Some Presidents Day Stories

I was talking to Glen at the café I rode to for breakfast this morning. “It’s President’s Day. Did you get him anything?”

Glen has a pretty quick mind, but he thought for a moment and countered “Well, it’s one of those vestigial holidays. We’ve got a tailbone, but how many million years since we’ve needed it? It’s on the calendar and that’s about it.”

I think he’s right. It used to be more at Washington’s Birthday, and in some states Lincoln’s Birthday was also celebrated this month. And then one of the reasons February is Black History Month is that this short month also includes the date celebrated as Fredrick Douglass’ Birthday.

No sub-text here: 19th century celebrating heavenly Presidential bromance

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My celebration, my observance was taken up with the ubiquitous modern American civic act this weekend, watching things on a screen alone — which is kind of sad, but the others in my family have more proximate concerns nearer to them than my fiddly interest in musty histories and art.

I started by watching Lincoln’s Dilemma,  a four-part, four-hour documentary mini-series produced by a number of Afro-Americans that is available on Apple TV+ now. It covers the time from Lincoln’s entry into state politics until his burial, focusing on his evolving and politically and war charged relationship with American chattel slavery and the Afro-American’s subjected to that. I was a teenager during the centennial of the American Civil War who read avidly about it, and between that and my interest in American Black history there was a lot that was only refrain and time-line refreshment for me, but like any well-done extensive overview there’s a power in putting things together and linking this and that.

Two things discussed fairly early in the documentary were stories I hadn’t known. One deals with the Christiana Incident, something I’d heard nothing about. It’s easily as gripping as my own city’s Eliza Winston story, or the Emily Dickinson adjacent stories of Angeline Palmer or Dickinson’s “Preceptor” Thomas Higginson’s armed assault on a Boston jail. The other was its accounts from the under-covered period between Lincoln’s election, his subsequent spring-time inauguration, and the firing on Fort Sumter that started the Civil War. I would eagerly see entire documentaries or “based on a true story” depictions of either. For example, did you know (I didn’t) that during this period, as a last-ditch effort to placate southern states that were issuing their declarations of succession based on the Federal Government and its soon to be leader’s insufficient devotion to slavery, that a proposed 13th amendment that would constitutionally prohibit  the ending of slavery was put forward? It passed the House and Senate with the required 2/3 majorities. Although the Civil War would soon be raging, five! states ratified it.

If this sort of thing sounds interesting to you, and you have access to it, I easily recommend Lincoln’s Dilemma.

I took a break halfway in on Lincoln’s Dilemma  to watch John Ford’s 1939 Young Lincoln  staring a startlingly well-made-up Henry Fonda as Lincoln. For good and ill this well-made film hits all the John Ford tropes* and is very inconstant in a “print the myth” way regarding historical accuracy. I suspect Young Lincoln’s  emotional content no longer communicates, and more the same, it’s earnest civic lessons would be lost to most audiences today too. But it’s Ford, so we’re left with mise en scene and striking tableau frames that contemporary film makers might still copy. For humor’s sake I could try to hype its contemporary value as “The story of the trial of a pair of accused cop killers who are surprisingly defended by a lawyer reverently devoted to the law.”

Before I leave you, let me touch on George Washington, the man who posthumously gave up his birthday for President’s Day. The story of the Civil War and the end of slavery is but one example of a dictum often taken as absolute by revolutionaries: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” And of course, as the leader of an armed revolution, Washington would seem to be an example** of demand backed by guns. But the singular greatest fact about Washington, a thing we should be grateful for beyond other things, is that after the American state got independence and he became its leader, he willingly, and without demand or struggle, gave up power. That’s rare.

Love of the thing one is struggling for, not for personal power, or opportunity, or mere revenge and expiation, is a hard thing to find — perhaps even more so in those who win some part of their struggles. So, let me leave off this Presidents Day not with a piece about a President, but about the man who stated that revolutionary’s dictum above, Frederick Douglass. Written by poet Robert Hayden,*** with my music and performance, you’ll can hear it with a graphical player below if you see that — or if you don’t, with this highlighted link.  If you want to read Hayden’s sonnet about Douglass as you listen, you can find the text here. Back with new pieces soon.

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*Although I’m reasonably familiar with why Ford is viewed as an important foundational cinema artist, I actually haven’t seen all his best-regarded films. Only last year I saw his The Searchers  for the first time. As to that film: I found it highly compelling, significantly because it’s a film about racism made largely by men that could be fairly judged as patriarchal racists, and yet it’s not Triumph of the Will,  some sharply focused mirror of evil, either. Somehow, Ford and fate made it multivalent.

**Combining slavery and Washington is a natural combination alas, since Washington was a considerable slaveholder. Rather than the myths of cherry trees, I like this story of Washington and how he crossed paths with an Afro-American boy freed as the spoils of war.

*** Thanks to the publisher for permission to perform this. “Frederick Douglass” is Copyright © 1966 by Robert Hayden. From COLLECTED POEMS OF ROBERT HAYDEN by Robert Hayden edited by Frederick Glaysher. Used by permission of Liveright Publishing Company

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