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“What I Did On My Summer Vacation,” by the President

by Matthew Pinsker on Aug 17, 2003

President Bush will spend most of this month at his ranch in Crawford, Tex. By fleeing the White House, he continues a tradition of more than 200 years. That’s noteworthy because presidents at ease tend to reveal key aspects of their character, just as Don Van Natta’s recent book on presidential golf, “First off the Tee,” claims. Even more important, as the case of Abraham Lincoln demonstrates, a well-structured vacation can also help shape a great president.

Washington became the nation’s capital in June 1800. Inaugurating the tradition of presidential summer vacations, cantankerous President John Adams lasted about ten days before he decided to spend the city’s first official summer secluded in his hometown, Quincy, Mass.

In the years since 1800, vacationing presidents have escaped with golf, beaches, travel and rest. During the 1870s, Ulysses Grant and his entourage repeatedly invaded the Jersey shore. In the summer of 1903, the always energetic Teddy Roosevelt rowed his wife around Oyster Bay in Long Island and then reported that he spent his downtime chopping wood “industriously.” Harry Truman relaxed on a cruise up the Atlantic coast with eight other men and lots of poker. Bill Clinton, as we all now know from his wife’s memoir, slept on the couch at Martha’s Vineyard.

But American politicians inevitably measure themselves against Abraham Lincoln. Although it was difficult to escape during the Civil War, even the Great Emancipator found ways to unwind his famously long frame. Prodded by his wife, Mary, who wanted more privacy for their family, he agreed to establish a summer residence.

Beginning in 1862, the Lincolns officially vacationed each year from about late June through early November at the Soldiers’ Home, an institution for disabled military veterans built on a beautiful, shaded property just over three miles from the White House. They occupied a government-owned mansion on the home’s extensive grounds and enjoyed a wonderful panoramic view of wartime Washington. On most mornings, Lincoln commuted into the city, but during hot summer months his pace slackened noticeably.

The Soldiers’ Home provided the president and his family with a peaceful sanctuary from the turmoil of the war. Guests recalled seeing Lincoln lazily clop around the place in his oversized carpet slippers, sometimes carrying a large palm-leaf fan to cool himself. The president liked to read aloud, once even sending a drowsy aide into a deep sleep as he acted out passages from Shakespeare’s Richard III.

Secretary of War Edwin Stanton also kept a cottage on the Soldiers’ Home grounds, mainly as an outlet for his rambunctious young boys. After the war, one of Stanton’s sons remembered how his father and President Lincoln spent the better part of an evening untangling some peacocks from nearby trees after the boys had tried to domesticate the birds by tying blocks of wood to their feet.

Living outside the White House offered Lincoln more than just a temporary escape from presidential burdens. The act of leaving the city also helped the wartime president gain a new perspective on the tragic conflict. Here is where Lincoln’s approach to getting away from it all offers instruction for modern presidents.

The Soldiers’ Home was not an isolated retreat. A building that housed hundreds of disabled veterans sat next to the Lincoln cottage. Across the road a national cemetery full of fresh graves offered another somber reminder. To travel between the White House and the Soldiers’ Home, Lincoln passed camps for escaped slaves, hospitals for wounded soldiers and a diverse cross-section of Washington neighborhoods that included everyone from Southern sympathizers to successful free black residents.

In the course of his daily commute and evening strolls, Lincoln encountered thousands of ordinary citizens affected by his wartime decisions. Nor did the always accessible president shut the doors of his cottage to uninvited visitors. Lincoln met with antiwar politicians while at the Soldiers’ Home and talked with disgruntled soldiers. He visited the wounded.

Yet those sometimes painful interactions and images did not paralyze him with self-doubt. Instead, they energized him and elevated his war-making decisions to a higher moral plane. Lincoln was living at his summer cottage as he developed his emancipation policy, and he contemplated there the famous words that he delivered so eloquently at Gettysburg.

It’s hard to imagine President Bush reading Karl Rove to sleep with soliloquies from Shakespeare or chasing peacocks with Donald Rumsfeld. But it’s still possible for a modern president to enrich his summer vacations with more than just isolation and relaxation. White House aides describe Bush’s trips to Crawford as “working vacations,” but the work seems to involve fundraising more than anything else.

Perhaps it’s unfair to criticize the Bush team for missing such opportunities in the dog days of August. But if they seek any inspiration in the experiences of the Great Vacationer, it should be this: Lincoln was one president who rested easiest when he was busy listening and learning.

Matthew Pinsker occupies the Brian Pohanka Chair of Civil War History at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, and is a writer for the History News Service.