Last Tuesday, I went with my school’s seventh grade to see “1776!”, the musical about the signing of the Declaration of Independence. It’s a hard story to render well as a musical, and in many ways it deserves to be categorized as an opera, or an operetta. But it needs more music to be thought of that way, I’m sure.
The performance took place in Ford’s Theater. As those of my readers who are not American may not know, this is the theater where Abraham Lincoln, our 16th president, was assassinated on the night of 14 April 1865. It was an awful conclusion to an awful war: a war about power, money, liberty and labor. A war which my students are studying now, through the diaries and letters of Connecticut soldiers and nurses and surgeons who fought in the terrible conflict.
My seat in the theater was here – across the way from the place where John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln in the back of the head. I’ve heard it said that the big couch in the presidential box is still stained with the blood of our sixteenth President. It’s still draped with flags, and it still has the hanging portrait of George Washington below the balcony railing. Modern lights may both obscure and illumine the box, but it’s still the place where one of America’s wonderful but controversial leaders died from a killer’s bullet.
It still amazes me that I occasionally meet people who think that the American Civil War was not fought over slavery. South Carolina seceded from the Union over the question of “states’ rights”, but a mere four years earlier the Southern states were gleeful over the Dred Scott decision, which eviscerated “states’ rights” in favor of the private property rights of slaveholders. And Kansas was known as “Bleeding Kansas” for a few years because “states’ rights” included the concept of “terrorize and murder American citizens until they accept the idea that some people can own other people as chattel property.”
I’ve never been in Ford’s Theater before, but to see “1776!” there… well. It was beautifully horrifying to watch the character of Thomas Jefferson look to the President’s Box for just a moment, just a second really, before turning back to the draft of the Declaration, and strike the anti-slavery clause from the draft.
As actually happened. At the request of Edward Rutledge. The delegate from South Carolina. The state/colony founded by eight “proprietors” — slave lords, really — from Barbados.
It’s worth remembering, in this election season that there are people in America who still believe that the Civil War was the “glorious lost cause”, and who think that the effective result of that war should be overturned.