History Behind Us, Hatred in Front of Us

Reflecting a little on what’s happened this week, and on this very disturbing piece of business here — an interview with the most straightforward, thoughtful, well-spoken white supremacist you’ll ever encounter, and all the more disturbing for that — it occurred to me once more how eager our white society has been to put its grossest transgressions in the rear-view mirror and act as if, now that we’ve resolved that little problem to our own satisfaction, everyone should move on. Nothing to see here, folks, but lots of unpleasantness we can just leave behind.

Listening to Richard Spencer, the white “nationalist” referenced above, talk about his ideas for a white “ethnostate” and his belief that at bottom, the governing sentiment among those of different races is hate, I was struck by his unwillingness or inability to confront the toughest question his African-American interviewer threw at him:

What’s the difference between you and the racists that like, you know, hung people up from trees? What’s the difference between you and the Klansmen that burned crosses on peoples lawns? What’s the difference between you and you know, the people who don’t look at me, an African-American man, as a full human being?

After dodging and weaving a little and saying he would not engage with the notion of “a hypothetical Klansman,” Spencer said this:

I’m sure there is some commonality between these movements of the past and what I’m talking about. But you really have to judge me on my own terms. Like I am not those people and I don’t fully know, I don’t know in the specifics of what you’re referring to. Like I am who I am. And you, if you’re going to treat me with good faith, you have to listen to what I’m saying and listen to my ideas. I think someone who would go down the path of becoming a Klansman or something in 2016, I think that is, those people are very different than I am. It’s, it’s a it’s a non-starter. I think we need an idea. We need a movement that really resonates with where we are right now.

He and his ilk are different because — well, they are. You just have to trust him on that. And besides, it’s 2016 and we need to put that behind us and pursue a grander idea. (At one point in the interview, Spencer shares a few of the “values” he holds dear: “greatness and winning and dominance and beauty.” That list brought a name to mind: Leni Riefenstahl.)

The grand idea is, as mentioned before, a “white ethnostate,” what he terms “a new type of society that would actually be a homeland for all white people. … All European people … [so] we would always have a safe space.”

This isn’t really a new idea, as he says. He points to Israel as such a state. But of course there’s an example much closer to home — in fact, a state founded on the very same principles of white supremacy that underlies the idea of white nationalism.

Many of us treat the Confederacy and the Civil War and the long siege of Jim Crow that followed as objects in the rear-view mirror; curious, glorious or shameful objects that have receded almost from view. Let them stay in the past.

Lincoln was one who understood the past has its claims, and that it’s not so casually left behind. In his Second Inaugural, delivered a little more than a month before the war’s end and his assassination, he spoke about how each side had called on divine support for its cause:

“Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes.”

And it was beyond humans, Lincoln said, to understand what price providence might demand for the crime of slavery. It was beyond us to know when the debt had been redeemed.

“‘Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.’ If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him?

“Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said ‘the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.'”

I think the first time I encountered the address was at the Lincoln Memorial, where it’s inscribed in marble. That passage — “until all the wealth piled … until every drop of blood drawn ” — has always stuck with me.

First, I think, because of Lincoln’s sober consideration of the magnitude of the “offense” that had led to the war.

Second, because of his suggestion that there was no way of knowing when the nation’s offense would be expiated — or even whether it could be expiated.

And third because, even though I am not one of Lincoln’s faith and I don’t imagine an omnipotent deity who wills human cruelty and then doles out punishment for it, the renewed encouragement of racial hatred we’re seeing now makes it clear that we’ve yet to really reckon with the worst chapters of our history — slavery, Native American genocide, the Klan’s reign of terror, Jim Crow, mass incarceration. And now, it seems, we’re listening to people who are eager to write the next dark chapter of history.

Lincoln’s Way


Lincoln Highway: Austin, Nevada. August 1, 2007.

So, looking for a little something to say about our sixteenth president on his 200th birthday, I’ve come up a little short. For tonight, just this: You run into him everywhere. I remembered earlier this evening that the summer before last, when Kate and I drove across the country, we encountered Lincoln Highway markers on U.S. 50 in the middle of Nevada (above). That was news to me, because our Lincoln Highway in the south suburbs of Chicago was U.S. 30. The next day, we came upon more markers east of Salt Lake City, in a hamlet just off Interstate 80 (below). It turns out both places were on the route of the original Lincoln Highway route. (Check out Lincoln Highway, a simple but excellent site on the route and its history.) lincoln080207.jpg

Lincoln Highway: Wanship, Utah. August 2, 2007.

