Sunday, March 13, 2011

The power of bearing witness, as seen at Lincoln's Summer Cottage

It’s probably the most profound example of the power of bearing witness that I’ve seen yet. And it’s 150 years old and only beginning to be understood.

This weekend Rosemary had the great idea to take Nate and Sofie to see Lincoln’s Summer Cottage which had recently been renovated by the National Trust For Historic Preservation, and since 2008 has been available for tour in small groups with advance reservations. The cottage sits three miles from the White House on 250 acres of land, on the third highest elevation in DC, with the Soldiers Home that had been established in 1851 and a national cemetery that predates Arlington (but is administered by Arlington Cemetery). It’s a 15 minute ride from our office (details can be found at http://www.lincolncottage.org/ ) Dick Moe, who led the National Trust for many years, remembers seeing the cottage for the first time and thinking “this is a treasure hiding in plain sight.”

President Lincoln spent a quarter of his presidency at his Summer Cottage, especially every May through October during the critical Civil War years of 1862-1864. It was cooler there and with less swamp-like humidity and odor than the rest of DC during the mid 19th century. For Lincoln it offered some respite from the pressures of the White House. Kind of a precursor to the way modern presidents have used Camp David. The Summer Cottage was where Lincoln did some of his deepest reflection on matters ranging from the Emancipation Proclamation to his re-election in 1864. While there he commuted to the White House each day on horseback. He was on the grounds of the Summer Cottage the day before he was assassinated at Ford’s Theater.

The tour of the Cottage takes less than an hour. It is mostly unfurnished, with a few furniture reproductions to which they will likely add as funding permits. There are better records of who visited there than of what was inside. But it’s not what’s inside the Cottage that is as important as what Lincoln was able to see right outside his window or during his frequent strolls on the grounds.

The Soldiers Home had originally been established as a hospital and retirement center for invalid and disabled soldiers. The administrators invited President Lincoln (as well as his predecessor James Buchanan, and several successors) to stay on the grounds as a way of trying protect themselves from budget cuts. One result of Lincoln accepting the invitation is that he was surrounded by recovering Civil War soldiers and sometimes witnessed 30-40 burials a day at the cemetery not 200 yards from his cottage.

His words and the recollections of those who spent time with him are testimony to just how much what he saw weighed on him. And how much it drove him to put the national interest ahead of all other interests. How could it not? Imagine if our leaders today had any such direct and constant exposure to the impact of their decisions. Imagine the sense of urgency they might have if they came face to face with millions of children suffering from hunger – and saw them not at an occasional media event with cameras rolling, but every day right by their own home. Imagine whether they would dare to put politics ahead of principle if they looked into the eyes of those who suffered so grievously as a consequence of their decisions.


With Lincoln’s Summer Cottage only recently restored and opened to the public, historians are just beginning to assess, and reassess, the impact of this place on Lincoln and the decisions he made. A visit to the Summer Cottage at the Soldiers Home makes clear that of Lincoln’s many extraordinary qualities, one such quality was not only a capacity to bear witness, but almost an insistence on making it part of his daily routine. And that insistence on bearing witness translated into a power, perhaps more so than for any other figure in our history, to advance equality and hold our nation together.

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