Steven Spielberg’s recent movie, Lincoln, starring Daniel Day-Lewis, has rekindled my love and esteem for Abraham Lincoln. Over the years I have read many books on Lincoln, viewed documentaries, and even spent a day at the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum (www.alplm.org) in Springfield, IL. What a sterling human being he was!
One thing that touches me deeply about Lincoln is how much he suffered throughout his life. At age 9 he lost his mother. His father eventually married a widow, Sarah Bush, with three children. Lincoln developed a close bond with his stepmother. It was she—not his father—who encouraged his education. Although Lincoln had only about a year’s worth of formal education, he was an avid reader and became a self-taught, highly educated person. As a young man Lincoln endured another loss when his only sibling, Sarah, died giving birth to a stillborn child.
Lincoln suffered from what the nineteenth century called “melancholy.” Today we would call it “clinical depression.” When his sweetheart, Anne Rutledge died of typhoid, Lincoln became so depressed that his friends, fearing he would take his own life, took away his razors. Lincoln eventually “pulled through” that dark time. A few years later, he met Mary Todd, a genial and educated young woman. The two were engaged, but shortly before the wedding, Lincoln backed out. Mary, though distraught, refused to marry any of her other suitors. Instead, she held out for Abe. A year later Lincoln reappeared on the scene and the two were married.
The couple had four sons, but only the oldest, Robert, lived to adulthood. The cold facts don’t do justice to the Lincolns’ pain: Edward, 7, died of tuberculosis, Willy, 12, probably of typhoid, and Thomas, 18, of heart failure. After Willie’s death, Mary, who was now First Lady, was overwhelmed by despair. One way she coped with her loss was compulsive shopping, supposedly buying 300 pairs of gloves in a few months. Her behavior was scandalous to a nation at war—and very trying for her husband.
Added to all these personal sufferings were the sufferings Lincoln bore as president of the United States during what historians call “the country’s greatest moral, military, and constitutional crisis.” As the Civil War raged on, Lincoln was reminded every day of its tragic toll. From his summer “cottage,” three miles north of the White House, he could actually hear the cannon fire from nearby military skirmishes. Across the street was the National Cemetery where the dead of the Union army were buried daily. As he rode on his horse to and from the White House, Lincoln sometimes stopped into the make shift hospitals to talk to the wounded. And from his saddle he also saw firsthand the many squalid camps of runaway slaves.
But Lincoln was great not simply because he suffered as an individual and as president. He was great because of what he allowed suffering to do to him: turn him into a man of profound compassion, integrity, wisdom, humility, and strength. Though Lincoln himself never joined a church, he often went to church with Mary. He also found tremendous consolation in the Bible, frequently pouring over its pages. His famous Gettysburg Address celebrates human dignity and equality in decidedly Biblical tones and rhythms. His second inaugural address, echoing both the phraseology and teachings of the Bible, was a call to national forgiveness and reconciliation, with “malice toward none…and charity for all.”
As we celebrate president’s day, we thank God for this great man. We might also ask ourselves: what sufferings have I borne in the past or am I bearing right now? What kind of a person am I allowing these sufferings to turn me into?