Written in just six short weeks during the autumn of 1843, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol quickly gained popularity in his native England, and it has never been out of print since. With time, the reach of his story grew. In the 170 years since its first publication, dozens of film, radio, television and stage adaptations have been made of the beloved holiday tale. The story has proven to be a lasting tradition worldwide, including here at Ford’s Theatre, where this Christmas classic has been presented for more than 30 years. At Ford’s Theatre, our mission is to explore and celebrate Abraham Lincoln’s ideals and leadership principles: courage, integrity, tolerance, equality and creative expression. A Christmas Carol is not just a perennial seasonal offering—it serves as an excellent example of Lincoln’s values, as seen in the story itself and in the genius behind the story, Charles Dickens.
Much like Lincoln, Dickens was unafraid to speak and write his beliefs, including what he believed needed to be said. Dickens himself remarked, “I can never close my lips where I have opened my heart.” In an effort to learn more about the United States, Dickens spent six months touring the country in 1842. Already a well-established author, Dickens used his journey to the United States to observe people from many stations in life. Dickens explored many of the cities here, as well as parts of the country in between them. Very little was off limits to Dickens—he even visited prisons and mental institutions. Though he found much to admire about the fledgling country, he found just as much that was troubling. He openly denounced slavery, just as Lincoln did.
Upon his return to England, he wrote American Notes, a travelogue of the new nation that was at times very critical, especially with regards to slavery and other social injustices he witnessed. These observations soured American public opinion of Dickens, and it took more than 20 years for him to regain popularity in the United States. The source of redemption for Dickens in America was his own tale of redemption: A Christmas Carol. Though the book had been around for 20 years, it was not until the Civil War that the story gained widespread popularity within the United States and the American people found comfort in the words of the man they once condemned. By the end of the Civil War, copies of the book were in wide circulation throughout the country.
As Robert G. Ingersoll said when eulogizing Lincoln, “Nothing discloses real character like the use of power. […] Most people can bear adversity; but if you wish to what a man really is give him power.” Though applicable to many situations, this quote is particularly poignant in reference to Dickens’s leading character from A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge. Many critics view A Christmas Carol as a condemnation of 19th-century industrial capitalism, with Scrooge a living personification of power’s potential to corrupt people. Hardened by life and blinded by his frugality and desire for money, Dickens’s description of Scrooge embodies winter itself: “The cold within him froze his old features, nipped his pointed nose, made his eyes red, his thin lips blue, and he spoke out shrewdly in his grating voice.”
With the help of Marley’s Ghost and the Spirits of Christmas Past, Present and Future, Scrooge’s journey opens his eyes and warms his heart to how those around him are affected by his actions, intentionally or not. As Lincoln noted, “The love of property and consciousness of right and wrong have conflicting places in our organization, which often makes a man’s course seem crooked, his conduct a riddle.” Scrooge comes to realize that mankind and the common welfare should and need to be his business. It is, perhaps, this exploration of social awakening that helped increase the popularity of A Christmas Carol in post-Civil War America, as the country worked to heal the wounds of the past and continue on its own journey of emancipation. In Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, he called for all countrymen, both from the North and South, to treat their fellow citizens “with malice toward none; with charity for all.” This idea of community rings true in A Christmas Carol as Scrooge discovers that charity, tolerance and true wealth come from within, not without.
Patrick Pearson is the Director of Artistic Programming at Ford’s Theatre.