by Elizabeth J. Rosenthal
Abraham Lincoln, America's first Republican president, seems more alive and vital nowadays than most present-day politicians, even if he technically left us over 150 years ago. He never used a podium, or a pen, to skirt or obfuscate the important issues of his time. He didn't just go along to get along.
Tell that to today's Republicans, almost all of whom have subordinated to party politics their private misgivings over President Trump's words and deeds. Whether it's his inflammatory tweets, his off-script public pronouncements, his rampant conflicts of interest, his propensity for appointing to sensitive government posts spectacularly unqualified individuals who are burdened by their own conflicts of interest, or his flagrant attempts, with or without the help of a select group of Congressional toadies, to stop the Russia-collusion investigation, they mustn't criticize, but loudly praise, their leader. It is only a matter of time before the "Trump Train," filled to capacity with weak-willed party faithful, derails amid noise and smoke, much like many real trains have of late, with government investment in infrastructure still in question.
The Wearin' o' the Whigs
Lincoln joined the nascent Whig Party in the 1830s when he was a still-rough, frontier-raised, twentysomething, because he disagreed with Democratic President Andrew Jackson's policy against a national bank and Jackson's opposition to the "American system" of internal improvements (infrastructure such as roads and canals) that would have required federal support. But Jackson was popular, and, after Lincoln moved with his family from Kentucky to Indiana and thence to Illinois, he was surrounded by Democrats, and Democrats had a dominant hold on the state for most of his political life. For Lincoln, then, getting ahead politically was going to be quite a challenge.
When Lincoln was elected to his one term in Congress, he didn't use his office to pander to the lowest common denominator. He took his seat in December 1847, toward the end of the Mexican War, and soon gained notoriety for his opposition to it. The U.S. was clearly the victor and, naturally, that made the war very popular back home. Yet, from the floor of the House, Lincoln challenged then-President Polk to explain just where the alleged Mexican aggression had occurred to justify an American use of force. He was prompted to do this because of congressional legislation introduced to fund the troops' supplies which, in the bill's prefatory language, asserted the justice of the war. On December 22, 1847, he submitted what would become known as the "Spot" Resolutions, which asked, among other things, "…whether the particular spot of soil on which the blood of our citizens was so shed, was, or was not, our own soil, at that time…."(The emphases are Lincoln's.)
He was called "Spotty Lincoln" for a good while after that and, although he voted for the troops' supplies, his anti-war position disappointed the voters in his district, including his law partner, Billy Herndon. Some scholars think that his stance ruined his reelection chances, which is why he didn't run again; others think it would have had little effect. In any event, Lincoln didn't run again. He left Washington an unremarkable, one-term congressman and, when he returned to Springfield, far from a hero.
Yes, Lincoln was an unremarkable congressman, but he did try to act against slavery, voting in favor of the Wilmot Proviso numerous times; this legislation would have prevented slavery from being established in the massive territories the U.S. seized in the Mexican War. (The Wilmot Proviso was never enacted.)
Of more interest was his introduction, in January 1849, of a resolution directing the Congressional Committee of the District of Columbia to report a bill that would permit eligible District voters (free, white men over age 21) a vote on whether slavery shall be abolished in the capital city, with provisions that would, among other things, compensate slave owners for the voluntary manumission of their slaves. Lincoln intended to follow up with the introduction of the legislation described in the resolution, but his modest coalition of support quickly fell apart, and he never formally introduced the bill. As the late Lincoln biographer, William Lee Miller, reasoned in the beautifully written Lincoln's Virtues: An Ethical Biography (Alfred A. Knopf, 2007):
[H]e made the attempt. He certainly did not need to take the trouble to work up and to introduce any bill to end slavery in the District – not for any reason back home in his conservative and racially prejudiced district, and not for any discernible reason for his own future either in Illinois or on the national stage…. So we may be permitted to infer that he went to the trouble to work it up and present it because he was indeed convinced that slavery in the capital of a nation conceived in liberty was a particularly egregious evil.
Miller's analysis is supported by the fact that Lincoln had first expressed his views on the immorality of slavery and the power of Congress to abolish it in Washington DC when he was an Illinois state legislator over a decade earlier.
