Happy Birthday, Mr. President . . . Wish You Were Here
by Derrick G. Jeter
Abraham Lincoln had a remarkably non-notable childhood. Once, while campaigning for the presidency in 1860, he commented to John Locke Scripps of the Chicago Tribune that it was pure “folly to attempt to make anything out of my early life.” “It can,” he said, “all be condensed into a single sentence, and that sentence you will find in Gray’s Elegy, ‘The short and simple annals of the poor.’ That’s my life, and that’s all you or any once else can make of it.”1 Lincoln was not simply being self-humiliating as a pretense to self-aggrandizement. He was poor. Born on February 12, 1809, in a one room, dirt floor cabin in the wilds of Kentucky, Lincoln’s father, Thomas, was a farmer. In 1816 the Lincolns moved to Indiana. In 1830 they found themselves in Illinois. Through these years, Lincoln’s schooling was spotty at best, but he learned enough of the basics to teach himself to read, write, and “cipher.”
Always jovial, Lincoln was a quick wit, prankster, and storyteller. But he also had a serious and studious side. And, truthful to the tradition, he was honest as the day is long. Referring to himself, at least early in his life, as “a piece of floating driftwood,”2 Lincoln worked at various jobs to survive: riverboat man, shopkeeper, rail-splitter, and postmaster. Then he fell into politics and found the law. He served in the Illinois legislature and began reading for the law. On March 1, 1837, Lincoln became Abraham Lincoln, Esq. Moving to the new capitol of Springfield, Lincoln hung out his shingle as junior partner with John Todd Stuart. Lincoln was a good lawyer—driven by reason and logic—and as his reputation grew—riding the court circuit—he eventually became the senior partner with William Herndon.
In 1846 Lincoln was elected to one term in the House of Representatives. He would not hold office for another 12 years. In 1858 he attempted to unseat the “Little Giant,” Senator Stephen A. Douglas. Though Lincoln was unsuccessful, the debates between the two men, which were printed in newspapers and later into pamphlets, gave Lincoln national exposure. With the rise of the Republican Party in the mid-to-late 1850s, Lincoln’s involvement with the formation of the Party, and his strong showing against Douglas, newspapers began floating his name as a possible presidential candidate. Lincoln thought the idea funny: “Just think, of such a sucker as me as President.”3 It was funny, because Lincoln seriously thought he was unfit for the presidency: “I must, in candor, say I do not think myself fit for the Presidency.”4 In 1859 truer words were never spoken. But in May 1860 when the Republicans meet in convention in Chicago, Lincoln was nominated as their presidential candidate, beating the then Senator, and former governor of New York, William H. Seward on the third ballot. In an ironic twist, what Lincoln could not do in the 1858 Senate race he did in the 1860 presidential race—he defeated Douglas. But the presidency came at a high price—many Southern states threatened to secede from the Union and assassins threatened his life. On February 11, 1861, as Lincoln left his Springfield home for Washington he said good-bye to his friends:
My friends—No one, not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting. To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe every thing. Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried. I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of that Divine Being, who ever attended him, I cannot succeed. With that assistance I cannot fail. Trusting in Him who can go with me, and remain with you, and be everywhere for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well. To His care commending you, as I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell.5
Eight weeks after Lincoln delivered his first inaugural address, on April 12, 1861, South Carolina began the Civil War by firing on Fort Sumter. The war that followed was the bloodiest in American history.
Four years later, President Lincoln was reelected. Inauguration Day, March 4, 1865, dawned over the newly completed Capital dome with torrential rain. Thousands of visitors were soaked to the skin and covered in mud. By nine-thirty the rain had stopped. By ten-thirty the skies were clearing. But, by ten-forty the skies clouded and the rain began again. Vice President-elect Andrew Johnson would be sworn in on the floor of the Senate Chamber. By eleven-forty the rain had ceased once again and Lincoln was escorted out to the East Front of the Capital. Lincoln rose, placed his glasses on his face and holding his Second Inaugural in his left hand, he began. And as he began the clouds rolled away and the sun shone through.
The Confederate States hoped the war would rend the Union, and secure their “independence.” However, the war preserved the Union. Unable to continue the fight, Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to U.S. Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, on April 9, 1865, one month after Lincoln’s second swearing in. Five days later, on April 14, the noted actor John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln in the back of the head, leaving him to suffer for nine hours until he died the following day in a borrowed bed. In the early morning of April 15, at 7:22, at the pronouncement of his death, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton declared, “Now he belongs to the ages.”6
Today marks Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday. As the centuries pass, President Lincoln, his moral courage, and his eloquent vision grow greater in the eyes of those who love constitutional liberty. Would to God we had his like at the head of state today—in substance and not in shadow.
1. Abraham Lincoln, quoted in David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (London: Jonathan Cape, 1995), 19.
2. Abraham Lincoln, quoted in Donald, Lincoln, 38.
3. Abraham Lincoln, quoted in Donald, Lincoln, 235.
4. Abraham Lincoln, quoted in Donald, Lincoln, 235.
5. Abraham Lincoln, “Farewell Address at Springfield, Illinois,” in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, vol. 4, ed. Roy P. Basler (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953), 190.
6. Edwin Stanton, quoted in Doris Kearns Goodwin, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2005), 743.