Saturday, January 26, 2013

Edwin M. Stanton ... greatly unimpressed upon meeting Lincoln

Edwin M. Stanton,
sometime between 1855 and 1865
Within a year after Republican Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated as U.S. President in 1861, he appointed the very competent but ill-tempered attorney Edwin M. Stanton as Secretary of War. Not only was this appointment a surprise because Stanton was a Democrat, but because of Stanton’s role in humiliating Lincoln years earlier, when both men were supposed to be on the same side in an important trial.

The year was 1855, and Cyrus McCormick, who had invented and patented a mechanical wheat reaper, filed a lawsuit against John H. Manny, who had developed a similar machine and was manufacturing it in Illinois. Manny hired two of the nation’s most prominent patent lawyers – George Harding and Peter H. Watson, as well as an up-and-coming attorney named Stanton (Lincoln’s future cabinet member). Because the trial was originally set for Chicago, Watson – although not tremendously impressed with the disheveled-looking Lincoln – hired him as a local attorney who would be familiar to Illinois judges. Watson gave Lincoln a $500 retainer and promised the future president that he would give the closing argument in the trial.

“Lincoln determined to give this case his most careful preparation,” wrote Ronald C. White Jr. in his 2009 biography titled A. Lincoln: A Biography. But Lincoln received no further word from other attorneys on the Manny team, even after requesting copies of depositions that had been taken in the case.

Two weeks before the trial was set to begin, it was transferred to Cincinnati, Ohio. Lincoln received word of the change, and on the day the trial began, he tried unsuccessfuly to join the other members of the Manny legal team as they entered the courthouse.  Lincoln at the time was later described by Harding as “a tall rawly boned, ungainly back woodsman, with coarse, ill-fitting clothing.” Stanton was arguably even less impressed, later reportedly describing to a friend the encounter with a “long, lank creature from Illinois, wearing a dirty linen duster for a coat, on the back of which the perspiration had splotched two wide stains that, emanating from each armpit, met at the center, and resembled a dirty map of a continent.” 

During the week-long trial, “the defense team never included Lincoln in their deliberations, nor even invited him to join them for their meals at the hotel. Judge John McLean entertained all the lawyers at a dinner at his home, but Lincoln was not invited,” writes White.  If any doubt remained, Lincoln also learned that he would not give the closing argument, that the brief he had prepared had not been opened, and that he would have no role in the trial.

Lincoln watched the proceedings as a spectator. After the court ruled in favor of Manny, Lincoln returned to his office and home in Springfield, Illinois and told his law partner that he had been “roughly handled by that man Stanton.”

Following the trial, the Manny legal team’s Watson sent Lincoln a check for his participation. Lincoln returned it, saying he had contributed nothing to the trial, but Watson sent it back to him. Ultimately, Lincoln cashed the check – and also recognized that Stanton's knowledge and skills, if not his conceit and arrogance, would be of great value to the country.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Paul Revere ... less successful than others on that night

Paul Revere, circa 1768-1770
(Painting by John Singleton Copley)
Paul Revere today gets most of the credit for warning American patriots at Concord and Lexington that British soldiers were marching toward them from Boston in April 1785, but Revere was among the least successful of many messengers on similar missions that night.  Revere did reach Lexington, where he told patriots Samuel Adams and John Hancock, but he was captured by British soldiers as he rode to on to Concord. They took his horse and released him, and he walked back to Lexington.

But many others also rode or walked or rang bells or shot guns that night to successfully spread word of the British advance (which was not unexpected). In his 2004 book Founding Myths: Stories That Hide Our Patriotic Past, historian Ray Raphael cites the work of another historian, David Hackett Fischer, who in 1994 identified dozens of people who were involved in passing along that night’s news through the New England countryside.

To be sure, Revere was a committed patriot who was involved in many of the events that led to the American Revolution.  But why has his Boston-to-Lexington ride, which was no great, singularly vital fete on a night when so many others made equal or greater contributions, won so much acclaim in popular American history? Revere himself made no special note of his actions that night in later accounts, and neither did his 1818 obituary. And historians over many decades didn’t mention it much, if at all, until the later 1800s – after Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “Paul Revere’s Ride” was published in January 1861.
“Paul Revere’s Ride” is a stirring, memorable piece of art, proof of Longfellow’s talent, from its very beginning:

“Listen, my children, and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere …”

And much for that reason, it became – and remains – well-entrenched in American culture even today. Unfortunately, its many historical inaccuracies have been repeated so much that they are often mistaken for fact.

“Although ‘Paul Revere’s Ride’ has enjoyed more exposure than any other historic poem in American culture, it is riddled with distortions,” wrote Raphael. “These are not incidental – they are the very reasons the story has endured for almost a century and a half.”
So no, Paul Revere wasn't by any stretch the only person trying to warn other patriots that night, as Longfellow implies. And no, Paul Revere didn't reach his most important destination the village of Concord (although others did), as Longfellow wrote. And no, contrary to Longfellow, Paul Revere did not receive a signal from two lamps in the steeple of the Old North Church; Revere arranged for that signal to be sent. We could go on with troublesome parts of this supposed historical narrative set to the tune of great lyrical poetry ... but will end with a caution to avoid mistaking emotionally stirring art  whether in poetry, a novel, a painting, a film, or another medium  for historical fact.