Saturday, February 12, 2011

Happy Birthday, Mr. President

Writing is the greatest invention in the world.

--Abraham Lincoln

Coming from a man who spent barely a year in a one-room schoolhouse, these are profound words for authors to read. Born poor on this date in 1809 in Hardin County, Kentucky, Abe Lincoln was no slouch at writing despite his minimal education. As a young politician, he wrote speeches in the long, ornate manner popular in the day, but he eventually simplified his style in deference to ordinary people.

The glorious, unforgettable Gettysburg Address, delivered on November 19, 1863 at the dedication of Gettysburg National Cemetery, is less than 300 words in length. But some of his phrases changed America. "...a new nation dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." "This nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom...." "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

Throughout his life, he read every single speech to his wife Mary before a public presentation of it. Mary's wealthy parents had strongly opposed the marriage, and it's claimed the union was tumultuous, but she is often considered one of Lincoln's trusted advisers and confidants. Of the four sons born to them, only one survived into adulthood.

Although detractors considered Lincoln coarse and vulgar, referring to him as "the ape baboon of the prairie," his rustic manner, wit and wisdom were highly regarded by the literary greats of his day, including Walt Whitman and Nathaniel Hawthorne. (If you haven't yet read Whitman's "O Captain, My Captain!" or "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," you're in for something wonderful.) Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of the ground-breaking novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, claimed Lincoln's writing deserved to be "inscribed in letters of gold"

For those of us readers and writers of Cactus Rose, Abe Lincoln has an important hand in enhancing the climate and culture of the 19th century, in addition to his role as the Great Emancipator. The Homestead Act he signed in 1862 "opened the West" and helped establish America's heartland, even as it tragically displaced native tribes. Settlers could claim 65 hectares, 160 acres or a quarter-mile section, as their own as long as they farmed and improved the land for five years.

And if you've got your characters carving turkey on the last Thursday in November, you owe it to President Lincoln. He ordered government offices closed on November 28, 1861, for a local day of thanks. On that date, prominent magazine editor Sarah Josepha Hale wrote him a letter, urging him to make an official "national and fixed union festival" of Thanksgiving.

His proclamation setting the last Thursday of November as a "day of Thanksgiving and praise" was dated October 3, 1863, perhaps an attempt to ease hearts and lift spirits after the horrific battle of Gettysburg a few months before. One year later, the proclamation letter written by Secretary of State William Seward was sold to benefit Union troops.

I found out some fun facts about our 16th president in doing my homework for this blog.

1. He was the tallest president at 6'4"

2. He carried letters, bills, and notes in his signature stove pipe hat.

3. He was the first president to have a beard.

4. He patented a system to alter buoyancy of steamboats in 1849.

5. He created a national banking system in 1863, resulting in a standardized currency.

6.He loved animals and had horses, cats, dogs, and a turkey as pets. His beloved horse, Old Bob, was part of his funeral procession.

7. He was the first president assassinated.

Although President Lincoln suffered from deep depression, usually called melancholia at that time, he often invented jokes and funny sayings for family and friends. I'll leave off with several of my favorites.

1. If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?

2. Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.

3. Whatever you are, be a good one.

Happy Birthday, Mr. President. And thanks for everything.

~Tanya Hanson

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