Category archives: History

About that “Extra Mile.”

by Robert Morrison

February 9, 2009

I joined about 200 people yesterday in Annapolis for a re-tracing of President Lincoln’s February, 1865, walk. He came to Maryland’s capital only once—to catch a ship to steam down the Chesapeake Bay. He went there to discuss peace terms with Confederate commissioners at Fortress Monroe. Annapolis’ Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission was determined to make a great event of Lincoln’s brief encounter with our town. Lincoln had to get off his special one-car train at the depot and walk across town to the Naval Academy to embark on his short sea voyage.

The handsome tribute booklet published by our Maryland State Archives titles Lincoln’s sojourn “The Extra Mile.” They tell us everything we could want to know about his cross-town walk except where they got the phrase the extra mile.  It comes from the Bible. Jesus tells us we should “walk the extra mile” when required to go one mile. In Jesus’ time, Roman soldiers could force Israelites to carry their heavy armor and gear one full mile. Jesus wanted us to do more than what was minimally required of us.

This fine booklet is another example of what the late Prof. E.D. Hirsch wrote on cultural literacy. Hirsch believed that we could not be culturally literate without a working knowledge of the Bible. I don’t know if Hirsch believed the Bible, but he certainly understood its influence on our culture. He cited India as an example. That giant nation has more than 450 language groups. Only the English language unites the people of India, and only the Bible enables them to understand the language they use.

President Lincoln was literally walking the extra mile for peace. He knew that the peacemakers are blessed. Lincoln had read the Sermon on the Mount. His trip was a spur-of-the-moment thing. He slipped out of the Executive Mansion without his faithful secretary John Nicolay even knowing he was gone. General Grant had persuaded the President that he was needed at Fort Monroe. Even if the Confederates’ peace offerings were unacceptable-and so they ultimately proved to be-Lincoln needed to show his own Union soldiers that he would spare no effort to bring peace.

So Lincoln strode purposefully through Annapolis, a distance of 1 14 miles. He passed by the Union soldiers’ hospital at St. John’s College on his left. As well, he passed the Old State House on his right.  The Maryland legislature was in session then, debating ratification of the Thirteenth Amendment to abolish slavery. Lincoln worked hard to get Congress to approve the Thirteenth Amendment. Lincoln went so far as to sign the Thirteenth Amendment, even though the President’s signature is not required for a constitutional amendment.

Our little town of Annapolis made the most of Lincoln’s briefest of walk-throughs. They did a fine job. We learned who carried Lincoln’s toothbrush and the fact that he always got seasick. But if the program organizers had noted the origins of that beautiful phrase, “the extra mile,” they might have given us a better insight into the Great Emancipator’s heart. 

America’s Inauguration: A Retrospective—Ronald Reagan: “Nothing Less than a Miracle”

by Robert Morrison

January 20, 2009

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January 20, 1981

Surveying a world that had grown increasingly violent and arbitrary, in which freedom everywhere was in retreat, in which America itself seemed to be held hostage, Ronald Reagan reaffirmed our commitment to constitutional government. The peaceful, orderly transition of that day, he said, was normal for Americans, but for others it was “nothing less than a miracle.” Under Jimmy Carter, Americans were told they had to prepare for a future that would be colder, darker, and poorer, an America in which their children would lead lesser lives. A malaise stalked the land. Media chin pullers and professional deep thinkers lectured the people that the Presidency was too big for any one man. Well, it was too big for their one man, but not for Ronald Reagan.

Perhaps Reagan remembered Churchill’s poem, broadcast to America when Britain braved the Nazi blitz: “Westward look, the land is bright!” For the first time in our history, the Inauguration was taking place on the West Front. Reagan the Californian wanted us to look out from the West Front of the Capitol to the history represented on the Nation’s Mall. As he looked over that scene, he paid tribute to the giants of our past—Washington, Jefferson, and Lincoln.” Whoever would understand in his heart the meaning of America will find it in the life of Abraham Lincoln.”

