|One hundred fifty years ago today, an assassin shot Abraham Lincoln as he was watching a play in Ford's Theatre in Washington, D.C. Carried across the street, Abe died early the next morning. His shooter likewise fell with a bullet to the head eleven days later.|
The Civil War had effectively come to a close only a few days before the president was shot, when General Robert E. Lee of the Confederacy surrendered to General U.S. Grant's Union Army at Appomattox. The war had begun a little over a month after Abraham Lincoln was inaugurated. The official end to the insurrection came a little less than a month after his death. This season, we are busy observing the sesquicentennial of the end of a war in which hundreds of thousands of Americans perished so that millions more might be free.
Abraham Lincoln was born on February 12, 1809, in Hardin County, Kentucky. He was the second child of Thomas and Nancy Hanks Lincoln, their daughter Sarah Lincoln, born in 1807, being the first. The Lincolns were what might be described, perhaps in a condescending manner, as poor. The conditions of their lives became the subject of John T. McCutcheon's cartoon of February 12, 1929, shown above.
Abe Lincoln--nicknamed "Honest Abe" and "The Railsplitter" and "The Great Emancipator"--was born in Kentucky but spent his formative years in Indiana. His mother died there and lies buried in Indiana soil. John Tinney McCutcheon, the cartoonist, was also a Hoosier. He came into the world on a farm near South Raub on May 6, 1870, about halfway through Reconstruction and only three months after the Fifteenth Amendment, the third and last of the Reconstruction Amendments, was ratified. His father, John Barr McCutcheon, had fought in the Civil War. The younger McCutcheon, known as the dean of American cartoonists for his longevity, died on June 10, 1949.
John T. McCutcheon drew his cartoon in observance of Abe Lincoln's birth. His commentary is thick with irony. Lincoln rose up from his humble origins to be one of our greatest presidents and one of the greatest men in American history. In this anniversary week of the surrender at Appomattox and the death of the president, I would rather celebrate his life than mourn his death, a life that began in a backwoods Kentucky cabin and against any odds made by poverty or disadvantage, which proved to be of no great significance at all.
Abraham Lincoln's life began with unlimited potential, as all lives do. The irony in the cartoon is that the Lincolns' new baby--despite his birth into humility and poverty--would go on to preside over a nation at war against a great moral evil, the defining moral issue of the nineteenth century in America. There is an added irony in that McCutcheon's cartoon--without his intent or awareness--also touches on the great moral issue of our day, an issue with more than a few parallels to slavery.
In February 1862, at about the time of Abe's fifty-third birthday, The Atlantic Monthly printed Julia Ward Howe's lyrics for "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." The first stanza and the first refrain end with the same words: "His truth is marching on." Abraham Lincoln carried the banner of truth. He has fallen, but we can take up that banner and carry it forward, and those after us can do the same. With or without us, truth will, nonetheless, march on.