Lincoln in context

Finally got my first call for my Room To Rent today. Unfortunately, the guy who left the message on my machine spoke low and was kind of mush-mouthed. The call-back number he left (as far as I can figure it out) isn’t in service.

Probably just as well. Don’t want no inarticulate folks in this house.

(You’ll note that my stress level in regard to renting the room has diminished. I got a check back from my insurance company the other day, with a note telling me I’d double-paid. Haven’t worked out how that happened, but it’s a relief).

Today is Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. I should post things like this the day before, I know, since a lot of you don’t read my posts till the following day, but I’ll be boiled if I’ll post on a Sunday. So, O Reader of the Future, I apologize if this is the first you heard about it. Write it down in your calendar, and you’ll know next year.

I believe I’ve written about this before, but I don’t think Americans today appreciate what a significant figure Lincoln used to be, not only in America but in the world. We’re so used to his story—the birth in a dirt-floored cabin, the sums written in charcoal on the wooden shovel, the miles he walked in winter to return a couple cents overcharged in his store—that they’ve become rote pieces to us. We lose the impact of the story in its time and place.

(By the way, do kids today learn about these things? Or do the teachers just throw in a couple of lines about Lincoln being a racist white, male president and a closeted homosexual, before moving on to cover Notable Crossdressers of the Civil War?)

But the Old Order was very much in the saddle in Europe in Lincoln’s time. Kings and Emperors still ruled, some of them by Divine Right. The idea that royalty and nobility enjoyed their power and privilege because of an inborn, natural superiority was still in play.

And here was this tall, ugly American, born in poverty, who became leader of one of the world’s emerging powers, who wrote brilliant oratory and who managed to keep a fractious country together through the greatest crisis in its history without the brutality one expected in young republics. His very existence was a rebuke to Old Europe.

And Americans didn’t let them forget it. The hagiographical books and pictures, the pious eulogies and songs about Lincoln, they were partly an expression of real respect, but they were also the cock-a-doodle-doo of a brash young country that had found a better way and wasn’t afraid to say so.

Lincoln was not pretty. He was not elegant. He did not sound like Gregory Peck when he gave a speech—he sounded more like Festus Hagin. But he was successful and progressive and smarter than the whole House of Lords put together.

We valued that in America. Once upon a time.

One thought on “Lincoln in context”

  1. “ugly American”

    Because of my beard without a mustache, some people have called me Honest Abe or said that I remind them of him. I usually said that I’m better looking than he was. I don’t think I’ve heard a coherent reply to that yet.

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