by Jesse J. Gant •
Last week, University of Southern California historian Richard Wightman Fox offered a preview of the University of Wisconsin’s upcoming Emancipations: The End of American Slavery as a World-Historical Event series with his talk, “Memory-Making on the Ground: The Elevation of Lincoln to Civic Sainthood.” His short presentation, delivered as the First Annual Merle Curti Visiting Scholar in U.S. Intellectual and Cultural History, and co-sponsored by the UW’s Center for the Humanities, highlighted how early struggles to make sense of Abraham Lincoln’s final days helped the nation’s northern Protestant majority construct usable lessons from Lincoln’s life. By closely examining the process of memory formation during the Lincoln’s last ten days, Fox suggested that the making of Lincoln’s martyrdom effectively silenced understandings of how the nation’s enslaved or the Union’s black soldiers, for example, might have also contributed to slavery’s destruction.
Dennis Malone Carter, “Lincoln’s Drive Through Richmond,” 1866 [detail]
In reflecting upon Fox’s points about how northern whites helped construct Lincoln’s saintly image in the immediate aftermath of his death, and in listening to the stories of Abraham Lincoln’s final days, I pondered Lincoln’s remarkable walk alongside and among Richmond’s newly liberated slaves on April 4, 1865. I thought, too, of my own experiences at one of Wisconsin’s last remaining Lincoln pilgrimage sites—the Lincoln-Tallman Restorations in Janesville. The “Tallman House,” as folks in Janesville and throughout the state often call it, is a grandiose Italianate mansion situated just a few blocks from the city’s downtown, overlooking the banks of the Rock River. It is the last house still standing in Wisconsin where Abraham Lincoln once slept—a tie that matters enough to keep it operating, despite deep cuts to city and county budgets over the past several years. At the Tallman House, as I often tell my UW students, I took my first-ever job as a docent at the age of fourteen, making minimum wage. During the summers and on weekends in high school, and throughout my first three years at college, it was my task to take whoever showed up at the home’s doorstep on a tour of the place, covering all twenty-six rooms and most of the home’s 10,000 square feet. Talking about the history of my hometown paid for groceries when I went back to school, and helped defray the expenses of all the books I read, as both homework and for pleasure, in the gift shop filling time between tours. Through good and bad economic times, a slow but steady flow of Lincoln admirers from all over the country and world frequented our anonymous little museum. Lincoln’s continual, persisting presence, along with the many great conversations and connections the job helped forge, inspired me to become a historian.
The “Lincoln Room,” as we docents often described it in our tours, is located on the home’s second floor, just opposite the bedroom of one of the Tallman sons, and just off the main hall that runs down the entirety of the building’s upper floor. Before entering the Lincoln room, we always made a point of showing the portrait of John Brown that still hangs on the wall outside it, which the then-teenaged Tallman daughter, Cornelia Augusta, ordered in 1859 after hearing of the disastrous failure of Brown’s raid at Harper’s Ferry. It seemed to smooth the entrance into that sacred space somehow, grooming the visitor’s entrance into the quiet place where the fabled Lincoln once slept.
Visitors always adopted a telling stare. The empty bed, positioned at an angle, jutted out from the corner of the room at a slant, the foot resting almost at the center of the spacious guest chamber. A bust of Lincoln, replete with his still clean-shaven face, stared out from near the window, reminding visitors that when he came to the Tallman’s home in Janesville in October 1859, he had still not grown the characteristic whiskers that became a hallmark of all those iconic photographs.
When I reminded guests that Lincoln was 6’4” tall, someone inevitably asked, “How did he fit?!” I would tell them that Lincoln came to Janesville once before, pushing Black Hawk’s people through the Rock River Valley during the last forced removal of Native Americans to occur east of the Mississippi before the Civil War. I would explain that by 1859, Lincoln was a rising star in the newly formed Republican Party. He was in Janesville in 1859 to stir up support for that new coalition through his words and speeches, something he was already being recognized for. People would then linger awhile, their eyes transfixed on the corner, waiting for his ghost.
In February 1859, the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass also made his way to Janesville, Wisconsin. Douglass experienced quite a different kind of reception in the city. As he wrote upon his return to New York in his newspaper, Douglass’ Monthly, the Old Northwest was rarely perceived as a landscape of freedom in the eyes of many blacks: “The West was contemplated by us as new and hard soil for anti-slavery labor.” When Douglass went for dinner at a Janesville establishment called the American House, the proprietor, described as a “slightly unpleasant character,” met him. The man seated Douglass and his colleagues at end of the dining room, opposite from the rest of the clientele. There, it was impossible for leering whites not to notice them and their banishment: “All loafers of the bar room could come and feast their ill-natured curiosity upon us,” Douglass explained, “and indulge a morbid feeling of pleasure at our isolation.” When the waiter served food “meant to resemble ‘negro fare’ on a slave plantation as nearly as it conveniently could,” as a “premeditated attempt to degrade and insult us,” Douglass and his friends had to stave off what could easily have become a dangerous situation. They paid their bill and solicited the services of a nearby restaurant instead. These were the everyday experiences of antebellum blacks throughout the region in the late 1850s.
Visiting Janesville today, you can still encounter the large common soldier monument honoring the Union dead in the city’s large courthouse square. It is still possible to take the short walk through the quiet and often fledgling storefronts of downtown up the hill to the Tallman House, and there see the bed where Lincoln slept. Out in the Tallman yard, you can still stand under the shade of trees that were there when Lincoln arrived at the home, his historic election to the Presidency in 1860 only eleven months distant. You can still walk further toward the outskirts of town, too, and see the gravesites of the Tallman family, sitting atop the hillside at Oak Hill Cemetery. What you will not find is a monument, or marker of any kind, commemorating the Douglass visit.
Memorializing the past alone, of course, will not necessarily correct or right the wrongs Douglass endured. Still, how a community remembers, and how a community chooses which stories it privileges over others, tells us much about the values a place shares. In Janesville, there is a growing gap between the community’s popular stories and the lessons recent scholarship has helped unearth. Some of the best recent work on the Civil War has illuminated just how important black abolitionists like Douglass and others were in pushing Lincoln and his Republican Party, both frequent proponents of white supremacist attitudes, toward their embrace of an Emancipation policy.
Next year’s Emancipations events, building upon the conversation Richard Wightman Fox started just this past week, offer all of us a chance to return to these stories, to re-examine these disparities, and to further connect the sometimes surprising pathways carved between the spaces we call home and the broader world we inhabit. To help guide us, Emancipations, in conjunction with the UW, the UW’s Center for the Humanities, and a wide range of community organizations based both on campus and off, will welcome Pulitzer Prize winning historian Steven Hahn of the University of Pennsylvania, along with MacArthur “Genius” award winner and University of Michigan Professor Tiya Miles, each among the world’s best scholars of the politics of slaves and ex-slaves, to campus. Through the careful and sustained reflection and dialogue their events and many others will offer, Emancipations gives us the opportunity to again remember that how we understand the end of slavery in this country matters, and matters a great deal.
Jesse Gant is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of History at the University of Wisconsin—Madison, and the graduate project assistant for the upcoming Emancipations events. His dissertation examines the role of racial ideology in the formation and development of the early western leadership of the Republican Party. Those with questions, comments, or a love for local history should feel free to visit his website at www.jessegant.net or write him at firstname.lastname@example.org.