Penny for your Thoughts?

August 3, 2009
Celebrating One Hundred Years of the Lincoln Penny

Celebrating One Hundred Years of the Lincoln Penny

The Lincoln penny turns one hundred today, the longest running U.S. coin still in circulation. The1909 penny was the first coin that featured a presidential portrait. It was commissioned by Theodore Roosevelt to mark the one hundredth anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln. Most people were pleased with the Lincoln penny. That is, except for former Confederate soldiers who were not too happy to be carrying around Abe in their pockets.

In honor of the centenary, the U.S. mint has produced four special-edition pennies that feature reverse-side designs that illustrate scenes from Lincoln’s life. Three of these have already been released; the fourth hits circulation on August 13th.

Obama on Lincoln

August 3, 2009


In today’s Washington Post we learn what Obama thinks about Abraham Lincoln…as if we didn’t know it already. “Lincoln’s my favorite president and one of my personal heroes,” Obama said. “…What I admire so deeply about Lincoln–number one, I think he’s the quintessential American because he’s self-mde. The way Alexander Hamilton was self-made or so many of our great iconic Americans are, that sense that you don’t accept limits, that you can shape your own destiny. That obviously has appeal to me, given where I came from. That American spirit is one of the things that is most fundamental to me, and I think he embodies that.

“But the second thing that I admire is that there is just a deep-rooted honesty and empathy to the man that allowed him to always be able to see the other person’s point of view and always sought to find that truth that is in the gap between you and me.”

Read the entire article here

How Lincoln Got His Chops

May 18, 2009

What would Abe wear?

What would Abe wear?

Before Lincoln ran for office in 1860 he received a letter from an eleven-year-old girl name Grace Bedell from upstate New York. She had a piece of advice for him: grow a beard if he wanted to look presidential and get elected. Lincoln replied to Grace on October 19 but made no promises. As he wrote, “As to the whiskers, having never worn any, do you not think people would call it a piece of silly affectation if I were to begin it now?” One month later, however, he was sporting the makings of a beard.

In February of 1861, after Lincoln had won the election, he traveled to Bedell’s hometown. The Philadelphia Inquirer newspaper recorded the event on February 20, 1861, “At Westfield, Mr. Lincoln greeted a large crowd of ladies, and several thousand of the sterner sex. Addressing the ladies, he said, “I am glad to see you; I suppose you are to see me; but I certainly think I have the best of the bargain. (Applause.) Some three months ago, I received a letter from a young lady here; it was a very pretty letter, and she advised me to let my whiskers grow, as it would improve my personal appearance; acting partly upon her suggestion, I have done so; and now, if she is here, I would like to see her; I think her name was Miss Barlly.” A small boy, mounted on a post, with his mouth and eyes both wide open, cried out, “there she is, Mr. Lincoln,” pointing to a beautiful girl, with black eyes, who was blushing all over her fair face. The President left the car, and the crowd making way for him, he reached her, and gave her several hearty kisses, and amid the yells of delight from the excited crowd, he bade her good-bye, and on we rushed.”

Famous letter writer Grace Bedell in the 1870s

Famous letter writer Grace Bedell in the 1870s

Abe and Martha

May 11, 2009


Martha Graham

Martha Graham 1894-1991


Happy Birthday to Martha Graham, one of my favorites, who was born on May 11, 1894, and remains one of the most important dancer/choreographers of all time. I’d say only George Balanchine comes close, but that’s also like comparing apples and oranges: Graham set out to create an American dance idiom while Balanchine was a ballet master with a Russian pedigree.

In 1938, Graham created her work American Document in which she incorporated important written texts into the dance narrative. These included the Declaration of Independence,  the words of Martin Luther King, Jr, and John of Kennedy, the poetry of Walt Whitman, and Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.

American Document is not a dance about Lincoln but one in which his ideas were distilled and used to fire Graham’s imagination. The words were spoken by an on-stage narrator who shared the stage with the dancers.

Lincoln has inspired other artists including composer Aaron Copland. Dancer and choreographer Bill T. Jones is working on a new piece about Lincoln titled, “Fondly Do We Hope/ Fervently Do We Pray.” I don’t think Lincoln’s influence will ever diminish.

Mr. Lincoln Meet Mr. Lincoln Meet Mr. Lincoln

April 20, 2009
Hats off to the Lincoln presenters, Washington DC, April 18, 2009 (photo by Ricky Carioti-The Washington Post)

Hats off to the Lincoln presenters, Washington DC, April 18, 2009 (photo by Ricky Carioti-The Washington Post)

How many Abe Lincolns does it take to hold a conference? As we learned this weekend when a busload of Lincoln presenters came to town, that number would be about fifty. These Lincolns are also known as portrayers or impersonators and they take their job very seriously. To be a Lincoln is to ask yourself, “What would Lincoln do?”

