In Search of Men of Principle

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I was lucky enough to see the Broadway revival of Neil Simon's Brighton Beach Memoirs in the company of Harold Newman, Co-Chair of the New-York Historical Society Chairman's Council, before the play's early and unfortunate closing. As we left the theater, Harold and I were still caught up in the story of a Jewish family in Depression-era New York. But our thoughts also went back to an even earlier era, in response to the play's dialogue between two brothers, Eugene and Stanley, on the topic of principles. We were struck by the way the brothers see Abraham Lincoln as the quintessential man of principle.

The fact is, had Eugene and Stanley been living in New York during the Civil War years, they might not have thought so highly of Lincoln's principles.

As we reveal in the Historical Society's current exhibition, Lincoln and New York , there has never been a sitting president so unpopular among New Yorkers as was Abraham Lincoln. The worst civil disorder in the nation's history, the 1863 draft riots, took place in New York during his term of office. Confederate raiders constantly threatened the city's commerce. The city escaped a massive terrorist attack in 1864, which threatened to blow up more than a dozen hotels and public buildings. Many New Yorkers actually expressed the fear that grass would grow on the streets of their city, in the absence of the economic activity fueled by slavery in the South. New York was, in many ways, the northernmost battlefield of the Civil War.

That war carried over into the parlors, the churches, the social halls, and the streets. No term of abuse was too strong for New Yorkers to use against their president, and to use on a daily basis.

And yet, following Lincoln's assassination, our 16th president ascended in the minds of New Yorkers to the ranks of Washington, Moses, and even Jesus. New York and its daily and weekly newspapers -- there were 175 of them back then -- quickly constructed a new narrative about Abraham Lincoln, in which he was a man of compassion, a spiritual figure, a martyr, whose death providentially established a new dominion of American greatness, founded on his truth. No wonder that Lincoln jumps to mind, as Eugene and Stanley talk about principles!

But then, in seeking the model of a principled man, a real-life Eugene and Stanley might very well have looked to a different figure from the Civil War era: John Brown.

He, too, is the subject of a current Historical Society exhibition, titled John Brown: The Abolitionist and His Legacy , in which we see, in the words of Edward Rothstein of the New York Times, that his "legacy is nearly as riven now as it was on the eve of the Civil War. His actions still raise unresolved issues about the limits of dissent, the nature of terrorism and the effects of revolutionary violence."

One hundred fifty years after the raid on Harpers Ferry, Americans continue to debate the beliefs, the activities and the continuing significance of John Brown. But even though some have vilified Brown as a fanatic murderer, he may have more in common than we think with the gentle, melancholy man of compassion, Lincoln. Unlike Lincoln, who won out in his long battle, Brown failed to achieve his immediate goal of forcing an end to slavery. But as the exhibition's curator, James Basker, clearly demonstrates, Brown did succeed in raising tensions to a fever pitch between pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces. The conflict that he intensified, and that he came to symbolize, would lead by 1861 to secession, civil war -- and the eventual triumph of the principle for which he had died.

It is fitting and right that Eugene and Stanley should see Lincoln as the exemplar of staying true to one's principles. But what if these two young Jews, facing what was then the very real threat of the global spread of Nazism, had thought instead of John Brown?