Of all the things we know about Lincoln’s Second Inaugural—it was the occasion in which he laid out his "with malice toward none, with charity for all" vision of Reconstruction—a little known side note is that, at the reception following his inauguration, Lincoln chose to serve his guests Mumm champagne. I gleaned this fact at an event last Wednesday evening at Lincoln’s Cottage, the National Trust’s newest Historic Site, at which, appropriately, the champagne being served was none other than Mumm.
The Cottage is being unveiled after a years-long, $17 million makeover that restored it to the look-and-feel it had when Lincoln and his family spent time there during his presidency.
If you’re expecting Versailles, or even the relative splendor of the White House, think again. Though quite large, the home is modestly appointed, and the spare furnishings placed intermittently throughout—a few chairs, some books, a checkerboard table—speak to a man seeking a bit of solitude amidst simple things. The Lincoln family transported furniture between the Cottage and the White House each season, a practice that probably encouraged them to pack lightly and furnish sparingly. A Washington Post article last week noted that Lincoln breakfasted at the Cottage on an egg and coffee before setting off on his daily commute to the White House, and after spending an evening there, that Spartan meal seems perfectly suited both to Lincoln and to the elegantly simple Cottage itself.
The Wednesday event was part of several days of celebrations leading up to the official opening of the Cottage, on President’s Day. It was attended by more than 200 people, who gathered in a large white tent set up immediately adjacent to the Cottage. National Trust President Richard Moe delivered brief remarks, reminding the assembled that the Cottage is meant to be a "different kind of experience" from the typical house museum, without a lot of "velvet ropes" and period furniture.
Guests could take an organized tour, or stroll through the Cottage at their own pace. Guides were posted in each room to answer questions and deliver short spiels on how the Lincoln’s used each of the rooms (and point out interesting trivia, such as the fact that the carpeting in some of the rooms is made from coconuts, a 19th century home decorating fad).
I had been to the Cottage a handful of times before, in the daytime, but the experience of being there at night was very different. As a "commuter," after all, much of the time that Lincoln spent at the Cottage was probably under the cover of darkness. As the guides described the fact that Lincoln spent a lot of his time at the Cottage weighing the issue of emancipation, you could really get a sense of him sitting alone in these rooms, late at night, weighing perhaps the most profound decision any president has ever had to make.
-- Virgil McDill