Abraham Lincoln’s Entertainment: “It Gave Him an Hour or Two of Freedom.”

Americans celebrate our Independence Day tomorrow—a day full of hot dogs and fireworks and family and friends for many folks. But for history wonks like me, it can also be a bit of a time of reflection.

When I’m not watching movies or television shows or writing blogs and stuff, I tend to be reading. More often than not it’s a history book. Lately, I’ve been reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln. And last night, I ran across a section that unpacked Lincoln’s love of theater.

Now obviously, Lincoln’s theater-going didn’t end well for him. But for much of his presidency, according to Kearns Goodwin, Lincoln’s trips to Ford’s and Grover’s theaters in Washington, D.C., were critical to the president’s state of mind and, as a consequence, to his ability to govern. She writes:

In the most difficult moments of his presidency, nothing provided Lincoln greater respite and renewal than to immerse himself in a play at either Grover’s or Ford’s [theaters]. Leonard Grover estimated that Lincoln had visited his theater “more than a hundred times” during his four years as president … On many nights, Lincoln came by himself, delighted at the chance to sink into his seat as the gaslights dimmed and the action on the stage began.

“It gave him an hour or two of freedom from care and worry,” observed [friend Noah] Brooks, “and what was better, freedom from the interruption of office-seekers and politicians. … More than anything else, [Lincoln’s assistant secretary William] Stoddard remarked how “the drama by drawing his mind into other channels of thought, afforded him the most entire relief.” At a performance of [Shakespeare’s] Henry IV: Part One, Stoddard noted how thoroughly Lincoln enjoyed himself. “He has forgotten the war. He has forgotten Congress. He is out of politics. He is living in Prince Hal’s time.”

A few thoughts on this.

One, it’s perhaps not too surprising that Lincoln loved these staged stories as much as he did. He was a consummate storyteller himself, with an anecdote or country parable at the ready for practically every situation. Lincoln’s appreciation for story—and his ability to communicate stories—was a major and often-underrated key to his ability to navigate the country through the Civil War. He listened to people and their stories intently. His own catalog of tales made him more relatable. Even many who disagreed with Lincoln came to appreciate and like the man, and a lot of it was because of his understanding of story.

Two, seeing a play at Ford’s Theater back then was not, in terms of content, quite like seeing Deadpool 2 today. Lincoln lived smack dab in the heart of the Victorian age, after all. And while Lincoln liked a throwaway comedy as much as the next guy, he seemed to have an affinity for plays that were really, really good—both aesthetically and morally. He had a special affinity for Shakespeare (Macbeth was his favorite). Kearns Goodwin notes that many of the productions he saw reflected, and perhaps helped Lincoln think about, the issues he himself faced. “The plays illuminated with stark beauty the dire consequences of civil strife, the evils wrought by jealousy and disloyalty, the emotions evoked by the death of a child [Lincoln had lost two], the sundering of family ties or love of country,” she writes.

Three—and this is something we don’t often talk about at Plugged In—was the sense of escape these plays provided.

Again and again, Plugged In hammers home the truth that “it’s not just entertainment.” We should always go into a movie or television show with our brains engaged, we tell you. We shouldn’t let the content wash over us uncritically and unquestioned. And I believe that to be true.

But that said, sometimes it’s nice to dive into someone else’s story for a while—to escape our own pressures and live vicariously through that of someone else.

When I’m struggling emotionally or dealing with a crisis, like Lincoln, I sometimes turn to entertainment for a little relief. This week’s a good example: I watched plenty of World Cup soccer this weekend (a different sort of story). I flipped on Mystery Science Theater 3000 with my family Friday night. These things, as inconsequential as they may be, helped me.

Sometimes when I’m stressed, my brain seems to dig into the same trains of thought again and again for no purpose, grinding ruts into my mental ground. Sometimes, concentrating on someone else’s story for a while, via entertainment, can help me get out of such ruts and help me think more productively about my own story. It can help me discover a little more perspective.

Again, this is not to excuse diving into poor, problematic areas of entertainment. But I do think that entertainment can, even in its most innocuous forms, be beneficial if used correctly.

And in that thought, it seems I have some pretty good company.