A Lincoln Letter: ‘Quarrel Not at All’

Letter from Abraham Lincoln to James Madison Cutts, October 26, 1863.
First page of a letter from Abraham Lincoln to Army Capt. James Madison Cutts, counseling him to refrain from further quarrels with his fellow officers. (Library of Congress)

Today’s edition of The Journal of Interesting Things You Learn While You’re Supposed to Be Doing Something Else (this installment could be called “Abe Lincoln and the Peeping-Tom Hero Guy,” but that would be silly and wrong):

Researching one topic, I stumbled upon another in the form of this letter from President Lincoln to Captain James Madison Cutts, Jr., dated October 26, 1863. The letter is fairly well known , and I encountered it in the Library of America’s “Lincoln: Speeches and Writings 1859-1865” (pp. 530-31). Here’s the entire letter as published:

“Although what I am now to say is to be, in form, a reprimand, it is not intended to add a pang to what you have already suffered upon the subject to which it relates. You have too much of life yet before you, and have shown too much promise as an officer, for your future to be lightly surrendered. You were convicted of two offences. One of them, not of great enormity, and yet greatly to be avoided, I feel sure you are in no danger of repeating. The other you are not so well assured against. The advice of a father to his son “Beware of entrance to a quarrel, but being in, bear it that the opposed may beware of thee,” is good, and yet not the best. Quarrel not at all. No man resolved to make the most of himself, can spare time for personal contention. Still less can he afford to take all the consequences, including the vitiating of his temper, and the loss of self-control. Yield larger things to which you can show no more than equal right; and yield less ones, though clearly your own. Better give your path to a dog, than be bitten by him in contesting for the right. Even killing the dog would not cure the bite.

“In the mood indicated deal henceforth with your fellow men, and especially your brother officers; and even the unpleasant events you are passing from will not have been profitless to you.”

Reading this, one naturally wonders: who was the recipient of this profoundly wise and kind advice, and what became of him?

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Now Batting: The Decider

The most important words in 18th century American history: “Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

In the 19th: “Government of the people, by the people, for the people.”

In the 20th:

First third: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

Middle third: “I have a dream.”

Final third: “Can’t we all just get along?”

Too early to tell about the 21st century. If unreserved arrogance is the theme, Bush and his folks have a lock on it.


Lincoln & Darwin Day: Lincoln, born the same date and year as Charles Darwin. “Happy birthday” doesn’t fit Lincoln. Too much tragedy, too much gravity there. As I’ve said before, I don’t know whether it’s the Illinoisan in me or not, but there’s no other figure in history who seems so close in every day life; and also so distant, always receding and unknowable. As to Darwin, there’s probably no single person who has more to do with how we–must I define “we”?–see our world, though he’s far from the palpable presence for me that his birthday-mate is.

Comic Nurse Day: An informant reminds me that it’s the Comic Nurse’s fortieth birthday. Happy birthday, Comic Nurse!

Nap Day:Study: Napping might help heart

“CHICAGO – New research on napping provides the perfect excuse for office slackers, finding that a little midday snooze seems to reduce risks for fatal heart problems, especially among men.

“In the largest study to date on the health effects of napping, researchers tracked 23,681 healthy Greek adults for an average of about six years. Those who napped at least three times weekly for about half an hour had a 37 percent lower risk of dying from heart attacks or other heart problems than those who did not nap. …”


Best Lincoln Piece of the Day (sez me): “Lincoln Online,” by Tom Wheeler, in the Washington Post. Wheeler’s book, “Mr. Lincoln’s T-Mails,” is an examination of Lincoln’s voluminous trove of … telegraph messages. Excerpt:

“Consider this glimpse into how Lincoln dealt with the war’s grinding pressures. The peripatetic Mary Todd Lincoln had wired from New York seeking cash. Her note’s perfunctory ‘Hope you are well’ was followed with instructions on where to send a check. Then she tacked on without punctuation a last-second message from their son, ‘Tad says are the goats well.’

