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Saturday, November 6, 2010

150 Years Ago Today: Lincoln's Election

The New York Times is running Adam Goodheart's very interesting blog, Disunion, documenting day by day the Civil War period in this country, which was all set in train a century and a half ago by Abraham Lincoln's election.

In today's post, Goodheart makes a remarkable discovery:  though there are no photographs of Lincoln himself on Election Day, there are two dated photographs in the Library of Congress of a column being raised into place on the Capitol, then under extensive reconstruction.  Go check out the 1860 and 2010 comparison photographs that Goodheart has placed side by side:  most interesting.

History buffs should also be aware that Chapel Hill's Documenting the American South collection has a complete online edition of Mary Boykin Chesnut's famous A Diary from Dixie, which is truly fascinating reading.  Chesnut, a cultivated and insightful writer, was the wife of a Senator from South Carolina, and vividly recorded the political and personal triumphs and defeats of the Civil War years in her diary, which was first published in 1905.  Had she lived in today's world, I could easily see her as an Elizabeth Edwards type - though to her good fortune, Mary had a devoted, not a philandering, husband.

Here's Chesnut's very first diary entry, beginning with the first news of the election results:
CHARLESTON, S. C., November 8, 1860. - Yesterday on the train, just before we reached Fernandina, a woman called out: "That settles the hash." Tanny touched me on the shoulder and said: "Lincoln's elected." "How do you know?" "The man over there has a telegram."

The excitement was very great. Everybody was talking at the same time. One, a little more moved than the others, stood up and said despondently: "The die is cast; no more vain regrets; sad forebodings are useless; the stake is life or death." "Did you ever!" was the prevailing exclamation, and some one cried out: "Now that the black radical Republicans have the power I suppose they will Brown us all." No doubt of it.

I have always kept a journal after a fashion of my own, with dates and a line of poetry or prose, mere quotations, which I understood and no one else, and I have kept letters and extracts from the papers. From to-day forward I will tell the story in my own way. I now wish I had a chronicle of the two delightful and eventful years that have just passed. Those delights have fled and one's breath is taken away to think what events have since crowded in. Like the woman's record in her journal, we have had "earthquakes, as usual" - daily shocks.
What I Say:  As a native Southerner, with at least four great- or great-great-grandfathers who fought in the War, I could say many things here about history, identity, race, religion, and politics - and folly.

But for today, I'll say only that history keeps on repeating itself because we human beings are always the same inside, and unlike fashions in dress, speech, politics, and religion, human nature does not change. 

Millions of people, then as now, can be completely, thoroughly, unshakeably convinced that they are divinely right about any number of matters - when they are, in fact, tragically misinformed and misguided.

And notice that our ancestors didn't need a 24-hour propaganda cycle broadcast on television to be so damn foolish and so very ignorant of what is good and true.  It's just the long, sad story of mankind:  Us versus Them.

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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