Friday, March 4, 2011

Sesquicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's Inaugural

As a young boy growing up in Elmhurst, Illinois in the late 1960's and early 1970's I was quite taken with all things Abe Lincoln. Not only was I born in the Land of Lincoln, I was born on the 100th anniversary of his death. Knowing that slavery was evil and that Lincoln and hundreds of thousands of Union dead were sacrificed for the end of slavery, I grew up revering Lincoln.

Theodore Roosevelt wrote of Lincoln:

"Abraham Lincoln was a genius, who wrote only as one of the world's rare geniuses do write. Washington, though in some ways an even greater man than Lincoln, did not have Lincoln's wonderful gift of expression, that gift which makes certain speeches of the rail-splitter from Illinois read like the inspired utterances of great Hebrew seers and prophets. (Parenthetically, I would say that aside from being prophets, what magnificent poets Ezekiel, Isaiah, and Jeremiah were!) In all history I do not believe there is to be found an orator whose speeches will last as enduringly as certain speeches of Lincoln.

He possessed that marvelous gift of expression which enabled him quite unconsciously to choose the very words best fit to commemorate each deed. His Gettysburg speech and his Second Inaugural are two of the half dozen greatest speeches ever made - I am tempted to call them the greatest ever made. They are great in their wisdom and dignity, and earnestness and loftiness of thought and expression. There is nothing in Demosthenes or Cicero which comes up to Lincoln's Gettysburg speech. There is one of his letters which has always appealed to me particularly. It is the one running as follows:

Executive Mansion
Washington, Nov. 21, 1864
To Mrs. Bixby, Boston, Mass.

Dear Madam:

I have been shown in the files in the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle. I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the republic they died to save. I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the alter of freedom.

Yours very sincerely and respectfully,

A. Lincoln

No president who has ever sat in the White House has borne the burden that Lincoln bore, or been under the ceaseless strain which he endured. It did not let up day or night. Ever he had to consider problems of the widest importance, ever to run the risks of the greatest magnitude. It is a touching thing that the great leader, while thus driven and absorbed, could yet so often turn aside for the moment to do some deed of personal kindness. Nobody but one of the world's geniuses could have met as Lincoln met the awful crisis of the Civil War."

With thanks to Daniel Ruddy - author of Theodore Roosevelt's History of the United States - Smithsonian Books.

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