What's the Matter with Kansas and Nebraska?
Lincoln ran for the U.S. Senate twice in the 1850s. The 1854 enactment of the Kansas-Nebraska Act (10 Stat. 277), which repealed the Missouri Compromise and permitted the extension of slavery into the Kansas and Nebraska territories, was so explosive an issue across the North that it effectively crowded out discussion of anything else during both of Lincoln's senatorial races. But the Democrats still dominated politics in Illinois, which meant that Lincoln's candidacy would be a struggle. Those who opposed the extension of slavery into the territories under the new law were known as "anti-Nebraska men," and they included Democrats as well as Whigs.
In those days, senators were not elected directly by the people, but by state legislators. During the first senate contest in early 1855, Lincoln was just a few votes short of victory. With each roll call, his numbers dwindled. There were five anti-Nebraska Democrats who consistently withheld their votes from Lincoln out of party loyalty. To prevent the election of a Democrat who was probably not reliably anti-Nebraska (Governor Joel Matteson), Lincoln stepped aside and endorsed Lyman Trumbull, a strong anti-Nebraska Democrat. Lincoln asked his supporters to join the others in voting for Trumbull. They reluctantly obeyed, and Trumbull was elected the newest U.S. Senator from Illinois. Although it pained Lincoln greatly, the slavery issue was so important to him that he willingly subordinated his political ambition to the greater good.
It is difficult to imagine such an act of political selflessness today. If it's not party before country, it's oneself before party before country. Think, for example, of Republican U.S. Senator Mitch McConnell, the Majority Leader, who refused to consider President Obama's nominee to replace the late Justice Antonin Scalia on the U.S. Supreme Court two years ago, thus violating the Senate's Constitutional duty of advice and consent. The Court was forced to work with only eight justices until our current president entered office and nominated the very conservative jurist Neil Gorsuch. Think now of Republican Representative Devin Nunes, Chair of the U.S. House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence, who has embarrassed himself more than once by engineering on Trump's behalf distractions from Special Counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into allegations of collusion between the Trump presidential campaign and Russia in 2016.
But let us momentarily shake from ourselves today's political disquietude and return to the disquietude of an earlier era. In the Illinois senatorial contest of 1858, the massively popular and politically powerful Democrat, Stephen Douglas, was up for reelection. He was not just any popular, powerful senator, either, but the one who had pushed through the Kansas-Nebraska Act in the first place, a law that rent political parties and the political order in the free states, and pitted free states against slave states.
The Kansas-Nebraska controversy continued to escalate for several reasons. Pro- and anti-slavery settlers were waging a hot war in Kansas, with "Bloody Kansas" being the territory's non-hyperbolic nickname. Douglas clung to his principle of "popular sovereignty," set forth in the Nebraska law, which meant that settlers would decide whether Kansas became a slave state or free. But things worsened with the approval of the Lecompton Constitution (named after the Kansas town in which it was adopted). Lecompton would have kept slavery in Kansas even if a majority of voters had chosen the Constitution without slavery. (For an explanation of how this strange outcome would have worked, I recommend reading – with a focus on the appendices - Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues of the Lincoln-Douglas Debates (University of Chicago Press, 1959) by the late political philosopher Harry V. Jaffa.)
It is easy to understand why Lecompton was widely seen as the product of political corruption that kept anti-slavery settlers from having a voice in their state Constitution's formulation and adoption. Senator Douglas opposed Congress's approval of Lecompton, since it seemed to violate his "popular sovereignty" principle, putting him at odds with President James Buchanan, a fellow Democrat, who had endorsed Lecompton.
The Dreadful Dred Scott Decision
The controversy over Kansas-Nebraska reached a new crisis level the same year as the battle over Lecompton with the Dred Scott decision (Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393 ), one of the most infamous U.S. Supreme Court rulings in American history. The ruling denied standing to a slave, Dred Scott, to sue for his freedom and that of his wife and children, even though his "master" had taken the Scotts from Missouri, a slave state, into Illinois, a free state, and then to the free Minnesota Territory, before eventually returning to Missouri. These moves technically should have resulted in freedom for the Scotts. But Scott, said the Court, as a black man (whether slave or free), was not a citizen of the United States and therefore could not challenge his continued status as a slave, regardless of the merits of his case.
