(George Washington & Abraham Lincoln. You were expecting someone else?)
Lately, I have been paying my rent by ghostwriting history books for a an independent Kindle publisher. I say “ghostwriting”, but, as a friend pointed out, it is technically just authorship without royalties. Once a month, I crank out 35,000 words on a topic set by the publisher, researched for its marketability: the Third Reich, George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, the Civil War. The publisher picks my nom de plume. It’s always a man’s name, by the way, in case you thought sexism was dead.
The publisher pays me more than he pays his other writers—$500 to their $300. This is because the skill level of the average Kindle writer-for-hire hovers somewhere just above blatant illiteracy. I would know, because most of my other gigs involve editing these books. I get paid more than the next slob because, as I pointed out to the publisher, he saves the price of a proofreader on my writing.
Look, it isn’t easy to find freelancing gigs that pay biggish lump sums of cash. The $500 I get for writing a crap history book once a month pays my rent. And it only takes me about half the month to write it, if I hustle, so I have time left over to make money for things that aren’t rent, and to write for my personal projects. I consider my writing these books partly a humanitarian project: when I accepted the offer to write the book on the Third Reich, it was because I was genuinely frightened that it would otherwise get written by a literal neo-Nazi. The direct-to-Kindle publishing world is, like most dark corners of the internet, a dank, humid breeding ground for crazies. I edit a conspiracy theory manual and at least three crank health fad books every month.
So what’s the pay-off for me, apart from being able to pay my rent without having to leave my bedroom and the company of my cat? Well, so far, it involves being able to write off history books on my taxes, and getting to know George Washington and Abraham Lincoln really well. In fact, my due date for the Lincoln book was February 12th—Lincoln’s birthday.
Anyway, since today is President’s Day (for non-Americans, a holiday normally commemorated by mattress sales) I thought I would share my new knowledge about our two most famous presidents. In no particular order, then:
1.) Washington and Lincoln were both ambitious as fuck. They knew exactly how talented they were, and they knew that their states and their countries would be better off with them in charge.
However, they were also both really good at giving the appearance of being not that fussed about whether or not they were chosen for leadership positions, which is why they both earned reputations as modest, disinterested public servants who cared little for personal glory. This isn’t to say that Washington and Lincoln weren’t both genuinely good and humble people in most ways. They were just also really canny politicians who knew that in a monarchy-shy democracy, the best way to get put in charge was to act a cat who’s just been served a plate of tuna. “Oh, I couldn’t possibly…well, if you insist.”
2.) Washington and Lincoln’s parents both thought their kids were full of shit. Washington lost his father when he was 11, and Lincoln’s mother died when he was 9. In both men’s cases, their surviving parents lost no time heaping adult responsibilities on their head.
Mary Ball Washington made George assume his father’s duties overseeing their ten slaves and their thousands of acres of farmland. Thomas Lincoln had no sooner buried his wife than he went out looking for another one—leaving Abraham and his sister Sarah on an isolated farm in backwoods Kentucky to fend for themselves like wild animals.
Washington’s mother refused to let him go to school in England like his older brothers had done. He never got over the fact that he’d been denied a proper gentleman’s education. There were hardly any schools around where Lincoln grew up, but Lincoln’s father found it really irritating that Lincoln spent all his spare time reading books. He’d beat Lincoln and throw his books in the fire if he caught him at it. As far as he was concerned, reading was a sign of laziness—which was rich, coming from a guy who literally forced his own son into a kind of indentured servitude, selling him to neighbors and taking all the money he earned from the time Abraham was 16 until he was a legal adult at age 21.
Every time the young Washington came up with a plan to make something of himself, like joining the British navy at 14, his mother refused permission, forcing him to stay at home and take care of their property. When he came home an international hero after the French and Indian War, she complained that he’d been neglecting her and the farm. In my personal favorite anecdote, after Washington was president, Mary Ball Washington overheard someone refer to him as “His Excellency.” Her reply: “His excellency? What rubbish.”
It’s probably not that surprising, therefore, that neither Washington nor Lincoln bothered attending their parent’s funerals. Lincoln wouldn’t even go see his father when he was dying. Let that be a lesson: forcing your kids to become self-made men or women may goad them to greatness, but probably not to gratitude.
3.) You know those people who have amazing vocabularies, but sometimes mispronounce fancy words, because they’ve never heard them used in real life? That was Washington, and also Lincoln. They were both almost completely self-educated. Washington at least had access to books—his brother married a rich woman whose father had a huge library. Lincoln had to borrow and save to lay hands on new books, which makes it all the more infuriating that his father used to toss them in the stove.
