USA: Lincoln and Self-Education

The National Trust for Historic Preservation

Abraham Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln

Late one evening in the fall of 1864, President Lincoln received some unexpected visitors to his summer residence at Soldiers’ Home. George Borrett was visiting the United States from England, and wanted an audience with the President. Despite the late hour, Borrett and his escorts managed to talk their way into an audience with “the highest in the land,” and after waiting a few minutes Lincoln appeared with his “hair ruffled, eyes very sleepy and feet enveloped in carpet slippers.” Despite this “abrupt introduction” Borrett recorded that Lincoln spoke at length about his boyhood in Kentucky, and the Englishman detected a “quiet pride” in Lincoln’s voice as he talked about “his rise from the bottom of the ladder.” The scene is amusing in hindsight: a bedraggled president roused from his bedroom to meet with unknown visitors late in the evening. However, Borrett’s account also underscores Lincoln’s firmly held belief in what historians have labeled the “right to rise,” or the right to benefit from one’s hard work. Despite Lincoln’s lack of formal education, or perhaps because of it, Lincoln always insisted that it would play a critical role in facilitating other individual’s betterment of their own lives. Yet Lincoln also directly connected education to the citizenry’s appreciation of the American Union; it “was the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in,” because an educated people could “read the histories of his own and other countries” and thus “duly appreciate the value of our free institutions.” As a result, education could help people understand what the Union meant, and ultimately, why it would be worth fighting to preserve.

While Lincoln’s formal education amounted to little more than one year, what might be termed his self-education continued unabated throughout his life. Undoubtedly the most critical part of Lincoln’s self-education process was his love of reading, and perhaps the President’s favorite author was Shakespeare. Tales of political intrigue, deception, and bloody civil wars provided Lincoln with a framework for understanding his own struggles, with a means of conveying that understanding to the Northern public. For example, in June of 1864, as the President was preparing to spend what would be his final summer at Soldiers’ Home, he told an audience in Philadelphia that “this war has carried mourning to almost every home, until it almost be said that ‘the heavens are hung in black.’” In Shakespearean theater, the curtains were hung in black to inform the audience that a tragedy was about to be performed. Right around the same time Lincoln was declaring that ‘the heavens are hung in black’ the area apportioned for Civil War soldier burials at Soldier’s Home National Cemetery was filled to capacity, and a new cemetery opened across the Potomac at Arlington. Thus, Lincoln was using a reference gleaned from his own self-education to convey to the Northern public that he understood the depth of their frustration and despair at the seemingly unending bloodshed.

Lincoln's Cottage

Lincoln’s Cottage

As I sit here writing this post on the 148th anniversary of Lincoln’s death, I am reminded not just of the cost of the Civil War, but of the destruction that Lincoln faced everyday while staying at Soldiers’ Home. It is precisely this legacy of perseverance in the face of overwhelming obstacles that visitors to President Lincoln’s Cottage connect with—the human Lincoln, the man and president who could never escape the war—even at his beloved summer retreat.

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