john nicolay

Devoted. Johanna Harmon (American, born 1968). Oil on linen.

Harmon’s emphasis is on the clarification of visual intention, while nurturing the overall painted subject. This pivotal understanding defines her work today. She credits Cecilia Beaux, Nicolai Fechin, John Singer Sargent, Joaquin Sorolla, Abbott Handerson Thayer and Anders Zorn as inspiration.

Why Abraham Lincoln Is Important

“Graphic art was powerless before a face that moved through a thousand delicate gradations of line and contour, light and shade, sparkle of the eye and curve of the lip, in the long gamut of expression from grave to gay, and back again from the rollicking jollity of laughter to that far-away look.” — John G. Nicolay, Lincoln’s private secretary


To borrow one of his most famous oratorical devices, it was ten score and six years ago that Abraham Lincoln entered life and began one of America’s most unlikely and extraordinary journeys.  To us, Lincoln will always be a statue; a painting; a bust on Mount Rushmore; a monument on the Washington Mall; a solid, stoic, staid symbol staring back at us from a dull, green five-dollar bill, a rusty-looking penny, or a black-and-white photograph.  Yet, he was one of us — a human just as colorful of any American that has ever existed, and through his rise and his triumph, he told us a story that Republicans claim as the standard for their party, that Democrats claim as the inspiration for their party, and that Independents of all backgrounds do not dare to turn away from.

Lincoln’s story is so extraordinary that we don’t even think of him as a member of our species.  He’s on a higher level.  He’s almost mythological.  A legend.  We see his face like we see the face of God.  The halo surrounding him almost downplays the fact that he lived the same way we did.  He needed oxygen and water and food.  We all have sensitivities about how we are perceived by others, and Lincoln was no different.  To many, he was a freakishly tall, gangly, ugly man.  During his life, people called him a “baboon”.  They made fun of his high-pitched, nasally voice.  They made fun of his country accent — the way that he pronounced “chair” as “cheer” and said “hain’t” instead of “haven’t”.  They laughed at his careless clothing choices, and snickered at the fact that he never combed his hair. 

In Lincoln’s lifetime, more people probably rolled their eyes instead of listened intently when he launched into yet another backwoods joke or a funny anecdote that he couldn’t stop repeating.  He had family problems.  His mother died when he was very young, and he had lifelong daddy issues.  His crazy wife was domineering and a pain in his ass, and his young children ran roughshod over the White House.  He had no real close friends.  He was simultaneously considered inexperienced and weak, heavy-handed and harsh. 

Honest Abe was the cleverest, sharpest, and most vicious politician of his time.  The gentle and joking country politician destroyed his enemies, threatened his opponents, and steamrolled his rivals.  This beacon of liberty and protector of freedom bypassed the Constitution and suspended Habeas Corpus.  No matter what, Abraham Lincoln was going to save the Union in whichever way possible — even if it meant allowing slavery to continue.  The “peculiar institution” was abhorrent to his beliefs, but an acceptable sacrifice if the result was the Union’s survival.

Like many, if not all, of our greatest leaders, Abraham Lincoln was a man full of paradoxes.  Beneath the solemn visage that was Lincoln’s complex face was a cheerful, jovial, informal man who loved nothing more than a good joke or a witty story.  Yet, beneath that genial layer was also a dark, depressed man who lost the love of his life when he was young, seriously considered suicide on numerous occasions, felt unsatisfied with his accomplishments and about his qualifications, and faced the death of his favorite child while he wrestled with the nation’s biggest crisis.

Lincoln may have been our nation’s greatest orator, perhaps even America’s greatest pure writer.  His writing — and not just his speeches, but his private letters and messages to Congress — is memorable and poetic.  If the Civil War was a symphony, his words were the lyrics to its beautifully terrible music.  When the war was going badly, he used his words to simultaneously challenge his generals, assuage the public, and exert his control over the many crises his country faced.  When the war was going well, his words were soothing, inspirational, and a bridge to the South that invited capitulation without humiliation.  Lincoln’s words were the words of a writer who spent all of his life studying the English language, yet Lincoln was largely self-educated by the light of a candle in a dark, damp log cabin.

We will never know why it was Abraham Lincoln — a virtually unknown frontier lawyer who had served just one term in Congress a decade before he even ran for the Presidency — who was destined to lead the United States through the Civil War, but can we even imagine another person equipped to do so?  Like a shooting star, Abraham Lincoln appeared and against all odds, he saved the Union.  Then, when the war ended, he disappeared again.  Not a day earlier or a day later, either — on literally the first day that he truly felt that the Civil War had ended, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated, perhaps the last casualty of the Civil War.

