The Courtier in The Federalist: Lincoln’s Favorite Photographer

My thanks to The Federalist for publishing my latest piece for them, a review of a superb exhibition now on at the National Portrait Gallery about Alexander Gardner, Abraham Lincoln’s favorite photographer.

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Taking a Page from Honest Abe

News this morning that an unknown vandal or vandals splashed the statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial here in the Nation’s Capital with green paint sometime last night is rightly causing outrage all over social media.  The reason for this crime is, as of this writing, unknown: it may be some sort of statement, or it may simply be criminal behavior with no real motive. One could easily write about how anti-social behavior has become the norm, for example, or bewail the ignorance of those who would want to deface the statue of a man who did so much for this country.  However this is a good opportunity to raise an issue The Courtier has been considering of late, and that is whether we are doing enough to engage with the sort of people who would contemplate such action long before they take action.

On a regular basis I am confronted on the street by friendly, but entirely unwelcome, campaigners for Planned Parenthood, or same-sex marriage, or those who want to save animals while murdering unborn children.  I must admit that the reason I do not engage them, but rather keep on walking, is that I find the idea of holding arguments in a public street, as if I were haggling over fish in a market, frankly rather tasteless.  As someone who in fact argues for a living, I generally prefer to do so in the courtroom, or at the very least in a good hotel bar.

However one of the reasons why such organizations tend to attract so much attention and gain support is because they are actually out there in the street, standing up for what they believe.  If there are two or three attractive, smiling young women from Margaret Sanger’s eugenics laboratory dressed in bright pink t-shirts out and about, asking you to stop and talk to them while painting their murderous cause as a “right” rather than what it is, they will get results.  The average passerby who does not know any better is far more likely to stop and listen, which is exactly what these organizations want.  And the more militant organizations will do things like commit criminal trespass or vandalize public property in order to get people talking about their issue, whatever the consequences may be.

Let’s face it, conservatives are not really good at such things.  The paradox of conservatism is that it seeks to conserve, rather than destroy, and thereby often loses what it is trying to save.  By this I do not mean to suggest by any means that conservatives need to go out and start climbing office towers to unfurl a protest banner, or strip off in the middle of a public place to make a point.  Such behavior would be antithetical to the nature of conservatism itself.

Yet perhaps those of us who hold conservative views ought to try to think of ways in which we can actually leave our comfort zones, and engage more frequently with the man in the street in an organized fashion, than is often being done at present.  One needs to meet a man where he is.  If he is not attending the rally or the panel discussion or the like, then one needs to frequent the places where he lives and works and relaxes, in order to engage him in conversation.

Like all savvy politicians, Abraham Lincoln did just that in his political campaigns.  Sometimes that engagement meant taking on his opponents, like Stephen Douglas, in formal, public debates which have become legendary.  Yet what we forget is that more often than not his campaigning meant simply knocking on doors, standing on street corners to talk to passersby, and so on.   Perhaps as we wait to find out why exactly someone would want to attack President Lincoln’s memory, we ought to reflect on what we can actually learn from his example of fearlessness.

Lincoln Memorial

Detail of “Abraham Lincoln” by Daniel Chester French (1920)
Lincoln Memorial, Washington DC