf to intimidate political opponents. Woodrow Wilson played every day, often during political crises. JFK feared the implications of public knowledge of his prowess. The public had not appreciated Eisenhnower's obsession (played as many as 100 times per year), since golf was still seen as a "rich man's game," and not an appropriate activity for the "champion of the people." Van Natta's research is impressive and his writing style is engaging, but the text feels a bit like a one-trick pony. Filled with anecdotal bits and pieces, there is more of interest here to historians than to serious golfers.


For the record Obama has a 16 handicap.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Capitalism’s Fault Lines

It comes as something of a surprise that Posner, a doyen of the market-oriented law-and-economics movement, should deliver a roundhouse punch to the proposition that markets are self-correcting. It might also seem odd that a federal appellate judge (and University of Chicago law lecturer) would be among the first out of the gate with a comprehensive book on the financial crisis — if, that is, the judge were any other judge. But Posner is the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s successor as the country’s most omnivorous and independent-minded public intellectual. By now, his dozens of books just about fill their own wing in the Library of ­Congress.

Memorial Day

Memorial Day, originally called Decoration Day, is a day of remembrance for those who have died in our nation's service. There are many stories as to its actual beginnings, with over two dozen cities and towns laying claim to being the birthplace of Memorial Day. There is also evidence that organized women's groups in the South were decorating graves before the end of the Civil War: a hymn published in 1867, "Kneel Where Our Loves are Sleeping" by Nella L. Sweet carried the dedication "To The Ladies of the South who are Decorating the Graves of the Confederate Dead" (Source: Duke University's Historic American Sheet Music, 1850-1920). While Waterloo N.Y. was officially declared the birthplace of Memorial Day by President Lyndon Johnson in May 1966, it's difficult to prove conclusively the origins of the day. It is more likely that it had many separate beginnings; each of those towns and every planned or spontaneous gathering of people to honor the war dead in the 1860's tapped into the general human need to honor our dead, each contributed honorably to the growing movement that culminated in Gen Logan giving his official proclamation in 1868. It is not important who was the very first, what is important is that Memorial Day was established. Memorial Day is not about division. It is about reconciliation; it is about coming together to honor those who gave their all.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Outlaws in Love

Finally tracked down and killed themselves on May 23, 1934, Bonnie and Clyde remained all but forgotten, relegated to pulp magazines and a B movie or two, for 30 years. The infamy they enjoy today can be traced almost exclusively to the wonderfully filmed, if thematically wrongheaded, 1967 movie “Bonnie and Clyde,” a paean to hippie-era themes of anti-­authoritarianism and youth rebellion. Before the movie, there had been precisely one substantial biography. In the last nine years alone, by my count, there have been 10.

And now, in time for the 75th anniversary of the pair’s deaths on a Louisiana road, come 11 and 12. The one to pick up is “Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde,” by Jeff Guinn, which is easily readable and includes much of the last two decades’ new scholar­ship. The one to avoid is “Bonnie and Clyde: The Lives Behind the Legend,” by Paul Schneider, a book whose idiosyncrasies include the author’s devotion to such italicized gun sounds as, on Page 8 alone, Pop! Pop! and Blam! and Rata rata rat.
Our cultural love affair with 1930s era villians never ends.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Meander Where You May?

Gintaras and others:

How do you feel about having an ongoing meander corner where we can initiate other conversations? Seems like there will always be book-related conversations that meander beyond the boundaries of American history, biography, and literature. That said, I can take it down, if there's no interest.

de Tocqueville on Slavery

"The danger of a conflict between the white and the black inhabitants of the Southern states of the Union (a danger which, however remote it may be, is inevitable) perpetually haunts the imagination of the Americans, like a painful dream. The inhabitants of the North make it a common topic of conversation, although directly they have nothing to fear from it; but they vainly endeavor to devise some means of obviating the misfortunes which they foresee. In the Southern states the subject is not discussed: the planter does not allude to the future in conversing with strangers; he does not communicate his apprehensions to his friends; he seeks to conceal them from himself. But there is something more alarming in the tacit forebodings of the South than in the clamorous fears of the North."

