|This classic photographic portrait of Abraham Lincoln was created by Alexander Gardner, a Mathew Brady associate who more famously shot many haunting Civil War battlefield scenes|
Now, on February 12th, the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth and the day of this posting, few are mocking Lincoln. In fact, as the Washington Post observed in one of its numerous tributes, Old Abe is “venerated as a national saint, part man, part myth.”
Lincoln got more attention in our Ohio school than even George Washington, our first president, whose birth date comes along just eight days after Lincoln’s. That’s because we were in class reading Lincoln stories and examining our Lincoln pennies and Lincoln $5 bills on Lincoln’s big day, but were home building snowmen on Washington’s Birthday because it was a national holiday.
George, Meet Abe
Years later, in 1968, Congress moved the Washington’s Birthday commemoration to the third Monday of February, pretty much assuring, if my calendar math is correct, that it would never again fall on the date of his birth. No matter. The nation craved another three-day holiday weekend. Three years later Richard Nixon declared that all chief executives – including lesser lights like Franklin Pierce, Chester A. Arthur and himself, and not just Washington – deserved some props, so he reconstituted the holiday as “Presidents’ Day.”
|Washington and Lincoln get equal billing in this 1865 lithograph as the “noblest sons” of Columbia, a figure often used to represent the nation|
Monday the 16th is the holiday this year. And this time, Honest Abe is outshining “the Father of His Country” for attention because Lincoln would be hitting the Big 2-0-0 if humans lived into a third century. The Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission’s Web site is bursting with Lincoln tributes, tales, trivia, and lists of events. There’s even one in Annapolis, Maryland, called “The Moustache,” which is curious because Lincoln, though bearded, didn’t have one. This turns out to be an opera, of all things, about a fictional meeting between some Baltimore fellow and John Wilkes Booth, Lincoln’s actual assassin. A stretch, if you ask me.
|Lincoln did not mind his image as a simple Kentucky country boy. He sometimes referred to himself as “Log Cabin Lincoln”|
|The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, designed by Daniel Chester French, resembles a Greek temple. Its 36 Doric columns represent the number of states in the Union at the time of Lincoln’s death in 1865|
The $5 bill had already been reworked in 2007, but for anti-counterfeiting reasons. Lincoln’s image was changed from one pose for a Mathew Brady portrait to another; Abe looks to his left on the old bill and his right on the new one.
|The contents of Lincoln’s pockets at the time of his death - as well as a Lincoln life mask and casting of his hands - are displayed at Ford’s Theatre, where he was shot|
Lincoln, Lincoln, He’s Our Man
|Sculptor Gutzon Borglum selected the four presidents to be depicted on Mount Rushmore. Lincoln was the most difficult to carve in the granite because of his beard|
You could almost imagine the elephants and giraffes at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo calling each other “Abe” or “Abby” during all the excitement. Or maybe not.
Abraham Lincoln is a much-acclaimed fellow any time of year, at least outside of the once-rebellious Dixie. In the subtitle of his 2008 book Abraham Lincoln, a Man of Faith and Courage, historian Joe Wheeler calls him our “most admired president,” and millions of Americans would agree. While it is an exaggeration to say that he “freed the slaves,” his Emancipation Proclamation did declare slaves under the control of the southern states to be freedmen and women. It was up to Lincoln’s army and navy to win the Civil War and make it so. Notably, the proclamation said nothing about border states like Kentucky and Missouri and Maryland – nominally still in the Union and still embracing that unholy institution.
Not alone a savior
|Lincoln gets a prominent position in cartoonist Thomas Nast’s 1865 depiction of the emancipation of southern slaves|
It was not until December 18, 1865 – eight months and three days after Lincoln’s death – when a sufficient number of states had ratified the Thirteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that slavery became illegal throughout the land.
It cannot be said, though it often is of Lincoln, that one person “saved the Union.” Two tigers on his general staff, Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, had a lot to do with that. Lincoln had dithered before replacing three ineffective commanders-in-chief of the Union Army, but he made the change to Grant – previously a dyspeptic, slave-owning, mediocre officer – because Grant gave no quarter to the enemy. “Tell me what brand of whiskey that Grant drinks,” Lincoln said. “I would like to send a barrel of it to my other generals.”
A villain’s treachery
|In this 1865 litho, John Wilkes Booth is tempted by a Mephistophelian Satan to shoot Abraham Lincoln, who, upon close inspection, can be seen in his theatre seat|
|Here’s the “Lincoln Box,” where the president was shot, as it appears in the just-reopened and refurbished Ford’s Theatre|
|Young Abe Lincoln reads by the light of the fireplace in this 1868 “An Evening in the Log Hut” lithograph|
But there are several other facets of the man and his character that have long held my fascination and may tweak yours as well:
|One gets a different, side view of Lincoln’s famous beard in this unusual left profile|
|Presidential candidate Lincoln, still sans beard, strikes a calm pose. His presidency would be anything but|
Asked one day whether he was a religious man, Lincoln said he was a member of no church but followed the same religious code as that of a farmer he knew: "When I do good, I feel good, and when I do bad, I feel bad, and that's my religion."
