By Ryan Hilligoss, November 2012
“My brother need not be idealized, or enlarged in death beyond what he was in life; to be remembered simply as a good and decent man, who saw wrong and tried to right it, saw suffering and tried to heal it, saw war and tried to stop it. Those of us who loved him and who take him to his rest today, pray that what he was to us and what he wished for others will some day come to pass for all the world. As he said many times, in many parts of this nation, to those he touched and who sought to touch him: ‘Some men see things as they are and say why. I dream things that never were and say why not.” Edward Kennedy in his eulogy to brother Robert F Kennedy, June 1968.
Since Abraham Lincoln’s death in April of 1865, no other person in American history, or world history perhaps, has been more enlarged in death beyond what he was in life. Many scholars claim that Lincoln has had more books and words written about him than any other person in history, only behind Jesus, George Washington and Napoleon Bonaparte. Well, here are a few more words, written by two boys from the Land of Lincoln.
The above photo speaks volumes to what has happened to Lincoln since his death. He has been turned into a world-class icon, symbol of justice, freedom and righteousness, and a demigod. Like a greek deity, literally chiseled in granite, he sits in his own temple high on the mountaintop gazing over the nation. And how could it not since probably more than any other, Abraham Lincoln’s life stands as testament to the possibilities of this country. Lincoln himself said, “I happen temporarily to occupy this big White House. I am living witness that any one of your children may look to come here as my father’s child has.”
On February 12, 1809, he was born in a one room log cabin in the rural wilderness of Kentucky in Hardin County to Thomas and Nancy Lincoln. His father quickly moved to the backwoods of Indiana, partially to remove his family and farm from the slavery environment which Thomas thought he could never compete against slavery plantations with their free labor. When he was nine, Abraham’s mother died of milk poisoning. Thomas Lincoln left his two young children alone to fend for themselves to survive the harsh conditions of wintry Indiana while he went off to find a new wife. The two children barely survived the arduous conditions but were greeted the following spring by the return of his father who had married Sarah Bush Lincoln, a widow with three children of her own. Abraham quickly took to his step mother and thrived emotionally and intellectually under her attentions including literacy. Abraham attended school sporadically due to both a lack of rural schools and his father’s need for him to work on the farm. Lincoln often claimed he worked with an axe cutting wood everyday of his life from between the ages of four and twenty-five. He was self-taught and read every book he could beg or borrow from neighbors including the King James Bible, Aesop’s Fables, Robinson Crusoe and Ben Franklin’s Autobiography. Thomas Lincoln moved his family to Illinois and Abraham helped his father build another log cabin near Charleston, Illinois.
Twice, he barely avoided death, once being kicked in the head by a horse and secondly, nearly drowning while crossing a flood swollen creek. At the age of twenty-two, Lincoln ‘lit out for the territories’ seeking his own stake in the world and floated down the Sangamon River and ended up in New Salem, Illinois, twenty miles from Springfield. From there, he quickly rose from the squalor of abject poverty by owning a general store, serving as captain in the Illinois militia during the Black Hawk War, self-learning the law and passing the bar, and serving in the Illinois State Assembly while developing a successful law office in Springfield.
But as a native-born son of Illinois, the Land of Lincoln as it says on our license plates, I can attest to a slightly more intimate relationship with Old Abe, the Rail Splitter. For I have travelled in his footsteps, both knowingly and simply by perchance in living my life in all it’s stages. I was born in Springfield, Illinois and have spent a good amount of time over my lifetime in that city, home of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, the national Park Service Lincoln Home, the old state capitol in which Lincoln served and debated, and the Lincoln Tomb and Memorial. I was raised and went to school in the Mississippi River town of Alton, Il, site of one of the famous Lincoln Douglas debates of 1858. Alton was also the location of Lincoln’s “victorious” duels.
In 1842, James Shield’s the Auditor of the state of Illinois, confronted Lincoln at a local tavern in Springfield about a series of “Letters to the Editor” in the Sangamon Journal, which were signed by Rebecca. Shields accused Mary Todd of writing the letters which impugned his reputation. Lincoln brushed Shields aside by proclaiming that he had written said letters. Shields challenged Lincoln to a duel. Lincoln tried his best to convince Shields that dueling was unreasonable, asking him to “belly up to the bar, and settle this through conversation.” Shields insisted, a date and place agreed upon, dueling was illegal in Illinois. The duel was to occur on the Missouri side of the Mississippi River, on Sunflower Island. They may have ridden the same train to Alton, and again Lincoln tried to appeal to Shields’ common sense and to call the duel off. Shields refused.
They rowed out to Sunflower Island and when Lincoln was asked as to his choice of weapons, he surprisingly chose broadswords. Lincoln took his sword and went beneath a maple tree where he commenced to warm-up, swing the heavy sword as a well experience rail-splitter would, sending leaves, twigs, and branches flying in every direction. Shields stood by watching Lincoln’s pre-duel antics, and was struck by the fact that Lincoln had an obvious advantage. Shields approached Lincoln, advised he had reconsidered and decided that just maybe “they should return to Alton, find an agreeable saloon, and settle their disagreeable argument over a drink. Lincoln agreed.
