Return to I must die or be better (idea)

I was about six years old when I realized that grown-ups could go wherever they wanted to, whenever they pleased. Most of the places that I saw in the National Geographic or the Encyclopaedia Brittanica still existed much as they were described in magazines and books. Some of these locales were out of reach for one reason or another, say the Moon, or Sodom and Gomorrah, but Paris and the Taj Mahal were extant, less than a day away by air.

Places like Springfield, Illinois and Ford's Theatre didn't even require an airplane ticket.

As a child, I was a fervent admirer of Abraham Lincoln. I have a clear recollection of the morning I came to the realization that the places where he lived and died remained largely intact. I made the connection between folding money and gasoline and asked my father how much gas it would take to drive to Springfield. He told me that a full tank of gas cost about five dollars and that two tankfulls would make central Illinois. Twenty bucks for the round trip.

"How much money do you have now, dad?"

"Twenty-three dollars, twenty-five cents."

"Can we go to Springfield? It's in Illinois and they've got Abraham Lincoln's house, kept just the way he left it!"

Our father believed that real life experiences trumped book learning every time. He arranged for me to be excused for a week of first grade and gassed up the Country Squire station wagon for a jaunt to the Land of Lincoln.

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The house was amazing, breathtaking and sad. The chair where he sat, the bed where he slept, a frozen moment in 1861 before his life became complicated and brutish and short. I stood on the very floorboards where he nuzzled his dog Fido and wrestled with his boys, Willy and Tad. I saw the sitting room where Mary harangued him for his rough hewn backwoods manner, hoping to mold him into something more respectable. Lincoln rarely used a chair in the sitting room because none would comfortably accommodate his bulk. He'd lie on the floor, to Mary's consternation, communing with Fido and their numerous cats.

The back parlor of the house originally served as Abraham and Mary's bedroom and it was there that she had given birth to three of their four children. Their second child, Eddie, died just before his fourth birthday in that very room. The kitchen was the center of activity in the house and I found it much the way they had left it. Elaborate dinner parties for hundreds of people were staged in that kitchen but the man of the house still milked the cows and fetched the firewood.

My curiosity about the great man led naturally from Springfield to Washington, D.C., and would cost my father another few tanks of gas for the station wagon. I'd miss three weeks of the first grade for the Washington trip but my dad felt it worth the sacrifice.

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Abraham Lincoln was not a happy man. He told friends, while in his 40’s, that he was never without his "melancholy." Tales of the nervous breakdown that preceded his marriage to Mary Todd are legend and many of his closest friends and associates feared the worst.

Biographers have long debated the exact source of Mr. Lincoln's depression. Every account, including his own, indicates that it was his companion since childhood. Analysis of his life mask hints that it may have been the result of a skull fracture he received from a nasty kick in the head by a belligerent mare at the age of ten. Research completed as recently as this year points to the possible side effects of the "Blue Mass" he had been taking to defeat the melancholy. The medication, common at the time, contained potentially toxic amounts of mercury that might well have exacerbated the condition it sought to cure.

Many of his contemporaries attributed his sorrowful nature to the death of his childhood sweetheart, Anne Rutledge. The engagement of young Mr. Lincoln and Miss Rutledge has never been proven beyond a doubt, although the primary dissenter might have had ulterior motives. Mary Todd Lincoln claimed that she didn't believe a word of it. The opinion of professional historians has shifted back and forth over the years on the importance of the relationship and even over the truth of their actual engagement.

Following Lincoln's assassination, his former law partner, William Herndon, interviewed surviving members of the Rutledge family for his biography of the great man. Ann became ill during the summer of 1835 with what is thought to have been typhoid fever. As her condition worsened, she called for a last visit with young Abraham. Anne's sister Nancy gave a somber account of the last meeting between the two.

    "I can never forget how sad and broken-hearted Lincoln looked when he came
    out of the room from the last interview with Annie..."

Ann Rutledge died at the age of 22, shortly after Mr. Lincoln's visit. Many of the New Salem residents, later interviewed by Herndon, thought that Lincoln had become terribly depressed over the death of his first love. Some of the locals expressed the fear that he was suicidal.

The report made by the New Salem Schoolmaster, who had known and taught them both, was far more succinct.

    "Lincoln and she were engaged - Lincoln told me so - and she intimated to me
    the same. He - Lincoln - told me he felt like committing suicide after her death
    but I know him of God's higher purpose. He told me he thought so too - somehow
    - couldn't tell how."

God's higher purpose indeed.

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Washington D.C. was larger than life in my young eyes but the massive marble statue enshrined in the Lincoln Memorial seemed just about the right size. My father arranged a tour that included the National Archives, where I saw the man's own penmanship on an actual draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. We visited the Library of Congress where his spectacles and personal effects could be viewed from inches away.

The tour would not be complete without a visit to Ford's Theatre, where Mr. Lincoln was mortally wounded on Good Friday, 1865. The term "Good Friday" seemed a cruel enough joke to me when they used it on Jesus in Sunday School. What had befallen Mr. Lincoln happened yesterday by comparison and caused me far greater grief. Jesus was safe in the soft glow of mythology and presumed resurrection, for Mr. Lincoln there would be little more than black crepe and weeping.

By the time the tour made it across the street to the Petersen Boarding House, where Mr. Lincoln died, I was nearly catatonic with my own melancholy. The hushed reverence of the tour group spoke to the unanimity of our sorrow. The Park Ranger who stood watch at the door of the Petersen House told me that there had been a continuous stream of woeful visitors to the shrine since that horrible morning, more than a hundred years before.

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It might seem that death would have been a welcome visitor to this gloomy man trapped in his melancholy life. Mr. Lincoln was never much for religion so we are left to debate the source of his strength. Before he ever rose to national prominence, before a terrible civil war divided the nation that he loved, he wrestled with a profound personal depression that might have debilitated another man. The efforts he made to fight the good fight despite his own feelings of hopelessness should be applauded all the more vigorously.

His close confidante and friend, John T. Stewart, must have feared that his friend Abraham was a hair’s breadth from the abyss when he wrote him a sad letter, decades before his presidency. Lincoln had abruptly and inexplicably broken off his engagement to Mary Todd and had all but given up on this life and its sorrows.

    "I am now the most miserable man living. If what I feel were equally distributed
    to the whole human family, there would not be one cheerful face on the earth.
    Whether I shall ever be better I cannot tell; I awfully forebode I shall not. To
    remain as I am is impossible..."

The demons he’d face twenty years later on the bloody battlefields were puny and the mean-spirited slaveholders a trifle. Mr. Lincoln's agnosticism did not shield him from the larger Passion Play that we all must endure. The little voice that told him to fight on against an unbeatable foe, to keep fighting when he was convinced he'd been conquered, serves as an inspiration to all of us.

    "...I must die or be better, it appears to me."





National Park Service documents detailing the Lincoln house in Springfield were used as a source for this essay.

Additional sources include:

"Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years" and "Abraham Lincoln: The War Years" by Carl Sandburg

Herndon, W.H., and Weik, J.W.: Herndon's Lincoln: The True Story of a Great Life, Chicago, Belford, Clarke, & Company, 1889.


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