Reagan spoke unabashedly about his faith in God. He expressed his gratitude for all the prayer meetings that were taking place throughout America to consecrate the day. Every Inauguration Day, he said, ought to be a day of prayer.

Within weeks, Reagan would need the prayers of all Americans in an urgent way. At age seventy, he nearly fell victim to an assassin’s bullet. “Honey,” he told his wife in a widely quoted quip, “I forgot to duck.” Few then knew how close Reagan came to dying just sixty days into his Presidency. After he recovered, he joined with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who had narrowly escaped an IRA terrorist bomb, and with Pope John Paul II, who had himself been shot by a Soviet-backed assassin. Together these three outstanding leaders worked to lift the Iron Curtain and bring down the Berlin Wall. With faith and courage, they changed the world.

We can still do this. “Why shouldn’t we believe this? After all, we are Americans,” Reagan said that memorable day.

America’s Inauguration: A Retrospective—John F. Kennedy: “Ask not…”

by Robert Morrison

January 18, 2009

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January 20, 1961

Washington is a city of northern charm and southern efficiency,” said John F. Kennedy about the nation’s capital. The city’s southern efficiency had never been so much needed as the night before the charming northerner took the oath as President. The city had been blanketed with eight inches of snow the night before the Inauguration. The army, city employees and 1,700 Boy Scout volunteers moved stranded cars, shoveled paths, and swept snow off the Inaugural stands.

At noon on that frigid Friday, the temperatures stood at just twenty-two degrees. The brilliant mid-winter sun glinted off the snow, almost blinding the frail poet Robert Frost as he tried to read his tribute to America. Boston’s Cardinal Cushing offered a lengthy invocation—the first time a Roman Catholic prelate could pray for a new President of his own faith. During the Cardinal’s prayer, the lectern actually caught fire.

When John F. Kennedy rose to take the oath from Chief Justice Earl Warren, the white-haired jurist was administering the historic words to the youngest man ever elected the nation’s Chief Executive. Watching the vigorous Kennedy that day, hatless, coatless in the cold, his forefinger jabbing the air as clouds of breath steamed forward, few would dream that Warren would write the multi-volume report that tried to quell public doubts about Kennedy’s death by assassination in less than three years time.

This day, though, was all ruffles and flourishes. Kennedy the liberal Democrat was determined to show that he could be as strong in standing up to communist tyranny as the old warrior, Dwight D. Eisenhower, had been. To a listening world, he vowed: “We shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” Summoning Americans to a long twilight struggle, he challenged his people: “My fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”

Americans were stirred and thrilled by his words. They nodded in agreement when he said: “The rights of man come not from the generosity of the state but from the hand of God.” No one complained about Kennedy’s violating the separation of church and state. No one called him divisive. All Americans believed his words then. Have we stopped believing them?

America’s Inauguration: A Retrospective—Franklin D. Roosevelt: “The Only Thing We Have to Fear…”

by Robert Morrison

January 17, 2009

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March 4, 1933

Not since Abraham Lincoln’s first Inauguration in the secession winter of 1860-61 had a President come to power in such a crisis atmosphere. President Herbert Hoover was thoroughly thrashed in the 1932 election. He won just six states (out of forty-eight) and a mere 59 Electoral Votes. Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Governor of New York, had racked up an invincible 472 Electoral Votes. Roosevelt’s mandate was deep and broad. His fellow Democrats had rolled over their opponents in elections for Congress, Governorships, state legislatures. There were even candidates for Recorder of Wills in Sleepy Eye County, Minnesota who were eager to grasp FDR’s coattails.

As the winter deepened, so did the economic crisis. President Hoover was increasingly desperate. Banks were failing daily. The government had to put armed guards on U.S. Mail Trucks. Then, just days before the Inauguration, the President-elect faced an assassination attempt while riding in an open car in Miami. FDR was unhurt, but he calmly ordered the Secret Service to take the mortally wounded Mayor of Chicago to a hospital.

When Roosevelt finally took the oath in Washington, all eyes in the nation were on him.

His rich baritone rang out: “Let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself!” His words were like an electric charge running through the country.

