It’s been 213 years since the birth of Abraham Lincoln in rural Kentucky on February 12, 1809 – and 157 years since an assassin’s bullet mortally wounded America’s 16th president on Good Friday of 1865 inside Washington, D.C.’s, Ford’s Theatre.
In the years since that fateful April night, well over 15,000 books have been written about “Honest Abe” – more titles than on any single person, with the exception of Jesus of Nazareth.
Revered for his strong and principled leadership navigating the country through the Civil War, including his decision to emancipate slaves in Confederate states, few presidents have faced more strife and stress than Mr. Lincoln. There’s been a lot of speculation about how the Illinois lawyer successfully endured such hardships, with many pointing to his Christian faith as one of the reasons he was able to weather his years in the White House.
But Abraham Lincoln’s faith has nevertheless been a point of both conversation and controversy. As a youngster, he reportedly objected to his parent’s Baptist denomination, eventually becoming known as the “Village Atheist.” However, his writings and speeches over the years would seem to suggest there was a softening and perhaps even a conversion to Christianity.
In fact, reflecting on the Holy Scriptures, President Lincoln once wrote:
In regard to this Great Book, I have but to say, it is the best gift God has given to man. All the good the Saviour gave to the world was communicated through this book. But for it, we could not know right from wrong. All things most desirable for man’s welfare, here and hereafter, are to be found portrayed in it.”
Mary Lincoln, the president’s wife, once told a friend that on the very night the president was shot, he told her he wanted to visit Israel following his second term in order to “see the places hallowed by the footsteps of the Saviour.
On what would be the final night of President Lincoln’s life, the first couple settled into the presidential box to watch “Our American Cousin,” a satirical comedy play. John Wilkes Booth, bitter about the Union’s victory in the war, then shot the President at close range. Only days earlier, Booth had been at the White House listening to President Lincoln declare victory from a second story window. Booth reportedly told a friend ominously that evening, “That is the last speech he will make.”
After Booth fired into the back of Lincoln’s head, a medic and two doctors carried the gravely wounded chief executive out of the theatre and across the street to the Petersen boarding house. He died there the next morning.
The contents of Lincoln’s pockets have long been a point of morbid curiosity. According to the Library of Congress:
The items consist of one pair of gold-rimmed spectacles with sliding temples and with one of the bows mended with string; one pair of folding spectacles in a silver case; an ivory pocket knife with silver mounting; a watch fob of gold-bearing quartz, mounted in gold; an oversize white Irish linen handkerchief with “A. Lincoln” embroidered in red cross-stitch; a sleeve button with a gold initial “L” on dark blue enamel; and a pencil with a brown leather wallet, lined in purple silk with compartments for notes, U.S. currency, and railroad tickets.
The wallet held a Confederate five-dollar bill and eight newspaper clippings. The clippings were from papers printed immediately before Lincoln’s death, containing complimentary remarks about him written during his campaign for reelection to the Presidency. The Confederate five-dollar bill may have been acquired as a souvenir when Lincoln visited Petersburg and Richmond earlier in the month.
It seems anticlimactic and almost unfathomable for a president who freed the slaves and kept a fractured country together to die tragically in a borrowed bed with a pair of broken glasses, a worthless $5 bill and a couple of railroad tickets in his pockets, doesn’t it?
But such is the fleeting and fragile nature of life itself. Death is no respecter of person nor position. Presidents die just like everyone else – and four of the 45 men who have held the office have died by assassination.
It’s important to remember great men like Abraham Lincoln, though of late, all of our presidents are now lumped together for a “President’s Day” federal holiday, held on the third Monday of February. But not all presidents are equal, and not by a lot. We need to remind our children who they were and the great things they did.
But as we draw another year away from Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, now more than two centuries ago, his wit and wisdom still resonate and can still remind us that though the more things change, the more they remain the same.
Of late, Americans have grown weary of being misled and lied to on a number of hot button issues. Who can you believe anymore? It seems President Lincoln faced a similarly volatile climate, once remarking, “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.”
Are you listening, Washington?
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