It was February 1809, and the schoolmaster in a small town in Kentucky had just returned from Washington, where on 20th January he had witnessed the swearing in of the new President,
James Madison. He regaled the townsfolk with accounts of the splendid buildings which were in the process of construction in the federal Capital, an unhealthy place which the outgoing President, Thomas Jefferson, had called ‘that Indian swamp in the wilderness.’ The locals listened spellbound as he told them of the processions and the speeches, the dinners and the celebration balls.
Then the schoolmaster asked, ‘And while I’ve been away, what’s has happened back here?’ One local sage remarked, ‘Oh, nothing important ever happens down here. There’s been a new baby born over at the shack of that drunken drifter Tom Lincoln, but nothing important ever happens down here!
We know different now. And in a few days time on the 12th February, many , but not all, of the United States will mark Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. In some of the States of the old Confederacy, his name can barely be spoken. The animosity which led one Southerner to give his new- born son the name of John Wilkes Booth---Lincoln’s assassin---still lingers. But most hail him as one of the finest Presidents; a man who combined courage and wisdom, and brought his nation round one of the most dangerous corners in its history.
Stephen Spielberg’s latest film, simply entitled ‘Lincoln’ has been nominated for a host of Oscars, and seems destined to be a huge financial success; with the one word title proving the adage that to be known by one’s surname alone is proof of fame. The aura of respect which has surrounded the murdered President was well conveyed by a later holder of the office, one Gerald R. Ford. Conscious that he came to power in the aftermath of Nixon’s resignation, Ford employed motoring terminology, and reminded Americans that he was a Ford and not a Lincoln! That regard for Lincoln makes it almost impossible to separate the things he really said, from many other observations which have been erroneously attributed to him.
What is not in dispute is that in a land where slavery was not just tolerated but defended, he had the courage to tackle that human scourge, believing, as he declared on the battlefield at Gettsburg, that all men are created equal. Thomas Jefferson had recognised the problem, and remarked that he trembled for his country when he remembered that God is just. Lincoln, however, saw the issue through.
When the body of the murdered President made a progress by train from Washington to the burial place in Springfield, Illinois, stopping at towns along the way, a black woman brought her son to witness the event. Holding him above her head, she said, ‘Take a good long look, sonny, he died for you!’
Christians apply that idea to the Man of Nazareth, but to countless millions of Americans he was in a real sense their Saviour.