On February 27, 1860, Abraham Lincoln closed his address at New York City’s Cooper Union with the following words that turned an age old phrase on its head.
Neither let us be slandered from our duty by false accusations against us, nor frightened from it by menaces of destruction to the Government nor of dungeons to ourselves. Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it.
His speech at Cooper Union set him on track to win the Republican nomination for president. The world view he capsulized in this quote is what fueled his greatness.
The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.— Martin Luther King, Jr.
Those words define what we mean by character. They are words that remind us of the difference between a leader and a con-man. For writers like me, these words are a guide to crafting characters who inspire readers through stories. Characters with character are more important today, than ever before.
I’m often asked that question. With more than 20,000 books written about him, I suppose the question shouldn’t surprise anyone. But my answer might shock you.
We are going to be asked, “What is your story about?” There is a three-part answer to that anxiety-inducing question. The short answer is the story’s theme. Another reply is to outline the moral dilemma—a choice between opposing principles that lies at the heart of the Lead’s psychological journey. We can also describe the physical journey that our Lead character pursues. All three answers help focus our writing.
A recent news item reminded me of an ominous episode of political theater that took place some 153 years and twelve days ago. Now don’t get me wrong. It’s not my intent in this post to compare or contrast the two occasions, or the people involved. I’ll leave that to you.
By the way, the event I recalled isn’t the one that happened on April 14, 1865. My mind is too complex to travel somewhere that easy.
Today is the 160th anniversary of the caning of Senator Charles Sumner. It’s not far-fetched to imagine that kind of thing happening today.
Lincoln’s law partner, Herndon, described episodes when he’d find Lincoln sitting in a catatonic state from which he couldn’t be aroused. Often there’d be a book of poetry in his lap.
No one has any idea of what went on in Lincoln’s head during those episodes. He never talked about them.
One possibility is that were flashbacks of an earlier trauma that his body was defending himself against. That happens to people who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Lincoln suffered several traumatic moments early on. At 7 he almost drowned, at 9 he suffered a life-threatening head injury, and months later helped bury his mother, at 10 his father left him and his sister to weather a brutal winter unattended and on the brink of starvation, as a teenager his father beat him often and when he was just past 20 his first love died. Lincoln’s emotional responses to these and other events are explored in Lincoln Raw-a biographical novel.
Maybe his psyche just went into overload from processing flashbacks of too many traumas at once.
Would we let someone with that much emotional baggage be President today?
We shortchange ourselves when we study history as discreet events, dislodged from the context of what happens around them. That’s especially true when we divorce those incidents from the personal circumstances of those who put historical events in motion. (more…)
Discovering Lincoln’s Cottage at the edge of Washington DC was one of the highlights of last fall’s roadtrip. The cottage served as a summer refuge for the Lincoln family during the tribulations of the Civil War and little Willie’s death. There is probably no other place where you can connect so intimately with the Lincoln family. For us, that connection was in no small measure enhanced by our terrific tour guide, Robert Gotffredi.
Here’s his smiling face.
And here he is on the back porch of the cottage, giving us the low-down.
During the summers of 1862-1864, Lincoln rode by horseback between the cottage (where he slept) and the White House (where he worked). A prominent feature on the cottage grounds is the statue of Lincoln and his mount.
On most days, those round trips included three rituals. An exchange of nods with the poet Walt Whitman who lived along the route, a stop at the “contraband camps” where Lincoln joined escaped slaves in singing spirituals, and solitary walks among the graves of fallen Union soldiers. We can only imagine the thoughts that consumed him on such occasions.
Inside the cottage (where photography isn’t allowed) Robert shared stories about late night visitors who woke the nightgown and slipper clad, bed-headed President from naps. They usually came for business, sometimes out of curiosity, and often were entertained with stories and jokes until late into the night.
The cottage is not only a repository of unique information about the Lincolns’ year in Washington, it is also available as a venue for a variety of educational, business and social events. Needless to say, the Lincoln Cottage was one of the great discoveries of our adventure.