Chief Justice Roger B. Taney did not believe that the framers had intended to treat enslaved or free blacks as U.S. citizens under the Constitution, and he would not deviate from this strict reading of their intent. Here is just some of the startling language of Taney's majority opinion, which serves as a sad primer on how racist American society was at the time:
They [blacks] had for more than a century before been regarded as beings of an inferior order, and altogether unfit to associate with the white race, either in social or political relations; and so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his [the black person's] benefit.
...The legislation of the States [which the Court had surveyed in its opinion] therefore shows… the inferior and subject condition of that race at the time the Constitution was adopted, and long afterward, throughout the thirteen States by which that instrument was framed; and it is hardly consistent with the respect due to these States, to suppose that they regarded…, as fellow-citizens and members of the sovereignty, a class of beings whom they had thus stigmatized…. More especially, it cannot be believed that the large slaveholding States regarded them as included in the word citizens…. [Regarding them as such would] inevitably… [produce] discontent and insubordination among them, and … [endanger] the peace and safety of the State.
Taney continued that, even if public opinion had changed since adoption of the Constitution, this revered instrument still could only be construed with the framers in mind: "…[I]t must be construed now as it was understood at the time of its adoption." The aforementioned late Justice Scalia, an "originalist" in Constitutional interpretation, might have vigorously applauded.
After this long discussion, the Court was able to conclude that the lower tribunal had erred in deciding the matter on the merits, because Dred Scott was not a citizen and thus had no standing to sue.
Dred Scott, the plaintiff, found himself in an existential nightmare. Because he was a black man, he was not a citizen, and therefore could not be a plaintiff in a legal matter and sue for his freedom. But because he could not sue for his freedom, he would have to remain a slave, subject only to his master's desire to manumit him. Even worse, a trend was developing among slave states, offended at the increasing anti-slavery clamor in the North, to enact laws prohibiting slave owners from freeing their slaves even if they wanted to. It thus became apparent that slaves and their descendants would remain slaves in perpetuity, with no way out.
But Taney feared that, if he did not address the merits of Scott's claim, some people might draw from the silence the mistaken impression that there could be merit in it, leading to "…serious mischief and injustice in some future suit." Therefore, it was incumbent on the Court, Taney believed, to rule on the merits, anyway.
The chief justice thus went on to proclaim that Congress had no power to exclude slavery from the territories. Therefore, language in the legislation approving the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, which included the Kansas and Nebraska territories and which prohibited the establishment of slavery in the newly-acquired lands, should be considered "void and inoperative." But Taney went further, concluding that whenever a slave owner took his slave from his slave state of residence to a free state, the issue of whether that slave's status changed from slave to free did not depend on the laws of the free state but on the laws of the slave state.
Abraham Lincoln and other anti-Nebraska leaders were afraid that the U.S. Supreme Court was heading in the direction of nationalizing slavery, so that free states could not exclude slavery from their borders. It was just a matter of the issue of slavery extension reaching the Court for decision.
And In This Corner: Lincoln and Douglas Face Off
The preceding is just the back story to Lincoln's senatorial challenge to Douglas, which led to their famed debates on the issue of slavery extension. These debates took place across the length and breadth of Illinois, in the northern, more anti-slavery part of the state, and the southern, more pro-slavery section.
Before getting into the substance of the debates, we should understand that, in Lincoln's time, and as demonstrated in the Dred Scott decision, the entire United States operated on the basis of white supremacy. It was not a minority or fringe ideology but overwhelmingly definitive of how people lived their lives then, how society was structured. The abolitionists who favored racial equality were so few in number and viewed as so extreme as to be treated like social and political pariahs. For decades leading up to the Civil War, being an abolition activist, even in the North, meant living under a threat of mob violence. There was an especially notorious case of anti-abolition violence that occurred in Alton, Illinois, in 1837, which Lincoln referred to in one of his earliest speeches the following year, in which a mob destroyed the printing press of abolitionist editor Elijah Lovejoy and then murdered him. Some of the more "upstanding" members of the community may have participated. A more benign northern expression of anti-abolitionism sometimes involved the forceful facilitation of the unwanted individual's exit from the city limits.
