Tuesday, 12 February 2008
Today (Feb 12 -- just barely made it!) is the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, President #12, widely regarded as one of, if not the, best of the American Presidents. Lincoln is credited with saving the Union by pursuing and winning the bloody American Civil War (1861-1865). In 1863, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, a document that brought to an end the most divisive issue left over from the formation of the nation, namely slavery.
Lincoln is on the penny. He has an awesome memorial in Washington DC, where a considerably larger than life representation of Honest Abe sits overlooking the Reflecting Pool on the mall.
In addition to his political achievements, Lincoln is considered one of the most literate of our chiefs, on a par with Jefferson. Schoolchildren learn (learned?) the Gettysburg Address, a two-minute speech that in about 275 words described the essence of the war that was not yet over and of Lincoln's dedication to its cause. (It also birthed two phrases that virtually every American knows: "Four score and seven years ago" and "government of the people, by the people, and for the people.") Words from the Gettysburg Address and from the Second Inaugural Address are carved into the marble of the memorial.
But as usual, history is funny. It's election season, so what better book to be reading than A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the White House, which gives us a look at presidential campaigns of the past. Almost needless to say, the book is not about how gracious and refined elections in the past have been.
Lincoln was elected in 1860 and ran for reelection in 1864. We might have put Lincoln on a pedestal (literally), but many of his fellow Americans were not quite so in awe of him. According to the authors ...
To [his opponents], Lincoln was a spineless, imbecilic, "awful woeful ass," a "dictator," a "coarse, crude joker," a "grotesque baboon," and "a third-rate lawyer who once split rails and now splits the Union." Indeed, to hear the opposition tell it, the South seceded because of Lincoln's election, and if he were reelected, the South would fight on "for another thirty years."Newspapers of the day didn't exactly hold back either:
The New York World [said] "The age of statesmen is gone ... God save the Republic ... from the buffoon and gawk ... we have for President." The Chicago Times reprinted the Richmond Dispatch editorial comment: "We say of Old Abe it would be impossible to find such another ass in the United States, and therefore, we say let him stay."And of his oratory?
When [the Gettysburg Address] was delivered, it was roundly condemned. The Harrisburg Patriot and Union in its account of the day's activities, said, "We pass over the silly remarks of the President; for the credit of the nation we are willing that the veil of oblivion shall be dropped over them and that they shall no more be repeated or thought of." The Chicago Times reported "The cheek of every American must tingle with shame as he reads the silly, flat, and dishwatery utterances of the man who has to be pointed out to intelligent foreigners as the President of the United States. Lincoln cannot speak five grammatical sentences in succession."The authors do go on to note that "The Chicago Tribune, however, observed, "The dedicatory remarks by President Lincoln will live among the annals of men."
There you have it, the works of our greatest President in the words of his contemporaries. One can only wonder what some of them would have thought had they known that he would take a place of honor alongside Washington and Jefferson. Like I say, history is funny ...