Year of the Rail-splitter
2009, as you will hear a few times next year, marks the bicentennial of the birth of Abraham Lincoln. More books and articles have been written about Lincoln than any other figure in history, outside of Jesus and Napoleon, at least that’s what I heard in a speech one time. Whether it is true or not is immaterial, unless you are still collecting royalties.
Most Americans know a lot about Lincoln, at least compared to other figures who lived 200 years ago. How much do you know about Charles Darwin who shares Lincoln’s birth year ? See what I mean ? Yet people’s perception of Lincoln change all of the time. While 200 years seems a long time, it is not as long ago as you may think.
When I was born in 1952,exactly four score and seven years after Lincoln’s assassination, there were any number of people still alive who remembered him from life. The last Civil War veteran died when I was about 7. The year I was born there were still people living who had been freed by Lincoln. Think about that. The year my mother was born, 1926, there were still people alive who had met Lincoln. Lincoln’s son Robert did not die until the 1920s. O.k. my mom is getting up there in years, but there are well over a million people in this country as old as she is. That means that there are well over a million people who had an attachment to Lincoln that was not in the least remote. Any number would have listened to stories from their grandparents about Lincoln and the war.
When I grew up, in Houston, Texas, there was still a division of people who called the war of 1861-1865 by different names. Older folks called it the “War Between the States”. Immigrants from the North and most people under 21 called it the “Civil War”. There was a political difference in the two names. The later smacks of rebellion, the former of a war between sovereign states. As I have mentioned here before, the central circulation room in the library of my youth was presided over not by pictures of Washington and Lincoln, but by those of Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee. Yet even then, views of Lincoln had changed in Texas. My father told me that during his childhood, there was a man in his hometown who would not set foot in my grandfather’s office because there was a picture of Lincoln hanging from the wall. I recall no such nonsense when I was growing up. Lincoln’s birthday was a celebrated every February 12 at my school. While certain teachers still harbored soft spots for the “lost cause” most had come to recognize that Lincoln had, all in all, done the right thing in ending slavery and preserving the union. It is hard to believe in 2008, soon to be 2009, that people had to even think about those issues. Old beliefs die hard, and people are reluctant to criticize their ancestors.
But think about it, almost exactly 200 years after Lincoln was born, a black man will take the oath of office to become President of the United States. Somewhere old Abe must be smiling, as we all should be. We will talk about Lincoln more in the coming year.