Illinois, dominated in its southern half by Kentuckian emigres, was among the most bigoted states of a generally anti-black North. Black people were not allowed to come in to the state to live and, if they were already there, they had no real rights to speak of. They certainly couldn't vote. As we have already seen, Senator Douglas, the proponent of "popular sovereignty," claimed that white people's "sacred right of self-government" guaranteed them the choice of making the territory of Kansas slave or free, as they preferred.
Douglas frequently engaged in race-baiting; he tried to trick Lincoln into coming out in favor of the black vote or other forms of civic participation such as serving on juries. The "Little Giant," as the diminutive Douglas was known, also tried to link his opponent with, heaven forfend, the "amalgamation" of the races. Even though the issue was slavery extension and not the civil rights of free blacks, Douglas intended to distract voters with irrelevant subjects, and thus hurt Lincoln's candidacy.
Lincoln largely succeeded in avoiding the bait. I say "largely" because, at times, he denied supporting civil rights for blacks. But he used none of the coarse, inflammatory, anti-black rhetoric of Douglas, which, if he had, might have helped him with a good number of voters. He also took every opportunity to attack the immoral nature of slavery. Although numerous Illinoisans opposed slavery extension, many did so only because they didn't want to lose jobs to slaves, and not because they had any sympathy for them or believed that slavery was immoral. But Lincoln never took the easy road in politics for his own gain and had no taste for racist rabble-rousing, even if historians of today generally agree that his racial views fell short of today's (hopefully) egalitarian standards.
But were they right about that?
As Lincoln kicked off his campaign in Chicago on July 10, 1858, he got himself into a little trouble when he said the following:
…[L]et us discard all this quibbling about this man and the other man – this race and that race and the other race being inferior, and therefore they must be placed in an inferior position – discarding our standard that we have left us. Let us discard all these things, and unite as one people throughout this land, until we shall once more stand up declaring that all men are created equal.
This wasn't the first time Lincoln had more than hinted in a public forum that he believed in the universality of the human species, regardless of race. Over a year earlier, on June 26, 1857, in a speech about the political impact of the Dred Scott decision, he disputed Douglas's position, which was in agreement with Chief Justice Taney's, that the Declaration of Independence excluded blacks from its plain language that "all men are created equal." Lincoln framed this brief philosophical statement, as beautiful now as ever, as being an aspirational one. Certainly, Americans of 1776 had not yet attained equality in their life circumstances, nor had other peoples around the world. The framers:
…did not intend to declare all men equal in all respects. They did not mean to say all were equal in color, size, intellect, moral developments, or social capacity…. They did not mean to assert the obvious untruth, that all were then actually enjoying that equality [of being created equal], nor yet, that they [the framers] were about to confer it immediately upon them.
The emphasis above is Lincoln's. He went on to explain:
They [the framers] meant to set up a standard maxim for a free society, which should be familiar to all, and revered by all; constantly looked to, constantly labored for, and even though never perfectly attained, constantly approximated, and thereby constantly spreading and deepening its influence, and augmenting the happiness and value of life to all people of all colors everywhere.
Well! One can actually hear the progressive politician of today uttering these majestic lines and sounding completely contemporary. But despite Lincoln's forward-looking oratory following Dred Scott, he wasn't a political candidate then, and, given that the Internet hadn't been invented yet, voters during the 1858 senate race couldn't simply Google his prior affirmations and confront him with them. So after Lincoln recommended not "quibbling" about the equality of the races at the start of his 1858 senatorial campaign, according to Lincoln historian Allen Guelzo in his fascinating book, Lincoln and Douglas: The Debate That Defined America (Simon & Schuster, 2008), his advisers told him to just stop that. He never again uttered such a surprisingly modern view of humanity while running for elective office.
