Sarah Vowell’s book is not just about the dry facts of the deaths of Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield and William McKinley. It’s about the current events at the time of their deaths, and how these events are similar to today’s political climate. Vowell wonders how close she or any other critic of the then current Bush administration are to violence. As Timothy Douglass, director of the musical “Assassins”, puts it (pg 6):
Proportionate to my own mounting frustrations at feeling increasingly excluded from the best interests of the current administration’s control in these extraordinary ties helps me toward a visceral understanding of the motivation of one who would perpetrate a violent act upon the leader of the free world. My capacity for this depth of empathy also gives me pause, for I have no idea how far away I am from the “invisible line” that separates me from a similar or identical purpose.
While a slain leader gets a statue, the assassin is just as important to the murder. Lincoln - or for the purposes of this book, Vowell’s personal Jesus - was known as the emancipator of the slaves and the leader of the Union. For that he was hated by the South and its sympathizers, like John Wilkes Booth (pg 17).
Then again, in the late 1860s, at least half the country loathed Abraham Lincoln for filling up too many soldiers’ coffins. Which is why Daniel Chester French isn’t the only reason that marble likeness sits there on the Mall. John Wilkes Booth deserves some of the credit - a notion that would make the assassin want to throw up. After all, if no one had hated Lincoln, there would be no Lincoln Memorial to love.
Garfield was seen as a moderate Republican (Vowell pegs him as a good leader and decent man) and a compromise presidential nomination that would unite the Republican Party. Charles Guiteau hated him for not being sufficiently hostile to the Democrats like the pro-Ulysses S. Grant “Stalwarts” (pg 170).
So Garfield is the victim of Guiteau, but he’s also the victim of his own party rhetoric of
exaggerating a Democratic victory into a matter of life and death.
William McKinley was seen as part of the capitalist class, which to Leon Czolgosz meant he was oppressing the workers of the world. Vowell does little to dissuade the reader of McKinley’s lousiness.
How close to violence is an anti-war protestor today compared to a confederate spy of 1865, a disaffected Republican in 1881, or an anarchist in 1901? The gap between a confederate and a unionist warranted the bloodiest war in American history in the minds of both the north and south. Assassination does not seem so extreme after that. Fifteen years later the war was over but the differences remained. Violence then was perpetrated between factions of the same side, one being not sufficiently supportive of the union in the eyes of the other. Twenty years after that it was the class war that sparked violence. From today’s perspective, Guiteau’s killing of Garfield seems a most apt comparison, with both sides of the Iraq War debate being on the same side of the fight against Islamic extremism, but disagreeing on the veracity of the means needed to win. As far as Booth and Czolgosz are concerned, their reasons are from different worlds.
Vowell also gives the reader a look into the assassins’ past and tries to gauge who they saw themselves as. Booth was a famous stage actor in his time. Guiteau used to be part of the Oneida Community, a sort of free love cult. Czolgosz was an anarchist in love with Emma Goldman. Booth saw himself, incredulously, akin to John Brown, and was shocked when the nation didn’t agree with his comparison to the abolitionist. Guiteau thought he was helping the Republican Party and Chester A. Arthur. Czolgocz was trying to prove his anarchist bonafides.
For a history lesson about presidential assassinations, Assassination Vacation is aptly named. What makes the book an entertaining read rather than a list of interesting facts is the context in which Sarah Vowell tells it. She gives equal time to the journey to the knowledge itself. Each new fact is accompanied by the story of the trip to the landmark that holds it. She treks from grand museums to quaint historical houses to lowly plaques to simple unmarked coordinates on a map. Her travels, though extensive, are limited in range, the nation having not had to to spread out as much at the time of these three assassinations. Washington DC, Philadelphia, and New York City are hot spots, as to a lesser extent are Maryland, Ohio, Illinois, Buffalo, and the Adirondacks.
Vowell takes anyone who doesn’t know better, whether it be her adorable nephew, a good friend, or an acquaintance with a car. Some people enjoy their trip, many more show signs of boredom, cynicism, or annoyance. But they all seem to at least humor their friend and her odd assassination obsession.
In all these places we find another layer to her story. This is a book about historical preservation. In towns across the country there are bits of history, small claims to fame. A president may have been assassinated there (District of Columbia, Buffalo) or eventually died there (New Jersey) or was interned there (Illinois, Ohio, ) or has a statue there (District of Columbia, California) or has a body part there (Mutter Museum in Philadelphia). Or maybe the assassin resided there (Oneida) or escaped there (Maryland) or the Vice President learned of his new prominence there (Adirondacks) or something completely random is there.
