A Birthday Tribute To Abraham Lincoln

As the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth nears, Scott Simon has a tribute for the Great Emancipator.

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SCOTT SIMON, host: This week in 1809, the man considered the greatest American who ever lived was born.

(Soundbite of song "Way Down Upon the Wabash")

Mr. PETE SEEGER: (Singing) Way upon the Wabash Such land was never known If Adam had passed over it, This soil he'd surely own...

SIMON: Two hundred years later, Abe Lincoln of Illinois still seems to embody America in its contradictions - a self-educated sodbuster and rail-splitter who became renowned for silken rhetoric; the leader of a nation that was at once a beacon of liberty and a bastion for slavery; a man who said he hated war, then drove his country through the bloodiest war.

Lincoln's face has come to be seen as the very portrait of America: rough, noble, sad and strong.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: My mother used to call Abe Lincoln, my father-in-law. She had to remember his birthday each year, and make room for his picture among our family photos. My stepfather, Ralph Newman, owned the Abraham Lincoln bookshop in Chicago, which was a first stop for a lot of writers who wanted to learn about Lincoln - from Carl Sandburg to Doris Kearns Goodwin.

But Ralph was a Lincoln lover, not a scholar. He used to enjoy reminding Lincoln worshippers that the man they so rightly revered for his silver tongue also loved to tell rude jokes about the mating apparatus of horses. Ralph also imitated Lincoln's signature, the vaulting A and the L, looping like a lariat. He enjoyed signing Lincoln's name in preposterous places, like birthday cards or refrigerator notes. He once gave me a deli order on the back of an envelope: I'll have the corned beef. Yours, Abe Lincoln.

Now, Ralph's Lincoln was salty, funny and haunted. And on this 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth and with the help of a few friends who will be voices from history, I'd like to point to some of the things Ralph did to remind people of Abe Lincoln before he became a marble statue.

(Soundbite of song "Old Abe Lincoln Came Out of the Wilderness")

Unidentified Singer: (Singing) Old Abe Lincoln came out of the wilderness, Came out of the wilderness, came out of the wilderness Old Abe Lincoln came out of the wilderness, Many long years ago Many long years ago...

SIMON: Abe Lincoln was the butt of a lot of jokes. At times, he was a laughingstock. Lincoln lost as many elections as he won, and he won less than 40 percent of the vote to get elected president. Few men in public life had been as widely mocked. General George McClellan, the wildly popular commander of the Union Army, said...

Unidentified Man #1: The president is an idiot, a prairie baboon, a blood-thirsty tyrant.

SIMON: McClellan built the largest standing army in history, then shrank from sending the men who idolized him into battle. This exasperated Lincoln, who told his Cabinet, if General McClellan is not using his army, I would like to borrow it. McClellan told his wife in a letter, November 1861...

Unidentified Man #1: I went to the White House shortly after tea when I found the original gorilla, about as intelligent as ever. What a specimen to be at the head of our affairs now.

SIMON: McClellan would run against Lincoln in 1864 on a Democratic peace platform. Peace Democrats, sometimes called copperheads, were nominally against slavery, but they also thought it was part of the South's heritage. Anyhow, they didn't think it was worth a war to abolish it. Publisher Marcus M. Pomeroy of Wisconsin fulminated...

Unidentified Man #2: Lincoln is but the fungus from the corrupt womb of bigotry and fanaticism, a worse tyrant and more inhumane butcher than has existed since the days of Nero. And if he is elected to misgovern for another four years, we trust some bold hand will pierce his heart with dagger point for the public good.

SIMON: Which kind of makes Rush Limbaugh and Michael Moore seem tame. And do you think that Europeans have ridiculed only recent U.S. presidents? When Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation in 1864, the Times of London denounced him as a brutal stooge. POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863.

Unidentified Man #3: A foul-tongued, ribald punster, the most despicable tyrant of modern days has now signed a document that will humiliate the Confederacy and make peace unfathomable. It is an avowed step towards the foundation of military despotism.

