Sunday, June 21, 2009

Inside Abraham Lincoln's White House

This essay is based on a video tour of the White House that Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer gave C-SPAN viewers in August 2007.

What's now called the Lincoln Bedroom was the office and the Cabinet Room [in Lincoln's day.] Lincoln got here around 9 a.m. He was not a very early riser, although he started to rise earlier as the war progressed, and he was required to be on the scene more and more. He worked through the day here, under the most trying circumstances, under the most demanding routine that can be imagined. It was a routine that was nothing like what our modern chief executives subject themselves to because it involved constant interface with the public -- unscreened, no security checks, a constant flow of people, twice a week, five hours a day, later cut down to three hours a day. Lincoln called them "public opinion baths." People would just line up. He would be seated at his desk or at the cabinet table where he opened mail, right in the middle of the room, and he would receive people. He said it was invigorating for him and was what the chief magistrate owed the people who had elected him.

Lincoln worked in the Cabinet Room until late at night unless there was a military action occurring in
Virginia, or Pennsylvania, or Maryland, or in the West. In that case, he would walk across the lawn to the War Department and sit at the keyboards of the Military Telegraph Office and wait for war news. He would look over the telegraphers' shoulders and grab the dispatches as they came. Astonishingly, the White House was never equipped with a telegraph during Lincoln's time, so he had to travel to get his news . . . Of course, he would go back to his bedroom or to his family rooms for meals. His private secretaries, who slept in a bedroom right across the hall, would hear him pacing sometimes late at night, back and forth. . . . Every once in a while, Lincoln would appear in his night shirt, which was always too short for him, and interrupt his secretaries' sleep to tell them something or read them a story.

During the four years he was president, [the Cabinet Room] was the scene of many historical events. There are many things still in the room directly associated with Lincoln. . . . The most famous print in this room is an engraving by Alexander Richie after Francis Bicknell Carpenter's famous painting, now in the Capitol, called "The First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation" (top image above). He worked so meticulously on this painting that some people think by the time he finished it, he had ruined it -- he overdid it. They way it looked when it was done is probably reflected in the engraving. Lincoln signed on to be the first buyer of the print but didn't live to get a copy because it wasn't published until 1866. . . .

The reception room (below, left) and the public hallway outside this room were the only means by which Lincoln could go from the business part of the White House into his private quarters. If he wanted to go for a meal, or if he just wanted to go for a rest, he always had to go through these public rooms. In the reception room there would be a throng of people waiting to see him -- congressmen, the general public, lawyers, diplomats -- all herded in there, waiting for their turn. . . .

We don't think any of the furniture in the Lincoln Bedroom today is original to this room. It's hard to imagine, but the desk that was here, the table that was here, the cabinet chairs that were here, all were scattered. We do know that the famous Lincoln bed was certainly in the White House then. It was one of Mary Lincoln's many extravagant purchase, as she began a campaign when she got here to redecorate this entire building. When she got to the White
House with her husband in March of 1861, they had very different reactions to this place: Lincoln looked around and said, "This is better than any place we ever lived in." He was right. It had four, five, or six bedrooms, a beautiful sitting room, and, of course, the office was right at the house -- not bad. Mary thought it looked like a dilapidated country hotel, and she was very unhappy. She went downstairs and looked at the public rooms, saw how much damage had been done over the years by souvenir seekers, and decided to redecorate -- and she did, with a vengeance. One of the things that she bought was a beautiful bed (above, right) from a Philadelphia cabinetmaker. She brought it back here and installed it in the family quarters, and the [ironic] thing about this bed is that it is where, in February 1862, Lincoln's middle son, Willie, died after a bout with typhoid fever. After that, Mary would never go into Willie's room again.

. . . In the summer, and we know this from his secretary John Nicolay's letters to his fiancee back home in Illinois, the big floor-to-ceiling windows were thrown all the way up to get some air in the Cabinet Room. Nicolay wrote home about the bugs -- the biggest bugs he had ever seen anywhere in his life -- on the papers, on the newspapers, on the books, on the
chairs, so we could imagine very unpleasant working conditions here in the summer. In the second summer, Lincoln moved his family to a different location in the warm months. So they did not live here for four or five months in 1862, '63, and '64. They lived in a cottape up North Capitol Street, the Soldier's Home (above, left), and Lincoln was a commuter president who rode to work here in this office, like an everyday commuter would today on a train or bus. . . .

There is one extraordinary little room . . . which was an open hallway in the Lincoln era. Whenever Lincoln wanted to give a speech here at the White House, which he did on several occasions, he would walk down that corridor, they would hoist open the windows, and he would speak from the second floor window. He gave two very famous speeches there. One was the last speech he ever gave -- "We meet today in gladness of heart." It was at that speech that he first broached the idea of extending voting rights to African Americans -- even though he limited that opportunity to, as he put it, "the very intelligent," whatever that meant, or to those who had fought in ranks. There was someone in the audience that night, on the lawn, who was listening and turned to his friend and said, "Did you hear that? That means Negro citizenship," and from what we know, he didn't use the word "Negro." He said, "That's the last speech he'll ever make." That man was John Wilkes Booth. Three nights later, Booth shot Lincoln at Ford's Theater.

When Lincoln was shot, this house turned into a house of mourning . . . A few months before he died, Lincoln had a nightmaree, and for some gruesome reason he decided to tell his wife about it. He woke up and said he heard crying downstairs and walked downstairs in his nightshirt and saw a catafalque and a coffin in the East Room and said, "Who lies dead here in the White House?" They said, "It's the
president. He's been murdered." a premonition? He told enough people that there's not very much question that he actually had this supernatural experience.

Unfortunately, even before the funeral, which took place downstairs (above, left), this room had to be turned back into the president's office. Andrew Johnson, after just a few days, moved his office into this very room. Mary, however, really could not leave her bed for weeks and weeks. She stayed inconsolable, weeping, crying, and waiting for about five weeks until she was finally able to summon the courage to walk down the steps for the final time, off to Chicago. She never returned.

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