Many of his policies were wrong. Many failed. Still, Roosevelt’s indomitable confidence, his commanding presence, his unquestionable courage are what made millions of Americans love and support him. They honor his memory to this day.

FDR’s confidence was not in himself alone. He concluded his inspiring address with these words: “We humbly ask the blessing of God. May He protect each and every one of us. May He guide me in the days to come.”

Thus did the nation’s most liberal President conclude this First Inaugural Address. He alone would deliver three more Inaugurals.

America’s Inauguration: A Retrospective—Lincoln’s Sacred Effort

by Robert Morrison

January 16, 2009

March 4, 1865

The Capitol dome now finished; it was topped by a 19-foot Statue of Freedom. Those young black men who first muscled that statue into storage were slaves in the District of Columbia. But by the time they hoisted her into position atop the Capitol, they were free. Four long and bloody years had accomplished this much, and so much more. Not all the President’s hearers had come to applaud. John Wilkes Booth can be seen in grainy photographs of the event.

President Lincoln, defying all expectations (including his own), had been powerfully re-elected the previous November. Four years after appealing to “the better angels of our nature” to avoid civil war, 620,000 young Americans had fallen in a war of brother against brother.

Suddenly, at noon on that overcast Inauguration Day, the sun broke thought the clouds. Seeing victory in sight, Lincoln sounded no note of triumph, gave no hint of self righteousness. The war came, he said, and it was a judgment of heaven upon north and south alike. God could have given the victory to either side, many times. But it was not His perfect will. It would be our task, the President said, “to bind up the nation’s wounds.” He continued: “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in.”

The seven hundred and one words of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address have been carved in stone in his memorial. Every American should read them every year. After the ceremony, Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist orator and editor, went to the President’s House. He wanted to shake Lincoln’s hand. He was the first black man invited to a Presidential Inaugural. Barred from entry by an officious policeman, Douglass simply climbed through an open window. Lincoln spotted him in the receiving line and called out to him: “There’s my friend, Douglass.” The President asked for his opinion of the speech, and Douglass replied: “It was a sacred effort.” And so it remains. Just weeks later, Abraham Lincoln would belong to the Ages.

America’s Inauguration: A Retrospective—Abraham Lincoln: An Oath Registered in Heaven

by Robert Morrison

January 16, 2009

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March 4, 1861

Wheezing old General Winfield Scott, gouty but doughty, was determined. The hero of a score of battles since 1812 would not let rebels disrupt the inauguration of the first Republican President. Virginia-born but Army-bred, great Scott stationed sharpshooters on the roofs of all the prominent buildings along the inaugural route. If anyone tried anything, Scott thundered, he would use his cannon to “manure the Virginia hills” with their bodies.

Scott’s brave show worked. Abraham Lincoln’s path to power was unimpeded. Lincoln rose before the as-yet-uncompleted Capitol building. As he spoke, seven states had already declared themselves out of the Union. They had set up their own rival government in Montgomery, Alabama. Lincoln weighed his every word. If he came down too strongly, he could tip Virginia and Maryland against the Union—and then the nation’s capital would itself be surrounded. But if he did not take a strong enough stance, his own supporters would be disheartened.

Holding Lincoln’s stovepipe silk hat on that Inaugural stand was his defeated rival, Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois, the Democrat. Another Democrat, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, author of the infamous Dred Scott decision, would administer the oath. Taney had said “the black man has no rights which the white man is bound to respect.”

Lincoln appealed to reason. Secession, he said, was illegal. And it was impossible. A husband and wife can get a divorce, but how can sections of the same country separate? He spoke eloquently of those “mystic chords of memory stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone.” He urged his “dissatisfied fellow-countrymen” not to take the momentous step of civil war, reminding them: “You have no oath registered in heaven to destroy the Government, while I shall have the most solemn one to ‘preserve, protect, and defend it.’” Finally, he called upon “the better angels of our nature” to avert the looming catastrophe. Those better angels would not abandon this troubled land—despite four long and bloody years of fratricidal conflict.

