Robert Smalls in 1862. (Hagley Museum and Library)
Robert Smalls was born on April 5, 1839, in Beaufort, South Carolina. His mother, a slave named Lydia Polite, gave birth in a small shack tucked behind the comfortable home of her master Henry McKee, who may very well have been Robert’s father.
Lydia taught her son about the true evil of slavery from an early age, taking him to a local jail to see a slave woman whipped mercilessly and to a slave auction to see human beings – children among them – bought and sold like cattle. She had been ripped away from her own family at age 9, and she was determined to prepare her son for a difficult and dangerous future. Robert took her teaching to heart. He remarked later in life, “Although born a slave I always felt that I was a man and ought to be free, and I would be free or die.”
The passage of time often allows us to look at the past with a clearer perspective. Sometimes, however, time obscures the truth, as in the case of Ulysses S. Grant. While recent biographers like Ron Chernow, Ronald C. White, and Jean Edward Smith have begun to restore his reputation, far too many people still think of Grant as a drunken military butcher and an incompetent president.
His contemporaries knew better. Indeed, when he died most Americans believed Grant belonged right next to Washington and the martyred Lincoln in the pantheon of our nation’s greatest heroes.
Last week I wrote about Trump’s shameful decision to skip an event honoring American soldiers who died in the First World War.
His excuse was that a trip by helicopter was inadvisable due to rain in the forecast. In truth, he could have easily made the trip by car. Other leaders who were in France for the occasion did just that. But Trump couldn’t be bothered. In and of itself, his conduct was despicable. But when put alongside Abraham Lincoln’s delivery of the Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863, Trump’s behavior becomes even more horrifying.
Once again, Donald Trump has demonstrated that there is no limit to how low he is willing to go.
Our sorry excuse for a president is in France right now to mark the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War. Yesterday, November 10, 2018, he was scheduled to visit the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery and Memorial, near the site of the 1918 Battle of Belleau Wood.
Trump bailed on the event because there was rain in the forecast.
On September 22nd, 1862, Abraham Lincoln announced a new policy that would come to define his presidency.
(A version of this article originally appeared in the Johns Hopkins News-Letter on April 14, 2011.)
On April 19, 1861, four days after the surrender of Fort Sumter and 86 years to the day after the Battles of Lexington and Concord, the City of Baltimore witnessed an outbreak of violence that resulted in the first combat deaths of the American Civil War.