Ford’s Theatre, Park Service Push Story of ‘Complex,’ ‘Fallible’ Lincoln

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President Abraham Lincoln not only was a “fallible, complex human being, whose legacy continues to evolve,” he also used “racist” language, Ford’s Theatre staffers say in internal emails obtained by The Daily Signal. 

Their views came as Ford’s Theatre in Washington, where the16th president was assassinated in 1865, launched a social media program emphasizing the “whole” Lincoln. 

Reopened in 1968 as a historic site, museum, and working theater, Ford’s Theatre is operated by the National Park Service in a public-private partnership.

Lincoln on a Pedestal?

A Ford’s Theatre tweet in September 2020 sparked a lot of attention:

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“Do you ever feel we, as a nation, put Abraham Lincoln ‘on a pedestal’?” the tweet asked. “What do you think might be a more useful, more complex, or more realistic way to think about or memorialize the 16th president?”

Replies to the tweet were overwhelmingly negative and in defense of the president who led the nation through the Civil War, expressing fear that another federal agency had gone woke as some on the left pushed for taking down Lincoln statues across the United States. 

One Twitter user responded: “Put the Twitter down and take a break, John Wilkes.” 

John Wilkes Booth is the actor and Confederate sympathizer who fatally shot Lincoln during a performance at Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865.

Another wrote: “Seriously? Has wokeness permeated every aspect of government? That’s ridiculous.” 

And another tweeted: “That we honor Mr. Lincoln by placing him on a pedestal does not imply he was without flaw [and] should be obvious to a place steeped in Lincoln history.”

Some responded positively to the tweet by Ford’s Theatre, though.

One person tweeted: “Love how triggering this post is for the people whose knowledge about Lincoln is no deeper than a handful of bullet points or a Spielberg movie.” 

Another replied: “I’m pretty angry at ol’ Abe. I feel as though he tried to stitch the nation back together, but instead, he should have decimated the South.” 

Others took a humorous path, with one tweeting: “I mean … you already put him on a balcony. Leave the guy alone.” 

Another tweeted to Ford’s Theatre: “Please, please tell me you got hacked by a soy-sipping 17-year-old.”

‘Foundational Truths and Themes’

The discussion about Lincoln’s legacy among staff of the National Park Service and Ford’s Theatre long predated the September 2020 tweet. It was part of a broader social media program detailed in 109 pages of emails obtained by The Daily Signal through a Freedom of Information Act request. 

“Lincoln was an extraordinary leader, and, like all of us, was a fallible, complex human being, whose legacy continues to evolve,” the social media team’s message to park rangers at Ford’s Theatre said, adding:

Idea Summary: Lincoln’s Peoria Speech in which he gives ideas for what could be done after slavery (sending freedmen to Liberia, allowing them to stay in the country as second-class citizens, or allowing them to stay in the country as political and social equals) shows his complex evolution on abolition and even equality.

The social media team at Ford’s Theatre planned to post three to 10 text or video posts each week to coincide with a calendar of historical events. The campaign said it wanted to “tie our social media more closely to our Foundational Truths and Themes.”

Suggested hashtags for the social media program included #ComplexHistory, #ComplexLeadersInHistory, #LincolnsEvolution, #EvolvingTowardEquality, #EvolvingTowardJustice, #ComplexHistoryComplexPresent, #MemorializingComplexHistory, #RestoreAndRemember,  #WhatWeRemember, and #WhoWeValue #BiasedHindsight.

In in an email to The Daily Signal in response to a request for comment, Mike Litterst, chief of communications for the National Mall and Memorial Parks, wrote:

Recognized as one of our greatest presidents, Abraham Lincoln’s life and legacy are continuously being explored and examined. We encourage each person and each generation to learn more about him not only as an inspiring leader but as a real person who played a critical role in our history. Helping people form connections to our shared history is a central part of the National Park Service mission.

‘Racist by Present-Day Standards’

On March 26, 2020, a National Park Service ranger, in an email to another ranger, noted Lincoln’s views on Native Americans, saying: “It doesn’t show Lincoln’s best side that is for sure.”

In the email, the ranger references a meeting Lincoln had with tribal chiefs in March 1863 to convince them not to aid the Confederacy. 

Of the Native Americans, Lincoln reportedly said during the meeting: “Although we are now engaged in a great war between one another, we are not, as a race, so much disposed to fight and kill one another as our red brethren.”

In staff notes about how to handle Lincoln’s words, the ranger wrote: 

The quote from Lincoln is really challenging, as it comes across as racist by present-day standards. Hell, it’s racist by the standards of some in the 1860s. And sometimes historians saying that someone ‘was a product of his times,’ can only carry you so far.

So, what I have proposed is including the following passage after the quote: It is useful to connect Lincoln’s comments in 1863 with the society we live in at present. Indeed, historian Christopher W. Anderson has written, ‘Incorporating Native Americans more fully in an understanding of Lincoln’s racial worldview also inspires further exploration of Lincoln’s legacy in the Native American community today.’

‘Challenging or Even Painful Things’

Ford’s Theatre staff also looked at Lincoln’s legacy of freeing the slaves and the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which abolished slavery and involuntary servitude in America. 

“At various times [Lincoln] disparaged slavery while accepting its legality, considered sending freedmen to Central or South America, reversed a general’s order which had prematurely freed people in areas of the South, and later supported limited black male suffrage,” a National Park Service guide who works at Ford’s Theatre said in a July 6, 2020, email to a ranger. 

This message was part of a planned calendar of questions intended to prompt discussion and debate about Lincoln’s legacy. The National Park Service guide’s email inquired about any necessary edits for a post scheduled for July 24, 2020.  

“It is very possible his views would have continued to evolve had he not been assassinated on April 14, 1865,” the guide wrote. “How do you feel when you learn challenging or even painful things about our past leaders or heroes? How do you reconcile great acts and successes with controversies or even failings?”

On Jan. 27, 2021, one park ranger wrote to staff: “We talk a lot about the Thirteenth Amendment in our social media calls and in general, and I found this book particularly worthwhile.”

That ranger then quoted extensively from the book “Lincoln and the Thirteenth Amendment” by Christian G. Samito, including this passage that mentions Lincoln’s single term in the U.S. House of Representatives: 

For the bulk of Abraham Lincoln’s life, the Constitution was held as a sacrosanct document. Potential amendments were viewed as inevitably tainting what the Founders had created, and even if the Constitution was imperfect, it was the closest to perfection any civilization had achieved. 

Congressman Lincoln in 1848 spoke of the Constitution on the House floor offering that, “It can scarcely be made better than it is. New provisions would introduce new difficulties, and thus create and increase appetite for still further change.”

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