The tall, gangly and newly bearded man known as “Mr. Lincoln” traveled vast distances in his lifetime of 50-plus years. Born in the backwoods of Kentucky, he grew up in the new frontiers of Indiana and Illinois. He worked in all places in all manner of jobs: as a farmer, a rail-splitter, village store clerk, rural postmaster, country lawyer and as an aspiring politician. He did what he could to survive. Lean and sinewy, he could hold his own against any obstacle whether it be man (like the Clary Grove boys) or beast (he could wrestle pigs on an overturned flatboat on the Mississippi River). But when it came to the sublime or the beautiful, he could become withdrawn and shy, especially when encountering his social “betters” or more likely, the comely and kindly “women folk.”
He grew up and worked in many places, traversing by every means possible, whether it was on foot, on horseback, in a hansom cab, in the aforementioned Mississippi flatboat or later, mostly by rail. But the hardest journey of all was the one he had been elected to, as the soon-to-be President of the United States. On Feb. 11, 1861, he left his home in Springfield, Ill., for the national capital.
It was to be a journey to an uncertain future. True, he had been elected to the nation’s highest office the previous November; it was an office that any politician worth his salt aspired to. In making his candidacy for the presidency known in a time when party nominees did not openly campaign, he had written to a correspondent not long before that confessing that “the taste was in my mouth a little.”
Abraham Lincoln was a politician, and proud of it. Despite his local political background, the only national office he ever held prior to the presidency was that as a member of the House of Representatives for a single term in the 1840s. (His only accomplishment of note in those years was his demand of President Polk as to the exact location of where the Mexican War originated—thus earning him the sobriquet of “Spotty Lincoln.”) In the intervening years, he settled down and gotten married to Mrs. Lincoln, Mary Todd, his “Molly,” a transplanted Southern socialite who saw something in this man no one else did and married him, to the exclusion of more polished and accomplished suitors. (On election night he left the telegraph office and the celebrations and bid the others “goodnight” so that he could go home to tell his Mary that “we are elected.”) But when the news came that he was the president-elect, it was a sober victory because he would have to work to bring together a badly divided country shortly to be racked by a ironically named Civil War.
Mr. Lincoln was a man with a heavy weight upon his shoulders, and it wasn’t just the heavy grips he had packed for the trip, with the trunks labeled “A. Lincoln, The White House, Washington, D.C.” The heavy weight upon his shoulders were the emotional ones of leave-taking and the assumption of his presidential responsibilities, more than any man could possibly bear—responsibilities which he willingly accepted and ones which very few appreciated. His very election broke the secessionist crisis right out into the open; seven southern states left the Union and more were to follow. He was reviled by many and death was threatened by a few. And there were those who were on the Union side who looked askance at him and the international community wondered whether the country that was the “United States of America” would be so any more before long.
And so it was on that day, Feb. 11, 1861, that he soberly boarded the train headed toward Washington, D.C. It was the day before his birthday—his 52nd—and the cold, rainy weather reflected everyone’s feelings, including his own. The man who knew sorrow and sadness in his life often fought it with humor and funny stories; for he did say—and so advised—that when a person got a bad bargain in life, it was his duty to “hug it all the tighter.” (To some observers, it wasn’t clear whether he was referring to his marriage or his political fortunes.) But on this day, there was no room for humor, some cheer, or light-heartedness, though God knew—as Lincoln himself did—he surely needed it.
Instead, on that rainy cold day on the train platform, dressed in his black top hat and long black coat with a cape adorning his shoulders, he looked out at the crowd that had assembled to wish him Godspeed. Here he said words that were as memorable as the future words he would utter on many other occasions, but this was the beginning:
Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young man to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried. I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than which rested upon Washington. Without the assistance of that Divine Being, I cannot succeed. With that assistance, I cannot fail. To His care commending you, as I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell.
With that, Mr. Lincoln gave a solemn wave and departed from the life he knew in Springfield and the train moved East.
Abraham Lincoln is an endlessly fascinating figure in American history and he will ever remain so. He was born 207 years ago; but he is ever relevant to our time as he was in his. He had—and has—his advocates and detractors, but it is the human Lincoln that transfixes us and teaches us still. He may be encased in marble in a great memorial, but he’d rather be remembered for the flesh and blood man he was and for what he tried to be and for what he accomplished, like any human being would. His real monument was his ability to overcome his trials and not lose his humanity in the process. And that is something today’s aspiring politicians would do well to ponder and what we as a country badly need.