During our college years, we both attended Eastern Illinois University in Charleston, Illinois. We once visited the Lincoln Homestead south of town and travelled the same roads as Lincoln did, he on horseback, us in an automobile riding in quiet, smooth comfort. Lincoln rode by horseback through the same fields our family plowed while serving as a prairie lawyer. Twice a year for 16 years, 10 weeks at a time, he appeared in county seats in the mid state region when the county courts were in session. Lincoln handled many transportation cases in the midst of the nation’s western expansion, particularly the conflicts arising from the operation of river barges under the many new railroad bridges. As a riverboat man, Lincoln initially favored those interests, but ultimately represented whoever hired him. His reputation grew, and he appeared before the Supreme Court of the United States, arguing a case involving a canal boat that sank after hitting a bridge. In 1849, he received a patent for a flotation device for the movement of boats in shallow water. The idea was never commercialized, but Lincoln is the only president to hold a patent. Our paternal family came from the farms of northern Coles County, many living in and around the small town of Humboldt, Illinois. During a return trip to Springfield, after visiting his stepmother south of Charleston in the early 1850’s, Lincoln stopped in Humboldt, Illinois to have an aching tooth looked at by Dr. Wampler. Dr. Wampler extracted the tooth and Lincoln went on his way.
Walking the same sidewalks and streets he walked in Springfield, driving the same roads he travelled in Coles County and being from the same area gives one a little sense of what he was like and his personal background, the terrain of his character. So, he seems a little more real and of the land than perhaps someone from another country visiting our nation’s capitol and taking in his marble visage at the memorial on the mall. Each and every one of us has defining moments in our lives. Moments that in a split second, strike with a clarity and the power of lightning which you carry for the rest of your lives. One of my moments concerned Lincoln and proved that he was just a man. A man who was not adored and revered by all as I had incorrectly assumed. He was a real man, loved my many and hated by many. A man filled with the same frailties and failings of humanity as the rest of us, not some deep voiced spirit from on high.
While on a road trip with my father, brother and cousin, we visited the Gettysburg national battleground and cemetery in southeastern Pennsylvania. We also did some shopping in the myriad gift shops around town (There’s nothing quite like seeing a Chevrolet Auto dealer sitting next to Civil War monuments. Although I always thought US Grant was a Ford man). After walking into a store, I overheard the owner tell a customer that as a southerner, she was glad Lincoln was shot and killed as a repayment for all the crimes he had committed against the south. To say the least, I was stunned, dumbfounded and shocked to my core because of all the meanings inherent in that statement. This explains part of what happened shortly thereafter. There had been a Civil War battle reenactment going on that week on the same fields that thousands had died upon back in 1863, so there were reenactors in full battle gear and dress walking the streets. As we drove through town on our way home, four confederate soldiers were walking down a sidewalk, and in a fit of rage brought on by the store owner, I rolled my window down, stuck my head through the opening and yelled at the flabbergasted actors, “The south lost you assholes, get over it!!!!!!”
The Movie: 5 Stars Out of 4(Yes, you read that right)
More recently, our nation’s finest president has been shown to have been an earthly manifestation again and brought to life before our eyes in Steven Spielberg’s superlative movie, Lincoln. Lincoln is portrayed by modern-day shape shifter, Daniel Day-Lewis, who has a habit of living and breathing in character, on and off the set during a project, much like Robert Deniro did when he gave a damn, ie as Jake Lamotte in Raging Bull. The movie has a great script by Tony Kushner. Great acting all around including David Straitharn as Secretary of State William Seward, Sally Fields as long-suffering Mary Todd Lincoln, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Robert Todd Lincoln and James Spader as a 19th century political consultant brought in to procure badly needed votes in the House of Representatives.
Kushner, the writer of Angels in America and Munich among many others, originally wanted to write a biopic on the 16th president’s entire life, but he and Spielberg realized it would be nearly impossible to film such a project, instead focuses the script on the four months in 1865 between the passage of the 13th amendment, the end of the Civil War and Lincoln’s assassination. He uses Doris Kearns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals as the basis for much of the film. The 13th amendment abolished slavery and indentured servitude, except as punishment for a crime. Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, but it was issued as an executive order and did not carry the legal authority to abolish slavery in itself, only prohibiting slavery in the confederate states. Lincoln and many others wanted to make the measure permanent and sought constitutional remedy through the amendment.
There were three scenes in the film that clearly allow the viewer to see Lincoln at some of his most humanistic, personal and intimate moments. All three involve his young son Thomas, better known as Tad, and all three come at critical moments in the film and in the story. And that is why I give the film more stars than possible. No only is it a great film made possible by fine actors, great writing, directing, cinematography, music score, etc. But in addition, Day-Lewis, and by extension Spielberg, breathes fresh life into a man who has been canonized all around the world. This Lincoln walks straight out of the history books and off his lofty perch, and we see him as he was in life talking to his cabinet members, joking and telling stories with young soldiers in the war room and riding in a buggy with his wife talking of all the places they would travel once they retired from public office.