The president promptly responded that the check would go in the mail, then seized on the query about the White House pets to comment on his own well-being: ‘Tell Tad the goats and father are very well — especially the goats.’ The few words speak volumes about Lincoln’s spirits and the refuge he found in wit.

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A Lifetime of Lincoln


(Lincoln marker in Tolono, Illinois; September 2004)

Growing up in the adopted land of Lincoln, and growing up in the ’60s, when Civil War echoes were loud, reminders of the 16th president were everywhere — license plates, highway and street names, and parks. Oh, yeah: And log-cabin-type toys. So on his birthday, I’m thinking of all the places I’ve run into Lincoln.


I’m born 145 years after Lincoln. The Lincoln connection: This is the year Illinois began printing “Land of Lincoln” on its license plates.


During two weeks when I was out of school with first the chicken pox, then the mumps, my dad gets me a Fletcher Pratt history of the Civil War. Words like “Potomac” enter my vocabulary (pronounced “POT-o-mac”).


Mom and Dad bundled the three of us kids (me and sibling costars John and Chris; my sister Ann joined the cast in ’62) into our red-and-white Ford stationwagon early one Saturday evening for a sudden road trip. I think it was a Saturday, anyway. That night, we wound up in a motel in Jeffersonville, Indiana, just across the Ohio River from Louisville, where Mom’s brother Tom was serving as a Carmelite priest. We spent the next day doing north-central Kentucky sight-seeing. The two stops I remember: The Cistercian monastery at Gethsemane and Lincoln’s birthplace near Elizabethtown. The cabin in which he was said to have been born — and later, I came to the disappointing realization that the cabin is a reconstruction — was tiny and dark.

c. 1960-62.

I see Carl Sandburg’s multivolume biography, “Lincoln, the Prairie Years and the War Years,” on my parents’ bookshelf. I don’t think I ever cracked it. On the other hand, I did open “The Day Lincoln Was Shot,” by Jim Bishop. My mom liked to tell the story of how I came to her after reading the book. She said that I was crying and told her, “They killed him.” I’d love to be able to say I remember all this like it was yesterday, but I don’t recall it.

c. 1962-63

Another semi-literary encounter with Lincoln: Another book that wound up in my hands thanks to my parents was a sort of abridged kid’s editions of notable American Heritage magazine articles. The book’s long lost now, but it seems like I spent years poring over it. It had stories about a colonial siege of a French fort, the naval exploits of Oliver Hazard Perry and James Lawrence (the latter credited with coining the phrase “don’t give up the ship), a star-crossed early Navy ship called the USS Constellation, the country’s first oil boom (Titusville, Pennsylvania), and the art of Gilded Age valentines. The book also had a piece on how when the Lincoln Memorial opened, the lighting on the statue of Lincoln was all wrong and had to be fixed (an unabridged, pictureless version of the article is online: “Light for Lincoln’s Statue“).


Lincolnian Nixon: In the midst of the antiwar upheaval, right after Nixon had sent U.S. forces into Cambodia and four students had been killed by National Guard troops at Kent State University in Ohio, a big march was called in Washington. Very early the morning of the demonstration, Nixon went out to the Lincoln Memorial, where many protesters had already gathered. Getting out among the people — it was a positively Lincolnian gesture when viewed from an era in which the president systematically excludes critics from his audiences. (A second Nixon/Lincoln Memorial memory: Ask me and maybe I’ll tell you about the time I dreamed I assassinated Nixon on the steps of the memorial. Really.)


My dad and my brother Chris and I drove out to Gettysburg (John was sick with pneumonia and I guess Ann didn’t come because it was a guy trip or something. I’m sure she’ll set me straight). History will little note nor long remember my visit, unlike Lincoln’s in 1863.


On a whim, I hitchhiked to Washington to see the Watergate hearings. It was tough getting rides and I wound up taking a long detour to Watkins Glen, New York, where The Band, Allman Brothers and Grateful Dead were playing a one-day concert at the racetrack there. I eventually made it to Washington, but without enough money to get a motel room anywhere. I wound up at the Lincoln Memorial after dark — the first time I’d ever been there. I was so tired from the trip that I sat down, leaning against one of the columns outside, and fell asleep. It was a very warm night, and eventually I stirred myself, strolled out toward the Washington Monument, found a spot that seemed inconspicuous, and went to sleep. I got into the hearings the next day. Richard Helms, the former director of the CIA, was testifying. Dick Cavett was in the audience, wearing a blue workshirt and a kerchief around his neck.