Such were the sorts of tales we learned in school, and a Cleveland friend, Susan Griffith, added this in a note to me:
“When I was in the third grade in Casper, Wyoming, there was a series of biographies in our classroom library. The first book I pulled off the shelf was about Abraham Lincoln. It probably was one of the first big books that I read. I just remember his reading by candlelight in the attic of his home, how there was snow outside, and it was cold. It reminded me of Iowa [where Susan spent her earliest years] and how the upstairs of the old farmhouse only got heat from what rose from the downstairs. He also seemed so tall and huge a man. Later on the way home from visiting my sister at her college in southern Illinois in 1966, my dad, mom, sister, and I stopped by his historic home in Springfield and saw the bed he slept in. It was so small compared to a contemporary bed and I thought either he was short or his feet must have stuck out of the end of the bed.”
So Lincoln wasn’t only honest, at least by sympathetic accounts. He was also a “tall drink of water,” to use a country term. Which brings me to . . .
|In this photo with his security chief, Allan Pinkerton and General John McClernand, you get an idea of Lincoln’s great height, even minus the stovepipe hat|
Speculating on the reasons for Lincoln’s spindly, emaciated appearance has become a cottage industry. In the 1960s, a long-posthumous diagnosis of Marfan Syndrome, a disorder of the connective tissues, was advanced in many journals. Marfan sufferers are typically tall, have disproportionately long arms and unusually shaped chests, and are nearsighted. All of these descriptions appear to have applied to Lincoln, and if he also had other Marfan indicators like heart irregularities and painful joint inflammation, it would help to explain his frequent brooding.
|Lincoln doesn’t look odd, exactly, in this portrait. But you get an idea of his narrow head, sunken chest and unusually long arms|
• Lincoln’s brilliant writing. Lincoln had no stable of speechwriters. Or even one, for that matter. He had his own gift of words and a straightforward way of delivering them that was unusual in an era of orotund orators. (I just had to put those two words together. Orotund means lofty, pompous, deliberately bombastic.) Where others fluffed up their importance with high-sounding pronouncements, quotations from the ancients, and melodramatic gestures, Lincoln got to the point without the grandiloquence. He could talk for hours if he had to – he certainly did in the debates with Douglas, the “Little Giant” – but he filled the time with stories laced with wisdom of his own making.
|Recent accounts have discredited the old story that Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg address on an envelope while riding to the cemetery dedication. He may have touched up his remarks on the train, however|
“…[W]e here highly resolve these dead shall not have died in vain; that the nation 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.”
Two other examples of Abraham Lincoln’s power-packed rhetoric:
|The central portion of the U.S. Capitol, including its dome, was still under construction when Lincoln first took the oath as president in 1861|
“We are not enemies, but friends. . . . Though passion may have strained, it must not break our bonds of affection. The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”
From Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, March 4, 1865:
"With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow and his orphan – to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations."
And one of my favorites, because it underscores Lincoln’s brevity and humility, quoted in the diary of his private secretary, John Milton Hay:
“Common looking people are the best in the world: that is the reason the Lord makes so many of them.”
So human, simple and direct, yet profound, Lincoln’s words – which he often jotted onto scraps of paper as thoughts came to him, then retrieved to fit certain occasions – no doubt surprised many an unsuspecting audience, who may have anticipated a country bumpkin. Or that baboon.
• Lincoln’s voice. It would be twelve years after Lincoln’s death before the human voice was first recorded when inventor Thomas Edison captured his own recitation of “Mary Had a Little Lamb” on a cylinder of tinfoil. So we have only others’ accounts to describe Abraham Lincoln’s timbre.
It should not surprise you that his was not the booming basso of a classical lecturer. Herndon gave this rather unflattering account: “Lincoln's voice was, when he first began speaking, shrill, squeaking, piping, unpleasant; his general look, his form, his pose, the color of his flesh, wrinkled and dry, his sensitiveness, and his momentary diffidence, everything seemed to be against him.”
Lincoln’s friend Noah Brooks, a California reporter, noted that the president’s second inaugural address “was received in most profound silence. Every word was clear and audible as the ringing and somewhat shrill tones of Lincoln's voice sounded over the vast concourse.”
Lincoln's vocalizing was nothing to marvel at, agreed Abram Bergen, a lawyer of the time. “But whenever he began to talk his eyes flashed and every facial movement helped express his idea and feeling. Then involuntarily vanished all thought or consciousness of his uncouth appearance, or awkward manner, or even his high keyed, unpleasant voice.”
