The Fall of Lincoln – less jumbled than the Reader website

The Fall of Lincoln 4th in a series on a trip To Washington DC.

The stack of 10,000 Lincoln books found across the street from Ford’s Theater. Far below Welty peers up at the photographer

On a walk to the White House from our hotel we passed Ford’s Theater. We had hoped to see a play there but Ford’s wasn’t showing summer productions. I’ve enjoyed watching musicals there twice.

In 1971 I had no idea that the infamous site of Lincoln’s martyrdom was a functioning theater. Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, intended to close it permanently. It was confiscated, stripped bare and left a rotting shell. Thus, it remained for decades but it was brought back to life. During my internship I bought tickets to see “You’re a good man Charlie Brown.” It was an homage to the beloved comic strip Peanuts by Minnesota’s own cartoonist, Charles Schultz.

My grandsons sat below Lincoln’s bunting draped box seats as a National Park ranger told us the theater’s history. When they were little the boys gave me a wind-up walking Lincoln much as I gave my grandfather a copy of Bruce Catton’s Civil War trilogy. Our family has had many fans of Lincoln. In my grandfather’s Era people were proud if they could say, “I shook the hand of man who shook the hand of Lincoln.” Having shaken my grandfather’s hand, I’m three handshakes from Lincoln.

Lincoln’s assassin, actor John Wilkes Booth, had performed for the President and Mrs. Lincoln and had easy access to the theater. He was not the most famous member of his family’s acting clan until the murder. After Lincoln was sworn in for a second term Lincoln delivered his 2nd inaugural address calling for malice towards none. Booth, well into his conspiracy, was in the crowd listening. Booth was enraged to hear the proposal to give 300,000 black union soldiers voting rights. He vowed, “That is the last speech he will ever make.” Three days later he put his gun to Lincoln’s head but too late to stop Southern armies from laying down their weapons. No doubt Booth’s spirit was doing cartwheels on January 6th, 2021.

Across from the theater at 516 10th Street stands the Peterson House where Abe breathed his last with son Robert at his side. (Robert Lincoln would also be at the sides of our nation’s next two assassinated presidents, James Garfield and William McKinley.) Lincoln’s lanky frame was carried by Union soldiers who strained against anxious crowds mobbing the streets as word of the assassination spread. Now a museum its store holds a colossal stack of 10,000 books by different authors devoted to Lincoln’s hard to summarize life. I own a dozen myself and just listened on Audible to my newest favorite “Differ we must” by NPR reporter Steve Inskeep.

Another book on my shelves is Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals.” It was the template for Steven Spielberg’s magnificent film “Lincoln.” Kearns Goodwin begins the book by quoting Leo Tolstoy’s awestruck praise, “The greatness of Napoleon, Caesar or Washington is only moonlight by the sun of Lincoln…. He was bigger than his country – bigger than all the Presidents together…and as a great character he will live as long as the world lives.” Not a bad summary from the man whose War and Peace clocked in at 587,287 words.

I still have the paperback that was my first Lincoln book, “The Day Lincoln was Shot” by Jim Bishop. I read it not long after I complained to my mother that I was ugly. Rather than argue the point Mom simply told me that Abraham Lincoln was a homely man. Lincoln himself famously joked about it. He’s been my model ever since.

Lincoln’s political career seemed to collapse after his single term in Congress. In 1847 he was out of step with his Illinois voters who were happy with President James Polk’s successful war with Mexico. Lincoln saw it as a move to help Democrats at the expense of Whigs by adding slave state territory to United States. And Abe’s Whig party all but disappeared as slavery spread. But Lincoln’s “ambition,” as his law partner James Herndon said, was a little engine that knew no rest.” The same could be said of the South which lost the war but which in many ways won the peace by denying newly freed slaves the guarantees of the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. And when in 1965 a Democratic president, of all people, restored black voting rights the white South became Republican.

I moved to Minnesota before the magnetic polls switched. Having grown up in Kansas I learned how “Bleeding Kansas” gave birth to the Civil War, the Republican Party and revived the “rail-splitter’s” faltering political career. I was deeply chagrined when Minnesota kids started calling me “Reb” because my Kansas accent sounded southern to them. And in my first Minnesota week’s I found myself challenged to a wrestling match like Abe when he moved to New Salem. Google: “YouWannaFight,”.

Every serious American historian has pondered what might have happened if Lincoln had lived. Inskeep’s “Differ we must” doesn’t go there but it explains how Lincoln dealt with 16 people who strongly disagreed with him over the course of his lifetime. Each episode shows a thoughtfulness all but extinct in the politics of the Fox News Era. It’s as though the spirit Tolstoy described had been martyred anew.

Welty keeps Lincoln alive at:

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