Retired teacher and native son of Homer, New York, Martin Sweeney has written a captivating account of three other native sons who played pivotal roles in Abraham Lincoln’s presidency and the United States’ history. [Martin Sweeney, Lincoln’s Gift from Homer, New York: A Painter, an Editor and a Detective, McFarland & Company, Inc., 2011.]
The painter, Francis Carpenter, brushed “The First Reading of the Emancipation Proclamation before the Cabinet”—the iconic image of Lincoln with sunken eyes and sharp jaw line which hangs today in the U.S. Capitol Building. The editor, William Stoddard, served as the president’s personal assistant secretary. He penned the first copy of the Emancipation Proclamation from Lincoln’s notes and later published the seminal Life of Abraham Lincoln, which Lincoln historians and enthusiasts consult today. The detective, Eli De Voe, who had been tracking a virulently anti-Lincoln cell in Baltimore, unearthed (and thus foiled) a plot to kill the president en route to his first inauguration in February 1861.
That three men so closely linked to preserving Lincoln’s life and legacy should all hail from Homer, New York is a remarkable coincidence. Yet, for those of us who know and love upstate New York, there is nothing coincidental about this convergence of great leadership, especially in the Civil War era. Seneca Falls is home to the Women’s Rights National Historic Park where the first women’s rights convention was held. Here Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frederick Douglass, and other greats gathered to rally for women’s suffrage and abolition. The house of Harriet Tubman, “conductor” of the Underground Railroad, is a national historical park in Auburn, New York. It sits next to the house of William Seward, the Union Secretary of State celebrated in Doris Kearn Goodwin’s excellent Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (2005).
Founded in 1791, Homer today has a population of roughly 3200—not a huge increase from the 2000 souls who inhabited it in the early 1830s when Carpenter, Stoddard, and DeVoe were born. Situated on the banks of the Tioughnioga River in Cortland County, Homer birthed another famous son, Andrew White, Cornell University’s first president whose unfulfilled mission was to admit women to the university. Homer also delivered daughter Amelia Jenks Bloomer, inventor of “bloomers”—the combination of baggy pants over knee-high skirts that was designed to provide women and girls greater safety and freedom of movement.
While wondering how so much greatness can come from such a small community, I’m reminded of Nathaniel asking Phillip in John 1:46: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” Phillip answers: “Come and see.” Even Sweeney’s title—Lincoln’s Gift from Homer, New York—seems to resonate with biblical allusion. The painter, the editor, and the detective—were they the magi bearing three gifts?
The release of Sweeney’s new book is well-timed as we honor the Civil War sesquicentennial this year. Yet, Lincoln’s Gift from Homer, New York will be worth reading next year and the next by history buffs and general readers alike. This is a mature, scholarly work that brings a compelling story to life in dramatic, at moments, cinematic fashion. The scenes I found most intriguing involved Stoddard handling Mary Todd, the unpopular first lady from the south, along with an endless parade of beseechers requesting hearings and favors from the president. The patronage system was alive and well. Hate mail and death threats were commonplace. Stoddard, the gatekeeper, protected his president.
Reading Sweeney’s book makes me appreciate how men of humble origins can belong to a larger national zeitgeist. It is a testimony to the relevance of local history to the challenges our nation and community face today. It gives me hope that individuals can still blaze trails with earnestness, vision, and conviction.