The tall man took off his hat to say a few words in the early morning rain. At the sound of his voice, tears started falling at the Springfield, Ill., train station. A thousand townspeople had gathered there to say good-bye to the man from Illinois, already on the passenger car platform of the train bound for Washington. Clouds were gathering for a grave civil war—not yet the Civil War indelibly etched in national memory. The date was February 11, 1861, and Abraham Lincoln was one day short of his 52nd birthday.
The words from the heart addressed to his beloved community were not composed on paper in advance. The starkly simple and sad speech known as the Farewell Address at Springfield took just three minutes for the president-elect to give, but opened up the man to us for today and tomorrow more than any other utterance. His character's essence shines in every sentence and cadence, just as the country's destiny is captured in the 1863 Gettysburg Address, which was written and re-written with great care. The words spoken on the eve of the Civil War are inscribed in a corner of the Washington National Cathedral, by a statue of the 16th president.
Lincoln told friends, neighbors, shopkeepers, colleagues in the law and state legislature, and other well-wishers what most knew already: "Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young to an old man. Here my children have been born, and one is buried." He laid his gratitude down like a bouquet at the leavetaking: To the town's kindness, he said, "I owe every thing." Quite the opposite of the self-made man myth so popular in American schools and books. [Check out a roundup of this month's best political cartoons.]
The Farewell is the other side of the penny coin—the private eloquence and affection of the man among the people who knew and loved him first. It also reveals Lincoln's "tragic optimist" vision fully for the first time. Personally, he foreshadowed that the great conflict brewing would claim him: "I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return..." And he was right, he never saw Springfield again. In the same breath, the elegiac line takes a shrewd political spin, with Lincoln adding that he faced "a task greater than that which rested on Washington."
Never one to underestimate trouble, Lincoln concluded with the most characteristically Lincolnian line of all time: "Let us confidently hope that all will yet be well." A rough translation: No promises, people, but let us go forth into this conflict if we must, and if our cause is just, providence will be with us. On that February morning, his own journey and the nation's were one and the same. That was 150 years ago, nearly to the day.
By serendipity, I had the pleasure of hearing the Farewell Address spoken twice over the last few days. At an Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation gathering at the Willard Intercontinental Hotel, the actor Stephen Lang (whose movies include Avatar and Gods and Generals) gave a haunting delivery in the hotel where Lincoln stayed when he arrived in Washington 12 days after leaving Springfield. Harold Holzer, the foundation chairman and host, recently published an important book, Lincoln President-Elect: Abraham Lincoln and the Great Secession Winter, 1860-61 (Simon & Schuster, 2010). [Are you on the list? Explore the White House visitor guide.]
The second reading was given at my own Lincoln's birthday party. My editor and bloleague, Robert Schlesinger, who stands six-foot-five, agreed to do the honors and play Abe's part. As author of White House Ghosts (Simon & Schuster, 2008), the go-to book on presidential speeches, he really had no choice. When I introduced him to another guest, Sarah Jencks, director of education programming at Ford's Theatre, Robert joked that Sarah should stay at a safe distance. When Robert began speaking the lines, a hush fell over my living room, as I imagine the Springfield train station suddenly went silent. The spare parting words still have their power to humanize him, to draw a tear or two—though some guests did not find it the saddest speech they had ever heard.
At the champagne toast (thank you, David Greenberg!) Sarah reminded us that Lincoln expanded the meaning of the Declaration of Independence as the stakes of the Civil War shifted and enlarged. The Gettysburg Address makes this plain, that preserving the Union was no longer the only point. With a new emphasis on human equality, slavery would be a thing of the past when the war ended. Two years after he left Springfield, Lincoln's journey took the nation farther into the future than ever imagined at the start. Along the way, he had a profound political awakening and became less and less willing to compromise on slavery—catching up with his core self by degrees. As Sarah said, he personally hated the "peculiar institution" since boyhood.
But he never went home again.