The piece that follows is an excerpt from Your Grandmother Raised Monarchs and Other Wonders Before Your Time, a collection of notes to my grandchild(ren) when they come of age. The book, written in 2005-2006, is in the pipeline now, and I’ll holler unapologetically when it’s released.
I’m starting this note to you from the World of Music basement while Micah takes his drum lesson. Because tomorrow is Thanksgiving, the place is quiet with cancelled lessons: no soprano squeezing out scales, no trumpet blatting, just Micah drumming and one lone kid plucking an electric guitar. What I want to tell you about has nothing to do with music, though. Abraham Lincoln is on my mind.
You know that every morning I glance at the newspaper headlines, but I haven’t mentioned that I also listen to a radio spot called The Writer’s Almanac. In five minutes, host Garrison Keillor talks in his soothing baritone about literature and history and reads a poem. During the past week he shared a couple of facts about Lincoln that I didn’t know.
The first has to do with Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” which is one of the most beautiful pieces of prose in the English language. Since it’s short—only 272 words—I’ll type it out for you right here:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
I already knew that Lincoln wrote this address on an envelope during his train ride to Gettysburg. What I didn’t realize was that the dedication of the cemetery, situated on the ground where hundreds of soldiers were buried quickly in shallow graves after the battle, was a grand, carefully planned affair with fifteen thousand people attending. Edward Everett, who was famous for his speeches about battlefields, went on for over two hours cataloging the battle’s endless instances of bravery and valor. When he finished, Lincoln read his slender 272 words. By the time the event’s photographer got set, his subject had already sat back down; he managed one blurry shot.
So restrained was the audience’s applause that Lincoln assumed his speech was a failure. Little did he know a century later school kids would be required to memorize his address, and English and history teachers would regard Lincoln, a politician, as one of the most gifted writers of his generation. Everett, however, knew a great speech when he heard one. The next day he told Lincoln, “I wish that I could flatter myself that I had come as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes.” Of course, maybe Everett was mainly stroking the President’s ego.
The second Abraham Lincoln story Garrison Keillor told this week had to do with the President’s letter to Mrs. Lydia Bixby, a widow who supposedly lost five sons in the Civil War:
I have been shown in the files of the War Department a statement of the Adjutant General of Massachusetts that you are the mother of five sons who have died gloriously on the field of battle.
I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming. But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.
I pray that our Heavenly Father may assuage the anguish of your bereavement, and leave you only the cherished memory of the loved and lost, and the solemn pride that must be yours to have laid so costly a sacrifice upon the altar of freedom.
Yours, very sincerely and respectfully,
Oddly, Mrs. Bixby didn’t lose five sons. She lost two in battle; one deserted, one was honorably discharged, and another either deserted or died as a prisoner of war. Don’t misunderstand! This poor mother deserved every condolence she received, but the facts differ from those that inspired the President—if he wrote the letter at all. Most historians now believe that Lincoln’s famous letter to Mrs. Lydia Bixby was actually written by one of his White House secretaries, John Hay.
Do any of these historical facts matter? Not to us. I bet it would have mattered to Abraham Lincoln, though, on November 19, 1863, as he sat down after saying his 272 words, to know that his speech was much better than he first thought and that history would judge him a courageous President, a wise man, and an elegant writer. But how could he have known, that man in a lone grainy photograph who felt the weight of a nation on his tired shoulders?