Douglas, who, along with other Democrats delighted in calling Lincoln and the future president's fellow Republicans "black Republicans" (my emphasis added), derided his adversary in the August 21, 1858, Ottawa, Illinois, debate to much laughter and applause:
I do not question Mr. Lincoln's conscientious belief that the negro was made his equal, and hence is his brother, but for my own part, I do not regard the negro as my equal, and positively deny that he is my brother or any kin to me whatever…. He belongs to an inferior race, and must always occupy an inferior position….
Do you desire to strike out of our State Constitution that clause which keeps slaves and free negroes out of the State, and allow the free negroes to flow in, and over your prairies with black settlements? Do you desire to turn this beautiful State into a free negro colony, in order that when Missouri abolishes slavery she can send one hundred thousand emancipated slaves into Illinois, to become citizens and voters, on an equality with yourselves? If you desire negro citizenship, if you desire to allow them to come into the State and settle with the white man, if you desire them to vote on an equality with yourselves, and to make them eligible to [hold] office, to serve on juries, and to adjudge your rights, then support Mr. Lincoln and the Black Republican party, who are in favor of citizenship of the negro. For one, I am opposed to negro citizenship in any and every form. I believe this government was made on the white basis. I believe it was made by white men, for the benefit of white men and their posterity for ever [sic], and I am in favor of confining citizenship to white men, men of European birth and descent, instead of conferring it upon negroes, Indians and other inferior races.
Lincoln responded, in part, that:
…[A]nything that argues me into his idea of perfect social and political equality with the negro, is but a specious and fantastic arrangement of words, by which a man can prove a horse chestnut to be a chestnut horse…. I have no purpose to introduce political and social equality between the white and black races…. There is a physical difference between the two, which in my judgment will probably forever forbid them living together upon the footing of perfect equality….I, as well as Judge Douglas, am in favor of the race to which I belong, having the superior position…. I hold that notwithstanding of this, there is no reason in the world why the negro is not entitled to all the natural rights enumerated in the Declaration of Independence, the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness…. [I]n the right to eat the bread, without leave of anybody else, which his own hand earns, he is my equal and the equal of Judge Douglas and the equal of every living man.
(The emphasis was Lincoln's.)
One could argue that Lincoln had just "caved" on his principles. But notice that he refused to go anywhere near Douglas's dismissive language about blacks; he never claimed that black people were an "inferior race," but insisted on their entitlement to the "natural rights" enumerated in the Declaration of Independence. So while his apparent backtracking on equality may be disheartening to modern ears, the issue before the voters of the time was not civil rights, but the extension of slavery into the territories. Lincoln did not want to get bogged down in a much more sensitive point that would be a distraction from the emergent issue of the day.
To put it another way, Lincoln knew the pitfalls of expecting too much too soon of the white electorate. More than once he cautioned against ignoring the popular will in a democracy. It came up during his famed, October 16, 1854, anti-Nebraska speech in Peoria, Illinois, when, in the very context of whether equality between the races was attainable were slavery to be extinguished, he acknowledged that white sentiment was utterly opposed to the idea: "A universal feeling, whether well or ill-founded, can not [sic] be safely disregarded." Four years later, on August 21, 1858, in Ottawa, Illinois, the context was Lincoln's contention that Douglas was preparing the public mind for the nationalization of slavery, which could come as early as the next U.S. Supreme Court opinion. Lincoln said: "…[P]ublic sentiment is everything. With public sentiment, nothing can fail; without it nothing can succeed." Lincoln understood that he could only lead white public opinion so far, given the sociopolitical conditions of his time.
Lincoln lost this election, too. It was again the state legislature that didn't quite come up with the votes for him, although, for this run, the newly-established Republican Party (formed for the sole purpose of opposing the extension of slavery into the territories) was united behind him. The pre-Republican anti-Nebraska men had not been fully behind him in 1855. However, despite Lincoln's careful avoidance of inflammatory racial rhetoric, and his loss in the legislature, more votes were cast by the people for Republican legislators during the election than Democratic. This meant that, with a new census and redistricting coming up that would reflect the explosion in Illinois's northern population over the previous decade, Republicans would likely enjoy more statewide success in the not-too-distant future. But that did not help Lincoln politically in the short term.
