Friday, February 12, 2010

Lincoln's Birthday

We don't make much of it these days, now that we've mushed things into Presidents Day.
by Charlie Leck

February 12th was a day that meant something to me when I was a boy! It was old Abe's birthday! In grade school, it would be a day that we spent some important time talking about Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the United States of America. As I remember it, only George Washington and Lincoln were singled out for special recognition on their birthdays each year. One, of course, would expect it about George Washington because of his stature as our very first President and his heroic role as a General in the Revolutionary War (or war of independence).

No single kid in those school days was left to wonder about why the 16th President was given such important recognition. We were not to forget, you see, that Abraham Lincoln was our greatest President and our most important one. Historians pretty well agree on that even today.

We were told, each year, the story of Abraham Lincoln's ascendancy to the office of President -- his rise from rail splitter to leader of the nation in its most perilous time. The stories that teachers told of Abe when I was a grade-schooler were inspiring and meaningful; yet the better and finer stories were told about him by the old men who would come to my dad's general store in the wintry month of February and sit around the old, warming stove in the center of the store. They'd reel off grand and fascinating stores about their hero, Abe Lincoln. Many of them had been born less than three decades after Abe's frightful assassination. Their own parents had been contemporary's of Abe Lincoln and had lived through the desperate times of the Civil War. When these old guys spoke of Abe, their talk was so intimate it was almost as if they had known him. They favored most the tales of Abe's commonness and how he liked a good yarn and enjoyed recounting them for anyone who wanted to listen.

"Yes, sir," they'd often repeat, "old Abe saved the Union at a terrible time and it cost him his life, don't yuh know!"

I fell in love with reading about Abe. I do believe it is what turned me into a decent student and an above average reader. I began tackling more complex books about Abraham Lincoln and Civil War History at an age before most kids were ready for such reading. The woman who tended the town library, just across the street, would called me when something new about Abe Lincoln came in. In order to promptly read it, I'd often neglect that boring business about fractions and their conversions into decimal numbers.

There was the oft' told tale of Abe walking many, many miles to return, with his apologies, a few pennies to a woman who had paid too much for an item she purchased from him. As a boy, I marveled at such honesty every single time I heard the story. There are hundreds and hundreds of such apocrypha in children's literature about Lincoln and maybe as many in adult works about him, too. Still, there is enough solid, historical fact to make Abe one of the extraordinary figures of American history -- if not its most extraordinary figure. A reading of Doris Kearns Goodwin's opus grandé about Lincoln's presidency (Team of Rivals) captures the real man, Lincoln, and yet does not, by one wit reduce the wonder and enormity of the man.

"Now that reminds me of a story...," Abe would often sit back and say -- perhaps in a Cabinet meeting or perhaps sitting before a campfire with a group of union soldiers. It became a trademark with Abe and he'd follow that up with tales that drew laughter or awe from his listeners. He had hundreds of them and he held his listeners spellbound in his telling of them.

It was probably this enormous sense of humor -- dry as it was -- that enabled Abe to make it through the darkest of those dark, dark days.

A report was brought to him one day about the loss of life of several brigadier-generals and their horses in some Virginia valley. "Too bad about the horses," Abe muttered quite softly, "I can make brigadier-generals."

A Lincoln contemporary, the Reverend Theodore L. Cuyler, Pastor of the Lafayette Avenue Presbyterian Church in Brooklyn, perhaps, said it best: "If Washington is the most revered, Lincoln is the best loved man that ever trod this continent."

And if you get the impression that it is only in history that Lincoln is held in such admiration, you need then to examine the feelings of those who were closest to him to find the truth. For instance, his own, personal first-secretary, John Hay said quite spectacularly of his boss: "Lincoln, with all his foibles, is the greatest character since Christ."

More than one scholar has referred to Lincoln as the "psychotherapist" to the nation during the awful years of the Civil War. Even in the darkest moments, Lincoln could say a soft thing or tell a humorous tale; and these things seemed to keep the country sane.

“Gentlemen, why don’t you laugh?" Lincoln said to his Cabinet one day when they failed to laugh at one of his stories, thinking it might be inappropriate to do so in such a hard time. "With the fearful strain that is upon me night and day, if I did not laugh I should die, and you need this medicine as much as I do.”

I close my rambling about President Lincoln with these words that were written by the poet, Walt Whitman:
“As is well known, story-telling was often with President Lincoln a weapon which he employ’d with great skill. Very often he could not give a point-blank reply or comment—and these indirections, (sometimes funny, but not always so,) were probably the best responses possible. In the gloomiest period of the war, he had a call from a large delegation of bank presidents. In the talk after business was settled, one of the big Dons asked Mr. Lincoln if his confidence in the permanency of the Union was not beginning to be shaken—whereupon the homely President told a little story: “When I was a young man in Illinois,” said he, “I boarded for a time with a deacon of the Presbyterian church. One night I was roused from my sleep by a rap at the door, and I heard the deacon’s voice exclaiming, ‘Arise, Abraham! the day of judgment has come!’ I sprang from my bed and rushed to the window, and saw the stars falling in great showers; but looking back of them in the heavens I saw the grand old constellations, with which I was so well acquainted, fixed and true in their places. Gentlemen, the world did not come to an end then, nor will the Union now.”
I have no quarrel with the general assumption of historians that Abraham Lincoln was our greatest President.

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