We were a food-oriented family during my childhood in the 1950s and early 1960s, and that meant winter’s dullness was broken up during the month of February by cherry pie and heart-shaped sugar cookies with delicious pink frosting. For some reason, I still associate both with Lincoln’s Birthday, though they were meant to celebrate George Washington and Valentine’s Day, respectively. Perhaps the association comes from related feelings of patriotism and love.
Only now, as an adult, can I appreciate a little of what it must have been like for a 53-year-old Abraham Lincoln to spend “much time” on his birthday, 150 years ago today, with his 11-year-old son Willie, who would be dead of typhoid in a little over a week, while a great war, brought on in part by Lincoln’s election as president in 1860, threatened the end of America as a single nation.
I know now that the 50s are a poignant time in a person’s life. It’s when you first begin to fully understand the meaning of those gray strands of hair and the feeling that your body is slowing down. You become more reflective and start to look back at your life.
This is why I wonder what Lincoln thought this day, as he sat by his son’s side.
I watched the excellent A&E biography of Lincoln today, and want to share it, because his was indeed a great American journey.
While watching it, I learned that Willie was born soon after the death of the Lincoln’s second son, Edward, from tuberculosis, a little over a month before his fourth birthday. Also, Lincoln himself had been so alienated from his own father that he refused to come see his father when that man lay dying, and he did not attend his father’s funeral. He had remained distant from his first child, Robert, too, but that all changed with Eddie’s death. Both Willie and his younger brother Tad were coddled and, at least in the view of outsiders, spoiled.
Now Willie was dying horribly, and there was nothing the President of the United States could do about it, except be there until the end.
There was something he could do about the threat to his nation’s very existence, though.
The greater struggle
The A&E Lincoln biography presented him as a man who was fascinated by ideas and would pursue an idea until he understood it.
Earlier in 1862, according to “The Lincoln Log,” he had checked out a library book, Emerson’s Representative Man (it was probably a nice change of pace from his previous reading material, General Halleck’s Elements of Military Art and Science). Emerson’s list of representative men includes the writer, Goethe, and on February 13, 1862, Lincoln checked out Goethe’s Werke v. 14/15, v. 17/18.
What was Emerson’s idea about Goethe that the president might have read on the 12th, or contemplated, that he followed up on the next day, and how did it relate to the tremendous pressures he was under?
When you read Emerson’s chapter on Goethe with Lincoln in mind, a number of different and yet connected statements leap out at you, not least this (emphasis Emerson’s): “What can you teach me? All possessions are valued by him for that only; rank, privileges, health, time, being itself.”
The close is quite important, too: “Goethe teaches courage, and the equivalence of all times; that the disadvantages of any epoch exist only to the faint-hearted. … The secret of genius is to suffer no fiction to exist for us; to realize all that we know; in the high refinement of modern life, in arts, in sciences, in books, in men, to exact good faith, reality, and a purpose; and first, last, midst, and without end, to honor every truth by use.”
That certainly would appeal to a man who was called, without irony, “Honest Abe” and was known for his intelligence and pragmatism, and who now needed all the courage he could summon up.
I think something here also hints at thoughts and deep currents inside President Lincoln that would, later in the year, cause him – alone among US presidents – to alter the nation’s mission in the middle of a war.
The Gettysburg Address
The A&E biography of Abraham Lincoln is also worth watching for its presentation of the Gettysburg Address. Now that you know more of the man and the times, it’s difficult to watch without having tears come on.
It also evokes that sense of patriotism and love mentioned above. During the reading of the Address, they show images of Confederate Americans as well as US Americans, and that is totally in line with Lincoln’s reason for playing “Dixie” when he visited Richmond, though his intention probably escaped the notice of that city’s white and black residents at the time.
It may be a little difficult to see today – now that the very old idea of “win at all costs” has once again become new – but the truth remains the same: everyone who fought that war contributed to our nation’s greatness today. E pluribus unum.
Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us–that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion–that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.
A representative man
Immediately after his assassination, they deified Lincoln for a while. Today, as Robert Brockway of Cracked.com notes, with tongue in cheek, “At his most basic metaphorical level, Lincoln is the epitome of an old-school sci-fi hero.” More seriously, there is a movie coming out this summer called Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter (despite Lincoln’s having wryly remarked in June 1864, according to A&E, “Doesn’t it strike you as queer that I, who couldn’t cut the head off a chicken, should be cast into the middle of a great war with blood flowing all around me”).
Thus is shown the power of a representative man, as Emerson described Goethe: “He appears at a time when a general culture has spread itself, and has smoothed down all sharp individual traits; when, in the absence of heroic characters, a social comfort and co0peration have come in. There is no poet, but scores of poetic writers; no Columbus, but hundreds of post-captains, with transit-telescope, barometer, and concentrated soup and pemmican; no Demosthenes, no Chatham, but any number of clever parliamentary and forensic debaters; no prophet or saint, but colleges of divinity; no learned man, but learned societies, a cheap press, reading-rooms, and book-clubs, without number. There was never such a miscellany of facts. The world extends itself like American trade. We conceive Greek or Roman life, — life in the middle ages, — to be a simple and comprehensible affair; but modern life to respect a multitude of things, which is distracting.
“Goethe was the philosopher of this multiplicity; hundred-handed, Argus-eyed, able and happy to cope with this rolling miscellany of facts and sciences, and, by his own versatility, to dispose of them with ease; a manly mind, unembarrassed by the variety of coats of convention with which life had got encrusted, easily able by his subtlety to pierce these, and to draw his strength from nature, with which he lived in full communion. What is strange, too, he lived in a small town…[y]et there is no trace of provincial limitation in his muse. He is not a debtor to his position, but was born with a free and controlling genius.
Abraham Lincoln was neither a god nor a superhero. He was not the baboon or demon that some Southerners imagined him to be, either. He was a representative man, and it’s unfortunate that Emerson is no longer with us. My writing skills are too weak to describe it, but look at him long enough and think about it, and you’ll see what I mean.
Categories: American Civil War