The Day Lincoln Was Born

It is February 11th 1809, and as a young woman in Kentucky goes into labor, in New York City, Robert Fulton is granted a patent for his invention of the steamboat. The next day the first lusty bellowings of a son born to the former Nancy Hanks can be heard serenading the wilderness outside the one—room cabin that is his nursery. The baby is Abraham Lincoln.

Often we view the past as if it were an inevitable sequence of events, with everything in its proper order, with the famous and infamous dutifully filling their proper roles. It is a seamless, logical, and familiar story. To disabuse ourselves of this habit is difficult, but it is essential in understanding not only history but also our own place in the ever—changing world.

The sixteenth President was born into a world as filled with dramatic happenings and subject to the same chaotic whirlwind of change which we, forgetfully or ignorantly, think of as unique to our own age. To gain understanding, it is a useful exercise to immerse yourself in the world of the historical moment. To try to envision the world as it appeared contemporaneously, to try to see what was seen at the time, what was heard, and felt, as it appeared unfolding, rather than with perfect 20/20 hindsight.

Abraham Lincoln enters the world in a remote settlement at the edge of the civilized world, a very different world.  The State of Illinois, with which he would one day become so associated, has just been created as a territory nine days earlier. The nation itself is only thirty—three years old, the Constitution, and all it entails, Congress, Supreme Court, Bill of Rights, is in its twenty—second year.  As little Abe is nursing, President Thomas Jefferson is making preparations to leave the White House. In three weeks his successor, James Madison, begins his eventful administration. The concerns of those in the young nation's Capitol may have a familiar ring.  In eight days, the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Marshall will declare that federal power supercedes the power of any individual state. The economic consequences of Jefferson's disastrous trade embargo are ending his administration on a sour note.

Meanwhile, in the ultimate 'same old' category, the Arab menace, this time in the form of the Barbary Pirates and their supporters, continue to test our resolve and will in North Africa on the 'shores of Tripoli' amid the concerns of interrupted trade, European mendacity, and accusations of corruption.

Across the Atlantic, Napoleon is running roughshod over Europe. In the next three months he will conquer Bavaria and Austria, and will annex the Papal States. In the conquered city of Vienna, Ludwig van Beethoven, having just completed the Fifth and Sixth (Pastoral) Symphonies in a burst of creative genius, is threatening to leave the city in a successful attempt to get Archduke Rudolph and others of the Austrian nobility to award him an annual salary, a salary which will allow him to remain permanently as an independent musician. In the same city, Joseph Hadyn will die in May.

Back home, Edgar Allen Poe is a newborn (Jan.19th) in Boston as Washington Irving publishes his History of New York, a satire considered the first great book of American literature. Herman Melville won't be born for another ten years.

Of the major figures in the story of Lincoln's presidency, Robert E. Lee is just two years old, Jefferson Davis, seven months, Winfield Scott, Lincoln's first Civil War commander, is a 23 year old Lt. Colonel in the U.S. Army, Ulysses Grant is but a gleam in his mother's eye.

As the years pass the unfolding destinies of these people and countless others will form to enact the great national drama that will transform the Kentucky babe into the national, historical, and cultural icon we all revere. But it was not inevitable. It was the result of countless individual decisions, circumstances, motivations, and agendas. The attempt to understand this process of divergent forces as they move in the fullness of time is what fascinates the historian, professional and amateur alike.

To the discerning, the pages of history can read with the relevance of the morning's newspaper. In truth, Lincoln shares this same birthday, February 12, 1809, with someone referenced daily in today's news reports and editorials. That same day in Britain another male child was born who would leave considerable a mark on the world... Charles Darwin.

As written in Ecclesiates 4,000 years ago, 'there is no new thing, under the sun.'

Andrew Sumereau is a frequent contributor.

It is February 11th 1809, and as a young woman in Kentucky goes into labor, in New York City, Robert Fulton is granted a patent for his invention of the steamboat. The next day the first lusty bellowings of a son born to the former Nancy Hanks can be heard serenading the wilderness outside the one—room cabin that is his nursery. The baby is Abraham Lincoln.

Often we view the past as if it were an inevitable sequence of events, with everything in its proper order, with the famous and infamous dutifully filling their proper roles. It is a seamless, logical, and familiar story. To disabuse ourselves of this habit is difficult, but it is essential in understanding not only history but also our own place in the ever—changing world.

The sixteenth President was born into a world as filled with dramatic happenings and subject to the same chaotic whirlwind of change which we, forgetfully or ignorantly, think of as unique to our own age. To gain understanding, it is a useful exercise to immerse yourself in the world of the historical moment. To try to envision the world as it appeared contemporaneously, to try to see what was seen at the time, what was heard, and felt, as it appeared unfolding, rather than with perfect 20/20 hindsight.

Abraham Lincoln enters the world in a remote settlement at the edge of the civilized world, a very different world.  The State of Illinois, with which he would one day become so associated, has just been created as a territory nine days earlier. The nation itself is only thirty—three years old, the Constitution, and all it entails, Congress, Supreme Court, Bill of Rights, is in its twenty—second year.  As little Abe is nursing, President Thomas Jefferson is making preparations to leave the White House. In three weeks his successor, James Madison, begins his eventful administration. The concerns of those in the young nation's Capitol may have a familiar ring.  In eight days, the Supreme Court under Chief Justice John Marshall will declare that federal power supercedes the power of any individual state. The economic consequences of Jefferson's disastrous trade embargo are ending his administration on a sour note.

Meanwhile, in the ultimate 'same old' category, the Arab menace, this time in the form of the Barbary Pirates and their supporters, continue to test our resolve and will in North Africa on the 'shores of Tripoli' amid the concerns of interrupted trade, European mendacity, and accusations of corruption.

Across the Atlantic, Napoleon is running roughshod over Europe. In the next three months he will conquer Bavaria and Austria, and will annex the Papal States. In the conquered city of Vienna, Ludwig van Beethoven, having just completed the Fifth and Sixth (Pastoral) Symphonies in a burst of creative genius, is threatening to leave the city in a successful attempt to get Archduke Rudolph and others of the Austrian nobility to award him an annual salary, a salary which will allow him to remain permanently as an independent musician. In the same city, Joseph Hadyn will die in May.

Back home, Edgar Allen Poe is a newborn (Jan.19th) in Boston as Washington Irving publishes his History of New York, a satire considered the first great book of American literature. Herman Melville won't be born for another ten years.

Of the major figures in the story of Lincoln's presidency, Robert E. Lee is just two years old, Jefferson Davis, seven months, Winfield Scott, Lincoln's first Civil War commander, is a 23 year old Lt. Colonel in the U.S. Army, Ulysses Grant is but a gleam in his mother's eye.

As the years pass the unfolding destinies of these people and countless others will form to enact the great national drama that will transform the Kentucky babe into the national, historical, and cultural icon we all revere. But it was not inevitable. It was the result of countless individual decisions, circumstances, motivations, and agendas. The attempt to understand this process of divergent forces as they move in the fullness of time is what fascinates the historian, professional and amateur alike.

To the discerning, the pages of history can read with the relevance of the morning's newspaper. In truth, Lincoln shares this same birthday, February 12, 1809, with someone referenced daily in today's news reports and editorials. That same day in Britain another male child was born who would leave considerable a mark on the world... Charles Darwin.

As written in Ecclesiates 4,000 years ago, 'there is no new thing, under the sun.'

Andrew Sumereau is a frequent contributor.