Four Score and Seven Words to Go

On November 2, 1863, a man named David Wills, writing on behalf of the governor of Pennsylvania, asked then president of the United States Abraham Lincoln if he might consider making “a few appropriate remarks” at the November 19th consecration ceremony of a new cemetery for the many soldiers who had died at the Battle of Gettysburg.

Gettysburg address
Lincoln’s in there somewhere making a few appropriate remarks. Just upper left of center, I think. Photographer attributions vary from unidentified (William Frassanito) to Mathew Brady (NARA) and David Bachrach (1845-1921) (Center for Civil War Photography). [Public domain]
The main speaker was to be Edward Everett, who allegedly spoke eloquently for nearly two hours, as everyone pretty much expected. History books rarely recount what he said. Then it was Lincoln’s turn. The president spoke relatively few words. Not even three hundred, in fact. And, diagnosed not long after with smallpox, he probably wasn’t feeling very well at the time. Still, most American school children could recite at least some of them.

Rumors have long circulated that the president dashed off the speech while on the train to the event, but that probably isn’t quite true. I don’t doubt that he fine-tuned and finalized a little of his phrasing on that train, but he’d known for a couple of weeks that he’d have to say something. Various observations place him scribbling notes between photo shoots and presidential responsibilities in the days leading up to the event. Most likely he thought a great deal about the words he would say.

I can’t speak for all writers and orators, but I know that for me much composition occurs in my head, swirling in the background of whatever essential tasks I’m completing. Sometimes I dash off a note or two to help me remember later, and then when I finally get a few dedicated moments, I have someplace to start and a great deal to pull together.

I think this is probably how it worked for Lincoln when he delivered what has become his most remembered address.

I was hoping something similar would happen with my blog post this week. You see, it’s been busy around here. I’m getting ready to launch a new book in a little less than a week, which means I have been spending a lot of time preparing. I’ve been upping my game on social media, sending off press releases, scheduling events, cranking out posts for an upcoming blog tour, and designing graphics. I even made a book trailer.

And then there’s my family, still busy doing all the many things they do while also expecting to occasionally eat and/or spend time together.

So, I was definitely hoping for some inspiration for this week’s practical history blog post. Unfortunately, if ideas were swirling somewhere in the background while I was busy elsewhere, I didn’t get them scribbled down.

But Abraham Lincoln is pretty inspiring as historical figures go. And though I think I can be fairly certain that “the world will little note, nor long remember” what I’ve written here, I can at least say I got it done.

5 more days until publication! Follow this link to check out more information about the book, or follow this one to sign up to receive occasional email updates.

That Gift in the Top of Your Closet

In February of 1862, President Abraham Lincoln followed up on a letter that had been sent to his predecessor by Somdetch Phra Paramendr Maha Mongut, the king of Siam. The king had made a generous offer to the people of the United States, suggesting that he would be happy to send a gift of a sufficient number of elephants to breed in the wilds of the nation. And it certainly wasn’t the bizarre offer it might seem like today. Highly intelligent and useful in transporting goods and raising circus tents, Asian elephants enjoyed a long history as generous gifts.

President Lincoln crafted a highly diplomatic response, explaining that America did not offer environmental conditions conducive to wild elephant success and that when it came to transporting goods, we were scraping by okay with our newfangled steam engines. But he was also careful to thank the king for his very gracious offer.

consular_flag_of_thailand-svg
Consular Flag of Thailand, featuring an auspicious elephant. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Because some elephants, particularly the rare albino ones, have long been considered sacred in Siam and throughout Southeast Asia, given their relationship to Siddhartha Gautama (the Buddha). The story goes that Gautama’s mother dreamt of a white elephant descending from heaven on the very night she conceived her son.

