Thursday, February 12, 2009

Happy Birthday, Mr. Lincoln

Today, February 12, is the bicentennial of the birth of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States, the man who saved the Union and ended slavery by winning the American Civil War. There are plenty of Americans who say Lincoln was the greatest president. I’m one of them.

But I’m not going to talk about Lincoln and history, nor praise the good or criticise the failings. This post is about Lincoln and me, because no child of Illinois can escape the stovepipe-hatted shadow of the state’s most famous son.

My earliest years of life were spent in the centenary of the Civil War. A child’s mind has difficulty telling the difference between a year, a decade or a century, and to me the Civil War seemed not long over, as, indeed, the two world wars seemed to me to have happened somewhat recently.

The centenary of Lincoln’s April 15, 1865 assassination happened to fall on Easter Weekend. I was six years old. As we went to Good Friday services that year, I dressed in dark colours, appropriate for mourning the martyred president. Maybe my mind was muddled because only a year and a half earlier we’d buried another murdered president, but at the time it seemed a perfectly reasonable thing to do.

At any rate, a year or two later our town built a big new public library and I was there on their open day. We were shown how to use one of those newfangled photocopiers, and I made a copy of some book page. Then I took another book and made a copy of a photo of Lincoln that I framed and hung on my bedroom wall. It would be with me for decades.

In my very early teens, my parents took me on a special trip to Springfield, Illinois, where we visited the only home Lincoln ever owned, and the reconstructed Old State Capital, where Lincoln gave his “House Divided” speech. We also visited New Salem, where Lincoln lived when he struck out on his own. And, of course, we visited Lincoln’s tomb in Oak Ridge Cemetery.

Time passed and, as always happens, the interests of childhood and youth fell away. At some point, my framed photocopy of that Lincoln photo disappeared. But my regard for Lincoln never did.

Without looking it up, I remembered by heart that Lincoln was the 16th president, and that he was born two hundred years ago in Hardin County, Kentucky. I remembered that his parents were Thomas Lincoln and Mary Hanks Lincoln.

I don’t know if Illinois schoolchildren are still immersed in the history of Lincoln, but I’m glad I was. It gave me a feeling of personal connection to my state and my country that I’m not sure would or could have happened otherwise.

Abraham Lincoln did a lot for the United States by preserving it and moving it toward a more perfect union. But he did something for me and other Illinois kids, too. Pretty good legacy, really.

The photo accompanying this post is available for download in high resolution from Wikipedia.


d said...

Did you know Lincoln and Charles Darwin share the exact same birthday? Quite amazing...

Arthur Schenck said...

I must've been working on the Darwin post as you were commenting on this one. Spooky…

Roger Owen Green said...

I knew about Mary Hanks and Kentucky as a child.
I was listening to Tom Lehrer and he talked about 1965 as being a great year for the "war buffs", since it was the centennial of the end of the Civil War and 20 years after the end of WWII

Arthur Schenck said...

You know, that actually could be why World War 2 seemed linked in my head with the Civil War. Obvious, but it never occurred to me before.

Something I didn't put in the post is that I still remember (most of) the words to the Gettysburg Address and can (sometimes) recite it from memory (sometimes even correctly). Mmmm, that's probably why that factoid didn't make the cut for this post…