During a family visit to New Jersey, my brother John and I rented a car and with my older son Eamon (who was going on 9) took the Garden State Parkway down to Cape May, where we got on the ferry to Lewes, Delaware. We decided to drive into Washington along U.S. 50, from the east. The day had been blistering, and it didn’t cool down much after dark. We got a room at the first motel we saw, the Day’s Inn on New York Avenue, as I recall, and then went out to explore a little. We made it to Georgetown, called our Illinois friends the McCrohons about 10 o’clock, and went over to their place, on Connecticut a few blocks above DuPont Circle. We got to talking, the natural state of affairs, and didn’t leave until about 2. Eamon was asleep in the back seat, so John and I decided we should do a little more landmark reconnoitering. We wound up down at the Lincoln Memorial around 3. I’m having a hard time believing I did this — maybe we took turns getting out of the car or something, or maybe I trusted that since we were parked nearby it would be OK to leave Eamon in the car — but we spent half an hour or so at the Vietnam Memorial. We spent the next day in Washington with the McCrohons. The following day, we returned to New Jersey by way of a sweeping detour to Harper’s Ferry, West Virginia, and the Antietam battlefield. Antietam: Lincoln went there, too, to try to prod his commanding general into action (he wound up having to fire him).


I went back to Illinois in September 2004 to take a driving trip with my dad. We weighed a couple long road trips — out to western Kansas on two lane roads, for instance — and settled on a trip down to the southern tip of Illinois. Headed down Interstate 57, we rolled through Champaign and then saw a sign for Tolono, a place I wanted to see because an old Utah Phillips railroad song carries the name of the town. Our first improbable sighting after deparing the interstate: an inline skater in the oncoming lane, wearing shorts and a backpack but no shirt. The second was in town: A historical marker commemorating Lincoln’s stop at the railroad junction there on February 11, 1861, as he headed east for his inauguration. The marker, on the grounds of a gas station, reported that Lincoln made his last speech in Illinois in Tolono (reporters on the train with him said he made “remarks” in Danville, a little further east, as well as at the Indiana-Illinois border). Dad and I drove on south to Cairo and a little beyond, then doubled back north along the Mississippi, crossing the river several times on car ferries. On the way back to Chicago after stopping to see Mother Jones’s grave in Mount Olive, we got off the highway in Springfield to see the important public buildings there. Then we found our way to the cemetery in a pleasant, leafy neighborhood north of downtown where Lincoln is buried. The tomb is heroic in scale and much more martial than I expected with statues of Union soldiers in a variety of vigllant, fighting poses. We left as the sun started to set and drove back to Chicago in the dark.

Abe Lincoln, Gay Republican

Gaylincoln Giving “Lincoln bedroom” a whole new meaning: The New York Times has a story this morning on a new book that says  Abraham Lincoln, our gloomiest president, was “gay.” The work, “The Intimate World of Abraham Lincoln” by the now-deceased psychologist and sex researcher C.A. Tripp, focuses on two men with whom Lincoln shared a bed: a four-year bunkmate in Illinois and a bodyguard who hunkered down with the chief executive for a time during the Civil War.

The Times quotes Larry Kramer, the AIDS activist, as saying, “… the most important president in the history of the United States was gay. Now maybe they’ll leave us alone, all those people in the party he founded.” (He’s got to be kidding: This is going to send the anti-gay conservatives into paroxysms of rage about the “home-a-sekshool conspiracy to turn America home-a-sekshool.”) One historian, Jean H. Baker, speculates in the article that Lincoln’s gayness could explain his willingness to break with popular opinion on slavery and issue the Emancipation Proclamation.

