Learning from Lincoln

Authors note: I know many of my posts turn out to be somewhat forlorn. I think it’s a result of needing an outlet during difficult times. Perhaps this post will put more of a positive spin on things, or at least bring some hope to some who are struggling to find it.

Yesterday we took advantage of the three day weekend and drove the short hour or so down to Springfield. There’s a lot of great historical stuff to see in Springfield, including a plethora of Abraham Lincoln sites and memorabilia. We’ve long talked about taking the kids down there but wanted to make sure that they were all old enough to understand and appreciate the history.

A couple of notes about the trip itself. First, it was really hot, possibly the hottest day of the summer. This last week was unseasonably warm for September. Also, Labor Day is a government recognized holiday, and probably 80% of the workforce in downtown Springfield is employed in some kind of governmental capacity. These two factors combined to guarantee us a nearly personalized Springfield experience. I’ve never seen the streets of a State Capitol so empty. This was impressive to me, since I’ve grown to dislike crowds in my grumpy old age. In fact, I’d earlier rejected the idea of visiting St Louis this weekend for just that reason. Luckily, most of the major historical attractions in Springfield remained open. Oh yeah, and street parking was free and readily available!

Lincoln Door

I’m not sure what the kids got out of all the Lincoln stuff, but I found comfort in several things that I’d either never known or forgotten about the former president over the course of time. With all of the pomp and pageantry that surrounds Lincoln as an icon, it’s easy to forget that he was also a man, and a fairly flawed one at that.

As a young man, Lincoln was not interested in hard physical labor and preferred to read and learn. No doubt this went against the very image of manhood on the Kentucky and Indiana prairies. Considering his size and build, Lincoln had all of the physical characteristics to be a successful farmer or laborer. Neighbors must have wondered why would he choose to waste his time with books. In fact, some even supposed that Lincoln was simply lazy or avoiding work. Remember this when your interests run counter to the culture you live in.

Lincoln tried his hand at a few different professions prior to law and politics. He ran a small general store, joined the militia, was the postmaster, and later county surveyor of New Salem. With the exception of the militia, where he served as a captain during the Black Hawk War against a rag-tag group of largely leaderless Native Americans, he found limited success. I somewhat enjoy the image of an aimless Abraham Lincoln trying his hand at several different things before finally settling on something that both suited his talents and piqued his interest. Remember this as you try, and possibly fail repeatedly, to find something you’re good at.

In love, Lincoln was equally fleeting in his early life. While historical accounts differ (some revisionist history, perhaps?), Lincoln purportedly pursued a woman named Ann Rutledge in New Salem. Wikipedia noted that the two were never engaged. What it fails to report is the probable reason – that Miss Rutledge was already engaged, but her fiancé was out east conducting business matters. This I learned at the Lincoln presidential museum. If a young Lincoln did indeed pursue a betrothed Ann Rutledge, it would certainly be considered quite scandalous in the early days of the Midwest US. At any rate, Miss Rutledge died at the age of 22, and many accounts I heard yesterday spoke of Lincoln falling into a deep depression while mourning the tragedy. This would not be the last time we hear of Lincoln exhibiting signs of what nowadays is classified as a mental illness. Lincoln’s 2nd notable relationship was with Mary Owens, whom Lincoln met in 1836, one year after the passing of Ann Rutledge. This was a curious courtship, as Wikipedia notes that both parties appeared to have misgivings. Wikipedia and the museum both document that Lincoln once wrote to Mary, stating that he would not blame her for breaking off the relationship. Was he manipulating her due to his own insecurities? Wikipedia states that she did not respond, which ended the relationship. The museum instead indicates that Lincoln did propose marriage to Mary Owens, but that she rejected the proposal. Either way, it seems that Mary Owens and Abraham Lincoln were not meant to be together. Later, even Mary Todd, who would eventually become the First Lady at Lincoln’s side, had her share of troubles while dating the fledgling lawyer. A wedding originally planned for 1841 was called off at Lincoln’s request. A film at the Lincoln house in Springfield theorized that Abe’s inability to provide the lifestyle that Mary Todd was accustomed to on his meagre early earnings had contributed to the break-up. Here, Lincoln again displays a level of anxiety that we’re not accustomed to associating with The Great Emancipator. Remember this when you can’t seem to find that special someone, or when life’s decisions seem too big to tackle.

Lincoln Law Office

Even after marriage, it would be difficult to classify Lincoln as a dedicated family man by today’s standards. He worked extremely hard at his job, which included a two-year stint as a US congressman from 1847-1849. During part of this term, Lincoln worked in Washington DC while Mary and the children continued their lives in Springfield, finding Washington not very conducive to family life. Even after his term ended, his law practice sometimes took him away from home for up to three months at a time while he traveled the court circuit. This was not a temporary inconvenience, but something the family endured twice a year for 16 long years. Remember this when your marriage seems rocky, or when you’re having trouble balancing work and family.

Despite the time spent away from his family, or perhaps because of it, the Lincolns were known to be extremely lenient with their children. The lack of discipline produced many unruly messes around the Lincoln home and law office, as well as tricks and pranks played on neighboring households. In essence, the Lincolns were that rich family up the block who let their spoiled brats run all over the neighborhood with their loud cars and even louder stereos, knocking down mailboxes and shooting bottle rockets from the windows. Remember this when your parenting is called into question.

Abraham Lincoln’s life was also filled with tragedy. I’ve already mentioned the death of Ann Rutledge, but Lincoln also witnessed the early deaths of his birth mother (34), older sister (21), and two of his four children, Eddie (3) and Willie (12). Considering these events, it’s no wonder that both Abraham and Mary were at various times said to have fallen into depression. Remember this in dark times.

Not so popular in the south

By the time Lincoln entered the White House in 1860, the country was (with apologies to today’s over-dramatized social media fueled outrage) as divided as it’s ever been. Lincoln, running against not one but three other presidential contenders, was elected by a minority popular vote, and his political stances, as well as his non-aristocratic upbringing, were under fire from all sides. I was particularly intrigued by the cruelty and outright racism displayed in the political cartoons on display at the museum. For someone who was to be immortalized not only on our currency and in statues around the country, BUT ALSO IN A CARVING IN THE SIDE OF A FREAKING MOUNTAIN, Lincoln was certainly unpopular in his own time. Several times, satirists depicted him as the very devil himself, or as a dancing monkey or court jester.  Abolitionists didn’t think him progressive enough, while traditionalists despised his anti-slavery rhetoric. Foreign cartoonists seemed to await the fall of the US under Lincoln’s watch with gleeful anticipation. Remember this when you can’t seem to do anything right, or when nay-sayers pop out from behind every corner.

Gettysburg Address - Lincoln Museum

Of course, we all know the rest of the story. The Civil war, the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address. All were enormous steps towards equality, freedom, and unity by quite probably the best president in United States history. A man who was able to do that job not only because of what he believed but also because of who he was. And “who he was” came about through a series of failures and mis-steps, trials and triumphs, tragedy and pain, long hours and sleepless nights. He pushed through the darkness and held fast to his convictions to ultimately fulfill his purpose.

This is what I took away from our few hours in Springfield. I’ll try to remember to draw on it the next time I could use a little hope. Thanks for continuing to teach us, Mr. Lincoln.

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