It’s 1859. Your father is a prominent Republican and former member of Congress; soon, he’ll be nominated to run for president of the United States. You’re a fresh-faced 16-year-old, just arrived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, from Illinois. You’re living the dream still shared by students across America: Enrolling in Harvard College. Veritas shall be yours.
And then you fail the entrance exam. Major bummer.
This is not the sepia-toned fever dream of a future history major, suffering night terrors as he anxiously awaits admissions decisions on April 1. No, this was the unfortunate fate of Robert Todd Lincoln, the 16th president’s oldest son. He failed the test he needed to get into college because of “limited preparation,” wrote historian James T. Hickey, which presumably means “he didn’t study.”
Read more. [Image: Thomas Evanson/Flickr]
February 12 was a big day in 1809. Abraham Lincoln was born in a wild Kentucky; Charles Darwin was born in a refined Shrewsbury, Shropshire. One man held together the Union. The other developed a theory that resonates through the sciences and beyond to this day. While it’s often difficult to unspool the impacts that individuals have on the world, it seems fair to say that these two minds did something consequential on this rock.
And in a 2009 essay, writer Adam Gopnik tried to get at the shared method of their influence.
“The deepest common stuff the two men share, though,” Gopnik says, “is in what they said and wrote—their mastery of a new kind of liberal language.”
“Darwin’s work remains probably the only book that changed science that an amateur can still sit down now and read right through,” he continues. “It’s so well written that we don’t think of it as well written, just as Lincoln’s speeches are so well made that they seem to us as obvious and natural as smooth stones on the beach.
On this day in 1809, in a log cabin in Kentucky, Thomas and Nancy Lincoln’s second child was born. In the years since Abraham Lincoln’s death, the nation’s admiration for him has never dimmed—and as we mark his 205th birthday, amid Civil War sesquicentennial celebrations and with a celebrated biopic still in recent memory, his stature may be near its peak. Yet the passage of time makes it harder to imagine and understand Lincoln as he was, rather than as a quasi-mythical figure carved in stone, looming over the National Mall or the South Dakota hills.
This is why it’s so important and worthwhile to consider contemporary recollections and to read accounts from the years since, to see how our understanding of who Lincoln was, what he wanted to achieve, and his role the nation’s history has changed over time. The archives of The Atlantic, stretching back to 1857 when Lincoln was just an Illinois lawyer and failed congressman—before his famous debates with Stephen Douglas—provide a tour. As a magazine founded on abolitionism, The Atlantic had common cause with Lincoln and supported his campaign for president; and as a magazine founded on abolitionism, it sometimes grew exasperated at the pace with which Lincoln pursued the end of slavery and the methods he used. Here’s a brief tour through of Lincoln’s life and legacy as viewed through the ages at The Atlantic.
Read more. [Image: Alexander Gardner/Library of Congress]
Abraham Lincoln often spoke and dreamed about being assassinated, convinced that he would not outlast the rebellion when his work would have been done. Prior to his inauguration, he received letters warning him that he would be killed before reaching Washington. After he died an envelope with eighty such letters was found among his eﬀects, and although twice while president he had his hat shot from his head by unknown assailants, he deprecated all attempts to guard his life.
Read more. [Image: Wikipedia]
The Gettysburg Address, 150 Years Later
On November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln visited the site of that year’s earlier Battle of Gettysburg. He gave a short speech that became iconic. Here’s how it and the issues around it has been covered in The Atlantic, in the past and in the present.
- America Civilization: A year before Lincoln’s speech, Ralph Waldo Emerson argued vehemently for the emancipation of the slaves.
- The Words that Remade America: The significance of the Gettysburg Address, as remembered in our June 1992 issue.
- 'Idiot,' 'Yahoo,' 'Original Gorilla': How Lincoln Was Dissed in His Day: Abraham Lincoln set a standard of success that few in history can match. But how many of his contemporaries noticed?
- 150 Years of Misunderstanding the Civil War: America should question the popular account of a war that tore apart the nation.
- The Battle of Gettysburg, 150 Years Ago: A collection of photos from the battle, and modern recreations.
- And for more on the American Civil War, take a look at The Atlantic's Civil War issue.
[Images: Library of Congress]
When powerful, executive politicians speak, they often forgo visual aids. Obama, Reagan, Kennedy: There’s something about the prestige of the president, of presiding, that demands he (or she) face the nation straight-on and honestly, with… his face.
But what if that wasn’t the case? Thirteen years ago, Peter Norvig, the current director of research at Google, suffered a dark night of the soul. Powerpoint presentations, he felt, ruled everything around him. Sales pitches, mission statements, even (shudder) inspirational speeches: All had been processed and extruded by the harsh, homogenizing gizzard of Microsoft’s leviathan.
So, he wondered, what if the Powerpoint had existed earlier in history? What if Lincoln, for example, had turned to the software in a time of utmost national need—what if, oh my gosh, what if Lincoln had delivered the Gettysburg address as a Powerpoint?
Read more. [Image: Norvig]
One-hundred and fifty years ago today, Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. It has been celebrated by successive generations of Americans ever since. One of my favorite retrospectives was published back in 1894 in The Century Magazine, where John G. Nicolay set the scene in Gettysburg the night before the now-famous speech.
"Except during its days of battle the little town of Gettysburg had never been so full of people," he wrote. "After the usual supper hour the streets literally swarmed with visitors, and the stirring music of regimental bands and patriotic glee-clubs sounded in many directions. With material so abundant, and enthusiasm so plentiful, a serenading party soon organized itself to call on prominent personages for impromptu speeches, and of course the President could not escape. The crowd persisted in calling him out, but Mr. Lincoln showed himself only long enough to utter the few commonplace excuses which politeness required."
Read more. [Image: Mr. T in DC/Flickr]
150 years ago, the Battle of Gettysburg began. Months later, Abraham Lincoln transformed the ugly reality of that fight, which left nearly fifty thousand dead or wounded, into a historic address—and he did it with 272 words.
Garry Wills wrote about Lincoln’s address in our June 1992 issue: “His speech hovers far above the carnage. He lifts the battle to a level of abstraction that purges it of grosser matter—even “earth” is mentioned only as the thing from which the tested form of government shall not perish. The nightmare realities have been etherealized in the crucible of his language.”
(Image: Library of Congress)
147 Years Ago Today, the U.S. Outlawed Slavery
Happy birthday, 13th Amendment! In honor of the anniversary, here’s a collection of excellent stories from The Atlantic's archives.
- Where Will It End? (Dec. 1857): In The Atlantic's second issue, Edmund Quincy urges readers to take a stand against slavery. “It is only the statement of the truism in moral and in political economy,” he wrote, “that true prosperity can never grow up from wrong and wickedness.”
- American Civilization (Apr. 1862): Ralph Waldo Emerson’s vehement argument for the federal emancipation of slaves. “Morality,” above all else, he asserted, “is the object of government.”
- The President’s Proclamation (Nov. 1862): Seven months later, Emerson hails Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation as an act that would mean “the lives of our heroes have not been sacrificed in vain.”
- Reconstruction, and an Appeal to Impartial Suffrage (Dec. 1866): In the same month the 13th Amendment was adopted, Frederick Douglass pushed lawmakers to grant black Americans the vote: “Slavery is not abolished until the black man has the ballot.”
- The Death of Slavery (Jul. 1866): William Cullen Bryant’s stirring poem about the demise of the “cruel reign” of slavery.
This is a very, very incomplete collection of stories from the era about slavery. (We were, after all, an abolitionist magazine.) For more, take a look at the commemorative Civil War issue we published last year.
[Image: Wikimedia Commons/National Archives]