One of the opening scenes shows 12-year-old Tad sitting by a fire in his room in the White House looking at photographs, taken by famous Civil War photographer Mathew Brady, of slave children. One shows two young African boys, roughly the same age as Tad, standing together in chains, with the price of $700 at the bottom of the frame. While thinking this over in his mind, Tad falls asleep on the rug amongst his toys, and soon after, father Abraham enters the room, kneels down and sweeps away the toys and lays down next to his sleeping son and gazes at his face. He soon wakes the boy who, after rising, climbs up his father’s back for a piggyback ride down the hallway.
As the second act unfolds amidst the drama of the 13th amendment being debated in the House assembly, father and son sit in a quiet room in the White House in a rocking chair together reading a book. The sunlight cascades through the window and curtains bathing the two of them in a heavenly, timeless light. If the viewer closed their eyes, they could picture this scene in their mind as having been lifted right out of a photograph from that time.
In the final and dramatic act of which every viewer knows the ending, the trilogy of interchanges between son and father comes to a close. Robert E Lee surrendered to General US Grant on April 9th, 1865 at Appomatox, Va, bringing the American Civil War to a close. Five days later, on the night of April 14th, 1865, Good Friday, Abraham and Mary Lincoln went to see Our American Cousin at Ford’s Theater. Young Tad went to see a different play that same night, Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp. After the assassination at Ford’s, the news spread quickly through town, and Tad’s play was interrupted with a stage manager announcing the news to an astonished crowd. Upon hearing that his father was shot, Tad broke out into sobs of grief and was consoled by hisassigned escort. In that moment of grief, you can see in that little boy’s face that yes, the nation had lost their president and their leader through the country’s worst times, but this little boy had lost his all too real father.
Once Lincoln passed, Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, uttered, “Now he belongs to the ages.” (The exact words he said are debatable as some remember him saying, “Now he belongs to the Angels.”) And the country quickly put him onto a pedestal as a revered gift from above. But, as for Tad and Robert, they would miss their father, and Mary would miss her husband. Later, Tad stated on the death of his father, “Pa is dead. I can hardly believe that I shall never see him again. I must learn to take care of myself now. Yes, Pa is dead, and I am only Tad Lincoln now, little Tad, like other little boys. I am not a president’s son now. I won’t have many presents anymore. Well, I will try and be a good boy, and will hope to go someday to Pa and brother Willie, in heaven.”
Near the end of the movie, there is an indelible scene between Lincoln and US Grant as they sit on the front porch of a house in Virginia. Lincoln confers with Grant on how to handle the surrender with Lee, and Lincoln also gives his wishes on how to treat the confederate soldiers and to send them home to their families and farms, ‘with malice towards none.’ After speaking, Grant takes in Lincoln’s features and tells him that he looks like he has aged 10 years since they saw each other last one year ago. Never one to concern himself much with his appearance, Lincoln chuckles and states, ” Yes, I suppose weariness has eaten at my bones.” Indeed, if you look at pictures from that time, you can see a marked difference in his features between taking office in 1861 and his death four years later. It is as if time accelerated and he took on the weight of the nation during those years. Lincoln would often travel to the Soldiers’ Home in Washington and visit the returning injured soldiers and spend time with them. He would go to the War Room and wait for news of the latest battles and the fatality numbers to pour across the telegraph wire. But more importantly and most stressful, he weighed over every decision on how best to end the war, end the issue of slavery that had and still does plague this nation, and ‘bind up the nation’s wounds.’
“With malice towards none; with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gave us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle; and for his widow, and his orphan- to do all which may achieve and cherish a just, and a lasting peace, among ourselves, and with all nations.” Abraham Lincoln, second inaugural address, 1865.
While watching the movie and in doing some research for this piece, I was reminded several times of Robert Kennedy’s speech on the night of April 4, 1968 and the echoes of Lincoln’s own words and the lasting causes and effects of the Civil War that we still deal with to this day. In 1968, amidst tumultuous times including the war in Vietnam, unrest on college campuses, race riots, and incredible changes in society, Robert Kennedy decided to run for president and began campaigning across the nation. On April 4th of that year, Martin Luther King, Jr was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee while he stood on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel. Riots broke out across the country in many cities as the news spread. Kennedy had been scheduled to give a speech in Indianapolis that night and heard the news after his plane landed that night. The police department and his advisors warned against him going, but Kennedy, who was never deterred from doing what he thought was the just, proper thing to do, went anyway.
Kennedy delivered the news that night to the crowd, many of whom were not yet aware of the situation, and then gave one of the most touching, decent speeches of his or anyone’s career. His words still ring out today and point to the further decay of our political differences and inability to take action to solve problems facing all of us here in America and around the world. “What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness; but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or they be black.” Below you can watch the entire speech.
By Ryan Hilligoss and Robert Lee Hilligoss