I recently read Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist. In it there’s a brief exchange between a young shepherd who’s wrestling with the idea of pursuing his life dream, and a wise old man who eggs him on.
The exchange goes like this:
“What’s the world’s greatest lie?” the boy asked, completely surprised.
“It’s this: that at a certain point in our lives, we lose control of what’s happening to us, and our lives become controlled by fate. That’s the world’s greatest lie.”
The idea of fate as a catalyst in American history is peculiar. For decades following the country’s founding, the American experiment was largely considered to be by design. In some eras, perhaps even today, it was thought to be sanctioned by God. Conversely, Americans can feel uncomfortable with the idea that their country and their national history are not driven explicitly by them, the people; fate takes control out of their hands and leaves the future up to chance—it’s unsettling to have no autonomy over your life and its direction.
But we’re hard pressed to consider the presence of fate when it comes to some of America’s most notable figures. Imagine if George Washington had not dodged at least four bullets in the French and Indian War, more than 30 years before he became the first president? Where would we be today had he not defied death?
Since Washington, no other president has looked death in the face and lived to tell the tale more often than Theodore Roosevelt. (In 1912, Roosevelt famously delivered a 50-page speech more than an hour long after he was shot in the chest with a .38-caliber revolver.) Can we really say fate was not at play when he nearly died in Pittsfield, Massachusetts?
The founding and maintenance of the United States by its presidents led to the subsequent naming of cities, towns, schools, roads, bridges, and buildings in their honor. Perhaps the most obvious example pertains to George Washington, namesake of our nation’s capital; not to mention, it seems like every community in every corner of the country has a Washington Street of some varying length and prominence.
James Monroe with Washington shares the distinction of having a national capital named for him: Monrovia, Liberia. Here in the US at the state level there’s Jefferson City, MO (Thomas Jefferson); Madison, WI (James Madison); Jackson, MS (Andrew Jackson); and innumerable counties nationwide named for every one of these men and others. The list continues on through the forward trajectory of history.
This trend seems to have peaked after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, prompting a wave of locations, public spaces, and memorials named for the 35th president. With the founding and incorporation of towns essentially at a standstill since westward expansion in the 19th and 20th centuries, most modern presidents lend their monikers to the likes of battleships, airports, and national parks.
There was only one president, though, actively took part in the naming of a city and put pen to paper, scribing its name identically to his. One can almost picture him slouched over a desk, lazily and loopily sketching his name on the incorporation papers where a line on an official document thirsted for ink: L-I-N-C-O-L-N.
Alexander Stephens (1859)/ Image via Public Domain
On Sunday, May 21, 1865, the president and vice president of the Confederate States of America bade each other farewell. The latter would recall of the former, “he seemed more affected than I had ever seen him. He said nothing but good-bye, and gave my hand a cordial squeeze; his tone evinced deep feeling and emotion.”
It would be the last time rebel leaders Alexander Stephens and Jefferson Davis would shake hands.
Stephens had been arrested ten days prior at his estate in Crawfordville, GA — the main house of which he ironically named Liberty Hall — on charges of treason. He had woke that day, May 11, “a most beautiful and charming morning,” ate breakfast and wrote letters, and learned Union cavalry had descended on the rustic Georgia town to apprehend him. After a short time packing necessities, and no time to send word to his family, he boarded a Union train bound for Washington D.C.
It wasn’t until nine days later, while afloat off the coast of Virginia, that he learned his destination had been rerouted to Boston.
“I knew then that Fort Warren was to be my place of imprisonment.”
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