Lincoln’s life lesson on saving democracy

A towering man faced the townspeople in the morning rain and chill. His parting words from a train made the throng of one thousand weep. He was near tears. The journey ahead would be long, hard and bloody.

The date: Feb. 11, 1861. The town: Springfield, Illinois. The man: President-elect Abraham Lincoln. The next day: his 52nd birthday. He, his wife, Mary, and their sons were Washington-bound.

I gave a birthday party for Lincoln on Presidents Day weekend.

The nation was in peril as Lincoln spoke. Unheralded events fell squarely on his shoulders. The Supreme Court had delivered a terrible decision on race that enraged the Northern half of the nation. Several Southern states declared open rebellion from the Union.

Lincoln’s destiny — and leadership as civil war broke out — are all in the affectionate farewell. That gray day marked a new chapter for the railroad lawyer, the first president born outside the original 13 American states.

True, it’s not the Gettysburg Address, nor the powerful second inaugural. But it’s my favorite. Lincoln spoke in the moment, gathering his thoughts as he bade goodbye to people he knew and loved.

With no text, Lincoln captured his elegiac emotions so exactly that it gives you the best glimmer into his soul.

First: “To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything. Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man.”

Gratitude and humility shine in the lines.

In a small town on the prairie, there are no secrets. Everyone knows you, and you know everyone.

The town saw a beloved, brilliant young man with no schooling study law, memorize a Shakespeare play and do so well he lived in a handsome house on Eighth and Jackson. Everyone enjoyed seeing him wrestling and playing outdoors with his sons.

“Here my children have been born, and one is buried,” Lincoln continued, opening up like a book. The Lincolns’ son Eddie died at age 3.

Lincoln’s spare, haunting words are always straight to the point, never flowery. Thomas Jefferson, elegant and formal in writing, seldom showed such a direct personal voice.

Lincoln used Jefferson’s “all men are created equal” to build his vision. But he had no illusions about the Virginia gentleman genius enslaver.

Lincoln was the first president to speak and write prose that really resonates with us. It’s not too much to say he invented modern American English. His words are democratic, small “d,” for all.

With a piercing bell-like drawl from “the West,” Lincoln made himself heard before crowds. The aristocratic Jefferson mumbled softly in public, even as president.

Now the saddest part. Lincoln felt the final setting of the scene:

“I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington.”

And then the war came. Lincoln didn’t start fights — but he never lost one.

It’s little noted how much the 16th president changed in office over four years. The Civil War toll had to mean more than keeping Southern states in the Union, Lincoln resolved in the American revolution he sparked.

The war over slavery had to bring “a new birth of freedom,” as he put it in Gettysburg.

When Lincoln won the war and freed millions of enslaved people, he defended and enlarged democracy.

On a cruel April Friday in 1865, Lincoln was murdered in a conspiracy. The blessing is that the Civil War had just ended. Boston, New York and Philadelphia were jubilant.

Lincoln enjoyed the victory celebration in Washington. The capital city was illuminated one grand evening. Black and white people rejoiced in the streets.

Soon after, they kept an all-night vigil when the president was shot, the last casualty of the Civil War.

Lincoln did go home again — on a funeral train.


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