April 23, 2015

‘I See The President’: How the Lincoln Ideas Forum Expands Abraham Lincoln's Legacy

  • By: Erin Carlson Mast, Executive Director of President Lincoln’s Cottage

Milton Shinberg speaking at the Lincoln Ideas Forum on April 10, 2015.

In an essay about Abraham Lincoln’s daily, 3-mile commute from the Cottage at the Soldiers’ Home to the White House, poet Walt Whitman observed, “I see very plainly Abraham Lincoln’s dark brown face, with the deep-cut lines, the eyes, always to me with a deep latent sadness in the expression.”

Whitman concluded that, “None of the artists or pictures has caught the deep, though subtle and indirect, expression of this man's face. There is something else there.”

There is still something else there -- the spirit of Lincoln’s ideas lives on. This April marks the 150th anniversary of his untimely death, and historic sites, museums, and affinity groups across the nation are commemorating Lincoln through a multitude of exhibits and events.

At President Lincoln’s Cottage in Washington, D.C., we created an array of programs examining the enduring legacy of Lincoln’s life and ideas, including an exhibit, a live retracing of Lincoln’s horseback commute, a memorial tribute inspired by 19th-century mourning practices, and the first annual Lincoln Ideas Forum.

The audience at the Lincoln Ideas Forum

President Lincoln’s Cottage is a home for brave ideas not only because of what the 16th President accomplished within these very walls, but because of the conversations that happen on our guided tours, at our public programs, and in our school visits each day.

In keeping with that tradition, we invited some of our friends to share their own courageous ideas at the first annual Lincoln Ideas Forum, a project made possible through the support of the Interpretation and Education Fund of the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

The Lincoln Ideas Forum brought experts, scholars, and the public together to explore the intersection of Lincoln’s life and legacy with contemporary issues. Historian Adam Goodheart (Director of the C.V. Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience at Washington College) served as moderator for the inaugural event. Goodheart was joined by four scholars and experts who each gave brief presentations on issues that impacted Lincoln’s presidency.

Dr. Jason Silverman, Ellison Capers Palmer, Jr. Professor of History at Winthrop University, spoke on Lincoln and immigration; Bradley Myles, CEO of Polaris, spoke on the issue of slavery today; Jason Dixon spoke on presidential security and the need to have access to elected officials; and Milton Shinberg, Principal Architect at Shinberg.Levinas, spoke on the impact of the Cottage itself on Lincoln. (Along these lines, the staff of President Lincoln’s Cottage is presently collaborating with architects to delve into the neuroscientific impact of experiences in significant places on the minds of everyday people.)

A guest shares her own ideas at the conclusion of the program.

Included below is an excerpt from Milton Shinberg’s presentation, “At A Remove: Abraham Lincoln’s Cottage and the Old Soldiers’ Home":

“I began with the thought that this house was a refuge. It’s an obvious thought. But, like many thoughts about Lincoln, the obvious was wrong. Consider for a moment what this house is not.

1. First, it’s not a ‘cottage.’ This is not a log cabin grown large. It is a mansion.

2. Next, it is not an ‘escape.’ It is not even a pause. The war, if anything, was more present here, with the wounded next door and the dead nearby. Lincoln had no choice but to observe, during his regular walks and rides here, those who had ‘given their last full measure of devotion.’ That was no abstraction either. A telegraph installed here brought him the same news as the telegraph in the city. No escape.

3. Then, it is not ultimately a ‘refuge.’ The phrase that eventually came to my mind was: ‘at a remove,’ a place separated by distance. It’s a very different environment here, a platform with the potential for building or rebuilding the self, not isolation.

4. And last, it is not the White House…

…What could this place give Abraham Lincoln, man, president, husband, father, Commander-in-Chief, that the White House did not? My thought is that being here, being at a remove, gave him the margin to endure and to bind up his wounds.

Imagine that this place was his Sabbath rendered throughout the week, not one day out of seven. That ‘Day of Rest’ can be a day of engagement in the life of the spirit, nurturing and restoring the soul. Lincoln would know that the Bible doesn’t say that God took the seventh day off. It says ‘And on the seventh day God finished His work which He had made.’ Lincoln didn’t get that day or any day off, but he did get some Sabbath, the Sabbath built into this place, the house and its setting. He must have thirsted for that taste all the time and, when here, found the cool spring when he needed it most.

This was his place to imagine a more perfect union. The Sabbath would be a window, a meditation on what could emerge that was good and right: an end to slavery, an end to this bitter war, a future time of reconciliation and reconstruction. Here he could follow his better angels.”

All speakers (from left to right): Adam Goodheart, Brian Dixon, Milton Shinberg, Callie Hawkins, Erin Mast, Bradley Myles, and Jason Silverman.

Shinberg’s comments were the perfect endnote to a series of enriching talks held inside the Cottage itself, a point referenced by Goodheart during the closing discussion with the audience about Lincoln’s ideas and the unfinished work that lies before us.

Complete transcripts of the presentations from all speakers will be available in an online video and in print and e-book formats. And we hope to see you at the second annual Lincoln Ideas Forum next spring at President Lincoln’s Cottage.

By: Erin Carlson Mast, Executive Director of President Lincoln’s Cottage

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