Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Land o' Lincoln....

Mr. Lincoln's hat
 I don't believe in President's Day.  I consider the mongrelization of the former holidays of George Washington's and Abraham Lincoln's birthdays to be nearly sacrilegious.   Either these men are giants in our country's history, worthy of recognition on the merits of their singular accomplishments in two different centuries, two eras apart.........or history has been sadly subsumed by the expediency of picking one Monday in February for Presidents' Day furniture sales.

Like I said, I'm not a fan.

Blame my upbringing in Illinois.  In the Land of Lincoln, February 12th was almost akin to a religious holiday.  Schools were closed.  The radio stations played  Aaron Copland's Lincoln Portrait, narrated sometimes by native son Carl Sandberg, other times by Gregory Peck, maybe by Henry Fonda.  Its solemn strident chords and the deliberate repetition in the excerpts of Lincoln's speeches brought to mind nothing so much as a Greek chorus declaiming with one voice the distilled wisdom of the ages.
 In memoriam: Lincoln the icon, Lincoln of cold bronze, Lincoln the martyr.

But in our household, Lincoln was a mere road trip away.  His words lived in the books on the shelf, but his footsteps had barely died away in places like the Metamora Courthouse, one of two surviving courthouses on the 8th circuit in Illinois, a four hundred and forty mile ride for the country lawyer.

The village of New Salem, where young Abraham Lincoln's flatboat got stuck on a mill dam in 1831, survived for just twelve years.  But from here Lincoln fought in the Black Hawk war, ran and lost his first election, failed as a small businessman,  and began the study of law.  The CCC rebuilt New Salem in the 1930s, but it looked to me like Mr. Lincoln could walk right out of his general store and commence to hobnobbing and telling his tall tales to any passersby.

Why this affinity for the sixteenth President?

My father had a framed copy of the famous letter allegedly penned by Lincoln to Mrs. Bixby, the widow who lost five sons in the Civil War, on the wall of his den. I stopped to read that letter often, admiring the  gravity and graciousness of the text.  I continue to be touched by the Biblical cadences of the second Inaugural Address graven on the walls of the Lincoln Memorial. As a child, I agonized over which Presidential memorial to purchase with my souvenir money....I thought the setting of the Jefferson memorial was the prettiest, the heft of the Washington monument most satisfying, but the man honored by the Lincoln memorial the most courageous.

It wasn't just the words.  Photographs, grainy and gray as they are, of Lincoln throughout his presidency and the war made him as familiar to me when I was young as the current occupant of the White House.  My imagination constructed no barriers between me and that April night in 1865 when Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln sat in that honored open box in Ford's Theater. There was nothing between me and weighty history but air.

Nor do I intend that George Washington get short shrift.   I've read his own words in his journals about his farm at Mount Vernon and sat on his porch overlooking the grand vista of the Potomac.You can imagine him just around the corner checking on his fruit trees or inspecting his sheep on an early spring day.

 My complaint is with the notion that our calendars are so encumbered that they cannot bear the burden of remembering and appreciating two of the heroic figures of our history.  My proposal is simple:  a celebration of American history between Lincoln and Washington for the entire 10 days between their birthdays.

Anachronism overload alert!
....Presidents' Fortnight....?

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