On an eventful weekend 150 years ago, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre.
He was shot on April 14, 1865, and died a day later. Various new books and exhibits have marked the century and a half since Lincoln’s murder.
But of all that’s been said and written about Lincoln — perhaps the most documented American in history — we find ourselves thinking most often about a small profile of the president written by Nathaniel Hawthorne, the famous novelist perhaps best known as the author of “The Scarlet Letter.” Hawthorne was part of a delegation visiting Lincoln at the White House, and what he saw tells us a lot about how much politics has changed since Lincoln lived at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
As this year’s emerging contest for the White House reminds us, presidential politics is an exhaustive exercise in preening, polls, focus groups and fashion statements. Compare that with the approachable presence that Hawthorne found when he visited the White House in 1862:
“He was dressed in a rusty black frock-coat and pantaloons, unbrushed, and worn so faithfully that the suit had adapted itself to the curves and angularities of his figure, and had grown to be an outer skin of the man. He had shabby slippers on his feet. His hair was black, still unmixed with gray, stiff, somewhat bushy, and had apparently been acquainted with neither brush nor comb, that morning, after the disarrangement of the pillow; and as to a nightcap, Uncle Abe probably knows nothing of such effeminancies. His complexion is dark and sallow ... he has thick black eyebrows and an impending brow; his nose is large, and the lines around his face are very strongly defined.”
A homely man who dresses casually and doesn’t bother to comb his hair? Such a politician probably wouldn’t get past the Iowa primary today. What mattered about Lincoln, obviously, was on his inside, not his outside — something that today’s political culture, with its focus on the superficial, wouldn’t be equipped to appreciate.
There was only one Abe Lincoln, and that’s probably for the best. If, by some miracle, another Lincoln showed up, we simply wouldn’t know what to do with him.