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Homestead Act of 1862

On January 1, 1863, Daniel Freeman, a Union Army scout, was scheduled to leave Gage County, Nebraska Territory, to report for duty in St. Louis. At a New Year's Eve party the night before, Freeman met some local Land Office officials and convinced a clerk to open the office shortly after midnight in order to file a land claim. In doing so, Freeman became one of the first to take advantage of the opportunities provided by the Homestead Act, a law signed by President Abraham Lincoln on May 20, 1862. At the time of the signing, 11 states had left the Union, and this piece of legislation would continue to have regional and political overtones.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

David Herbert Donald

David Herbert Donald died yesterday.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Even God Quotes Tocqueville

Brogan’s expertise pays constant rewards to the reader. His knowledge of 19th-century French politics is comprehensive and his attention to context punctilious. Nor does he beat around the bush: Tocqueville’s cousin and confidant Louis de Kergorlay is “a young idiot” and the legitimist insurrectionist the Duchesse de Berry “one of the silliest princesses in all European history.” And although this book is rigorously chronological, it detours into mini-essays on pivotal topics — Tocqueville’s relationship with his invalid mother; Foucault’s reading of Tocqueville’s ideas of incarceration; and so forth. It is never dreary. Tocqueville’s life is always a pulsing intellectual and political drama.

But it is a drama in which Brogan is mostly at odds with his subject. Tocqueville’s goal as a deputy during the 1848 revolution was to protect both liberty and order. In Brogan’s view, he did a poor job of distinguishing between the two. Brogan blames conservative property owners for the excesses of the socialist revolutionaries. “The notables,” he writes, “Tocqueville among them, projected their own violent hatred and panic onto the urban workers, and in doing so created the very monster which they feared.” Brogan faults Tocqueville for “impudence,” “blindly prejudiced” views, an “obsessive cult of property” and a “ruthless hostility” to lower-class Parisians. That Tocqueville now considered himself a republican meant little. “Whatever he called himself,” Brogan writes, “the nobles knew that he was one of them.”

What I'm reading now

I am reading War & Peace and dipping into Benedetta Craveri's Age of Conversation when the mood takes me.

I was seduced into enlisting here by an "almost promise" that we might all read and discuss
Tocqueville's Democracy in America one of these days.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

What's on Your Reading List?

While we wait for everyone to get their books, I thought it might be interesting to see what everyone has stacked up on their side tables or desks.

Right now my biggest "to-be-read" is a book on Jefferson (sorry Chartres) that Bisbanes highly recommended during the cspan tour of his library: Road to Monticello, about Jefferson's intellectual development and the books he read. I also have The Last Indian War by Elliott West about the Nez Perce waiting, highly recommended by Bo -- or at least referenced by Bo, which I take as a recommendation.

I'm sure I have some fiction around here somewhere, too, but I don't see any other than The March, which I think I'll try this week.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Marx to Lincoln

Great open letter from Marx (on behalf of the International Working Men's Association) to Lincoln in 1864,

We congratulate the American people upon your re-election by a large majority. If resistance to the Slave Power was the reserved watchword of your first election, the triumphant war cry of your re-election is Death to Slavery.

From the commencement of the titanic American strife the workingmen of Europe felt instinctively that the star-spangled banner carried the destiny of their class. The contest for the territories which opened the dire epopee, was it not to decide whether the virgin soil of immense tracts should be wedded to the labor of the emigrant or prostituted by the tramp of the slave driver?

and here's more by Marx on the Civil War.

Essential Lincoln Bookshelf

A lot of good stuff on the Lincoln Bicentennial website I have bookmarked in the margin, such as a lengthy Essential Lincoln Bookshelf. Curious how this matches up with Robert's, av's and other Lincoln shelves. You will all be pleased to know Team of Rivals made the shelf.

Also, reviews of recent and upcoming books in Forthcoming Books.


The Lincoln Bicentennial site is up and running again.

