By DUNCAN NEWCOMER
Host of the ‘Quiet Fire’ series
Here’s a Lincoln quote for you, as often, from Walt Whitman, this about the death of Lincoln:
“Oft, as the rolling years bring back this hour, let it again, however briefly, be dwelt upon. For my part, I intend until my dying day, whenever the fourteenth or fifteenth of April comes, to annually gather a few friends and hold its tragic reminiscence.”
And that is what Walt Whitman did—gave annual talks on the meaning of the death of Lincoln, not only on his life’s meaning but on the meaning of his death.
Whitman saw Lincoln’s death as a unifying moment in American history, the first great unifying moment in the drama of our country. He called Lincoln our “first great Martyr Chief”—capitalizing Martyr and Chief. Whitman was thinking about the timeless tragedies by Shakespeare and the ancient Greeks. He saw the same powerful themes in the story of a people—Americans—coming together to share in a great grief.
Whitman wrote: “He was assassinated—but the Union is not assassinated.”
It would be hard to measure the shock to the new nation, even divided as it was by the Civil War, when the news of Lincoln’s death came.
It was Sunday—Palm Sunday, April 9th, 1865—when Lincoln was steaming up the Potomac River from Richmond to Washington aboard The River Queen. Unknowingly he was entering his last week of life, at least in the way we usually credit how we know things.
What was on his mind?
He had visited the destroyed and vacant Confederate capitol, refusing proposals of a Victory Parade or a Mission Accomplished attitude. A Connecticut soldier said that they were entering the vanquished city like Roman conquerors—but Lincoln would have none of that. He was ingloriously rowed ashore to walk among the ruins. When former slaves tried to kneel in front of him, he told them that they should only kneel before God.
On the voyage back, Lincoln spent a very long time reading Shakespeare aloud to his traveling party.
His French companion Marquis de Chambrun wrote this later, “I cannot recall this reading without being awed at the remembrance….”
Lincoln was reading from Macbeth, perhaps his favorite, and the passage of the offense and guilt of Macbeth for killing the King.
“Offense” was a word Lincoln had known all his life, from the Readers he studied in his brief time in school. Offense was a big idea for youth in those days to learn from these heavily religious and moral lesson books. Lincoln was a boy with a heavy conscience.
Was Lincoln somehow feeling guilty? He was the victorious king, after all.
Was Lincoln somehow feeling aware of his death? He would soon become the first American regicide.
His French companion went on to write about Lincoln’s focus on the horrible torments of Macbeth, asking “…was (he) struck by the weird beauty of these verses, or by a vague presentiment coming over him.”
Ambition had always been a real conflict, a deep ambiguity, to Lincoln. He asked: What would fame ever gain a person when time itself was an empty vapor?
He went on, to his rapt passengers, to explain at great length how true the passages on Macbeth’s guilt were. How did Lincoln know about such guilt? He had just sat in the traitor Jefferson Davis’ chair. He had overseen and pursued war. But Lincoln had never personally killed a man and as a boy only one bird, a turkey—and he was very sorry he had.
So Lincoln is reading about the death of a king. Often he searched Shakespeare or the Bible for hope that his recently dead son Willie was somehow in eternity or with God.
When he had left Springfield for the presidency, his mother had worried that “something” would happen to him. His partner said Lincoln had felt the same. In his farewell speech in Illinois, he offered that he did not know if he would ever return. He had ominous dreams, often of a ship rushing to shore.
On his last day on a carriage ride with Mary he spoke of visiting the Holy Lands and seeing the places of Kings David and Solomon.
In this cruel month, we all wonder: What will be the legacy of kings? The legacy for each of us?
CARE TO ENJOY MORE LINCOLN RIGHT NOW?
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