It turns out the stories about Lincoln bedding down with dudes are both true and well-worn (examples of past online posts here and here, and the discussion is said to go back to Lincoln’s lifetime; in my own sheltered experience I hadn’t encountered this idea before). But here’s the thing: Even if it’s true that, apart from sleeping under the same covers, he was sexually involved with these guys, isn’t there something false or forced in mapping the modern idea of gayness onto him, as the people reacting to this book are doing? As the Times notes, the word homosexual was coined only in the 1890s; ideas like gay consciousness and queer liberation have emerged much more recently. Just consider the world Lincoln emerged from: Homosexual sex was a criminal offense, and had been for centuries in Britain and America (the Wikipedia notes in its review of the history of sodomy law that the first such statute on the books was Henry VIII’s Buggery Act).

Not that we can’t interpret the past with our own knowledge and understanding of the world today: We really don’t have a choice. So in the case of Thomas Jefferson, we see something odious in the fact he couldn’t bring himself to free his slaves and had a prolonged conjugal relationship with one of them. But that doesn’t make him a member of the Jim Crow movement or the Klan. Likewise with Lincoln: If he did have a thing for guys, it’s a much more complicated matter than simply labeling him the Gay Emancipator to figure out what his homosexuality meant both to him and to history.

Road Blog: Tolono 09.11.04

Dad and I headed south from Chicago, leaving the North Side about 9:30 a.m., going down Lake Shore Drive and the Dan Ryan before peeling off to the southwest on Interstate 57 with a destination of Cairo, all the way at the southern tip of the state. We stayed on that all the way down to Tolono, a small town that’s the subject of a railroad song by Utah Phillips (I wrote briefly about the song earlier this year).

The old Illinois Central (now Illinois Central Gulf) and Wabash (now Norfolk Southern) lines come together in town. In his song, Phillips describes the place as a flag stop — a place too small to have regular service. That looks like it was probably true, though there are so few passenger trains now that I’m sure it’s been decades since even a flag stop was made.

We got off the interstate just northwest of Tolono and drove into town on U.S. 45. I noticed while we were heading through that there was a sign for a historical marker. But as we passed the spot indicated — the entrance to a gas station — I didn’t see a marker. We drove out the south end of town, turned around, and tried again. We turned in at the gravel entrance to the gas station, but still didn’t see anything historic looking. But we did see a local constable parked in his Tolono squad car, apparently waiting for speeders . He lowered his passenger-side window as we rolled up.

“We were looking for that historical marker,” I said.

“What?” he answered.

“Do you know anything about the historical marker that’s supposed to be here?”

“A drunk took it down last winter. State still hasn’t put it back up.”

“Do you know what it was for? What the marker was for?

“I don’t know. State’s supposed to put it back up again.”

I had my camera out, but I couldn’t bring myself to ask whether I could take the officer’s picture. I also didn’t ask how long he’d been living in the area that he had no idea what this marker was about. Inquiries like that could be a threat to homeland security and speed-zone enforcement. Instead, Dad and I drove off to see Tolono; I was hoping there’d been an old station or stop of some kind I could photograph so I can send a shot to my old friend Gerry, who used to play the song so well. But there’s not a whole lot happening in town, certainly no evidence of a rail-passenger platform anywhere. I shot a couple scenes along the Norfolk tracks anyway. Then we headed back to U.S. 45 to go south for a few miles and get back on I-57.

We passed the historical marker sign again, and going by the gas station I finally saw the monument. It was a tablet set into a boulder in among some sort of ever-greenery. The bushes kind of looked like landscaping for the gas station, and the boulder hadn’t been visible when we were consulting local law enforcement about markers of historical significance. The police officer had been parked no more than 100 feet from the spot.

We halted again, and it turned out to be worth it this time. The marker commemorates what is said to be Lincoln’s last speech in Illinois, on February 11, 1861, during a brief stop on his journey east to be inaugurated. One site notes that Lincoln stopped further east, too, in Danville, and spoke to a crowd there. A railroad-centric account of the journey mentions Tolono, but not Danville.)

Lincoln’s brief Tolono speech is on the marker:

“I am leaving you on an errand of national importance, attended as you are aware with considerable difficulties. Let us believe as some poet has expressed it, ‘Behind the cloud the sun is still shining.’ I bid you an affectionate farewell.”

Monument commemorating Lincoln’s stop in Tolono, Illinois, (just south of Champaign) in February 1861.