History and Rashomon



Akira Kurosawa’s 1950 masterpiece Rashomon in which a murder is told from four differing perspectives, including that of the ghost of the murdered man, details a problem that always plagues historians:   whenever you have more than one source for an event, they are probably going to differ, sometimes in small particulars, although not uncommonly in large ones.  The larger the event, a battle for example, and the more sources, the more differences.  What one reads in a typical history book often glosses over questions on particular points with the writer, assuming he is aware of the differing materials, picking, choosing and interpreting source material rather like an individual putting together a puzzle where some of the pieces have gone astray and some have been savaged by the family dog.  It is not easy work, and that is why some “historians” merely repackage the various books on the subject they have skimmed and eschew actual research by themselves.  If you read a lot on a particular topic of history, you can often tell what source is being used for a particular event.

On February 11, 1861, Lincoln left Springfield, Illinois with his family to travel to Washington DC to be sworn in as President of a very Disunited States of America.  He made a short and, for him, fairly emotional and personal speech to his friends and well-wishers at the train station.  Three versions of his speech have come down to us:

First we have the official version which Lincoln wrote on the train immediately after giving the speech:

My friends — No one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe every thing. Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried. I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of the Divine Being who ever attended him, I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail. Trusting in Him who can go with me, and remain with you and be every where for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well. To His care commending you, as I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell.

Second, we have a version which appeared in Harper’s Weekly on February 23, 1861:

My Friends:
No one not in my position can appreciate the sadness I feel at this parting. To this people I owe all that I am. Here I have lived more than a quarter of a century; here my children were born, and here one of them lies buried. I know not how soon I shall see you again. A duty devolves upon me which is, perhaps, greater than that which has devolved upon any other man since the days of Washington. He never would have succeeded except for the aid of Divine Providence, upon which he at all times relied. I feel that I cannot succeed without the same Divine aid which sustained him, and on the same Almighty Being I place my reliance for support, and I hope you, my friends, will all pray that I may receive that Divine assistance without which I cannot succeed, but with which success is certain. Again I bid you an affectionate farewell.

Third, we have the version which appeared on February 12, 1861, in the Illinois State Journal, a Springfield newspaper:

No one who has never been placed in a like position, can understand my feelings at this hour, nor the oppressive sadness I feel at this parting. For more than a quarter of a century I have lived among you, and during all that time I have received nothing but kindness at your hands. Here I have lived from my youth until now I am an old man. Here the most sacred ties of earth were assumed; here all my children were born; and here one of them lies buried. To you, dear friends, I owe all that I have, all that I am. All the strange, chequered past seems to crowd now upon my mind. To-day I leave you; I go to assume a task more difficult than that which devolved upon General Washington. Unless the great God who assisted him, shall be with and aid me, I shall not fail, I shall succeed. Let us all pray that the God of our fathers may not forsake us now. To him I commend you all — permit me to ask that with equal security and faith, you all will invoke His wisdom and guidance for me. With these few words I must leave you — for how long I know not. Friends, one and all, I must now bid you an affectionate farewell.

Well, which of the three is the more accurate rendition?  No one can know for certain, so here is where interpretation, something that every historian has to do, enters the fray.  My interpretation is shaped by the fact that I, like Lincoln, am an attorney, and like Lincoln I try cases before judges and juries.  No attorney worth his retainer will read an address to a judge or a jury, except for citing a passage from a statute, a case or some document relevant to the case.  The rest of the speech has to be given by the attorney to the judge or the jury with his eyes on his listener(s), in order for the speech to have maximum impact.  Most attorneys will make notes beforehand and practice the speech, but the speech itself will be given without resort to the notes, and usually filled with off the cuff modifications to suit the need of the moment as the speech is given.

My best guess based on this is that number three is probably the most accurate version.  Lincoln went in with an idea of what he was going to say, and that version is the one he wrote down, but the version he actually delivered was number three, which is filled with little asides and tangents, typical for an attorney when he delivers a speech without looking at notes.  A secondary reason for this conclusion is that the Illinois State Journal, founded in 1831 as the Sangamon Journal, had been reporting on Lincoln throughout his political career, its reporters accustomed to Lincoln’s phrasing in giving a speech, and would have given close attention to this story, the biggest to hit Springfield, Illinois, well, ever.  That is my judgment, someone else might see it differently, and that is one of the many, many factors that makes History endlessly fascinating for me.

Published in: on February 18, 2021 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on History and Rashomon  
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