The Last Word by Marcus Fisk

The Last Word: Once Again, It’s May!

Former President and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court William Howard Taft, President Warren G. Harding, and Abraham Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln, at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial. (Library of Congress)

Alexandria, VA – It’s May! Kids are wide-eyed, ready to burst out of the school doors at that last bell like wild horses.[1] It’s also a grand month for educators. Their charges dismissed, they get a chance to breathe for the first time in nine months, and on dismissal afternoon, they can be seen at a local watering hole exchanging vignettes about this kid or that, roaring at their colleagues’ misfortunes.

College students, still regaining consciousness from Spring Break hangovers and final exams, are occupied planning what to wear under their graduation caps and gowns that will go viral on Instagram.

Parents are finishing up reservations for Disney World or some dreaded family reunion in Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, where distant, ancient aunts pinch the kids’ cheeks and hunched uncles utter the traditional isn’t-it-amazing-I-remember-you-with-braces-and-bandy-legs-now-look-how-big-you-are phrases that embarrass even the family dog.

Dad rolls out the old Bar-B-Que, scrapes off the caked-on grease, and gets it ready for his “Bodacious Beer Burgers” while Mom is out at some boutique trying on 23 different swimsuits, muttering “I’ve always been a size 4. These must have been made in Europe.”

May is a Whitman Sampler of history morsels for Virginians. The first permanent English settlement in the New World happened when a group landed at Jamestowne[2] on May 14, 1607. Typical of Virginia’s winter weather (remember Snowmageddon in 2011?), 80 percent of the settlers died during the winter of 1609-10, which dashed vacation plans for the English back home who envisioned swaying palms and piňa coladas at Virginia Beach.

Virginia’s First Governor, Patrick Henry, was born May 29, 1736, in Studley, Virginia. He is remembered for his famous 1775 speech at Saint John’s Episcopal Church in Richmond, declaring, “I know not what course others may take, but as for me, give me liberty or give me death.”

Henry, one of our first motivational speakers – the Tom Heyden of his time – spoke those words to the Second Virginia Convention in an attempt to get Virginia off its Old Dominions and supply troops to the revolution in New England. That speech was a real barn-burner and touched a raw moral nerve with both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, who were in the pews.

May was also the month in 1804 when two old Army buddies, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, left Saint Louis and set out to explore the Northwest. They enjoyed it so much that they kept on exploring until they hit the Pacific coast off Oregon a year and a half later. During the trip, they sent lots of natural artifacts back to Jefferson, who studied the oddities. You can see many today in Monticello, his home near Charlottesville.

Lewis and Clark finally made it home in 1806 after amassing 6,000 frequent flyer miles, wrote and lectured on their discoveries, and did their laundry.

On May 29, 1787, the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia adopted what was known as the Virginia Plan for our new government. Virginia said that the legislature should be comprised of two houses, an executive[3] selected by the legislature, and a group of judges beholden to nobody but the new thing they called a Constitution.

May 1862, during the Civil War, [4] was a busy time in Virginia. At the Battle of Seven Pines (AKA Battle of Fair Oaks Station) near Richmond, Confederate General Joseph E. Johnston’s Army attacked Union General George McClellan’s troops and almost chalked up another Confederate victory.

“Almost” in war tends not to be a feather in one’s cap. Johnston was severely wounded, which led to General Robert E. Lee assuming command. Lee was a total Army guy, graduated second in his West Point class, and was creative at strategy. His creativity didn’t always carry over to other activities, though, and he rebranded his troops as the Army of Northern Virginia.

Lee did pretty well during the war, but near the end, he started losing a lot of ground, ran out of bullets, uniforms, blankets, food, and soldiers, and surrendered at Appomattox Court House. After the war ended, he tottered off to later become president of Washington and Lee University. W&L had had four names up to that point – Augusta Academy (1749–1776), Liberty Hall Academy (1776–1796), Washington Academy (1796–1813), and Washington College (1813–1870). They added the Lee after he died. He was buried in the chapel there, along with his folks, his wife, and seven children. His famed horse Traveler is just outside, near the Chapel wall.

After decades of starts and stops, the Lincoln Memorial was dedicated just across the Potomac in Washington on May 30, 1922. The Memorial was sited at what was once the “Watergate” to the American capital. It had been the official welcoming spot for foreign ambassadors to present their credentials to the sitting president. As was the custom, ambassadors would ride up the Potomac by boat. Then they and their delegations would walk up the steps that face the river to be officially received by the President. The country’s political luminaries were at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial, including a special guest of honor, Robert Todd Lincoln, President Lincoln’s only living descendent.

Robert was a popular government guy. He served as Secretary of War under Presidents James Garfield and Chester A. Arthur and must have been bored stiff with no real wars going on – just skirmishes with Native American tribes out west – so he went into private practice. He served as Ambassador to the Court of Saint James (AKA Great Britain) from 1889 to 1893 with the Benjamin Harrison Administration but resigned and came home after his son, Abraham “Jack” Lincoln, died in England.

Robert left government service and became General Counsel for the Pullman Palace Car Company (railroad cars) and, because George Pullman thought so much of his lawyering for the company during several scandals, Robert was made president of the company later and continued on their board until 1924.

Robert wasn’t at Ford’s Theatre the night his father was assassinated, but he comforted his mother at his father’s deathbed at the Peterson House. While Secretary of War, he was at Washington’s Sixth Street Train Station in July 1881 when Charles J. Guiteau shot President James A. Garfield. In 1901, when Leon Czolgosz shot President William McKinley at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, Lincoln was standing just outside the Temple of Music.

From 1884 to 1912, Republicans kept placing Lincoln’s name in nomination as a possible Presidential or Vice-presidential candidate. But folks began muttering about standing too close to him at social functions, and Lincoln, being a smart guy, wasn’t taking any chances. He once refused a presidential invitation, saying, “No, I’m not going, and they’d better not ask me because there is a certain fatality about presidential functions when I am present.”

See? Lots of interesting things happen in May. Keep your eyes and ears open. Besides, it’s Presidential Election season, and, like the weather in Virginia, things are unpredictable. Just don’t stand too close to anyone named Lincoln.


[1] We graduated from Fairfax High School in June 1972 not long after Alice Cooper released “School’s Out” in April. The song is probably still played as an anthem every May all over the country.

[2] The original spelling before it became popular to eliminate extra vowels in words during the Theodore Roosevelt administration. This made school kids really happy especially on spelling tests.

[3] They hadn’t decided what to call the new “Big Cheese” yet but told everyone to wait future press releases.

[4] Not too civil after all.

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