SIMON: Lincoln could reply sharply to his critics, but he was more noted for making himself the butt of his jokes, not because he necessarily bore malice toward none, but as Ralph, my stepfather, believed, because Lincoln had self-esteem to spare. He knew how to win - at wrestling, as a boy in the courtroom, as a grown man, and finally, politics.

In 1864, Lincoln was informed by the War Department that five sons of Mrs. Lydia Bixby of Massachusetts had been killed in battle.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: In his own hand, he wrote her...

Unidentifed Man #4: I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the republic they died to save.

SIMON: When the fog of war lifted, it developed that only two Bixby sons had died in battle. Another two had deserted. One was a prisoner of war. Lincoln wrote their mother...

Unidentifed Man #4: I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom. Yours very sincerely and respectfully, Abe Lincoln.

SIMON: It turned out that Lydia Bixby was a copperhead. She abhorred Lincoln and told friends she had destroyed his letter. So how did it appear in the Boston Evening transcript? How did so many lithographic copies get printed and passed around to attest to the president's solicitude in humanity?

Well, my stepfather, Ralph, thought the answer was obvious. Lincoln made certain that the newspapers saw his letter to Lydia Bixby before Mrs. Bixby did. He pointed out that all of Lincoln's most famous handwritten letters were carefully composed to fill just a single page, ready to be framed and for mass reproduction. Lincoln was humbled before God - not in politics.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: Lincoln was self-educated. He really read only three works deeply: the King James Bible, the plays of Shakespeare, and the Illinois Criminal Code. They were the right ones. Ralph believed that Lincoln learned cadence and parable from King James; precedent, lawyers' parables from the law; simile and paradox from Shakespeare.

Churchill and Nehru were among a small number of other chiefs of state whose letters and speeches can also be read as literature. But Lincoln's most indelible speeches are remarkably reflective instead of oratorical. Even as he sought to inspire resolve, he confided doubts. In his famous second inaugural address, Lincoln spoke with remorse for both what the South had died to defend and what the North had done to win.

(Soundbite of Abraham Lincoln)

Unidentifed Man #5: Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes his aid against the other. The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The almighty has his own purposes.

SIMON: Now, imagine if there was live broadcast coverage today of Sherman's burning of Atlanta.

Unidentifed Man #6: We can see Union soldiers setting torches to all the warehouses, shops and food stores. The railroad depot is in flames. People are hungry and shivering. Lost children wander the streets. This city is smoldering. General Sherman's men are marching out of Atlanta and leaving just ruins behind.

SIMON: How would the American people react today to hearing Lincoln tell them, as he did in the second inaugural, that the suffering their army was inflicting on civilians and the loss of so many thousands of their own sons in battle was just atonement that America had to make for the sin of slavery?

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentifed Man #7: And until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said 3,000 years ago so still it must be said, the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous all together.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: Lincoln's assassination, of course, was one of the great tragedies of history. But my stepfather, Ralph Newman, pointed out his death also freed Lincoln from mundane matters like reconstruction, monetary policy, or going back home to Illinois to become a railroad lawyer again. Lincoln's murder made him a marker of America's faith, and maybe we can say this 144 years after his life ended - Lincoln's death made his life into a parable.

It completed the poem. It was the last act of a drama that began with a boy born in a log cabin who wound up at the White House and finally, a life cast in marble. Lincoln's death made him the last casualty of the war he had set loose in which half a million people died to make a nation live up to its promise. The last costly sacrifice laid upon the altar of freedom was Abe Lincoln's own.

(Soundbite of music)

SIMON: Our voices from history included Peter Sagal(ph), Ira Glass(ph), Jamie Camarasami(ph), Representative Jesse Jackson Jr. and Senator Dick Durbin of Illinois, Wolff Blitzer and William Sapphire.

This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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Correction Feb. 9, 2009

We incorrectly said that the Emancipation Proclamation was signed in 1864. It was actually signed on Jan. 1, 1863.

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