Lincoln's Living Handshake

One Delawarean shares his gripping part in a legacy.

Does anyone believe in molecules? Because it means some molecules from Abraham Lincoln might still be floating around Delaware somewhere. The source is Clay Foltz. Naturally, he is from a fine Republican family.

Clay Foltz was the Kent County Republican chair in the 1990s, and Andy Foltz, his father, was a state senator who ran on the Republican ticket for lieutenant governor when Pete du Pont was running for governor in 1976. Those are separate elections here, so du Pont made it, but Andy Foltz did not. He still had a rendezvous with history, though. “My father shook the hand of a man who shook the hand of Abraham Lincoln,” Clay Foltz says.

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Andy Foltz was a little fellow, growing up in Hartly, when he met an old man in 1931 or 1932—at the time, Foltz would have been 5 or 6 years old—and shook his hand. The man was a Union Army veteran who had been assigned to guard the White House, and Lincoln came out to inspect the troops and shook their hands. We think of Lincoln and the Civil War as ancient, but, at the time, it was only two generations removed,” Foltz says. Needless to say, Lincoln still looms large. He is physically overpowering as a 60-foot-high visage on Mount Rushmore and virtually everywhere on scads and scads of pennies.

At this time, 150 years ago, the nation he had bound up was in shock and deep mourning (not counting the people who were exulting sic semper tyrannis—thus always to tyrants—the motto of Virginia and John Wilkes Booth). Lincoln was shot on Good Friday on April 14, 1865, and died the next day. Booth was at large until he was finally hunted down on a farm in Virginia and killed on April 26, 1865. Lincoln’s remains traveled by slow funeral train to Illinois, where he was finally buried on May 4, 1865. The train never passed through Delaware, but his essence lingers, nevertheless.

The Republican Party here, like the Republican Party elsewhere, has a tradition of Lincoln Day dinners. The Republicans in Sussex County have had some of the most memorable dinners, mainly because something often goes wrong. There was one a few years ago when speaker after speaker, eager to show that Lincoln would fit right in with the conservative values of the modern Republican Party, referred to a quotation from Lincoln—“You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich”—except Lincoln never said it.

As the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency has had to explain, time and time again, the words came from a minister named William John Henry Boetcker in 1916. The confusion is generally believed to have started after a pamphlet used quotations from both of them in 1942. The Lincoln Day dinner misquotation, though, was easily topped by another mix-up about a dozen years ago. The Sussex County Republicans arranged for a Lincoln impersonator to entertain them, but he never showed. It was blamed on Joe Booth, a Republican legislator at the time.

Since Joe Booth’s official name was Joseph W. Booth, the legislative license plate on his truck read, “J.W.B.”—the very same initials as the infamous John Wilkes Booth—and the Republicans figured their Lincoln took one look at the tag and fled. As Booth himself said merrily at a later Lincoln Day dinner, “Being a Booth with the initials ‘J.W.,’ it’s made it a very interesting event for me to attend.”

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Actually, Lincoln himself made it a point of being about as scarce in Delaware as his latter-day impersonator. “Lincoln only appeared in the state once in 1848. He was an ambitious political operative in those days, and he was campaigning for Zachary Taylor for president,” says Marty Lessner, a lawyer who is a past president of the Lincoln Club of Delaware. This was before there was a Republican Party. The state went Whig for Taylor in that election, whether Lincoln had anything to do with it or not. In any event, it was Lincoln’s last association with a winning presidential campaign here.

Delaware has the ignominious distinction of voting against Lincoln twice. He lost here in 1860 and 1864. Even so, Lincoln did not write off Delaware. He tried to enlist it in an early experiment for emancipation. Delaware was a slave state, but it stayed in the Union. It was also small—Delaware historian John Munroe put the number of slaves here at 1,800 out of a population of about 112,000 people—so it was a perfect place for a pilot project.

In the fall of 1861, Lincoln proposed that Delaware abolish slavery and its slave owners be compensated at about $500 a slave, with the overall cost of about $900,000 coming from the federal government through a congressional appropriation. The state General Assembly balked, however, and the proposal went nowhere. Munroe explained the opposition was largely political, with Democratic legislators unwilling to go along with the Republican president, but it was also regarded in some circles as federal interference with states’ rights, not to mention unfairness, because any Delawareans who already had freed their slaves would not be compensated.

Lincoln waited for his moment and then issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. The Emancipation Proclamation freed nobody here, because it applied only to the states in rebellion in the Confederate South. Instead, slavery lasted in Delaware longer than nearly anywhere. It did not end until the ratification of the 13th Amendment in December 1865. Delaware itself did not get around to ratifying the 13th Amendment until Lincoln’s birthday in 1901. This could well be regarded as one of the reasons Collins Seitz, the celebrated judge who laid the groundwork for the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board against school segregation, said his home state could be “accurately described as a northern state with a
southern exposure.”

By the time Delaware ratified the 13th Amendment, the Republicans—and presumably Lincoln with them—were coming into favor. They were in the early years of a run during which the state was generally a reliable Republican vote for president, and a Lincoln Club was founded in 1929, making the local chapter one of the oldest in the country. It was shortly thereafter the young Andy Foltz shook the hand of the Union Army veteran, and maybe a molecule or two was passed along. Certainly the mystic chords of memory were. “If you shake my hand,” Clay Foltz says, “you’ve shaken the hand of a man who shook the hand of a man who shook the hand of a man who shook the hand of Abraham Lincoln.” 

Illustration by Tom LaBaff

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