By David A. Carrino, Roundtable Historian
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2012-2013, All Rights Reserved
Editor’s note: This article was the history brief for the May 2013 meeting of the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable.
I am nervous every time I present one of these history briefs, because I know that the knowledge of history possessed by every member of this Roundtable far exceeds my own. But tonight my level of trepidation is at a record high, because tonight’s speaker, Harold Holzer, is without question one of the most eminent historians of today. With that in mind, I grappled mightily with how best to present a history brief that is palatable to a renowned historian like Harold, and I came up with three strategies.
I thought that I might try flattery, but then I realized that Harold is such an accomplished historian that no matter how much hyperbole I injected into any flattery, nothing I said would be an exaggeration. I also thought that I could plead ignorance, which in my case is entirely plausible, since I have no formal training in history. I am honored to be the Roundtable’s historian, but I will never understand why the Cleveland Civil War Roundtable chose a biochemist to be its historian. When I was in college, history was a course that those of us majoring in science took only because it was a requirement. Because I feared that flattery and pleading ignorance did not provide a sufficiently high likelihood of success, I decided upon a third tactic. I will present a history brief that has as its focus Harold’s own words.
The passage that I selected for the history brief comes from the Introduction for a book titled Lincoln on Democracy. This book is a compilation of various writings by Abraham Lincoln that was edited by Harold Holzer and Mario Cuomo, and Harold wrote the Introduction. There is an anecdote in this passage about Venezuela that occurred in 1957. This anecdote is particularly appropriate because it demonstrates that Lincoln’s words still have power in modern times. The motivation for the book Lincoln on Democracy was a desire by some Polish schoolteachers for documents about American democracy that could be used to educate students in Poland during the early 1990s when that country was transitioning to democracy. Eventually the book, meaning Lincoln’s writings, was translated into Polish. The last part of this passage conveys succinctly and brilliantly why history is relevant and also expresses, much better than I ever could, why this biochemist has done an about-face on his college-age opinion that history is just an unpleasant and burdensome mandate and has instead come to enjoy and appreciate history. The last part of this passage includes some Lincoln quotes woven into text that Harold wrote. What I think is interesting about that part of the passage is how seamlessly Harold’s and Lincoln’s words are woven together, as if Harold and Lincoln are of one mind. The passage reads as follows.
“In the 1950s (American composer Aaron) Copland traveled to Venezuela to conduct a performance of his Lincoln Portrait, an orchestral piece in which a narrator speaks Lincoln’s most famous words against a background of inspirational music. ‘To everybody’s surprise,’ Copland told a newspaper reporter, ‘the reigning dictator, who had rarely dared to be seen in public, arrived at the last possible moment,’ joining six thousand spectators jammed into an outdoor stadium. The narrator that evening was the fiery Venezuelan actress Juana Sujo. When she spoke the final words of the piece—’government of the people, by the people—por el pueblo y para el pueblo—shall not perish from the earth’—the audience responded by jumping to its feet and shouting and cheering so vociferously that even Copland was unable to hear the end of the piece.
“‘It was not long after that the dictator was deposed and fled from the country,’ Copland remembered. ‘I was later told by an American foreign service officer that the Lincoln Portrait was credited with having inspired the first public demonstration against him. That, in effect, it had started a revolution.’
“As the Copland recollection so vividly suggests…Lincoln’s written legacy continues to transcend both time and place, holding relevance for today as well as tomorrow. ‘Writing,’ as Lincoln understood, ‘…is the great invention of the world…very great in enabling us to converse with the dead, the absent, and the unborn, at all distances of time and space.’…Lincoln’s writings on democracy continue to vivify this promise. And the promise, just as Lincoln understood early and well, extends not just to Americans but to people everywhere thirsting for what he aptly described in a temperance address as the ‘sorrow quenching draughts of perfect liberty.’ What Lincoln said once of the nation’s founders might as easily be said today of his own rich…speeches and writings on democracy. He ‘grasped not only the whole race of men then living,’ but ‘reached forward and seized upon the farthest posterity.’ He ‘erected a beacon to guide’ his ‘children and…children’s children, and the countless myriads who should inhabit the earth in other ages.’
“No American president, no American writer was ever more ‘Dear to democracy.'”