Monday, November 17, 2008

Channeling A. Lincoln

The hagiography of Obama includes, but is not limited to, illustrious comparisons to The Great Emancipator, A. Lincoln. (I don't know why, either)

We've got four long years of this narrative, boys n girls.
So I questioned the timing when the AP proudly trumpeted yet another story of Lincoln's famed Bixby Letter discovered in the bowels of the Dallas Historical Society's archives.
“Dear Madam,—I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts, that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle.

“I feel how weak and fruitless must be any words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.

“I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours, to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of Freedom.

“Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,

“A. Lincoln”

The text of the letter was published in the Boston Transcript on November 25, 1864, the same day Mrs. Lydia Bixby received the original. Along with the Gettysburg Address it is considered one of Lincoln’s finest literary works.

The AP story's headline proclaims the Dallas Historical Society find a copy, and not the original, for good reason:
"...the Lincoln White House would have been unlikely to make a copy of such a personal letter and points out that a pair of rival New York companies sold copies of the letter as keepsakes beginning in the 1890s."

In short, there's bunch of these things out there, with the original resolutely pronounced lost or destroyed, and other than the novelty of it, this should be a non-story.

So what happened to the original?

Between 1901 and 1905, President Lincoln's only surviving son, Robert Todd Lincoln, conducted his own private search for the original letter, only to turn up empty handed. Robert pursued the elusive original Bixby Letter until 1919, when he reluctantly concluded it was forever lost.

Then, in 1925, the New York Times sparked renewed interest in the original letter with a world-wide search after publishing a story stating where the letter was not: Oxford University.
"The story started a flurry of press activity as journalists tried desperately to find the sacred relic. They questioned the Library of Congress, the Illinois State Historical Society, Oxford University, the War Department, the Pension Bureau, the old State House in Boston—and Mrs. Lydia Bixby’s descendants. They concluded that the original was either lost or destroyed."

During that 1925 search, Robert Lincoln again affirmed that he did not know the whereabouts of the original letter, and judging from the shifty character of the 'Widow Bixby', the original letter was probably just as gone with the wind as she.

“As Bad As She Could Be”
Who was the Widow Bixby?
By Harold Holzer
"Of all the hundreds of personal letters Abraham Lincoln sent during his lifetime, none of the recipients remains more deeply shrouded in mystery than Lydia Bixby of Boston.

Was she the prototype for the Gold Star Mother, the first “Mrs. Ryan.” (One recalls Gen. George Marshall reading the Bixby letter aloud to his staff in Steven Spielberg’s movie Saving Private Ryan to justify excusing the surviving Ryan brother from further military service.) Spielberg’s cinematic validation notwithstanding, did the original Mrs. Bixby legitimately earn President Lincoln’s pity by sacrificing five sons killed “gloriously on the field of battle,” as Lincoln wrote in his famous condolence letter.

Or was she a charlatan, a Confederate sympathizer, and perhaps even a professional madam—a charge unearthed by the historian Michael Burlingame in 1995—who somehow tricked the President into so memorably wasting his sympathy? According to the historian George C. Shattuck, one of Mrs. Bixby’s contemporaries remembered the “stout . . . motherly-looking” widow as a shifty-eyed schemer, “perfectly untrustworthy and as bad as she could be.”
In the end, few of the stubbornly lingering questions about Lincoln’s letter or its controversial recipient were definitively answered by F. Lauriston Bullard’s charming 1946 book Abraham Lincoln & the Widow Bixby or by scholars trying to unravel the truth in the six decades since.

One thing is certain. If Mrs. Bixby was a fake, she certainly managed to convince a number of high-ranking public officials otherwise. Her documentation proved more than sufficient to persuade the adjutant general of Massachusetts, William Schouler, of her legitimacy. To Schouler, Mrs. Bixby was “the best specimen of a true-hearted Union woman” he had ever met, and he brought her case to the attention of the state’s governor, John A. Andrew. Equally impressed, the governor sent the War Department a request for a personal acknowledgment from no less than the President of the United States “taking notice of a noble mother of five dead heroes so well deserves.” Andrew was a loyal Lincoln ally. He had been a Lincoln delegate at the 1860 Republican National Convention and later became the first Union governor to respond to the new President’s call for troops after the firing on Fort Sumter. It is no surprise that Lincoln responded immediately to the governor’s request.

Lincoln’s condolence note was carried to “Mother Bixby” a few days later by Schouler himself, who evidently first made a wise detour to a Boston newspaper to make sure the letter would be set in type so it could be shared with the public that evening. Such a perfectly expressed credit to Yankee motherhood and Massachusetts patriotism promised a public relations coup. In the following days the letter was widely republished. But the original letter, and Mrs. Bixby too, promptly vanished from history.

We know now that the Widow Bixby either calculatingly exaggerated her claims of loss—seeking government remuneration to which she was not entitled—or simply did not know the true fate of her boys. In fact, of the five young Bixbys Lincoln was led to believe had been killed in the war, only two, it turned out, had actually died in battle (a grievous enough loss, to be sure). The third had received an honorable discharge (and may have been hiding at home), the fourth had deserted, and the fifth either had been captured and died as a prisoner of war or had deserted.

According to a faded 1949 clipping from the New York Sun now in the files of the Lincoln Museum in Fort Wayne, Indiana, Lincoln’s masterpiece did little to “assuage” the allegedly grieving widow. Apparently Mrs. Bixby had migrated to Boston from Richmond, bringing with her a stubborn loyalty to the Old South, cherishing anti-Union sentiments she somehow managed to conceal from the pro-Union adjutant general, governor, and President. Her own granddaughter recalled that the widow, who died in 1878, was “secretly in sympathy with the Southern cause” and had “little good to say” about Lincoln. She apparently so “resented” the President’s condolence message that she “destroyed it shortly after receipt without realizing its value.”
If true, here was the final irony in the life of Lydia Bixby. Whether she was a grieving Union mother or a wily Rebel sympathizer, a proper old widow or the owner of a house of ill repute, she failed to preserve and profit from the one item that would have brought her fame and fortune, not to mention a hearty last laugh on the Union: the priceless original copy in Lincoln’s hand of the most famous condolence letter of the nineteenth century. From the thousands of alleged “facsimiles” sold over the years, the still mysterious Widow Bixby received not a penny.

Harold Holzer, co-chairman of the U.S. Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, is co-editor with David Herbert Donald of the new collection, Lincoln in the Times: The Life of Abraham Lincoln as Originally Reported in The New York Times (St. Martin’s Press)."

The only thing left to still vex historians is whether it was A. Lincoln himself who hand wrote the letter, or if it was really the President's personal secretary, John Hay.

My money's on Lincoln.

Hey. Anybody seen Obama's birth certificate?


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