My wife and I had been holding onto boxes of memorabilia in our garage that belonged to our sons Daniel and David since they left for college nearly 20 and 15 years ago so that one day, when they had homes of their own, they could retrieve the boxes. They collected them last month. As they cleared out an area of the garage, I found one box stacked beneath theirs containing very old and heavy books that I saved when my brother and I moved our mother from her apartment into assisted living years ago but about which I had forgotten were there.
These books once belonged to my father. His parents, immigrants from Ukraine to the United States in the early 1890s, must have purchased these volumes new in 1900 when they were first published. My father was born exactly 117 years ago today, on December 30, 1905. His upcoming birthday reminded me yesterday that these old books were sitting in our garage. And so I decided to open the box to see what was inside.
The box contained 10 volumes entitled “Messages and Papers of the Presidents – 1789-1897,” copyrighted in 1897 and printed by permission of the Congress of the United States (1900). Each volume contains proclamations, letters, speeches, memos, photographs, political cartoons, and reproductions of paintings of all the first American presidents from George Washington to Grover Cleveland.
Yesterday, I took the ten volumes into the house to preserve them against the cold and heat of our garage, and I looked especially through the papers of Abraham Lincoln, printed only 32 years after his assassination. The volume contains many photographs of him, his wife and sons, his contemporaries and friends, his birthplace and home in Springfield, Illinois, as well as a photo of the house in which he died across from the Ford Theater in Washington, D.C. Each volume has similar documents of all the nation’s first 24 presidents.
These are veritable treasure troves of first documents of American history.
As it happens, I have almost completed reading Jon Meacham’s new biography of Lincoln called “And There Was Light – Abraham Lincoln and the American Struggle” (New York: Random House, 2022). I recommend it highly, especially to history buffs.
Jon Meacham is a national treasure in his own right, a prolific historian and commentator on contemporary political affairs. I have read many excellent histories of Lincoln, and Meacham’s is a worthy addition to all those that came before. His book reads like a contemporary narrative with emphasis on Lincoln’s boyhood, self-education, early family and love life, and his legal and political life leading through his single term in Congress, the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, his election as President, the Civil War, and his principled decision to emancipate enslaved African Americans. The text includes conversations with his long-time friends, family, cabinet, and generals. Meacham is true as well to Lincoln’s periodic melancholy leading him at several points in his life to contemplate suicide following the deaths of an early love and of his son Willie.
As I read the remarkable story of our nation’s 16th President, I was struck by Lincoln’s courage and resolve in carrying the union of the country on his back, and his dogged devotion to moral principle in waging war against the rebellious south leading to the elimination of the “peculiar institution” of the enslavement of an entire race of human beings.
Meacham’s writing is crisp and insightful. Here is but one example in which he describes Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address:
“The Gettysburg Address was an eloquent attempt to frame American politics as not only a mediation of interests but as a moral undertaking. Slave owners portrayed slavery as divinely ordained; Lincoln portrayed individual liberty as God-given. Slave owners invoked the constitution as a shield for suppression; Lincoln invoked the Declaration of Independence as a higher, older, superseding authority. Slave owners defended an aristocracy of color; Lincoln defending democracy.”
The confluence of my reading Meacham’s biography and my rediscovering the 10 volumes of presidential papers that I recall from my childhood sitting on my birth home’s living-room shelf, not only is a source of inspiration about one of the greatest figures in American and world history, but a source of loving memory on my father’s birthday 117 years ago. Zichrono livracha.