So white elephants (and some not-so-white ones that are found to possess other traits earning them the title of “auspicious elephants”) have long been considered the sacred property of the reigning king in Siam. On occasion, the king also may have chosen to honor deserving courtiers by giving them the gift of trusting a white elephant to their care.

elephant-house
Royal Elephant Stable where the King of Siam used to keep his White Elephants (today: The Royal Elephant National Museum, Bangkok) By Hdamm (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
It was a generous gift, but there were drawbacks. The amazing and rare creatures were too sacred to be put to work raising circus tents, had to be specially housed, and had to eat. A lot. A white elephant gift from the king, then, was not exactly something to be desired. It could easily burden a man into poverty. And it was a gift that couldn’t be refused.

Allegedly this is where the term “white elephant gift” came from, to refer to something you might give or receive that no one really wants. I don’t know about you, but over the years, I have been to my share of white elephant gift exchanges (also referred to as a Yankee Swap, or a Naughty Santa, which is NOT what it sounds like). These events usually come complete with rules that allow participants to trade the terrible gift they receive for someone else’s terrible gift. The idea, of course, is that one man’s trash may actually be another man’s treasure.

tea-cozy
Another man’s treasure. photo credit: sukigirl74 teacosy top view via photopin (license)

And who knows? Perhaps you have been searching for years for a tea cozy that’s the perfect shade of cerulean, and maybe your friend Ted has been just dying to get his hands on the Duran Duran cassette gathering dust in the top of your closet since the early 90’s.

But if your exchange doesn’t result in you taking home a gift you actually kind of want, don’t fear. You had a good time with friends, enjoying some laughs as everyone attempted to steal the same ceramic Yoda m&m dispenser. Besides you can always shove your unfortunate gift in the top of your closet and dust it off for next time.

Because over the last few years, the notion of re-gifting has gained some traction as a way to both rein in Holiday spending and create less waste. There are helpful re-gifting etiquette guidelines online and in October of 2008, then governor of Colorado, Bill Ritter declared December 18 as “National Re-gifting Day.” Frankly, I’m not sure the governor of Colorado has that kind of national authority. 

At least some people agree with me because a quick Internet search reveals that National Re-gifting Day can also be observed on either December 15, or on the last Thursday before Christmas, which to be fair to Governor Ritter will sometimes fall on the 18th. But I suppose it doesn’t matter when you mark it on the calendar because as other important festive occasions approach, National Re-gifting Day is a holiday that you can always pull off the dusty top shelf of your closet, stick in recycled gift bag, and celebrate again and again.

Some sincere and honest suggestions

"The First Thanksgiving at Plymouth"...

Happy National Day of Thanksgiving on this the fourth Thursday of November when we here in the United States traditionally feel particularly thankful. But that wasn’t always when we celebrated as a nation. For much of our history, Thanksgiving was sporadically celebrated, with governors occasionally calling for state wide days of thankfulness.

It wasn’t until Abraham Lincoln that we had a national celebration. In 1863 as a gesture of unity for a nation at the height of civil war, Lincoln issued a presidential proclamation declaring the last Thursday of November the official day. Not surprisingly, the holiday was still not uniformly celebrated until 1870, when the war was finally over and Reconstruction was well under way.

After that, every year, part of the president’s responsibility was to declare the official day. And for many years that worked well, with each president following in Lincoln’s footsteps and proclaiming Thanksgiving to be on the last Thursday in November.

Franklin Delano Roosevelt, 1933. Lietuvių: Fra...

Then along came The Great Depression and Franklin Roosevelt. Listening to the appeals of concerned retailers who feared a late Thanksgiving would result in more sluggish Christmas sales, FDR decided to change Thanksgiving to Thursday, November 23, 1939.