Monday, May 11, 2009

A Prayer for the Dying

Maybe a bit on the morbid side, but sounds like a fascinating study of the Civil War just the same:

Faust shows [in This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War] how American institutions adapted to the staggering burden of this new kind of war and wholesale death with a blend of can-do humanitarianism, pragmatic improvisation, mawkish sentimentality, political cant, commercial hucksterism and downright fraud. Freelance embalmers flocked to battlefields in the aftermath of the fighting. "Bodies taken from Antietam Battle Field and delivered to Cars or Express Office at short notice and low rates," read the business card of one entrepreneur. "Bodies Embalmed by us NEVER TURN BLACK! But retain their natural color and appearance," boasted another. In 1863, a Washington undertaker was imprisoned on charges of making a practice of recovering and embalming dead soldiers without permission and then extorting payment from families that wanted the bodies returned.

Faust convincingly demonstrates that the trauma of the Civil War revolutionized the American military's approach to caring for the dead and notifying families. After the war, a massive and superbly organized effort by the War Department to recover, identify and rebury Union dead in newly established national cemeteries was an act of atonement for the nation's failings during the war itself.

Harry Truman's Excellent Adventure

Harry hits the road:

In this lively history, author Matthew Algeo meticulously details how Truman’s plan to blend in went wonderfully awry. Fellow diners, bellhops, cabbies, squealing teenagers at a Future Homemakers of America convention, and one very by-the-book Pennsylvania state trooper--all unknowingly conspired to blow his cover. Algeo revisits the Trumans’ route, staying at the same hotels and eating at the same diners, and takes readers on brief detours into topics such as the postwar American auto industry, McCarthyism, the nation’s highway system, and the decline of Main Street America. By the end of the 2,500-mile journey, you will have a new and heartfelt appreciation for America’s last citizen-president.

'The Woman Behind the New Deal' by Kirstin Downey

This looks like a very interesting and timely book:

Frances Perkins knew exactly what she wanted when President-elect Franklin Delano Roosevelt offered her the post of secretary of Labor in February 1933. The goals she outlined on that chilly winter night constituted the most sweepingly ambitious to-do list any public official had ever presented: direct federal aid for unemployment relief, a massive public works program, minimum wage and maximum work-hours legislation, compensation for workers injured on the job, workplace safety regulations, a ban on child labor and, finally -- and most radically -- a national pension system as well as one for health insurance. "Are you sure you want this done?" she asked FDR.

It was not an idle question, as journalist Kirstin Downey makes clear in the prologue to her shrewd, appreciative biography of Perkins. "She was proposing a fundamental and radical restructuring of American society," Downey writes, adding: "To succeed, she would have to overcome opposition from courts, business, labor unions, conservatives."

Friday, May 8, 2009

Voice of America

In “The Sound of Freedom,” Raymond Arsenault, the John Hope Franklin professor of Southern history at the University of South Florida, recounts a less familiar, yet still defining moment that unfolded at the Lincoln Memorial. On Easter Sunday, 1939, the African-American contralto Marian Anderson, the granddaughter of former slaves, performed at the memorial as 75,000 people gathered on the Mall and millions of others tuned in by radio. The concert, Arsenault argues, made Anderson “an icon” and signified “a milestone in the history of American democracy.”
Here is more on Marian Anderson's Lincoln Memorial Concert

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The fuel of power

Another book that has caught my eye is Nixonland. I have yet to bring myself to read a biography of Nixon, other than Chris Matthews book, Kennedy and Nixon. Nixonland appears to put Tricky Dick within the context of his time, as noted in this review,

Mr Perlstein's biggest contribution to his subject is to set Nixon's private resentments in the context of a broader culture of resentment. (sound familiar) “Nixonland” is a study of how the consensus of the early 1960s turned into the cacophony of the late 1960s, when “regular” white Americans found everything they held dear thrown into question: threatened by black activists, looked down upon by pointy-headed intellectuals, vilified by student radicals, corroded by a rising tide of lawlessness and vulgarity and fatally challenged not just by the anti-war movement but also by America's failure to achieve its aims in Vietnam. As far as Nixon's supporters were concerned, the swinging sixties were the seething sixties. Mr Perlstein rightly points out that many people supported Nixon not in spite of his boiling rage but precisely because of it.