America’s Inauguration: A Retrospective—Andrew Jackson: King Mob?

by Robert Morrison

January 16, 2009

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March 4, 1829

Do you think the campaign we’ve just witnessed was too long? How about a four-year long campaign? Do you think it was too dirty? How about charging one candidate with being an adulterer, bigamist, and killer? And calling his opponent a pimp? That’s how long and how bad the campaign of 1824-28 was. Ever since the House of Representatives chose Secretary of State John Quincy Adams to be President—and Adams promptly chose a defeated rival, Henry Clay, to be his own Secretary of State—backers of Andrew Jackson howled “Corrupt Bargain!” And they kept howling for four long years. To his enthusiastic supporters, Jackson was, simply, the Hero. He had won the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, saving Louisiana and the West, and really saving the young country from the British. For the four years of his single term, President John Quincy Adams lived in the shadow of Jackson’s inevitable triumph. Jackson championed democracy. His opponents feared “King Mob.” Adams’ backers, though not Adams himself, circulated all the old rumors of Jackson’s 1791 marriage to Rachel Robards, a woman whose divorce was not final. They circulated the infamous Coffin Handbill, showing nine black coffins with the names of men the hot-tempered Old Hickory had killed, in duels, or as an iron-willed military commander. Jackson’s people responded with the wholly false charge that John Quincy Adams had procured a young American virgin for the lecherous Tsar of Russia when Adams was our ambassador. Talk about ugly!

President Jackson’s demeanor on the day of his Inauguration, March 4, 1829, could not have been more dignified. He wore mourning black, in honor of his recently deceased wife. On seeing the newspaper accounts of her long-ago sin, Jackson’s beloved Rachel had suffered a heart attack and died. He would blame Henry Clay to his dying day—and hate him for it.

Jackson bowed to the inaugural crowds, but their conduct was not so dignified. They mobbed the President’s House, backwoodsmen with muddy boots standing on damask covered chairs to get a glimpse of their idol. Jackson’s friends had to form a flying wedge to keep the rescue the new President and keep him from being crushed by his admirers. Bowie knives cut souvenir tassels from elegant draperies.

Nothing we’ve yet seen of Obamamania has equaled the raucous first Jackson Inaugural.

America’s Inauguration: A Retrospective—Thomas Jefferson: Americans “Enlightened by a Benign Religion”

by Robert Morrison

January 15, 2009

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March 4, 1801

Thomas Jefferson would wear no ceremonial swords to his simple swearing-in ceremony. He would ride in no stately coach-and-six, as President George Washington had enjoyed. “Mr. Jefferson,” as the simple Virginia republican preferred to be called, took breakfast at his Washington boarding house with all the other diners on Inauguration Morning, 1801. Then, he walked to the still unfinished Capitol, where he took the oath of office. He was the first President to take office in the new national capital. He was the first sworn in since the death of George Washington in 1799. Jefferson spoke in a barely audible voice (he was never the orator John Adams or Patrick Henry had been). Still, his listeners appreciated the way we soothed the ruffled feathers of a hard-fought election campaign. “We are all Republicans; we are all Federalists.” Jefferson had been elected only after weeks of balloting in the House of Representatives when the Electoral College failed to designate a clear winner. He spoke of religious liberty as one of the great achievements of the young republic. He and his close friend James Madison had blazed that trail with their work on the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom fifteen years earlier, in 1786. Now, Jefferson described God as “an overruling Providence [who] delights in the happiness of man here and his greater happiness hereafter…” He closed his inaugural address with a question: “[W]ith all these blessings, what more is necessary to make us a happy and a prosperous people? Still one thing more, fellow-citizens-a wise and frugal Government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labor the bread it has earned.” These wise words can certainly be treasured by us two hundred years later, when national administrations of both parties are planning to add trillions to the national debt that will weigh down our children and our children’s children. Another point jumps out from Jefferson’s first inaugural address: It’s pretty hard to square his words about God’s “overruling Providence,” His delight in our happiness here and hereafter, with the scurrilous charges thrown at Jefferson during the 1800 campaign. It’s hard to see this man as an “atheist” of any kind.

