Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Honoring Mr. Lincoln On His Birthday

A one-room log cabin in the Kentucky wilderness was the setting 204 years ago today when a boy was born to Thomas and Nancy Hanks Lincoln.  They named their son Abraham, after Thomas' father, murdered in front of his son when Thomas was but a young child.  This new Abraham couldn't have had more humble beginnings. His parents were poor and illiterate (though Thomas could scratch out his name), and his mother Nancy was herself probably illegitimate.  Little is known of her own background.  She died of "milk sickness" when her son was 9 years old and her daughter only 11.  Soon a step-mother, Sarah Bush Johnston Lincoln, and her own children joined Thomas and his children to form a new family on the Indiana frontier.

Life was hard, and as Lincoln himself later wrote, his childhood and youth could be described as the "short and simple annals of the poor."  The Lincoln family was indeed poor, but early descriptions of it living in abject poverty are probably exaggerated.  The Lincolns were no poorer nor richer than most of their neighbors working to eke out a living from the land.  Thomas eked out a living on various farms and made furniture to help further raise scarce money. 

Throughout his entire life, Abraham Lincoln had less than 12-18 months formal education, making him one of our least educated of the Presidents of The United States.  His father never encouraged education for his children, and in fact seems to have considered school to be a waste of time.  Fortunately for his son, Lincoln's step-mother Sarah encouraged Abraham to read and learn as much as he could.  As a child (and as an adult), Lincoln had an insatiable desire to learn and better himself.  He read fine literature like Shakespeare and the Bible, Aesop's Fables, and an early biography of George Washington.  Lincoln also later taught himself geometry in order to simply learn.  This motivation to improve his lot in life set him apart from almost everyone he knew, especially his father, which might explain why the two were never close.

Lincoln had extraordinary ambition, which along with his quest for learning, might help at least partially explain how he achieved such towering heights in life.  He wanted to be held in esteem, but only by making himself worthy of esteem, as he said in his first campaign speech when running for the Illinois State Legislature.  Lincoln lost that first election, but he was determined to succeed, and won on his second try.  By the time he was in his late 20's and early 30's, friends and associates began calling him "Old Abe" as a sign of respect for his intellect and wisdom. 

That Lincoln was a genius seems clear.  With no formal education in any field, least of all engineering, he invented and patented a device to help remove boats off of sandbars in the shallow rivers in Illinois.  Railroads supplanted the need for such a contraption, which was never used.  Nonetheless, his 1849 patent for his invention remains the only one awarded to a future President Of The United States. 

He was, of course, a political genius as well.  He and his team of advisors outmaneuvered favored candidates to win the GOP nomination for President in 1860.  Then he molded his political rivals into a cabinet which was among the best in U.S. presidential history as Civil War raged.  Secretary of State Seward, Secretary of War Stanton, and Secretary of Navy Welles, and Secretary of Treasury Chase all worked against Lincoln at one point, but he saw their abilities and overlooked their political differences because he knew they were the best men for their jobs. 

Perhaps the greatest sign of Lincoln's genius is his prose writing which was majestic and almost poetic at its best. Many writers consider his prose to be among the finest writing by anyone, period, and not only among Presidents.  His Gettysburg Address helped reshape and re-define America in only 271 words.  His Second Inaugural Address reveals his magnanimity and desire to restore the nation, yet is among the shortest of all Presidential inaugural speeches.  These and other of his writings took place in an era when orations were expected to last hours, with flowery and embellished phrases.  Lincoln's simplicity and clarity of speech still stun in their beauty today.

Fascination with Abraham Lincoln has never really gone away, but he is today enjoying a surge in popularity which is remarkable.  The bicentennial of his birth saw exhibitions, concerts, and a re-dedication of the magnificent memorial in Washington, D.C.  If anything, Lincoln's presence seems even stronger in recent months.  The Stephen Spielberg film "Lincoln" with its astonishing performance by Daniel Day-Lewis leads this year's list of Academy Award nominations with 12.  The dreadful "Abraham Lincoln : Vampire Hunter" was released this past summer to so-so reviews and a weak box office, but it did raise Lincoln's visibility further into popular culture.  President Obama again used the Lincoln Bible last month for his second inauguration as he did for his first.  New books about Lincoln seem to appear weekly.  His character is used in television commercials, including a new series of ones for Lincoln automobiles (yes, that line was named after Lincoln).  In short, Mr. Lincoln seems to be almost everywhere we look.

It's difficult to say why Lincoln still resonates with so many people, old and young, women and men.  Is it because he was so honest, a trait which is terribly lacking in our era of lying politicians and cheating athletes?  Is it simply because we're commemorating the 150th anniversary of the American Civil War?  Could it be his rise from absolutely nothing to his achieving the highest office in our land?  Or is it his martyrdom after he was struck down by a treasonous coward just as he was ready to experience the conclusion of our greatest war? 

Probably each of us who is endlessly fascinated with Mr. Lincoln has his or her own reason or reasons for that fascination.  I am often asked during my lectures what led to my own fascination.  The short answer is, I have no idea.  My parents took me to his Birthplace Memorial in Kentucky when I was 4 or 5, a visit I don't remember.  But I was "hooked" from that visit and remain "hooked" by the story and legacy of the greatest of our Presidents of the United States. 

Happy Birthday, Mr. Lincoln.  Thank you for your inspiration and leadership. 


1 comment:

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