Doggies, Horsies, Kitties, Birdies, Bunnies, and Piggies
In political forthrightness and humanity, then, Lincoln could have taught today's political leaders a lesson in civic responsibility. But that's not what this essay is really about.
What is it about? Abe & Fido. No, really. I'm not kidding. To be more exact, it's about Abe & Fido: Lincoln's Love of Animals and the Touching Story of His Favorite Canine Companion, which was published by the Chicago Review Press in 2015 and written by Matthew Algeo. The author is fortunate to have had several books published over the years on various topics and his work has been featured on National Public Radio.
Reviewing Lincoln's pre-presidential career as a principled political leader is kind of relevant to his relationship with animals – including Fido – because it's nice to know that he was an all-around good guy. And because one can't help thinking about and discussing Lincoln's character in light of today's abomination of a government in Washington DC, and in too many of our states.
But back to Abe & Fido. It's a slim volume. Lincoln only adopted the dog in 1855, just six years before he left for Washington to become our sixteenth president, and did not take Fido along then because of the poor pooch's sensitive nerves. Besides the limited time frame of Lincoln's and Fido's companionship, there is also very little in the record about Fido in general. In those days, pet dogs of politicians didn't tend to capture the public imagination. As the author points out, there was "no competent veterinary care," nor a vet who might have had a record of Fido's visits. If the dog got sick, home remedies would have to do. There were no pet grooming salons, no pet food stores, and no mass-produced pet toys. There also were no animal cruelty laws. On the eve of the Civil War in 1860, the founding of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was still six years away.
Algeo says that, if a dog did not have a home and lived on the street, Man's Best Friend was literally at the mercy of people's whims, be they kind or sadistic. Although the same holds true today, and putting aside factory farming for purposes of this discussion, animal cruelty is now much less common, pets have plenty of human advocates, and there are criminal consequences for people who abuse animals. But back in Lincoln's time, there were no animal shelters. Says Algeo, stray dogs were routinely rounded up and killed, often viciously, in the name of public health and safety. The author goes on non-Fido tangents throughout the book, some of which are relevant to the main subject and some of which are not. In a relevant passage, Algeo quotes abolitionist Lydia Maria Child, who observed a dog "cull" in 1841 New York City:
The poor creatures are knocked down on the pavement and beat to death…. The company of dog-killers themselves are a frightful sight, with their bloody clubs and spattered garments…. I always run from the window when I hear them.
Then there was Lincoln, whose kindness to animals, from boyhood on, was way ahead of its time. Long before Fido was born, long before the boy, Abe, gave a second thought to going into politics, he advocated for the feelings of animals. Acquaintances later remembered that he had written an essay about animal cruelty for one of his few, brief periods in school. As Algeo relates, Lincoln not only stopped his little playmates from placing hot coals on turtles' outer shells, but one day declared, as someone recalled: "An ant's life was to it as sweet as ours to us." He cared about ants, which has to be rare, even today. Just being interested in ants is still almost exclusively the province of entomologists!
Lest anyone assume that these stories are mere tall tales, no truer than the fable of George Washington and the cherry tree, they in fact are available to read in a very fat, still-in-print volume from the University of Illinois Press, Herndon's Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements About Abraham Lincoln, published in 1998 and edited by Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis. It is a collection of hundreds of pages of surprisingly readable notes jotted down after Lincoln's assassination by the president's surviving law partner, Herndon, as he personally interviewed many dozens of people who had known Lincoln personally. Correspondence addressed to Herndon by some of the late president's old friends and colleagues is also included.
Algeo summarizes many of the animal-related anecdotes that virtually any student of Lincoln would have already read about, interspersed among discussions of animal cruelty and an abbreviated overview, with some minor mistakes, of Lincoln's life and career.
(Mistakes include referring to the Kansas-Nebraska Act as a "transparent attempt to circumvent the Missouri Compromise of 1820…." As we have seen, the Act more than circumvented the Missouri Compromise. It expressly repealed it! Algeo also claims that Lincoln had "withdrawn from politics" by 1855, which was around the time that the future president acquired Fido. In fact, Lincoln had returned to politics by 1854, when he stumped across Illinois against the Kansas-Nebraska Act and then ran for the U.S. Senate early the following year.)
