Friday, February 13, 2009
Yesterday was President Lincoln’s 200th birthday. And I didn’t want to let the day pass without posting something, sadly I did.
For about the past six months, I have been kind of obsessed with political history, especially the personalities that shaped the events. It all started when I stumbled across Gore Vidal’s Burr. His writing shed such a human light on the founders that I went on a Gore tear…and I think that his best works are those where he engages American history.
I went on to read Lincoln and 1876 in pretty close succession and then I found myself curious, but in a way that was as informed by story-telling, as history about American presidents in general…and still, especially, Lincoln.
So I read Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell. And though she researches, Garfield and William McKinley it is clearly with Lincoln that her heart lays. Her descriptions of pilgrimages to various Lincoln-related sites are often as touching as they are cheeky. Not for the reminders of Lincoln’s life and beliefs, but for what he has come to embody for people across the world.
In a secular society, he is our saint; fragments of his skull are on view at Walter Reed, and at Ford’s Theatre, in the basement museum, there’s a bloodstained collar that is enough to make the hairs on your arms stand up. And always, there is his staunch profile, forever looking forward, on the penny.
Personally, I find Lincoln fascinating because even as I lean more about him, he retreats away.
Vidal posited in Lincoln, that the president knew that his death was a conscious choice: his life for his country’s. It’s a powerful metaphor that only gains resonance. Of course, its impossible to say how much of that is true, and how much is post-humus aggrandizement by history. At the time of the second inauguration, Lincoln had lost a son and his wife was hosting séances in the White House because her grief was so great.
Now though, Lincoln sits enshrined on the Washington Mall, a silent sentry at whose steps Heads-of-State and schoolchildren come for guidance (or just to gape). These days, his is a silent blessing, but one that, I hope, gently touches the nation…even if our leaders are too consumed with their own careers to feel it.
Either way, Happy Belated Birthday, Mr. President.
Posted by madeleine at Friday, February 13, 2009