Mr. Lincoln at 200

By William F.B. Vodrey
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2009, All Rights Reserved

Editor’s note: This is adapted from an article that originally appeared in the February 2009 issue of The Charger.

In February we honor all those who have served as President of the United States. By coincidence, the birthdays of two of the republic’s great early leaders, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, both fall in February. Unfortunately, what were once distinct holidays are now one, the rather generic “Presidents’ Day.”

Not surprisingly, though, of all the presidents, it’s Lincoln who’s captured the imagination of many of us in the Roundtable. Now, during the long-awaited bicentennial year of his birth, he’s once again in the national spotlight – not that he ever really left it. What can one write about Lincoln that hasn’t already been written somewhere among the millions of words already set down about him? Nobody could have predicted the greatness that lay ahead for this tall, ungainly man, born to a poor frontier family in the wilderness of Kentucky on February 12, 1809. No one could have foreseen that he would guide the nation through perhaps its most difficult and perilous time, bringing two warring regions back into a republic that would not only survive but prevail in the years to come. Lincoln’s enduring legacy is a nation at peace, prosperous and strong, united from sea to sea and from north to south.

I’ve always liked the Thomas Nast illustration which appears above. I first saw it in a book belonging to my grandfather, when I was very young. Drawn just days before Lincoln’s assassination, the sketch shows the President in repose, thoughtful and calm, wielding the pen which was always his greatest weapon against injustice and rebellion. His makeshift table is a military drum, stilled for the moment as he writes words of unequaled power and durability. Lincoln was a man of peace, yet he led in a time of unparalleled bloodshed, and it’s all there in that picture.

Today we may remember Lincoln as a leader, a patriot, a father, a lawyer, a warrior, an emancipator, a writer, an orator, and so many other things as well. Lincoln was greater than the sum of his parts, neither the martyr-saint of early hagiography, nor the passive politician of more recent scholarship. As we celebrate his 200th birthday, and as we study the conflict that defined and ennobled his presidency, we can remember Lincoln however we wish to.

Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton said at the moment of Lincoln’s death, “Now he belongs to the ages.” To the ages, and to every one of us.