Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The most photographed man in America when this, the last photograph of Lincoln, was taken April 10th, 1865.

Four days later he would be shot in the back of the head at point blank range, with his wife sitting beside him, while they were laughing. The murderer chose the funniest line in the play, hoping the laughter would muffle the sound of the gunshot. You can imagine the scene, with the First Lady screaming in horror, Major Henry Rathbone grappling with the attacker before being knifed, and the audience finishing the laughter, looking up toward the commotion. The round slug lodged six inches inside the president's brain. His wife held him as he bled and slipped into a coma, dying nine hours later, across the street.

This is my favorite photo of Lincoln, with that satisfied smile that replaces the dour look in so many of the other photos of him. He had reason to smile: the Civil War had been ended and won, but he also had reason to be dour. It was a brutal war, with 3 percent of the population of the country dying as a result. In the South, it killed one in five males. To be a leader in wartime presents challenges few men face and could handle courageously, but a war such as this is unimaginable in this day and age.

Abraham Lincoln is known for freeing the slaves, of course, but his principle intent was to hold the country together. He was quoted as saying:

"I would save the Union. I would save it the shortest way under the Constitution. The sooner the national authority can be restored; the nearer the Union will be 'the Union as it was.' My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that."

He would do both. After he signed the Emancipation Proclamation to free the slaves, he said:

"I never, in my life, felt more certain that I was doing right, than I do in signing this paper."

And in a letter to a friend wrote:

"If slavery is not wrong, nothing is wrong."

America today is often known for its history of slavery, but it is America that fought and died to free slaves. America led the world in ending slavery, where no country would. I expect Lincoln knew this, and he knew that if the Union could not be saved, there would be little hope of ever ending slavery, among other things, which is why he put saving the country ahead of ending slavery. It would be repeated over the next 150 years, that America would shed its blood for what is noble and right, and in this case, at the dangerous cost of risking the whole Union. Lincoln was a man who had his principles lined up in order of importance.

He kept the country together in its darkest hour, and getting people to work together was one of the things Lincoln did best. He was famous for hiring his opponents on in cabinet positions, so they could argue it out in his company and be forced to cooperate -instead of taking potshots from afar. I believe he had a secret to this success, and it was grace. His last official act as president was signing a pardon for a man who had thrice been convicted of espionage for the Confederates and was sentenced to die. That was Lincoln's intent for the South: forgiveness. Once, when a general asked Lincoln how the defeated Confederates should be treated, Lincoln replied, "Let 'em up easy." He signed the pardon, and it made him late for the play.

Lincoln and the First Lady went in to the booth at the theater and, though the play was paused to announce the president's arrival, the crowd cheered and applauded. They sat next to Major Henry Rathbone and his fiance, Clara Harris, who were the only people to accept the Lincoln's invitation. As the play went on, Mrs. Lincoln snuggled up to her husband and they held hands. She whispered, "What will Miss Harris think of my hanging on to you so?" The president replied, "She won't think anything about it." Those were his last words.

It's surprising to see Lincoln smiling at all in that photo. On the day of his assassination, Lincoln had told his wife that they must be more cheerful, as "between the war and the loss of our darling Willie, we have both been very miserable."

In February, 1862, two of the four Lincoln boys became ill with typhoid fever, possibly from drinking polluted water in the White House. While Tad recovered, Willie gradually declined, and died a few weeks later at age 11. His death devastated his parents. Lincoln was especially fond of Willie, who he felt had a mind like his own. Those who knew the boy considered him intelligent, generous, and kind-hearted. He also had a mischievous streak, which Lincoln was known to have encouraged. During Lincoln's train ride to Washington in February of 1861, Willie would ask visitors, "Do you want to see Old Abe?" and point to someone else.

After Willie's death, Mary Lincoln could not bring herself to attend his funeral, remained bedridden for three weeks, and would not emerge in public for months afterwards. Lincoln, who had stayed at Willie's side through his illness, shut himself in his bedroom in the White House after his son's funeral to weep. He often had dreams of spending time with his son and he never fully recovered from the loss. He was so distraught over Willie dying, that he had Willie's coffin exhumed twice so he could look at and hold him again.

Lincoln was no stranger to loss and heartache. Willie had been born about ten months after his brother Eddie died on February 1, 1850 at the age of 3.

And Lincoln knew failure. Back in 1832, at the start of his career, Abraham Lincoln lost his job and was defeated for the Illinois state legislature. The following year, his business failed. When he was finally elected to the state legislature, his first sweetheart died and he had a nervous breakdown. He was then defeated for the position of House Speaker and then ran for Congress, but lost again. He was elected the second time he ran, but then lost the renomination. He ran for U.S. Senate after that, but lost, and then even lost a second time when he ran for Senate again four years later.

He is considered by many historians to be our greatest president. He was born on this day, 199 years ago. I put the flag out.

"I claim not to have controlled events, but confess plainly that events have controlled me."