Lincoln, in Brief

Good morning, it’s Monday, February 12, 2018 — the birthdate of perhaps our greatest president. “I was born Feb. 12, 1809, in Hardin County, Kentucky,” Abraham Lincoln wrote to Jesse W. Fell in December of 1859.

“My parents were both born in Virginia, of undistinguished families — second families, perhaps I should say,” Lincoln continued. “My mother, who died in my tenth year, was of a family of the name of Hanks. My father at the death of his father, was but six years of age; and he grew up, literally without education. He removed from Kentucky to what is now Spencer County, Indiana, in my eighth year. … It was a wild region, with many bears and other wild animals still in the woods. There I grew up.”

Cut down by an assassin’s bullet halfway through his presidency at age 56, Abe Lincoln did not live long enough to write his memoirs. Nor were U.S. presidents required to undergo the Gail Sheehy treatment before running for office, by which I mean that there is much we’ll never know about Lincoln’s inner life or his formative years on what was then the western frontier.

Lincoln wrote his letter at Jesse Fell’s request because the presumptive Republican presidential nominee of 1860 needed a biography for party activists to circulate. Keenly aware of his humble origins and thin résumé, Lincoln prefaced his biographical precis with two brief notes, the first a bit of self-deprecation, the second a reminder that although Lincoln managed to be simultaneously humble and noble, he was also a politician:

“If anything be made out of it, I wish it to be modest, and not to go beyond the materials,” he wrote to Fell. “If it were thought necessary to incorporate anything from any of my speeches, I suppose there would be no objection. Of course it must not appear to have been written by myself.”

As for the self-deprecation, that was classic Lincoln: “Herewith is a little sketch, as you requested. There is not much of it, for the reason, I suppose, that there is not much of me.”

But there was much of him indeed, and his fellow Americans still know it now and certainly knew it then. His 1860 election was much feared by Southerners, who it might be said all these years later were correct in their estimation of Abraham Lincoln’s true grit.

Before he was martyred at Ford’s Theater, the 16th president of the United States would preserve the Union, free the slaves, and set the bar so high for public virtue and presidential eloquence that his successors are mostly content to quote him rather than try and outdo him.

Happy Birthday, Abe!

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)
ccannon@realclearpolitics.com

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