To return to familiar instances of Lincoln's kindness toward animals, Algeo includes the time that Lincoln was "all fixed up" in nice clothing and on his way somewhere when he came upon a huge hog hopelessly stuck in the mud, which hog he freed from the mire despite what the selfless act must have done to his outfit. Yes, Algeo mentions the time that Lincoln trailed behind his lawyer colleagues on the way to court when he found a couple of helpless baby birds on the ground, which Lincoln assumed had been blown out of the nest during a storm, and wouldn't leave the thicket until he had found the birds' nest and safely returned the babies to it. Said Lincoln later to his bemused companions, "I could not have slept tonight if I had not given those two little birds to their mother." (Anticipatory note to my birdwatching friends: I agree that it is entirely possible that the baby birds were on the ground because they had just fledged, but Lincoln's heart was still in the right place.)
Yes, Algeo describes the time that Lincoln, as a young man of 22 helping his family make their arduous, 1830 move from Indiana to Illinois, refused to leave their little dog behind after it either jumped or fell off one of the Lincolns' oxcarts as they rolled with difficulty through an icy stream. Without a thought, Lincoln lowered himself into the waste-deep, frigid water and pushed through until he came upon the dog and brought it back the same way he'd gone to retrieve it.
Admittedly, Lincoln was in his physical prime, which literally meant that he was lifting weights (actually, sizeable, everyday objects) so ridiculously heavy – in one instance, one thousand pounds, according to several friends – that no one else could do it; that within months of settling in New Salem, Illinois, he would beat all ruffian comers who challenged him to wrestle; and that he generally exhibited remarkable athleticism wherever he went and in whatever he did. Several years later, when he was campaigning for the Illinois legislature, he espied a brawl on the edge of a gathering in which a friend was taking a beating. Lincoln stopped his speech long enough to elbow through the crowd until he reached the scene and, according to more than one account, removed the aggressors from the fray by flinging them aside as if they were "boys."
On the frontier, where physical prowess was prized more than any other trait among men living a rough and trying existence, Lincoln tended to best everyone he came in contact with. Given the relative lack of sentimentality people harbored in those days about pets and other animals, a Goliath of a man could not have been expected any more than an average one to save a little dog under those cold, wet circumstances of 1830. It would have been impractical, unpleasant, and possibly very dangerous. Yet Lincoln did.
The author, Algeo, may have been unaware of some other instances of animals in peril in which Lincoln intervened, and usually was able to help. There was the sow trying to eat its piglet, which incident Lincoln, a grown man and a lawyer by that time, brought to a halt. According to Michael Burlingame's The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln (University of Illinois Press, 1994), Lincoln's young son, Bob, with friends, "put on a dog show in the family barn. To get the canines to rise up, the children slung ropes over a rafter then tied them around the dogs' necks, practically hanging them." In horror, Lincoln discovered what they were doing, angrily ended the mischief, and severely scolded his son. Apparently, Bob didn't share his father's innate aversion to all forms of animal mistreatment.
Also not discussed in Abe & Fido was one of countless heartbreaking incidents of the Civil War. One of the president's least favorite jobs was reviewing the hundreds of cases in which the U.S. Army had recommended the firing squad for Union soldiers. Lincoln ruefully dubbed the days he set aside for review of these matters "butcher days." A soldier's offense could range from desertion to falling asleep during a night watch. One day, Lincoln came across the case of a 16-year-old boy who had crippled his horse to avoid going into battle. It was too late to help the horse, and Lincoln saw the cruelty of what the boy had done to avoid serving, but, in recognizing the immature and somewhat irrational nature of the typical 16-year-old, he saved the boy from capital punishment.
One of the most poignant, if little known, scenes of Lincoln's presidency occurred in February 1864 and involved a fire in the president's stables that turned out to be the work of an arsonist. The stables, situated between the White House and the Treasury Building, had set off a fire alarm. Lincoln himself "raced to the scene" from the executive mansion, as Doris Kearns Goodwin wrote in her bestseller, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, 2005). Goodwin quotes a member of his guard, Robert McBride, who was also on the scene, thusly: "When he reached the boxwood hedge that served as an enclosure to the stables, …he sprang over it like a deer….[W]ith his own hands [he] burst open the stable door," but the quickly advancing fire had made it impossible to save the horses. Others who were there had to restrain Lincoln from going in to rescue the animals. Later, McBride "found Lincoln in tears."
