This past weekend I attended a fascinating day at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, DC, where the Abraham Lincoln Institute held its annual full-day symposium, “The Life and Legacy of Abraham Lincoln.” Little did I expect to hear Lincoln’s advertisement as a slave, with “no other marks or brands recollected.”
Taking place on the stage where John Wilkes Booth boldly declared Sic Semper Tyrannis after assassinating our 16th President, Ford’s Theatre was both a somber and appropriate venue for the symposium. This year the speakers were Sidney Blumenthal, Edna Greene Medford, Louis P. Masur, Stacy Pratt McDermott, and Thomas L. Carson. All were fantastic speakers who discoursed on various aspects of Lincoln’s (and Mary’s) life.
Among the gems of the day was mention by Sidney Blumenthal of a description Lincoln provided to journalist Jesse Fell in late 1859 when Lincoln was preparing to run for president. One portion of the bio says:
If any personal description of me is thought desirable, it may be said, I am, in height, six feet, four inches, nearly; lean in flesh, weighing, on an average, one hundred and eighty pounds; dark complexion, with coarse black hair, and grey eyes—no other marks or brands recollected.
I’ve read this passage many times over the years and yet never made the connection Blumenthal raised, that is, that this is not unlike the kind of newspaper advertisement seen when slave owners were searching for fugitive slaves. It reads like a spec-sheet: height, weight, skin complexion, hair and eye color, and presence or absence of other identifying marks. All the information needed to hunt down human beings attempting to escape from two hundred and fifty years of bondage.
During the break I spoke with Blumenthal (as well as his main source for the passage, eminent historian Michael Burlingame). I thanked him for bringing to light something that seems obvious now that it has been said overtly. Lincoln was, in his own clever way, bringing the role of slavery into the race for the presidency, a race that would pit the new Republican party against a history of racism and pro-slavery sentiment. A race that would, ironically, result in the end of slavery as it existed.
No other marks or brands recollected. The phrase shivers under this cold beam of light.
David J. Kent has been a scientist for thirty-five years, is an avid science traveler, and an independent Abraham Lincoln historian. He is the author of Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (now in its 5th printing) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate. His book on Thomas Edison is due in Barnes and Noble stores in spring 2016.