America’s Inauguration: A Retrospective—Honest John Adams, Coming and Going

by Robert Morrison

January 15, 2009

Our redoubtable second President, John Adams of Massachusetts, was inaugurated in Philadelphia on March 4, 1797. He followed two terms of the man revered as “Father of Our Country.” The bald and portly Adams was short, but powerfully built. Rising to the occasion, he wore a ceremonial sword for his swearing-in. Some of the senators sniped. “His Rotundity,” they called the man who was a genuine hero of the revolution. Adams, like Washington before him, attributed American independence to “the justice of their cause, and the integrity and intelligence of the people, under an overruling Providence which had so signally protected this country from the first.” While professing no religious ties himself, he said “a decent respect for Christianity [is] among the best recommendations for the public service.” In his diary, Adams later noted that the people who watched him take the oath were weeping. “[W]hether it was from grief or joy, whether from the loss of their beloved President [Washington], or from the accession of an unbeloved one…I know not.” Still, John Adams presided over the first peaceful transfer of political power. This was another of Washington’s great gifts to the nation. Four years later, in 1801, the defeated John Adams did not attend President Jefferson’s inauguration in the new capital of Washington, D.C. He left the vast, empty President’s House-in whose cavernous East Room First Lady Abigail Adams had hung her laundry-before dawn. He took the early coach home to the Bay State. Biographer David McCullough tells us that Adams was not the sore loser history thinks he was. He simply wasn’t invited to Mr. Jefferson’s inauguration. Even in this, however, Adams again made history. This was the first time the government had changed hands in a contested election, the first time the “ins” voluntarily stepped “out.” John and Abigail Adams were the first First Family to live in the President’s House. Leaving, John offered this prayer: “I pray Heaven to bestow the best of blessings on this house, and on all that shall hereafter inhabit it. May none but wise and honest men every rule under this roof.”

America’s Inauguration: A Retrospective—”The Sacred Fire of Liberty”

by Robert Morrison

January 14, 2009

George Washington was keenly aware that he “walked on untrodden ground.” Everything he did would create a precedent, for good or ill. He had to borrow money to make the journey from his beloved Mount Vernon to New York City, where the new government made its temporary headquarters. Washington’s inaugural route was a great celebration. He passed under flowered bowers, past cheering throngs, and saluted by thirteen white-clad maidens, each one representing one of the original states. Thirteen strong rowers conveyed the new President across the river from the Jersey shore to New York. The Federal Building in lower Manhattan had been specially refurbished by Maj. Pierre L’Enfant, a French immigrant, for the occasion of the first Presidential Inauguration. It would be held on April 30, 1789.

Washington did not wear the blue and buff uniform he had worn as commander of the Continental Army. He had been firm in resigning his military commission to Congress meeting at Annapolis more than five years earlier. Instead, he wore a new brown suit, made for him from American fabric by American tailors.

With our recent flap about prayers at a Presidential Inauguration in mind, it’s interesting to speculate on what today’s atheizers-those people who want to impose their atheism on the rest of us—-would make of Washington’s Inauguration. Appearing on the balcony before a large crowd, Washington added to the Presidential Oath of Office four significant words. They don’t appear in the oath as it is written in the Constitution. But every President since George Washington has followed his leading: “So help me God.”

Then, in the full view of a cloud of witnesses, Washington kissed the Bible.

Inside Federal Hall, Washington delivered his Inaugural Address. He openly prayed to God as “that Almighty Being who rules over the Universe, who presides in the Councils of Nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect” Washington asked God for “his benediction [which] may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the People of the United States, a Government instituted by themselves…” Even the precious gifts of Independence and free government Washington attributed to the hand of Providence. In fact, he spoke of “the sacred fire of liberty” being entrusted to Americans.

That sacred fire is now handed down to us. With the Inauguration of Barack Obama, we have the forty-fourth President in direct line from George Washington. Ours is the oldest constitutional government in the world. Yet we still recognize that our government is what Washington called it: an experiment. And it needs our prayers and our earnest efforts to sustain it.

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