The Presidency That Roared

Early in Moby-Dick, Melville announces his intention to celebrate the "democratic dignity" of ordinary men. To them he shall "ascribe high qualities, though dark." For support in this endeavor, Melville appeals to the “great democratic God!” the deity "who didst pick up Andrew Jackson from the pebbles; who didst hurl him upon a war-horse; who didst thunder him higher than a throne!"

Jon Meacham, the editor of Newsweek and author of “Franklin and Winston: An Intimate Portrait of an Epic Friendship,” discerns a similar democratic dignity in the seventh president of the United States. But he underplays the consequences of his subject’s darker qualities, especially the fact that, like Captain Ahab, Jackson was willing to destroy everything in order to exact revenge.


American Lion seems appropriate. It was interesting reading how Lincoln early on set himself apart from the Jackson Democrats, siding himself with the Whigs on the leading issues facing America at the time.
I'm Honored....thank you very much for inviting me in....I read A TEAM OF RIVALS a while back, but am all too happy to read it again as it is one of the best Lincoln books I read in a long time. I just finished Harry Holzer's Lincoln: President Elect. I look forward to the discussion.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Cooper Union Address

A key speech in Lincoln's rise to the head of the Republican Party was the Cooper Union Address on February 27, 1860, shown here in its entirety. Miller noted in Lincoln's Virtues that many prominent Northeast leaders were in attendance including Henry Ward Beecher, who had first invited Lincoln to New York. Lincoln was anxious to impress his fellow Republicans. Herndon noted, "no former effort in the line of speech-making had cost Lincoln so much time and thought as this one." The speech was extremely well-received and published in newspapers throughout the United States.


There are books devoted exclusively to the Cooper Union Address by Harold Holzer and John Corry.

Herndon Life of Lincoln

The heading provides a link to a review written in 1922 for Herndon's Life of Lincoln, published in the New York Times. The biography had first been supressed by Lincoln family members when the book was originally published in 1889. William Lee Miller refers extensively to Herndon's biography in Lincoln's Virtues. The first printing is very hard to find, but an 1890 second edition sells for about $400 at Shotwell Antiques where I took this image.

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Lincoln's Pillow

(CNN) -- Was President Abraham Lincoln dying of a rare genetic disease when an assassin killed him in 1865?

A California doctor believes so -- and he hoped to prove his theory by testing the 16th president's DNA.

Dr. John Sotos asked a small Philadelphia museum for blood-stained threads from a scrap of the pillow that cradled Lincoln's head as he lay dying.

On Monday night, the board of the Grand Army of the Republic Museum and Library denied his request but left the door open for a possible DNA test that could shed light on Lincoln's last days.

The museum plans to convene a forum of Lincoln scholars and forensic pathologists to decide how to proceed.

"We want complete control over this," said Eric Schmincke, the board's president. "We don't want to take the chance of losing the artifact."


I've updated this piece with a longer article on Lincoln's DNA.

Team of Rivals

MORE books about Abraham Lincoln line the shelves of libraries than about any other American. Can there be anything new to say about our 16th president? Surprisingly, the answer is yes. Having previously offered fresh insights into Lyndon Johnson the Kennedys and Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Doris Kearns Goodwin has written an elegant, incisive study of Lincoln and leading members of his cabinet that will appeal to experts as well as to those whose knowledge of Lincoln is an amalgam of high school history and popular mythology.

"Team of Rivals" (an apt but uninspiring title) opens in May 1860 with four men awaiting news from the national convention of the Republican Party in Chicago. Thousands of supporters were gathered in Auburn, N.Y., where a cannon was primed to fire a salute to the expected nomination of Senator William Henry Seward for president. In Columbus, Ohio, Gov. Salmon P. Chase hoped that if Seward faltered, the mantle would fall on his shoulders. In St. Louis, 66-year-old Edward Bates, a judge who still called himself a Whig, hoped the convention might turn to him as the only candidate who could carry the conservative free states, whose electoral votes were necessary for a Republican victory. In Springfield, Ill., a former one-term congressman who had been twice defeated for election to the Senate waited with resigned expectation that his long-shot candidacy would be flattened by the Seward steamroller.