The next time you think that all hope is lost or that you’ve failed at something or that you are “only human”, think of Abraham Lincoln, who overcame a lifetime of obstacles and challenges and failures to save the Union that he loved and believed in and became a legend and hero to the world today.  Remember that we are “only human”, but so was Abraham Lincoln.  You could be a lot worse off than being only human.

Trooper that he was, Booth played the dual roles of Phidias and Raphael in The Marble Heart that evening. When he repeated the performance on Saturday, a special guest was in the audience: Tad Lincoln, the President’s ten-year-old son. The play was a boy’s delight; Booth’s character screamed, wept, shuddered, tottered, threatened, collapsed, jumped about, argued with invisible people, threw clothes on the floor, laughed maniacally, ran about on a spooky darkened stage, and finally fell dead. The passions of the love-struck leading man ran wild in this “emotion drama,” as it was called.

“I’d like to meet that man,” said Tad. “He makes you thrill.” Between acts Grover took Tad and his companion Gus Schurmann backstage.

.“Mr. Booth, this is the President’s son,” said the manager.

Booth smiled and shook hands with the boys. “He continued his makeup, asking us how we liked the play, and we telling him the parts we most admired,” recalled Gus. “On our leaving he handed us each a rose from bunch that had been presented him over the footlights. Booth shook hands with us and smiled in the pleasantest fashion imaginable.”

It is unclear when the President first saw Booth act. Cast member Joe Whiting said that Booth, playing Richard at Grover’s, accidentally knocked a dueling opponent into a stage-level box where Lincoln was sitting. The following day’s newspapers, however, reported that the President spent the evening three blocks away at the Washington Theater. This tale is typical of stories placing the President and his assassin together in 1863. Another putative Lincoln watched Booth perform Richelieu and give a secessionist reading of a certain line, directed personally at Lincoln, while the Bourbons in the gallery cheered at the President’s discomfort. But Booth never played Richelieu in Washington. Mary B. Clay of Kentucky alleged that she attended a play with the Lincolns in which Booth’s character put a threatening finger near Lincoln’s face, causing the President to remark, “He looks pretty sharp at me, doesn’t he?” There are chronological flaws in her account, however.

There is no doubt, however, that the President saw Booth act at Ford’s Theatre on November 9, 1863, when a party of the Lincolns, Presidential secretaries John G. Nicolay and John Hay, and several other guests attended. Once again The Marble Heart was the featured play. Set in ancient Greece and modern France, it was refreshingly non-partisan for war-weary American audiences. In fact, it lacked a single redeeming political or social virtue — with one incongruous exception. Booth’s Raphael is mocked by a rival for shedding tears over the fate of slaves.

When Raphael ignores the jibe, the antagonist continues his insults. “Yes, I see I am right. I presume from the ardor with which you applauded the liberal sentiments [of Uncle Tom’s Cabin] that you are in favor of the emancipation of the blacks.”

“Death and dishonor!” cries Raphael, and he moves threateningly toward the man. The sudden appearance of Raphael’s lady love averts a fight, however, and the incident passes. But the stage moment let Booth do something remarkable. He had, in character, rebuked emancipation before Lincoln from the stage of Ford’s Theatre.

John Hay found the evening rather tame. Tame is an adjective no one applied to a Booth performance, particularly the role of Raphael, which was an explosion of emotions. Hay meant that the play had no blasting trumpets, dancing banners, tramping soldiers, and clanging swords. Booth looked daggers in The Marble Heart, but he did not brandish any.

While Hay was unimpressed, Lincoln admired Booth’s acting, stated manager Joseph Luckett, an old hand on the Washington theatrical scene. Grover and Ford said the same thing and add that the President returned to see him act on several occasions, always applauding his efforts. The actor was coldly indifferent to Lincoln, however. “Booth said he would rather have the applause of a negro.”

“I know President Lincoln was an admirer of the man who assassinated him,” said Frank Mordaunt, who worked for McVicker in Chicago. Tad introduced Mordaunt to his father, and the actor had several conversations on drama with the President. Mordaunt discovered that Lincoln knew exactly who Booth was and liked his acting. “He told me that he desired to meet him, and I said I could arrange it.” It was a promise Mordaunt could not keep. He approached Booth several times on the topic, but the star found excuses to avoid an introduction. So, the President and the actor never spoke. Lincoln knew him on sight, of course. He would smile in greeting as they passed.

While John Wilkes Booth was obviously no fan of Abraham Lincoln, the President admired the actor who would later murder him and enjoyed Booth’s performances onstage in the years before the assassination.

Fortune’s Fool: The Life of John Wilkes Booth by Terry Alford (BOOK | KINDLE), Oxford University Press, 2015]