I wrote last week of the dramatic turn in American diplomacy after the German renewal of unrestricted submarine warfare in late January 1917. Today is February 12, Abraham Lincoln’s Birthday, and as the United States drifted toward war one hundred years ago Americans took pause to think of Lincoln and his legacy. It is important to remember that this was only fifty-two years after the Great Emancipator’s death and that there were still many people living who remembered the sixteenth president first hand. That remembrance was not always positive. This was both the nadir of Jim Crowism and the High Water Mark for the Lost Cause. How the sons and grandsons of those defeated by Mr. Lincoln’s Army might respond to a draft and an overseas deployment was of concern to many. Lincoln’s oldest son Robert was himself still around and rigorously guarding his father’s legacy. The Lincoln Memorial was still five years off.
The newspapers, pulpits, and public spaces were full of stories about Lincoln that week. The Sunday 11 February 1917 New York Times ran an article about Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech, which the presidential candidate from Illinois had given in February 1860 when it looked like America might well go to war against itself. That article was accompanied by an extended excerpt from muckraker Ida Minerva Tarbell’s ongoing biography of Lincoln. The Reverend Dr. S. Parkes Cadman of Brooklyn’s Congregational Church gave a talk that same day at a local YMCA pondering what Lincoln might do if he were in Woodrow Wilson’s place. As the Brooklyn Daily Eagle recounted the next day, Cadman concluded that he had no idea. Cartoonist Edwin Marcus captured Wilson’s plight as he sits at his desk turning the calendar from February 11th to Monday the 12th with Lincoln’s ghost hovering above. The text is difficulty to make out but it is the closing line of Lincoln’s February 1860 speech at the Cooper Institute: “Let us have faith that right makes might and in that faith let us to the end dare to do our duty as we understand it. Lincoln.” Intentionally or not, Marcus captures the loneliness of Wilson’s predicament.
(images/top, Library of Congress; bottom, Brooklyn Daily Eagle)