Mourning Lincoln: 54th Annual Throckmorton Lecture
February 27, 2017
By Hannah Mathieson (History ’17)
“The word of Lincoln’s death was a thunderclap in a clear, blue sky,” opened Martha Hodes during the Throckmorton lecture on February 27th. Hodes, professor of history at New York University and author, delivered excerpts of her newly released book, Mourning Lincoln, to an audience of Lewis & Clark students, faculty, and alumni gathered in the Council Chambers where she provided a lively and engaging presentation to the community.
Mourning Lincoln seeks to answer a seemingly simple question: How do people respond to nationally transformative events on the scale of everyday life? Before writing the book and while reflecting on her time in New York during the 9/11 attacks, Hodes began to sift through photographs she had taken of memorials and people in the aftermath of the attacks. She noticed many pictures of memorials – some called for war while others begged for peace. This struck Hodes as she pondered the historical memory of Lincoln’s assassination as a time of profound national unity. In researching Mourning Lincoln, she discovered the same apparent disagreement. While some blamed Lincoln’s assassination on the institution of slavery, claiming that Lincoln had been “sacrificed” for the evils of slavery, others reveled in his death. Some, despite despising Lincoln, hung black mourning fabric outside their houses as to not look out of place from their mourning neighbors. Some of Lincoln’s more radical mourners came to believe that God had allowed Lincoln’s demise to further specific political agendas. Regardless of the reaction itself, there were a massive variety of outlooks on Lincoln’s death – disproving the myth that a nation in crisis is a nation unified.
The manifestations of grief are in no way uniform. While our memories of monumental events may appear to be of a nation in elation or mourning, evidence in the Lincoln case demonstrates the opposite. Using personal accounts and diaries to attempt to comprehend the way individuals reacted to the Lincoln assassination, Hodes seeks to understand how a nation moves forward in a time of crisis. From the sheer amount of personal accounts and personal reactions to the assassination, people, regardless of their feelings towards Lincoln, felt the compulsion to document. Hodes found a wide array of sources, ranging from long diary entries extolling the virtues of the Great Emancipator, to small scraps of paper with single sentence observations that Lincoln had passed away, scribbled in the margins.
In the wake of a “national tragedy,” everyday life persisted said Hodes. In grounding the unthinkable tragedy at hand in something as seemingly mundane as everyday interactions people have, a larger lesson can be learned. In the words of Reiko Hillyer in her introduction for Hodes, “One can make big arguments by telling small stories.” Hodes argues that loss and mourning are deeply tied to visions of the nation’s future – indeed even if they are conflicting visions of the future. By finding value in the insignificant, Hodes gave the audience that night a glimpse into how our micro-historical lives can tell stories about macro-historical trends and events.