What FDR hadn’t counted on, however, was the wrath of a nation determined to celebrate thankfulness on the traditional day. Though larger retailers were grateful for the change, smaller merchants, calendar makers, sports teams, and schools with already set schedules were just plain upset. Angry letters streamed into the White House from concerned citizens like Shelby O. Bennett of Shinnston, West Virginia who wrote the president with a few suggestions of other changes he might make including:

             1. Have Sunday changed to Wednesday;

            2. Have Monday’s to be Christmas;

            3. Have it strictly against the Will of God to work on Tuesday;

            4. Have Thursday to be Pay Day with time and one-half for overtime;

            5. Require everyone to take Friday and Saturday off for a fishing trip down the Potomac.

Despite the outcry, FDR continued to ask the nation to celebrate Thanksgiving one week early and in December of 1941, Congress passed a law naming the fourth Thursday in November the official National Day of Thanksgiving. So at long last Americans were guaranteed more than 24 shopping days leading up to Christmas and as public anger faded, everyone was happy.

Then came Thanksgiving 2012 when, concerned about sluggish sales with only a measly 32 days of Christmas shopping left to the American public, large retailers took it upon themselves to cancel the holiday altogether, declaring instead that “Black Friday” would begin on Thursday, November 22.

A Christmas tree inside a home.
A Christmas tree inside a home. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In response, I have drafted a letter of my own:

Dear Retailers,

Though some may feel a little put off by your tenacity, personally I think it’s a great idea to begin your holiday sales extravaganza a little early this year. In fact, I have some suggestions for other changes you might consider as well.

  1. Give away slightly damaged merchandise with purchase of electronics beginning October 1.
  2. Offer free holiday gift wrapping for purchases of $50 and above after July 4th.
  3. To get people thinking Christmas, put up trees decorated with shamrocks and rainbows for St. Patrick’s Day in March (Save the white and pink trees, of course, for when the real Christmas season begins in April).
  4. Open early on Christmas morning to accommodate the returns and exchanges from those customers whose families open just one present on Christmas Eve.

Hoping that as I sit at home in my pajamas watching the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade with my family, enjoying the aroma of a roasting turkey, and dreading the moment when I will finally have to start thinking about my holiday shopping, you will consider these sincere and honest suggestions, I remain,

Yours very truly,

Sarah Angleton

Check out Shelby O. Bennett’s letter to FDR here:

http://docs.fdrlibrary.marist.edu/thanksg.html#doc

FACT: This blog post is about vampires.

Abraham Lincoln wielding his ax at Lincoln’s New Salem State Park

In March of 2010, author Seth Grahame-Smith revealed to the world disturbing truths about the 16th president of the United States. By now you have probably heard of his book, Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter. It has spawned a movie by the same name that will be released to theaters this Friday.

Personally I am fascinated by the concept of it for a couple of reasons. First of all, I am originally from Illinois, proudly nicknamed the “Land of Lincoln.” I grew up in a small town barely thirty miles from the capitol city of Illinois (NOT Chicago!) in which you can find: the Lincoln Presidential Museum, the Lincoln Depot, Lincoln’s tomb, Lincoln’s law office, Lincoln’s home, Lincoln Memorial Gardens, and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum. If you swing by Springfield’s First Presbyterian Church (and why wouldn’t you?), you will even be treated to a glimpse of the very pew purchased by the Lincoln family. A quick 25 minute drive takes you to Petersburg, IL where you can walk through Abraham Lincoln’s New Salem State Park, a replica of the village where Lincoln spent several years as a not-so-successful small businessman. Amazingly, I’m pretty sure this list is not exhaustive.

As an elementary school student and Girl Scout, I pretty much toured them all, with the exception of the Presidential Museum, which only opened in 2005. I have, however, been to the museum multiple times as an adult and can unapologetically state that it is worth a visit. Make sure you don’t miss the “Ghosts of the Library” show. Tell them the practical historian sent you. They won’t know what you’re talking about, but I’ll appreciate the plug anyway.

The point is, like all kids from Illinois (except for maybe those from Chicago), I know a thing or two about Abraham Lincoln. I did not, however, know he was a successful vampire hunter.

The other reason that I find Grahame-Smith’s book so fascinating is that I also write historical fiction and so what he has done here presents a really interesting look at what writers can (or should) and cannot (or should not) do with (or to) history. The book begins with three “Facts”:

  1. For over 250 years, between 1607 and 1865, vampires thrived in the shadows of America. Few humans believed in them.
  2. Abraham Lincoln was one of the gifted vampire hunters of his day, and kept a secret journal about his lifelong war against them.
  3. Rumors of the journal’s existence have long been a favorite topic among historians and Lincoln biographers. Most dismiss it as myth.