Washington copied out a list of instructions from a 17th century Jesuit manual on how a young man should deport himself in civilized company, and all his life, people noticed that his manners were punctiliously correct—kind of like he’d studied them from a book. That was because he’d literally got them out of a book. He desperately wanted to be refined—to be English, in other words. But Mary Ball Washington was a nearly illiterate farmwife who chewed tobacco. Washington was massively insecure that his rough colonial upbringing would show when he was in the company of his betters.
Lincoln shared Washington’s self-consciousness about his irregular education, but in Lincoln it translated into a deep humility. Once when he was president, he confessed that he’d only just learned how to spell certain words correctly, which stunned members of his Cabinet. Lincoln had no pretensions to refined manners. He didn’t know how to talk to women, and he was a terrible dancer. (Washington was an amazing dancer.)
4.) Both presidents were really good at math. Washington taught himself how to become a surveyor when he was fifteen, which involved a lot of complex geometric calculations. Lincoln’s schooling in math was limited to “ciphering to the rule of three”—a kind of calculation where three numbers are set in a sequence and the student has to figure out the fourth number. But while he was president, Lincoln read the first six volumes of Euclid. Just for fun, you know. The way you do.
5.) One of the reasons Lincoln wasn’t all that comfortable in society gatherings where he was obliged to be in mixed company was because he was a famous joker and storyteller—but most of his jokes were dirty and his stories couldn’t generally be repeated to ladies.
My favorite story about Lincoln telling stories shows up in the 2012 Spielberg movie, in a scene where Lincoln is telling a young telegraph clerk at the White House about General Ethan Allen’s visit to England after the Revolutionary War. Allen had to visit the privy during the course of the dinner, where he discovered that his English host had hung a portrait of George Washington right where you had no choice but to stare at it as you were sitting on the toilet. When Allen returned to the dinner table, his host asked if he’d noticed the portrait, and if he thought it was suitably located. Allen said that he thought that hanging Washington’s portrait by the toilet was a perfectly appropriate thing to do: “Because nothing’ll make an Englishman shit quicker than the sight of General Washington.”
6.) Lincoln was 6 foot 3, and for some reason, Washington’s biographers have been determined to make everyone think that he was also 6 foot 3. However, he was just about 6 feet tall. The reason we know this is because Washington was so concerned with keeping up appearances as a wealthy gentleman who was the equal of any English lord that he ordered just about every damn thing he owned from English merchants overseas—both before and after the war. This included his clothes. Since he couldn’t be measure by his English tailors in person, he naturally had to send them very precise details about his personal measurements—and he consistently described his height at “about 6 feet, rather more lean than corpulent.” This is also how we know that he had exceptionally large thighs and hips, and a disproportionately small head. (Historian Ron Chernow draws attention to the prodigiousness of Washington’s thighs and hips no less than 4 times in the first 100 pages of the book.)
7.) Washington loved farming at his plantation, Mount Vernon, more than just about anything, but Lincoln could not give a fuck about farming. Oh my god, he hated it. His Secretary of State William Seward was a wealthy gentleman who loved to tend his hobby garden and carry on about the soothing recreational value of tilling the soil and Lincoln was just like “LOL get back to me after you’ve spent 21 years starving because the fucking ground doesn’t feel like growing anything that season.” Okay, Lincoln didn’t talk like that—he was a much more patient person than me—but he seriously thought that anyone who tried to make their fortune farming was an idiot. As the only prosperous member of a huge clan of hillbillies, Lincoln’s relatives frequently wrote to him to ask for money, and sometimes he’d give it to them, but he flat refused to help a guy who wanted help for his farm, because as far as he was concerned, it was just throwing money away. “Get a different job,” was his take on that problem, basically.
8.) In different ways, Washington and Lincoln were both better and worse about slavery than you probably thought they were.
Washington owned hundreds of slaves by the time he died, and he had become really disenchanted with the responsibility and expense that came with literally owning a small village worth of human beings. But he couldn’t just free them, because…well, he literally couldn’t free about half of his slaves, because they technically belonged to his step-son. And if he freed the others, it was just possible that they might stop being happy about being slaves. Discontent amongst slaves was pretty much the #1 biggest fear of slaveowners. In fact, f you were a rich Virginia planter, freeing your slaves was considered a seriously dick move by your fellow slavers. The last thing they wanted was for their slaves to start looking at them, “…well?”
