“The past suggests what can be, not what must be. It shows some of what’s possible.” -Howard Zinn
This weekend I took a walking tour of President Lincoln’s Cottage. It’s located in the Petworth neighborhood of D.C., just north of where I live. My friend, Matt, told me about it. American history was one of my majors at Penn, and I’d never heard of this cottage even though President Lincoln spent 1/4 of his presidency living there with his family. He commuted to the White House every day during that time, often evading his cavalry (the Secret Service of the time) and passing Walt Whitman’s home. Whitman often emerged from his home to tip his hat to the President.
Visitors to the Cottage can stand in his bedroom where he wrote the Emancipation Proclamation. We gathered in his living room where he entertained guests and colleagues and on the lawn where he enjoyed a good game of checkers (he was a master of the game!) and read many books, comforted by the cool breezes there. From the porch, we saw the hills of Virginia where so much of the fighting of the Civil War happened. And if we peeked carefully through the trees, we saw the Capitol dome which is now being refurbished and was under construction during President Lincoln’s term. The ground there is sacred; the decisions and actions taken on that lawn drastically changed the course of history for our country.
The Cottage is off the beaten path, and well worth the visit. Throughout the house, visitors get a feel for the enormity of his task and times as well as a glimpse into what a complicated, conflicted, and thoughtful man he was. The accompanying museum is filled with interesting video footage, photos, and stories, many of which are little known to most of us. For example, President Lincoln took office with only 40% of the popular vote and his close friends such as Frederick Douglass kept him strong and on track during his many difficult moments of doubt. He was also nearly assassinated on his way to the White House once before the fateful day at Ford’s Theater. However, he firmly believed that no one would ever be so angry with his political decisions that they would actually kill him.
After leaving the cottage, I walked along Rock Creek Church Road, the dangerous route that President Lincoln traveled every day between the White House and the Cottage. I wondered what he would think of our country today with all of its challenges, many of which he faced and feared 150 years ago. I wonder how our nation would be different now had he lived to fulfill his second term, if somehow John Wilkes Booth had been stopped from firing that gun less than a week after the official end of the Civil War. Would our nation be in better shape? Worse shape? Maybe the same. That’s the funny thing about history—it’s full of chances and what if scenarios that can never be answered, it’s something that provides with so many more questions than solutions. And those questions are some of our very best teachers.
My picture gallery from the cottage: