Great Man, Great Words

Our greatest president was born 205 years ago today. It seems a good reason to read, once again, some of his most meaningful words — read them slowly and meticulously, perhaps almost saying them aloud as he did.

The Address at Gettysburg (November 19, 1863):

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation, so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met here on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of it as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But in a larger sense we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled, here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but can never forget what they did here. It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they have, thus far, so nobly carried on. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom; and that this government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

And, from his Second Inaugural Address (March 4, 1865):

Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. It may seem strange that any men should dare to ask a just God’s assistance in wringing their bread from the sweat of other men’s faces, but let us judge not, that we be not judged. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes. “Woe unto the world because of offenses; for it must needs be that offenses come, but woe to that man by whom the offense cometh.” If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which, having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to remove, and that He gives to both North and South this terrible war as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said “the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”

With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.


Farewell to Springfield

Farewell to Springfield

Abraham Lincoln made these remarks in Springfield before boarding the train for Washington 153 years ago today. He transcribed them on the train — it’s Lincoln’s handwriting at first, then his secretary John Nicolay’s. The movement of the train is seen in the scrawl. Click image for a larger version. The text is below.

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 [2] 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 every where for good, [3] 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

Lincoln never saw Springfield again.

Information and idea from Farewell to Springfield.


Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass, ca. 1860s

… was born on this date in 1817.

With the headline Death Of Fred Douglass, The New York Times reported his death in 1895. It’s a fascinating contemporary article. An excerpt:

Frederick Douglass has been often spoken of as the foremost man of the African race in America. Though born and reared in slavery, he managed, through his own perseverance and energy, to win for himself a place that not only made him beloved by all members of his own race in America, but also won for himself the esteem and reverence of all fair-minded persons, both in this country and in Europe.

Mr. Douglass had been for many years a prominent figure in public life. He was of inestimable service to the members of his own race, and rendered distinguished service to his country from time to time in various important offices that he held under the Government.

He became well known, early in his career, as an orator upon subjects relating to slavery. He won renown by his oratorical powers both in the northern part of the United States and in England. He had become known before the civil war also as a journalist. So highly were his opinions valued that he was often consulted by President Lincoln, after the civil war began, upon questions relating to the colored race. He held important offices almost constantly from 1871 until 1891.

Mr. Douglass, perhaps more than any other man of his race, was instrumental in advancing the work of banishing the color line.


John Jay

John Jay

John Jay was born this date in 1745. Jay, a delegate from New York, served in the First and Second Continental Congresses. During the War for Independence Jay served as president of the Continental Congress, minister plenipotentiary to Spain, and peace commissioner (in which he negotiated vital treaties with Spain and France). He was Secretary of Foreign Affairs under the Articles of Confederation. During the ratification of the Constitution Jay was author of the Federalist Papers, along with Madison and Hamilton. John Jay was the first Chief Justice of the United States.


The Letter to Mrs. Bixby

Executive Mansion,
Washington, Nov. 21, 1864

Dear Madam, –I have been shown in the files of 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 words of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering to 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 altar of Freedom. Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,

A. Lincoln.

[As it turns out, this letter, made even more famous when read in the film Saving Private Ryan, may have been written by John Hay, Lincoln's secretary. Further, only two of Mrs. Bixby's five sons had died in battle. One was honorably discharged, one was dishonorably discharged, and another deserted or died in a prison camp. Not that losing three sons in whatever way isn't horrible enough.]


President Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, 150 Years Ago Today

Nicolay Copy

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But in a larger sense we cannot dedicate — we cannot consecrate — we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.


Still My Favorite ‘What If’

Had Booth missed, Lincoln could have risen from his chair to confront his assassin. At that moment the president, cornered, with not only his own life in danger but also Mary’s, would almost certainly have fought back. If he did, Booth would have found himself outmatched facing not kindly Father Abraham, but the aroused fury of the Mississippi River flatboatman who fought off a gang of murderous river pirates in the dead of night, the champion wrestler who, years before, humbled the Clary’s Grove boys in New Salem in a still legendary match, or even the fifty-six-year-old president who could still pick up a long, splitting-axe by his fingertips, raise it, extend his arm out parallel with the ground, and suspend the axe in midair. Lincoln could have choked the life out of the five-foot-eight-inch, 150-pound thespian, or wrestled him over the side of the box, launching Booth on a crippling dive to the stage almost twelve feet below.

But Lincoln had not seen Booth coming.

From James L. Swanson’s Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer, a great read.

Go try that thing with an axe or other long-handled tool.