After spending these past few months on the Connections project I’ve come to understand that there were many aspects to Lincoln’s personality: rail-splitter, lawyer, statesman, father, inventor, hero, and martyr, to name the first that come to mind. Perhaps it’s fitting then to see multiple images of Lincoln as pictured here.

I love this photo of a handful of Abes and a couple of Marys. One Lincoln has his hat tipped, while the other Lincolns seem to be looking in different directions. The man in the middle who appears to be the youngest Lincoln has the grayest beard.

Is it me or does the Lincoln on the far left bear a slight resemblance to our most recent ex-president? I think I see it around the eyes. Hmmm. I wonder…is there a line of work for former presidents portraying former presidents?

View more images and read the article in the Washington Post.

April 14, 2009

April 17, 2009



After the lecture by “Manhunt” author James L. Swanson at the Newseum, I walked to Ford’s Theatre to pay my respects to the president I’ve come to truly admire while working on the Connections project. Actually, admire is too polite a word. What I feel is greater than that but I’m not quite sure of the word. Just looking at a series of photographs of how he looked before he entered the White House and how he looked at the end of his life made me appreciate and respect each line in his chiseled face. The loss of his son Willie. The Civil War. A trying marriage (at times).

The streets were wet as I walked in the chilly night air. As I got closer I came across a group of people but they were just milling outside of the Hard Rock Cafe. I don’t think Father Abraham was on their minds. And then I turned the corner, and there was Ford’s Theatre as well as the townhouse across the street that belonged to William Peterson, where the president was taken after he was shot.

A few blocks away, was the Patent Office Building where Lincoln held his second inaugural ball and poet Walt Whitman nursed wounded soldiers. It all seemed to be right here: the world of the mid-to-late nineteenth century, Lincoln’s world. I looked at the theatre where a wreath of flowers was placed outside. I crossed to the townhouse where a second wreath was displayed, and stood on the stairs to look inside the window. Lincoln had been gravely wounded and could not be taken back to the White House. I looked back and forth imagining the chaotic scene of April 14, 1865 when the streets filled with the angry and the outraged.

After a few minutes I walked away. Oddly enough I crossed the street and found myself in front of Madame Tussaud’s. Inside the window was a wax figure of the President, posed, I imagine for that fateful evening in the theatre, as if the world had somehow stopped at 8:30 pm on April 14, 1865.

April 14 (part two): The Last Hours of Lincoln

April 16, 2009
The President Has Been Shot, by Currier and Ives

The President Has Been Shot, by Currier and Ives

“It happened tonight and it happened here,” began James L. Swanson when he took to the podium at the Newseum to speak about the events of April 14, 1865. Swanson, the author of “Manhunt: The Twelve Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer,” (also the basis for an exhibtion at the Newseum) recounted the events that unfolded on the last days of Lincoln’s life. Adding to the dramatic presentation was the fact that the Newseum is on the site of the Old National Hotel, where actor James Wilkes Booth booked room 228 that fateful day. What was Booth thinking on the morning of April 14? Was he preparing for the play? Did his mind switch gears once he found out that Abraham Lincoln, a man he despised, was going to be attending the theater that night? According to Swanson, this is the likely scenario: Booth knew he would have a window of opportunity later that evening, and he intended to use it.

According to Swanson, the days before the assassination were some of Lincoln’s happiest: Robert E. Lee had surrendered on April 10, the Civil War was nearly at an end, and the Lincoln family was celebrating Easter in the White House. During these few blissful days the president even convinced Mrs. Lincoln to take a carriage ride with him. “Unaccompanied?” she asked prophetically. “Yes,” the president replied, wanting time alone with his wife to try and heal the stresses of their marriage.

On the evening of the 14th, the Lincoln’s arrived at Ford’s Theatre at 8:30 pm and they were greeted by “Hail to the Chief.” A few ours later it would all be over. Booth would shout, “I have done it, ” actress Laura Keane would come onstage and urge people to “keep their places,” and Mrs. Lincoln would later refer to Ford’s Theatre as that “dreadful, dreadful house.”

April 14 (part one): Sounds of Lincoln

April 15, 2009
The Federal City Brass Band performed an evening of Lincoln-related music in a tribute to the slain president. (photo by Rob Gibson, 2003)

The Federal City Brass Band performed an evening of Lincoln-related music in a tribute to the slain president.

At the Newseum last night the Federal City Brass Band warmed up the audience before “Manhunt” author, James L. Swanson delivered his talk to commemorate the 144th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination. Based in Baltimore, FCBB recreates the sounds and appearance of a U.S. Army regimental brass band of the 1860s.