In each one of these places there seems to be a person who knows every detail of this minor event in American history. More importantly, there is a person who cares deeply about the history as an American, and, as a local resident, is proud of their town’s place in history (pg 183).
The unforeseen pleasant surprise about traveling around the country researching historical ugliness is that I seem to luck into a lot of present-day kindness, making the acquaintance of an embarrassment of knowledgeable nice people … who are generous with their time, happy to share what they’ve learned.
Some quotes of interest:
On the importance of physical artifacts in the understanding of history:
Jack Hitt in Off the Road (pg 9)
Relics were treasured as something close to the divine. Often when a great monk died and there was a sense that he might be canonized, the corpse was carefully guarded in a tomb - often twenty-four hours a day. Visitors could come to the tomb. Most of the funeral vaults of potential saints had a small door, like you might have in your suburban house for cats. Visitors could poke their heads in the little door and breathe in the holy dust. Most people thought that such dust had curative powers since it was associated with a near-saint whose corporeal matter had been directly blessed by God. So, getting near a relic, touching it, being near it was considered extremely beneficial and treasured.
One thing the Spanish king’s Catholicism and my rickety patriotism have in common, besides the high body count, is that both faiths can get a little ethereal and abstract. Jesus and Lincoln. Moses and Jefferson can seem so long gone, so unbelievable, so dead. It’s reassuring to be able to go look at something real, something you can put your hands on (though you might want to wash them afterward).
From Loren Eiseley (pg 98):
What, I ask, is the difference between a relic and a specimen?
On sanctifying the dead:
“It depends on the specimen,” she says. “We do have some pieces of famous people, but the other specimens are simply important because they are demonstrating a particular pathology or anatomy that we want to show. So it varies. But the importance of the relic, the importance of the little sacred icon, is a sense of connection to the past. To look on a tooth, look at George Washington’s teeth, to look at instrumetns that were actually handled by Joseph Lister, there’s power in there.
“I still have some of my mother’s clothes, you know, for no other reason than I can’t bear to part with them. Because it’s her favorite sweater, stuff like that. Because of the fact that it was an immediate contact with somebody it just brings up memories. It’s also interesting. If you want to know that Joesph Lister used this particular instrument and we have a set, that provides you more information about his practice of medicine, et. But often it’s simply the almost sentimental association of the fact that this is a piece of a great man. It’s the same thing as a piece of the true cross.”
A controversial politician widely blamed for the casualties and hardships of war, Lincoln was suddenly and forever upgraded to the persecuted savior who died so that country might live.
The problem with the fog of history, with the way the taboo against speaking ill of the dead tends to edit memorials down to saying nothing much more than the deceased subject’s name, is that all the specifics get washed away, leaving behind some universal nobody.
From Henry Adams
The cynical impudence with which the reformers have tried to manufacture an ideal statesman out of the late shady politician beats anything in novel-writing.
Other random quotes I enjoyed:
But when I’m around strangers, I turn into a conversational Mount St. Helens. I’m dormant, dormant, quiet, quiet, old-guy loners build log cabins on the slops of my silence and then, boom, it’s 1980. Once I erupt, they’ll be wiping my verbal ashes off their windshields as far away as North Dakota.
I am only slightly less astonished by the egotism of the assassins, the inflated self-esteem it requires to kill a president, that I am astonished by the men who run for president. These are people who have the gall to believe they can fix us-us and our deficit, our fossil fuels, our racism, poverty, our potholes and public schools. The egomania required to be president or a presidential assassin makes the two types brothers of sorts. Presidents and presidential assassins are like Las Vegas and Salt Lake City that way. Even though one city is all about sin and the other is all about salvation, they are identical, one-dimensional company towns built up out of the desert by the sheer will of true believers. The assassins and the presidents invite the same basic question: Just who do you think you are?
The neighborhood of Gramercy Park, where Edwin used to live, was built to look like London, which is to say that its considerable beauty is skin deep while its heart beats with the ugliness of monarchy.
In that happy hour we forgot all delay, and forgot all tardiness.
I think it was that fast and that cheap to run a single railroad spur from the main line out to a little community here, out to be a little factory there, and that following the canal is what made this area so interesting and which allowed ideas as well as people carrying ideas to spread so quickly that you get terms like ‘Burned-over District.’