I have a portrait of Abraham Lincoln.
It’s something from my grandfather, an immigrant from England. He worked as a stonemason in Washington, D.C., and made a life here that led him to testify before Congress about the need for national workplace safety laws.
Granddad brought photography with him as a hobby. I have a few prints of him during World War I, but just one from his boyhood backyard in Penzance with his parents and their dog. You can see the little air ball in his hand. It’s a shutter release for the first selfie in my family history.
Somewhere, he produced a print of the 16th president’s photograph. It’s from Andrew Gardiner’s portrait of the president taken on Nov. 8, 1863, 11 days before the Gettysburg Address.
It’s the only photograph of Lincoln looking straight into the camera, but it’s not the most famous photo of Lincoln. It’s not even the most famous picture taken of him by Gardiner. That would be the cracked plate portrait, taken just before his second inauguration in February 1865. It shows a weary president with just a slight smile.
I mention this not to celebrate my grandfather’s taste in classic photography but because I take it out every year about this time. It’s President’s Day, after all, as good a day as any to think about the meaning of our highest elected office – or buy a mattress.
We’re Americans. We mark special occasions with reminders to buy stuff on sale.
Annapolis has a lot of casual connections with presidents. Rock Toews’ marvelous little book, “Lincoln in Annapolis February 1865,” recounts the story of Lincoln’s only known visit to this city by the Chesapeake. He passed through on Feb. 2, headed on a last-minute dash to the peace conference in Virginia with the Confederates.
He walked along muddy streets from the railroad station to a Naval Academy wharf for a trip by steamer down to Fort Monroe. On the way, he walked past the Maryland State House, where the Senate was debating ratification of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery.
If Lincoln’s visit was obscure, no presidential presence in Annapolis is more famous than the many trips by George Washington. He loved to dance, play cards and bet on horses – all things you could do in Annapolis in the days before the Revolution.
And, of course, he surrendered his commission as commander in chief to Congress in 1783 while it was meeting in the State House.
You really can’t run through the list of presidents without finding references to day trips in Annapolis.
Lots of them came to see famous boats, a tradition started by James Madison in 1811 when he toured the USS Constitution as its crew prepared for duty in foreign waters.
Millard Fillmore arrived in November 1852 to see Adm. Mathew C. Perry off on his voyage to Japan. James Buchanan came in 1860 for a tour of the S.S. Great Eastern, the world’s largest passenger ship at the time – 4,000 people on the way to Australia.
Ulysses Grant came during the Civil War, then returned in September 1869 to tour the Constitution – back after blockade duty for service as a classroom building and dormitory.
All those bearded presidents who followed Grant did the same. By the 20th century, midshipmen could expect to hear a presidential commencement speech just about once every four years.
The visits could be personal, too. Franklin Delano Roosevelt visited his son, Franklin Jr., in 1935 on the day he rowed for Harvard jayvee against Navy in Annapolis.
Dwight Eisenhower made history as the first to arrive by helicopter. He came to St. John's College in 1958 for the dedication of Francis Scott Key Auditorium and Mellon Hall.
The thing they all had in common, though, was the sense you get from history books and newspaper archives that the trips were a celebrity phenomenon. Crowds gathered, bands played, parties held and speeches given.
Most presidential visits, though, are forgotten by the average person. Midshipmen and their families cheer when the president speaks during commissioning week, but it’s as much an obligation as excitement about the speaker.
Partisanship has tinted how we see presidents. Not everyone liked Fillmore, certainly. Presidents seem to love Annapolis, but it isn't always a requited love.
Sometimes, there’s ambivalence. The president is someone on your money or in your newsfeed. Some presidents just don't seem to do anything worth getting excited about. You admire others from what you learn in school but find it hard to respect them when you know the whole story.
Often today, there is outright hostility. The president is senile, a conman, not a real American, an elitist detached from reality, a philanderer, a simpleton, an accident, a crook, or a warmonger. Who doesn’t recognize these words as their own view about a modern president?
You want a woman president, just any woman but “that” woman. I’m moving to Canada if he gets elected. A second civil war is looming.
When your candidate gets elected, though, prepare to defend the indefensible.
Barack Obama was a transformational figure because he broke the race barrier around the White House and passed the Affordable Care Act. Then, no one on Wall Street went to jail after the 2008 economic collapse that almost sank the nation. Guantanamo never closed.
Donald Trump was the pinnacle of the businessman’s approach to government. Then he seemed more interested in power than the job and wasn’t up to the pandemic. His presidency ended with insurrection and an attempt to overthrow the election that curdled our public discourse. His immigration wall is an unfinished scar. No one has gone to jail, yet.
If presidents visited places like Annapolis more often and in some less walled-off way, it might be easier to get excited about President’s Day. Washington did that between 1789 and 1791 to help Americans see themselves as one nation and not a collection of factions.
I don’t know that more respect for the presidency is needed or even possible. There have been plenty of periods where Americans hated the office and its occupant. We survived. I suspect we will get through this one as well.
So I’ll tuck my photo of Lincoln away and focus on the things I can resolve. I’ll take comfort in knowing that others are looking at pictures of Lincoln today, a man reviled by many in his day and revered by many in ours, and wondering if we’ll be smart enough to recognize another great president when one comes along.
Of course – because it’s President’s Day, 2022 – you can buy one online. It’ll probably be on sale.