They began their performance with “The Old Gray Mare” also known as “Out of the Wilderness.” This became a campaign song for Lincoln that used the words, “Old Abe Lincoln came out of the wilderness.” The band continued with the “Battle Cry of Freedom” and the ever-popular “Yankee Doodle.” From campaign trail to president, the Band chose “The Old Hundreth” which was played in November, 1863, at a dedication for a new national cemetery. “The Old Hundredth,” a hymn, was played before Lincoln spoke at that somber occasion.

Perhaps the most moving part of the program followed when the Band played “Honor to Our Soldiers,” written by William Withers. The music was to be played on the evening of April 14, 1865 at Ford’s Theatre, after the third act of “Our American Cousin.” Lincoln was killed before the third act and never got to hear the music especially written to honor Father Abraham and the soldiers who died in the name of freedom.

After Lincoln’s death, William Wolsieffer wrote “The Lincoln Funeral March.” It’s haunting sounds and muffled drum beats captured the shocked and mournful mood of the broken nation. You could hear something of that, even at the Newseum, 144 years later.

Marian Anderson at the Lincoln Memorial

April 10, 2009


Marian Anderson sings at the Lincoln Memorial, April 9, 1939.

Marian Anderson sings at the Lincoln Memorial, April 9, 1939.

It’s been seventy years since Marian Anderson’s historic Easter Sunday concert at the Lincoln Memorial, April 9, 1939. When she was denied use of DAR Constitution Hall because she was a black woman, Franklin Roosevelt and members of his administration, most notably Harold Ickes, secretary if the interior, arranged for Anderson to sing in front of the Lincoln Memorial. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt famously resigned from the DAR in protest. The president was quoted as saying, “I don’t care of she sings from the top of the Washington Monument, as long as she sings.”

On the morning of the concert, Anderson and her mother took the train from Philadelphia to Washington, D.C. In Anderson’s career as a singer she took so many trains to performances, but during the years of Jim Crow, she had to sit in the segregated car reserved for African Americans.

Tens of thousands of people came to hear Anderson sing, and tens of thousands more, were able to listen at home on their radios. When she stepped in front of the microphone she began her concert with the song, “America,” whose words had particular resonance that day, “My country ’tis a thee sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.”

Anderson became an icon of the Civil Rights movement. The famous statue of Lincoln may have been in the background, but his ideas were definitely in the air. The Lincoln Memorial became the setting for important Civil Rights events including the famous March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his  fiery “I have a dream” speech in 1963.

Abraham Lincoln did what he could to heal the fracture of “A House Divided.” As Anderson and King later showed, the country still had a long way to go in the name of freedom, civil rights, and liberty.

Lincoln and Douglass, Johnson and MLK Jr.

April 9, 2009

Lincoln and DouglassThe other night I attended a lecture on the parallel relationships between president Abraham Lincoln and abolitionist Frederick Douglass in the 1860s, and president Lyndon Johnson and Civil Rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960s. The commonalities are striking: although these relationships occurred more than one hundred years apart, they both represent men in power holding the highest office in the nation, called to action in the name of human and civil rights. 

Uneasy Partners: Lincoln and Frederick Douglass and LBJ and Martin Luther King, Jr, the first in a series of conversations about Lincoln, featured authors and historians Nick Kotz (on Johnson) and John Stauffer (on behalf of Lincoln). Moderator Juan Williams, commenting on the unique status of President Obama, noted at the start, “The power was in white hands and you had black hands as advisors. Today, it’s an interesting take on that tale because the president is a black man.”

Stauffer spoke about the striking similarities between Lincoln and Douglass. Though Douglass was a slave child and Lincoln had less than one year of education, both were tremendously intellectual people, and had enormous respect for each other. They were both self-made men, a term that was at the time inseparable from social reform According to Stauffer, they both “used words as weapons as young boys and fell in love with words. Douglass was considered the better orator.”

One hundred years later, Lyndon Johnson and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. were brought together by a crisis, the assassination of John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963. Three days later, with the country in need of some kind of healing, Johnson called King who said to the president, “I don’t think there’s anything more you can do to honor JFK than to pass the Civil Rights Act.” Both men needed each other. The passage of Civil Rights legislation was crucial to both of them as King would later comment to Johnson, “Mr. President, you have given us a second emancipation.”

King wanted something from Johnson and Douglass wanted something from Lincoln. Each team of men — a president and a liberator, if you will– helped change the course of history, both national and personal. As we learned the other night, if history doesn’t repeat itself, it often comes pretty close.

update: I’m in the middle of Stauffer’s book right now. It’s hard to put down and I’m hoping to have more discussions here on Lincoln and Douglass.