Goodwin suggests that the tears were prompted by the knowledge that one of the horses had belonged to his dead son, Willie, who had passed away from typhoid fever in the White House almost exactly two years earlier. While I am sure that the connection to Willie was a factor in his grief, it is evident to me that the chief reason for Lincoln's sorrow was the awful fate that befell the horses, which undoubtedly suffered greatly as the fire consumed all. Lincoln would have the stables rebuilt and acquire new horses, but the tragic nature of the fire would remain.
Occurring thirty years after his physical prime, this sad story, in which Lincoln leapt "like a deer" over some hedges to reach the burning stables, shows that he had lost little (if any) of his athleticism, or his bravery.
The presidential stables incident is not mentioned in Abe & Fido, either. Neither does Fido take up that much space in Abe & Fido. The author, Matthew Algeo, does provide an incomplete list of some of the many animals that became White House residents: "[K]ittens, rabbits, goats, and ponies…." These pets were available for the president's enjoyment, too, despite being mainly his sons' beloved companions. "Lincoln was very fond of the goats," Algeo writes. "He enjoyed watching them frolic on the lawn." And there was a new family dog, Jip.
Despite giving little real space to Fido in his book, Algeo ably explains how Lincoln acquired the gorgeous, thick-coated mutt, adjudged to be part golden retriever. Fido was likely what we today would call a "rescue" animal. Algeo conjures some attractive mental images of Lincoln and Fido doing things together:
Throughout the week, Lincoln ran errands with Fido faithfully tagging along. They might stop at Diller's drugstore, where Lincoln would fill a prescription and perhaps enjoy a flavored soda. And there were daily trips to the post office to collect his mail…. [A] large pile of letters, neatly wrapped, always awaited him. Fido would often carry these bundles in his mouth to save his master the trouble.
"Say 'Cheese,' Fido! That's a Good Boy."
Most interesting is Algeo's narrative of when, how, and by whom the three rare photos of Fido, which are reproduced in Abe & Fido and were not discovered (or rediscovered) until the twentieth century, were identified. It happened in 1940 and an octogenarian named John Linden Roll performed the task. Roll's Springfield family had agreed to adopt the dog upon the Lincolns' 1861 move to Washington, when Roll was a small boy. Fido already knew the Rolls well, since the Lincoln boys, who were playmates of the Roll boys, usually brought the dog along with them when they visited.
The book includes a picture of 89-year-old John Linden Roll taken in 1943 not long before his death. A framed, photographic portrait of President Lincoln appropriately dominates the background. Roll, who clearly remembered where he and his family were and what they were doing when they learned of Lincoln's death in April 1865 (they were gathered at the table for supper), looks like a typical elderly man of the World War Two era – or the early twenty-first century. Wearing a dress shirt and a sleek-looking, striped tie kept together with a clasp, wire-rimmed glasses resting on the bridge of his nose, Roll reclines solemnly in an ornately carved, Victorian-period rocking-chair, his thin, long, tired face directed toward the camera.
Our awareness of Roll's time with Fido, and his stature as a friend and neighbor to the future president and the rest of the Lincolns, affords him an extraordinary aura of ordinariness. It is this super-ordinariness, for years shared by the Lincolns of Springfield, which confirms for us the authenticity of their lives despite Abe Lincoln's monumental achievements. The greatest figures in history were once made of the organic material common to us all, and most days acted in ways consistent with their ordinariness. They breathed and sighed, blinked and yawned, sneezed when the pollen count was high, puttered around the house, gossiped with neighbors, sat on the porch after a busy day to read the paper with a glass of water in hand. Yet the greatest of the great – Lincoln - possessed that unidentifiable something, in his notably ordinary existence, that brought him forward at just the right moment to save a nation, the first democracy of modern times.
(c) Elizabeth J. Rosenthal, 2018. All rights reserved.