If I were to judge by our news organizations, his birthday is not something we should celebrate, or even notice. A search of Google News on "Lincoln's birthday" this afternoon got just 323 hits, an absurdly small number. But I think the news organizations are wrong, as they often are.
To begin with, there is Lincoln's remarkable rise, told briskly in this White House biography.
The son of a Kentucky frontiersman, Lincoln had to struggle for a living and for learning. Five months before receiving his party's nomination for President, he sketched his life:
"I was born Feb. 12, 1809, in Hardin County, Kentucky. My parents were both born in Virginia, of undistinguished families--second families, perhaps I should say. My mother, who died in my tenth year, was of a family of the name of Hanks.... My father ... removed from Kentucky to ... Indiana, in my eighth year.... It was a wild region, with many bears and other wild animals still in the woods. There I grew up.... Of course when I came of age I did not know much. Still somehow, I could read, write, and cipher ... but that was all."
Lincoln made extraordinary efforts to attain knowledge while working on a farm, splitting rails for fences, and keeping store at New Salem, Illinois. He was a captain in the Black Hawk War, spent eight years in the Illinois legislature, and rode the circuit of courts for many years. His law partner said of him, "His ambition was a little engine that knew no rest."
And this ambitious man taught himself to be a lawyer — and an enormously successful one — and then a politician with remarkable gifts. Those achievements by themselves would be remarkable enough, but Lincoln did far more. This boy from the backwoods somehow made himself into a great statesman and led us to victory in our bloodiest war.
His war leadership is far too large a subject for a brief post, but I can say something about his most famous speeches. As I have said before, the Gettysburg Address, his most famous, does not touch me as some of his other speeches do.
In 1858, he began his Senate campaign with the House Divided speech, which combines tight reasoning with biblical language in these famous lines:
We are now far into the fifth year, since a policy was initiated, with the avowed object, and confident promise, of putting an end to slavery agitation.
Under the operation of that policy, that agitation has not only, not ceased, but has constantly augmented.
In my opinion, it will not cease, until a crisis shall have been reached, and passed.
"A house divided against itself cannot stand."
I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.
I do not expect the Union to be dissolved -- I do not expect the house to fall -- but I do expect it will cease to be divided.
It will become all one thing or all the other.
Either the opponents of slavery, will arrest the further spread of it, and place it where the public mind shall rest in the belief that it is in the course of ultimate extinction; or its advocates will push it forward, till it shall become alike lawful in all the States, old as well as new -- North as well as South.
In 1860, he gained much favorable attention with his scholarly Cooper's Union speech, which refuted an argument made by his principal opponent in the presidential election later that year, Senator Stephen Douglas.
And in 1865, six weeks before his assassination, he gave my favorite, the Second Inaugural. It's brief, so you should read the whole thing, if you have not done so recently. His last paragraph is, I think, good advice for us now.
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.
(Having read that, you may wonder if his first inaugural speech comes anywhere close to matching the second. It doesn't, but it does end with his famous lines about the "mystic chords of memory".)
Cross posted at Jim Miller on Politics.
(Note to commenters: If you are wondering why I cross posted this here, take a look at the category. Sometimes we have to cover subjects the local papers ignore.)Posted by Jim Miller at February 12, 2007 05:13 PM | Email This