Presidents’ Day: The Harmony of a Political Hero and an English Playwright

9780700621293At first thought the conjunction of Abraham Lincoln’s name with that of William Shakespeare’s may seem surprising.  What is it that connects these two iconic figures, one an American political hero, the other probably Great Britain’s most famous individual? Some have suggested that these men have a lot in common: both were born in humble circumstances and made their way in the world through hard work and visionary aspirations.  But, of course, these are incidental matters, and the real interest in examining Lincoln and Shakespeare lies in the former’s reading and appreciation of the latter.  

So the question becomes, how did this ill-educated frontiersman come to value the plays of the great English playwright?  One answer is that however minimal Lincoln’s schooling, Shakespeare played a role in it.  School “readers,” as they were called, emphasized the arts of reading, writing, and, especially, public speaking.  When the author of one of these nineteenth century textbooks wanted examples of moving and powerful poetry and prose, Shakespeare’s heroes and kings provided some of the best examples: the rhetorical eloquence of Marc Antony, Henry V, Hamlet, and Othello could stir the imaginations of the young.  And Lincoln, according to some witnesses, was also fortunate in his friends: the shadowy figure of schoolmaster Jack Kelso, characterized by some as somewhere between the village poet and the village idiot, loved Shakespeare and fishing: “Uninterested in the ‘right to rise,’” as one writer has suggested, Kelso “spent his days hunting and fishing, wandering in the woods, and generally not giving a damn.” Kelso and young Abe supposedly read and recited Shakespeare as they waited for the fish to bite.

As a young lawyer, Lincoln found that citations from Shakespeare could sometimes spice up dry legal arguments.  Riding the circuit from courthouse to courthouse, he included a copy of Shakespeare’s works along with Blackstone’s “Commentaries on the Law” in his saddlebags. And among friends he would love to read or quote from Shakespeare’s plays.  Occasional references to Shakespeare, usually indirect, would pop up from time to time in his early political speeches and writings.

As president, Lincoln continued to read Shakespeare, sometimes out loud and late into the night, once putting his young secretary, John Hay, to sleep. Living in Washington, he was able to see some of the great actors of his day in Shakespeare’s histories and tragedies: Edwin Booth (brother of Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes), Charlotte Cushman, and Edwin Forrest.  The last week of his life, he read over and over again passages from his favorite play, “Macbeth.” After his death, he would be eulogized as Macbeth’s royal victim, Duncan, because, like that martyred king, he “bore his faculties so meek and was so clear in his great office, that his virtues will plead like angels, trumpet tongued, against the deep damnation of his taking off.”   

–Written by Michael Anderegg, author of “Lincoln and Shakespeare”

What Would Lincoln Do?

9780700621125In 1956 the esteemed historian David Donald famously noted that in the twentieth century it had become imperative for politicians, ideologues, do-gooders, and schemers of all types to link their cause to our sixteenth president. Lincoln was upheld by communists, vegetarians, isolationists, and spiritualists alike: everybody wanted to get right with Lincoln, everybody wanted to know “what would Lincoln do?” when confronted with whatever issue demanded attention at the moment.

In this spirit, and in honor of the 207th anniversary of the Great Emancipator’s birth, let us ask ourselves, how would Lincoln celebrate a revered and important birth?    

Luckily, we have several examples of Lincolnian celebration to guide us, but before we put on our party hats and break out the cake, we have to remember that Lincoln was a man of the nineteenth century, when a grand celebration usually entailed listening to an hours-long speech, followed by toasts and boasts that could last just as long. In 1862, for example, to mark the birthday of George Washington, Lincoln “recommended to the People of the United States that they assemble in their customary places of meeting for public solemnities” in order to “celebrate the anniversary of the birth of the Father of His Country by”… well, by listening to a stirring rendition of Washington’s “immortal Farewell address.”

Now, to be fair, in 1863, to mark the birthday of the our nation–and the twin victories of Gettysburg and Vicksburg–Lincoln welcomed a joyous torch-lit procession to the White House with presidential jokes and mirth, so it wasn’t always “public solemnities” with him.

Probably the most characteristic Lincolnian celebration of a birthday was his public letter of April 6, 1859 to Henry L. Pierce, the organizer of an event in Boston to celebrate the birth of Thomas Jefferson. Lincoln could not attend in person, but his message brought the spirit of Lincoln to New England, even before the Cooper Union tour the next year that would help elect him president.

Lincoln began by noting the oddity that Jefferson’s birthday was being celebrated at all in Boston, the former bastion of his Federalist opponents, while in contrast the Democratic party had virtually ceased to utter the name of its political progenitor. “The Jefferson party were formed upon its supposed superior devotion to the personal rights of men, holding the rights of property to be secondary only,” Lincoln noted paradoxically, but “the democracy of to-day hold the liberty of one man to be absolutely nothing, when in conflict with another man’s right of property. Republicans, on the contrary, are for both the man and the dollar; but in cases of conflict, the man before the dollar.”

This led Lincoln to a classic “leetle story,” like so many that Lincoln told, that made his point so cleverly that dissent would be churlish:

I remember once being much amused at seeing two partially intoxicated men engage in a fight with their great-coats on, which fight, after a long, and rather harmless contest, ended in each having fought himself out of his own coat, and into that of the other. If the two leading parties of this day are really identical with the two in the days of Jefferson and Adams, they have performed the same feat as the two drunken men.

Lincoln then went on to unleash a series of hammer-blow sentences in defense of the author of our national creed that “all men are created equal” that, together, can stand with any of Lincoln’s writings for clarity, power, and impact:

But soberly, it is now no child’s play to save the principles of Jefferson from total overthrow in this nation….

The principles of Jefferson are the definitions and axioms of free society. Yet they are denied and evaded, with no small show of success.

One dashingly calls them “glittering generalities”; another bluntly calls them “self evident lies”; and still others insidiously argue that they apply only to “superior races.”…

We must repulse them, or they will subjugate us.

This is a world of compensations; and he who would be no slave, must consent to have no slave. Those who deny freedom to others, deserve it not for themselves; and, under a just God, cannot long retain it.

All honor to Jefferson–to the man who, in the concrete pressure of a struggle for national independence by a single people, had the coolness, forecast, and capacity to introduce into a merely revolutionary document, an abstract truth, applicable to all men and all times, and so to embalm it there, that to-day, and in all coming days, it shall be a rebuke and a stumbling-block to the very harbingers of re-appearing tyranny and oppression.

Here, then, is how to fitting celebrate and mark a birthday according to Lincoln: a joke, yes, a wry comment, certainly, but always a steely determination to stand by our highest ideals. In this world of compensations, when glittering generalities still bedazzle, we could do worse than to get right by Lincoln.

–Written by Martin P. Johnson, author of Writing the Gettysburg Address