Honest, Abe

Nevada Humanities Chautauqua 2008

Frank Mullen does his impersonation of a $50 bill.

Frank Mullen does his impersonation of a $50 bill.

History has, even at its worst moments, a wild sense of humor—especially in the life and death of the 16th president Abraham Lincoln. Stovepipe hat, rapacious gigantism and allegations of a private life full of illicit buggery aside, it is odd to consider that the man who voiced one of the most profound speeches in American history on a battlefield still warm with blood would hear as his final words, “you sockdologizing old man-trap …” from the play Our American Cousin. While the audience at Ford’s Theater howled with delight at that linguistic abortion, an out-of-work actor who had been waiting for just that moment, stepped forward and dispatched a bullet into Lincoln’s skull.

Lincoln, who would be 200-years-old this February, will be celebrated by some of those who knew him best at this year’s Nevada Humanities Chautauqua festival at the amphitheater in Bartley Ranch Regional Park.

The Chautauqua—something of a cross between a comedy roast and a civics class—seeks to engage the audience with a vaudevillian flair of music and well-studied historical re-enactors who bring more than caricature to the scholarly event.

The term Chautauqua is derived from the name of a lake in upstate New York that was the site of the first Chautauqua performances in the 1870s—an event which consisted mainly of a group of Methodist Sunday school teachers lecturing on the day’s moral issues—presumably affirmations praising the 14-hour workday for child railroad labor and recitations against miscegenation with the Irish. But the Chautauqua concept grew from there into a populist carnival of education and entertainment.

“When we began to conceive this year’s Chautauqua, we decided, first, not to try to seek a Lincoln,” says Clay Jenkinson, artistic director for the Nevada Humanities Chautauqua. “Lincoln pretenders are legion, especially now in the bicentennial of the 16th president’s birth, but in my experience most of them are all top hat and no soul.”

As Abe Lincoln has reportedly become something of the Elvis Presley of Chautauqua speakers, the Nevada Humanities board decided that a greater knowledge of the man could be gleaned by the words of those who knew him best rather than by a man in a stovepipe hat waxing pious and humble about his life and times.

“We believe this is a good opportunity to reevaluate the Lincoln legacy,” says Jenkinson. “Lincoln, arguably our greatest president, is universally loved and admired but little understood. He was indeed a great man, but as our first martyred president, the Great Emancipator, and the Savior of the Republic, his status as national icon has usually overwhelmed his humanity and inner conflicts.”

Among those gathering to talk Lincoln at this year’s Chautauqua will be Lincoln’s handsome widow Mary Todd Lincoln; his private secretary and young friend, John Hay; the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass; and the (often drunk) General Ulysses S. Grant.

Jenkinson believes that Lincoln’s absence will speak even louder than his presence.

It was, after all, President Lincoln who once warned the nation: “Allow the president to invade a neighboring nation, whenever he shall deem it necessary to repel an invasion, and you allow him to do so whenever he may choose to say he deems it necessary for such a purpose—and you allow him to make war at pleasure.”

History sure is funny sometimes.