I’d like to take a closer look at these three statements.

1. In 1607, the British merchant ship Cormorant set sail from Portsmouth, England under the direction of Captain Horatio Wheeler. Aboard the ship was a sailor by the name of Andrew Oglethorpe who’d had an unfortunate run-in with a vampire just prior the journey. Vampirism spread like wildfire through this “ship of the dead.” Its newly undead crew, furious with Wheeler for allowing a vampire to join the crew in the first place, immediately mutinied and elected a much more capable (and seemingly curse-resistant) captain by the name of Jack Sparrow whose obsession with treasure led them eventually toward the islands of the Caribbean. So that date checks out.

Where Grahame-Smith makes his mistake, however, is with his end date of 1865. In actuality (assuming we can trust the information trudged up in a random Google search, and I think we all agree that we can), Abraham Lincoln was far from the last US president who dealt with the American vampire problem.

According to my sources, it was President Ulysses S. Grant who established the Federal Vampire and Zombie Agency in 1869, which functioned as a branch of the US military. McKinley later added a department of scientific research to the agency and the search for a vampirism cure began. Increased public support for vampire rights (a grassroots movement begun by some guy from Louisiana by the name of Lestat) caused FDR to restructure the FVZA as a secret, underground program. It wasn’t until 1963 that President Kennedy finally, in a Rose Garden ceremony declared the war on American vampires officially won and in 1974 Gerald Ford pulled the plug on FVZA (Or did he?)

2. Grahame-Smith also claims that Abraham Lincoln was “one of the gifted vampire hunters of his day.”  According to the FVZA website (surprisingly informative for a website representing a completely legitimate, entirely secret government agency), the most famous American vampire hunter was a man by the name of John “Red Jack” Averill, a contemporary of Abraham Lincoln, credited with over 4000 vampire kills. If we assume that Grahame-Smith’s book is a more or less accurate representation of Lincoln’s hunting activities, I estimate the president killed no more than a few dozen vampires during his lifetime, making him somewhat less than mediocre as far as vampire hunters of the mid-19th century go.

3. And now for this rumored secret journal.  A quick Internet search (frankly, all the time I’m willing to commit to such a project) has revealed to me no credible references to the supposed journal. Though I guess since I am not privy to the dinner conversations of many historians or Lincoln biographers, I cannot say for certain that the journal is not a favorite topic among them. I’ll give the author the benefit of the doubt on this one.

Still, the facts don’t entirely hold up. And this one question remains: Was Abraham Lincoln a vampire hunter? I don’t know. What I can say with relative certainty is that living most of my life in the heart of the Land of Lincoln, I never once encountered a vampire so either there really are no vampires (highly unlikely, I know) or the name of Lincoln still inspires fear among the vampire population. Of course, I also haven’t run into one in the nearly two years I have been living in Oregon, sandwiched between the heartthrob vampires of Forks, WA in the north, and the Lost Boys of Santa Carla, CA in the south.

What does Seth Grahame-Smith have to say for himself in regard to his use of history to tell a story that seems suspiciously less than entirely true? “You have to have reverence for the real history,” he told an audience at the screening of the Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter movie trailer, presented onsite at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum. “The man was a real man who is still extraordinarily revered…That, to me personally, was the line: Never make this guy look like an idiot.”

Well said, Mr. Grahame-Smith. And well done. The book is a fun read.

The movie promises to be full of graphically violent scenes with (I’m guessing) lots of comically exaggerated blood spatter. Too gory for me, but I’m sure it will be thoroughly enjoyed by any true fan of vampires, or probably also by a true fan of Abraham Lincoln, because, let’s face it: even a widely beloved historical figure only becomes more awesome when he is hunting vampires.