Thursday, February 12, 2009

Abraham Lincoln and William H. Johnson, Citizen

Today is the 200th anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, February 12, 1809. We have begun a year long celebration of our 16th President, the man who saved the Union. On Bill Moyers Journal, Bill interviewed historian Eric Foner, editor of the book, Our Lincoln: New Perspectives on Lincoln and His World.
Until seeing this program the other night, I had not heard the story about William Johnson, Lincoln’s valet—a Black man who had gone with President Lincoln to Washington from Springfield, Illinois and became President Lincoln's part-time valet and barber, and messenger of the Treasury Department.

In November 1863, Lincoln wrote a note explaining that Johnson would travel with him to Gettysburg for the dedication of the soldiers' cemetery. Mary Lincoln did not accompany the President because their son Tad was ill with smallpox. Following the dedication, Lincoln wrote to Edward Everett who had been a speaker at the dedication, “Our sick boy, for whom you kindly enquired, we hope is past the worst." After delivery of his now famous speech, Lincoln also felt ill and on the return train trip to Washington "lay in a relaxed position with a wet towel across his head," placed there by Johnson.

Upon arrival at the White House, the president was put to bed and his doctor was called, who remarked, "Mr. Lincoln's case is not fully developed yet." With his humor which came forward so often, Lincoln said, "Now let the office-seekers come, for at last I have something I can give all of them." But it is believed he may have given small pox to his valet, or, wouldn’t it be reasonable to assume he may have contacted it when Lincoln did? Johnson died. Lincoln requested that he be buried in what is now called Arlington National Cemetery, and paid for his burial and tombstone, and even took care of a bank loan he had signed for Johnson. The tombstone says, William H. Johnson, Citizen.

It was events such as that which showed the humor, the determination, and compassion of the man who is considered to be our greatest President.

Excerpt from the PBS program:
BILL MOYERS: Until I read your book, I had never heard the story of Lincoln and William Johnson. William Johnson was his valet.


BILL MOYERS: One of the few people who accompanied him from Springfield to Washington when he became president. One of the few, perhaps the only person to actually read a draft of the Gettysburg Address before it was delivered. I didn't know this, that on the way back from Gettysburg, they both came down with small pox.

Lincoln's case was not very serious. But Johnson's was. He became quite ill. During his dying, Lincoln took care of him. When he died [1864], Lincoln ordered that he be buried in Arlington Cemetery. And then he had the inscription on his tombstone read: "William Johnson, citizen."

ERIC FONER: Right. And, you know, that is a wonderful story. Johnson is a black man, of course. And, you know, to say "citizen" meant something more than in a way that one might understand today because it was only a few years before, in 1857, that the Dred Scott decision had ruled, that Chief Justice Taney had said, "No black person can be a citizen of the United States." Only white people can be citizens. So to put "citizen" on this black man's gravestone is a kind of an affirmation of something. It's not just an empty phrase. It's an affirmation that, no, black people can also be citizens.



Ricky Kendall said...

It is amazing, isn't it. One person can help change the world and not even know it. Johnson was, at the very least, another wedge of support for Lincoln's ideals. Great story. Thank you for sharing it.

Anonymous said...

Excellent story. I didn't even know it and I thought I knew a lot about President Lincoln, my cousin.

Abraham Lincoln

willow said...

This is another Lincoln book I'm adding to my must read list. Great post, thank you!

Frankie Anon said...

Thanks for sharing this wonderful story. I missed this program, and was glad to read about it here.

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