In tribute to President Lincoln, who we honor (along with Washington) on this President’s holiday, I’d like to reflect upon the spirit of the man who ruled as President over our nation during one of the country’s most difficult and trying times. It seems significant that Lincoln, who became a political force in his time, was able to achieve what he did, while still hanging onto a gentle kindness, an appreciation for laughter and a devotion to literature. When he was a young man, working as a clerk in the Springfield store, a gentleman came into the store badly in need of money. He had a barrel full of old things that he wanted to get rid of. As the D’Aulaire’s note in their biography of Lincoln, ” Abe had no need of the barrel, but he bought it for half a dollar to help the man. When he opened the barrel he found at the bottom the book he needed to study law.” Abe had been hankering to begin the study of law, and by this simple act of kindness found exactly what he needed–Blackstone’s Law. He would be devoted to Blackstone for the remainder of his life, but the lesson here is in his very simple act of wanting to help someone else, he also helped himself.
Lincoln was also devoted to learning to laugh, and spent considerable time perfecting this art. He studied Aesop’s Fables faithfully and found in them the insight he needed to understand life, and to take a humorous slant on many of its more difficult aspects. He used this humor to tease his stepmother, whom he loved dearly. The D’Aulaire’s note that as Abe sprouted to his six foot four height during adolescence she teased him,
“I can always wash your muddy footsteps from the floor, Abe, but keep your head clean so you won’t be leaving tracks along my whitewashed ceiling.” Abe grinned, scratched his head, and thought of a joke. When his stepmother went out for a while, he took a little boy with muddy feet, lifted him up and walked him like a fly across the ceiling. “Abe, I should thrash you,” said the stepmother when she came back. But she laughed at the joke instead. And with a pail of whitewash Abe made the ceiling white and clean again.”
During his debates with Stephen Douglas, the senator accused Lincoln of being two-faced. Lincoln quipped back, “If I had another face, do you think I’d wear this one?” And during the Civil War when General McClelland refused to march on Richmond, Lincoln wrote him, “Dear General, If you do not want to use the army, I would like to borrow it for a day or two.”
Other pithy statements of Lincoln include:
You can fool some of the people all of the time, and all of the people some of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all of the time.
Whenever I hear anyone arguing for slavery, I feel a strong impulse to see it tried on him personally.
If this is coffee, please bring me some tea; if this is tea, please bring me some coffee.
No matter how much cats fight, there always seem to be plenty of kittens.
During his time as clerk in Springfield Abe made the acquaintance of Jack Kelso–the village philosopher. Though Kelso did little work, he was the first to open to young Lincoln the beauty of Shakespeare and Burns. Lincoln nurtured his love for Shakespeare throughout his life and took the plays with him to read whenever he traveled. He also memorized quantities of Shakespeare and found reverberations within the plays that spoke to deep places within his heart. In a letter to a friend, comic actor and Falstaff-specialist James Hackett, Lincoln mused,
Some of Shakespeare’s plays I have never read; while others I have gone over perhaps as frequently as any unprofessional reader. Among the latter are Lear, Richard Third, Henry Eighth, Hamlet, and especially Macbeth. I think nothing equals Macbeth. It is wonderful. Unlike you gentlemen of the profession, I think the soliloquy in Hamlet commencing “O, my offense is rank” surpasses that commencing “To be or not to be.”
James Daugherty notes in his biography, Abraham Lincoln, that after the fall of Richmond and the surrender of Lee at Appomattox Court House, Lincoln and his cabinet were returning to Washington on the River Queen steamboat. It was Palm Sunday. “All day the talk had been about literature, and he [Lincoln] had read aloud for hours to friends from a volume of Shakespeare’s plays. Macbeth was speaking with a soft Kentucky drawl. He read and reread the lines, and paused to comment here and there on favorite passages.” The lines that seemed to strike Lincoln most intently and ones he repeated and commented upon were:
Better be with the dead,
Whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace,
Than on the torture of the mind to lie
In restless ecstasy. Duncan is in his grave.
After life’s fitful fever he sleeps well.
Treason has done his worst; nor steel nor poison,
Malice domestic, foreign levy, nothing
Can touch him further. (Macbeth, 3.2.19–26)
The man who had led the nation through its most horrific war, whose life had been marked by countless acts of kindness and clemency, doubtless felt deeply the loss of the thousands of young soldiers that had made the ultimate sacrifice. Did the lines “whom we, to gain our peace, have sent to peace” speak to him on that score? Having laid two of his own beloved sons to rest, Lincoln doubtless identified deeply with the mourning of a nation bereft of its sons. Did Lincoln also have a strange presentiment of his eminent rest? These things occurred just five days before his death.
As we remember Lincoln’s life it behooves us to follow in the footsteps of one who lived his life so well. His life was marked by kindness, laughter, and a deep appreciation for the complexity and pathos of life. He loved literature because it helped him make sense of life’s greatest challenges and find laughter, joy, and ultimately peace in the midst of them.