On February 13th, 1861, the editor of South Carolina’s Charleston Mercury newspaper penned a defiant polemic against the new Provisional Constitution of the Confederate States of America. The crime? In an appeal to moderate border states, rebel delegates outlawed the importation of new slaves from Africa. “The South is now in the formation of a Slave Republic“. Slave society, he argued, was something to “avow and affirm…as a living principle of social order” which could fail only if its leaders failed to fully embrace it as such. He urged rebel leaders across the South to just come out and admit what everyone knew but for some reason (shame, most likely) couldn’t: that they were fighting for slavery because they believed in it.
The editor’s name was Leo W. Spratt. 40 years later in 1901, Spratt bought a book, a Christmas present, titled ‘Abe’ Lincoln’s Yarns and Stories (a greatest hits album of sorts to Lincoln’s legendary humor). Spratt gifted the book to a man named “Darius”. On May 31, 1922, Darius cut out a newspaper clipping, a picture of the 79 year old Robert Todd Lincoln, the President’s only surviving son, who had attended the dedication of his slain father’s memorial the previous day. Darius folded the clipping into the book.
90 years, six months, and five days later (aka December 5, 2012), I met a colleague for a work lunch at a Galette 88, a modern creperie located in San Francisco’s financial district. We discussed innovations in the water sector. I had the smoked salmon crepe.
On my way back to the office I passed by a book seller. Nothing much, just a couple stands run by a man named Rick.
Rick had some gems. But one edition in particular took my eye–a dark work, covered in ornate gold leaf, tarnished and earthen by over four score of hands and neglect. Emblazoned on the cover was the portrait of Lincoln, looking every bit the man whose melancholy was once described as having “dripped from him as he walked”.
The inside cover revealed a lonely newspaper clipping, an old man had joined an entire nation in loving remembrance of his long dead father. The book was signed:
Leo W. Spratt
Dec 25: 1901
To Darius [unreadable]
What motivated this old rebel to spend money on a slapstick Lincoln totem? Had he recanted? Was it a gag gift? A joke among old confederate buddies? Did Darius cut out the picture of Robert as a keepsake? Were they, as former enemies of the president, as gripped by Lincoln’s overwhelming legacy as the rest of the us?
Spratt once had a terrible vision of an imperial Slave Republic at the center of global power, respect, and commerce. “Bride of the world, rather than the miserable mistress of the North” he wrote. Forty years later he was giving Lincoln jokes to buddies.
Now he’s dead, and his book is mine.