So if you hear one of the thousands of Lincoln impersonators who are performing this month, and the fellow struts and pontificates and bellows, lower your grade of him. And give extra credit to squeakier, geekier renditions.
• Happy Lincoln, despondent Lincoln. When he was about 16, Lincoln wrote this ditty:
“Abraham Lincoln is my name
“And with my pen I wrote the same
“I wrote in both hast[e] and speed
“And left it here for fools to read.”
|They didn’t call General George McClellan, a fine engineer but timid fighter, “the Little Napoleon” for nothing|
And this surely fanciful story is recounted on the Web site Angelfire.com:
“Lincoln was stopped one day by a man who stuck a revolver almost into his face. Under the circumstances Lincoln quickly realized that any resistance was unwise. Trying to remain calm, he inquired, ‘What seems to be the matter?’
“‘A long time ago,’ replied the man, ‘I swore that if I ever came across an uglier man than myself I'd shoot him on the spot.’
“‘Well,’ supposedly said Lincoln. ‘Go ahead and shoot me then, because if I am an uglier man than you I don't want to live.’”
|Would you agree that even though Lincoln manages a weak smile in this photograph, sadness and the toll of a trying presidency peek through?|
Of course Lincoln had plenty to be sad about, including:
– A lonely childhood, in which he lost his mother when he was 10, a brother who died at birth, and, emotionally, a father who was often elsewhere and who rebuked him for sticking his nose into books.
–The death of his 9-year-old son, Willie, from a typhus-like illness while Lincoln was in the White House. “It is hard, hard, hard to have him die!” Lincoln told friends.
|Mary Todd Lincoln was well bred, abrasive, and high-strung, quite the opposite attributes of her husband|
|Thoughts of scenes like this mass burial following the second battle of Cold Harbor, Virginia, in 1864 haunted the melancholic president|
|Lincoln looks every bit the rough-hewn westerner in this 1860 Republican Party poster promoting his presidential candidacy|
Lincoln rode into office as a “westerner” when Illinois, barely one-third of the way across the country, was still “the West.” He defeated New Yorker William H. Seward. Then, in classic Lincoln fashion when he took office, he appointed Seward as his secretary of state. And other old rivals to high offices as well, putting into action his beliefs that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.”
Over the decades Republicans have made good use of the idea that they are “the party of Lincoln,” but Lincoln’s legend has outgrown any one political brand. Barack Obama, a liberal Democrat, openly admires Lincoln and, in naming four Republicans to his own Cabinet, emulates him. So much so that a Republican blogger recently grumbled that Obama is “drenched in Lincoln.”
‘We’ll Sing to Abe Our Song’
|The “wigwam” to which this song about candidate Lincoln refers was not an Indian tipi. It was the name of a wooden building constructed in Chicago for the 1860 Republican convention|
Ready, class? Sing along, now!
“Mr. Lincoln, Mr. Lincoln,
“You were brave.
“Mr. Lincoln, Mr. Lincoln,
“You were good.
“You stood for what was right,
“You did not give up the fight,
“Mr. Lincoln, Mr. Lincoln,
“You were good.”
TODAY'S WILD WORDS
(These are a few of the words from this posting that you may not know. Each time, I'll tell you a little about them and also place them into a cumulative archive of "Ted's Wild Words" in the right-hand column of the home page. Just click on it there, and if there's another word in today's blog that you'd like me to explain, just ask!)
Dither. To nervously fuss while trying to make a decision. In the long-running “Dagwood” comic strip, office worker Dagwood Bumstead’s indecisive, never-satisfied boss was named “Mr. Dithers.”
Dixie. There are many theories advanced about the origin of this nickname for the Deep South states. One is that it ties to the survey of the Pennsylvania-Maryland border, called the “Mason-Dixon” line, that is often used as the informal boundary between North and South. Another traces to $10 banknotes issued in French-speaking Louisiana prior to the Civil War. They were known as “dixes” or “dixies.”
Dyspeptic. Sour, morose, grouchy. Dyspepsia is a recognized medical ailment, involving stomach pain caused by ulcers or other conditions that certainly do not lighten the sufferer’s mood.
Fulminate. To rant and rave and fume. The word is often applied to speakers who make a habit of, and a living from, denouncing others.
Grandiloquence. High-flown style; grandiose prose. Note that the word is not “grandeloquence.”
Kitcsch. Cheap, tasteless, often garish art and collectibles. The German or Yiddish word was first applied to really bad paintings, like bright, velvet depictions of jungle beasts or Elvis Presley.
Props. A relatively recent addition to the English lexicon of slang. When you extend someone his or her proper due, you’re “giving props.”
Rectitude. Righteousness. The moral high ground taken as a matter of honor.
Oh, I did break down and check into the meaning of “schottish.” It’s a Bohemian country dance with two short runs, a hop, and four turning hop steps. Doesn’t sound like something the awkward, gangly Abe Lincoln himself would have executed well. Or me, either.
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