However, during and after the Revolution, Washington was surrounded by bright-eyed, enthusiastic young abolitionists who, never having owned plantations, didn’t have big green dollar signs obscuring the clarity of their moral vision where slavery was concerned. The Marquis de Lafayette in particular really made Washington squirm on this subject, particularly after he wrote Washington a letter proposing that he come to Virginia, buy a plantation full of slaves, free them all, and then hire back anyone who wanted to stay and pay them a wage. Washington was like, “Oh man, that is such a good idea. Let’s…you know, let’s talk about it later. Much later.” (Lafayette did eventually do this, by the way, just not in Virginia.)
Washington’s solution? Well, he had two wills in his desk on the day he died, one that freed his slaves, and one that didn’t. It’s possible he didn’t make up his mind which one to go with until he was just a couple of hours away from meeting his maker, because that was when he asked his wife to bring both copies to him. The version that freed the slaves, he gave to Martha, and the other he burned.
This was actually a much bigger deal than my first grade history textbook made it sound like. Other Virginia founders made sad noises about slavery occasionally, but Washington at least did something about it—even if foisting the consequences off on his wife was kind of uncharacteristically cowardly of him.
(Actually, Washington’s will stipulated that his slaves would be freed only when Martha died. But about a year after Washington’s death, there were a few mysterious fires around Mount Vernon, and eventually Martha was like, “…you know what, you guys can just go, actually.”)
Lincoln, obviously, never owned slaves—for most his childhood, he barely owned shoes. And Illinois, where he lived after the age of 21, was a free state. But Lincoln also never considered himself an abolitionist. Surprising, right? History regards him as being the abolitionist. But that’s because we don’t tend to have a very nuanced view of what an abolitionist really was in the 19th century.
When Lincoln was a young man starting up his law practice in Springfield in the 1840’s, abolitionism was basically viewed as a form anarchy. Anyone writing tracts or giving speeches asserting that slavery was a sin, a moral wrong, was liable to anything from arrest to lynching. Slaveowners in the south insisted that abolition would make their slaves organize and rise up in a mass rebellion—as had happened in Haiti—in which they would kill every white man, woman, and child in the south, starting with their masters.
The thing about Lincoln and slavery is that he always made a distinction, in his writing, speeches, and correspondence, between how he, as a private individual, felt about slavery, and what he believed regarding slavery as a lawyer and a politician. His private opinion was simple: “I have long held the wish that all men might be free.” His position as a public figure was more complicated.
Now personally, based on having had my head up Lincoln’s stovepipe for the last four weeks, I happen to believe that Lincoln had far fewer fucks to give as regards the feelings and concerns of slaveowners than he wanted people to believe. Lincoln was a brilliant politician, and he said on a number of occasions that he believed the abolitionists of his day did more harm to slaves than good. He was concerned with how slavery could be ended legally, permanently, as quickly as possible. Abolitionists weren’t going to get that done, but politics could.
He tried to end slavery in the District of Columbia by proposing that slaveowners who were willing to free their slaves be compensated by the government. He felt that unless slaveowners felt that their concerns were being addressed, there was no chance of them ever supporting any antislavery measures—and if slaveowners could not be persuaded to vote for anti-slavery measures, there was no legal way, under the Constitution as it stood before the Thirteenth Amendment, to take their slaves away from them. Slavery had to be ended by legal means, he felt, or it might always come back.
Of course, there was no way slaveowners in the south were going to give up their slaves, even for compensation. That’s why they started a fucking war. And that’s why, once Lincoln was president, he used his expanded wartime powers to free the slaves of the states that were in rebellion, and then put everything he had into getting the Thirteenth Amendment passed, to free slaves everywhere.
Lincoln didn’t believe in racial equality. He bought into the prevalent logic of the day that black people were simple, degraded, and lazy compared to whites. He wondered if free blacks wouldn’t be a lot happier in another country, so he supported funding for emigration and colonization in Liberia, Belize, and Surinam. But he believed that blacks had the same right as whites under the Constitution to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
It’s a little fucked up that Abraham Lincoln, of all people, didn’t believe in racial equality, but you know what? He still managed to make slavery illegal. I find that encouraging. I like to think it means that, even if your mind isn’t necessarily all right, you can still do right in a big way.
Hope you enjoyed the history lesson, and Happy President’s Day!