Today is Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. My gosh, was the bicentennial of his birth actually eleven years ago now? I remember it so vividly. Lincoln’s birthday, along with Washington’s, used to be a major holiday in the United States. Or more precisely, Lincoln’s was a major holiday in half the United States; in parts of the Old Confederacy they observed the birth of Robert E. Lee (January 19, 1807), Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson (January 21, 1824), or some combination of the two. If one has followed the news the past several years one knows that they are still sorting out how to deal with that Lost Cause narrative of which Lee and Jackson are the quintessential embodiment. Lincoln’s birthday has itself been used and abused. I did not know until the other day that Senator Joseph McCarthy’s “Enemies from Within” speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, which he delivered seventy years ago this week on February 9, 1950, charging wild insinuations about the State Department, was delivered during a Lincoln birthday commemoration. It is a reminder of the need for public figures to speak carefully and honestly, and what we stand to lose when they do not.

Congressman Joseph Cannon reciting the Gettysburg Address on the House floor, February 12, 1920

Here we see Lincoln’s birthday on the House floor as it was commemorated one hundred years ago today. That’s Congressman Joseph G. Cannon of Illinois reciting the Gettysburg Address. Cannon had been House Speaker from 1903-1911 and by the time it was done would serve forty-six years in Congress. February 1920 was a difficult time in our nation’s history, coming as it did after the Red Summer of 1919 here in the United States and increasingly turbulent situation in Europe as well.

The institution where I work might be the last one which closes on Lincoln’s birthday. It is a nice little respite after the grind that is the first few weeks of the semester. I am determined to get out, and am debating whether to go to either the Metropolitan Museum in Manhattan or stay local and hit the Brooklyn Museum.

(image/Library of Congress)