As the month of April draws to a close, we reflect that nearly 150 years ago the funeral train of Abraham Lincoln was closing in on his hometown of Springfield, Illinois. The details of the assassination are generally well known. Less than a week after Robert E. Lee's surrender at Appomattox, Lincoln is shot at Ford's Theatre by the actor, John Wilkes Booth. He dies the following morning, April 15th, 1865. But today, as we approach the sesquicentennial of that event, the American people know more about the death of their most famous president than about his life.
The recent Lincoln movie moves the American mind to consider that exceptional life, focusing on Lincoln's words and deeds as opposed to his death. The assassination is notably absent from the film, although some viewers may think, for a moment, that they are about to witness it. One of the final scenes of the movie depicts young Tad Lincoln eagerly taking in a play on the night in question, but at Grover's Theatre, not Ford's. And the play isn't "Our American Cousin," but the more fantastical "Aladdin and his Wonderful Lamp." The president isn't there. Only when a stagehand interrupts the production to announce news of the assassination is it clear that we won't see the crucial moment.
The next scene shows the Patterson house, across the street from Ford's, and the passing of Lincoln the following morning. Edwin M. Stanton pronounces, "Now he belongs to the ages." The scene shifts again, for the last time. Passing through the dim candlelight, we witness Lincoln deliver the Second Inaugural. The movie -- which begins with a recitation of the Gettysburg Address -- ends with the flame of Lincoln's rhetoric.
But is that flame fading? Now that he belongs to the ages, the ages have been unkind. Ford's Theatre is more familiar than Cooper Union, the Patterson house more popular than the House Divided, and the assassination by John Wilkes Booth more well-known than the debates with Stephen A. Douglas. President Obama, who never tires of comparing himself to Lincoln, and who wrote two autobiographies even before his election, could never hope to understand the stark humility of the Second Inaugural.
The typical college student does not know Lincoln. The phrase "Four score and seven years ago" from the Gettysburg Address is that one fine morsel that begets familiarity, but without meaning or significance. Most students do not know that a score of years is twenty and, therefore, that Lincoln in 1863 references the year 1776 and the Declaration of Independence. And instead of simply saying, for instance, "Eighty-seven years ago," Lincoln deliberately chooses to use the Biblical language of Psalm 90, demonstrating that the time since the founding exceeds the allotted lifetime of man. As time separated those of Lincoln's generation from the founders, so too has time separated our own generation from Lincoln. But now the gulf is much greater.
Four score and seven years ago, Calvin Coolidge sat in the seat of Lincoln. It was Silent Cal who said that through the life of Lincoln, the people come unto a larger knowledge of the truth about themselves and their country. The life of Lincoln reveals the American way of life, in other words. But to know the truth requires study of that life, and the words and deeds that shaped it. Coolidge, therefore, might have added that though his death may interest, it does not inform.
There is reason to be optimistic, however.Coolidge also said that when Americans cease to admire Abraham Lincoln, the Union which he perpetuated will be no more. Lincoln remains extremely popular, and every American knows his name. His memory endures not because of his death, but in spite of it. And the movie, like his memorial in Washington, is bookended by his two greatest speeches -- immortal words from an immortal man.
Yes, we Americans might know more about the death of Lincoln than about his life. But it's his words and works that keep him alive today.