The story of Abraham Lincoln’s journey from obscurity to US President has long been a powerful symbol of the mythically unlimited possibilities of American life.
Lincoln was born in a log cabin at Sinking Spring Farm near Hodgenville, Kentucky, on 12 February 1809, when that part of the country was still struggling to establish law and order. The original cabin was dismantled sometime before 1865 and local tradition has it that some of the logs were used in the construction of a nearby house.
Today the site of Lincoln’s birthplace is preserved as an ostentatious, neo-classical Memorial Building that contains a replica log cabin. The Memorial features 16 windows and 16 rosettes on the ceiling, representing Lincoln being the 16th president. The 56 steps leading up to the entrance mark his age at death.
On 13 January 1907 The New York Times published “A Plea by Mark Twain for the Setting Apart of His Birthplace”. Sam Clemens (who later became Mark Twain) never met Lincoln, but just before the Civil War began he was serving in a small band of Confederate irregulars called the Marion Rangers. He held the meaningless rank of second lieutenant in what was described as a motley company of raw recruits. The young Clemens contrived to avoid the most catastrophic event in US history. Later he came to realise that, despite the horrific cost of the Civil War to the nation, Abraham Lincoln had been right. He fully supported turning the birthplace into a memorial:
“There is a natural human instinct that is gratified by the sight of anything hallowed by association with a great man or with great deeds. So many people make pilgrimages to the town whose streets were once trodden by Shakespeare, and Hartford guarded her Charter Oak for centuries because it had once had a hole in it that helped to save the liberties of a Colony. But in most cases the connection between the great man or the great event and the relic we revere is accidental. Shakespeare might have lived in any other town as well as in Stratford, and Connecticut’s charter might have been hidden in a woodchuck hole as well as in the Charter Oak.
But it was no accident that planted Lincoln on a Kentucky farm, half way between the lakes and the Gulf. The association there had substance in it. Lincoln belonged just where he was put. If the Union was to be saved, it had to be a man of such an origin that should save it. No wintry New England Brahmin could have done it, or any torrid cotton planter, regarding the distant Yankee as a species of obnoxious foreigner. It needed a man of the border, where civil war meant the grapple of brother and brother and disunion a raw and gaping wound. It needed one who knew slavery not from books only, but as a living thing, knew the good that was mixed with its evil, and knew the evil not merely as it affected the negroes, but in its hardly less baneful influence upon the poor whites.
It needed one who knew how human all the parties to the quarrel were, how much alike they were at bottom, who saw them all reflected in himself, and felt their dissensions like the tearing apart of his own soul. When the war came Georgia sent an army in gray and Massachusetts an army in blue, but Kentucky raised armies for both sides. And this man, sprung from Southern poor whites, born on a Kentucky farm and transplanted to an Illinois village, this man, in whose heart knowledge and charity had left no room for malice, was marked by Providence as the one to ‘bind up the Nation’s wounds’. His birthplace is worth saving.”
Two years after that article appeared, a statue was placed in the public square in Hodgenville, Kentucky. The unveiling took place on 31 May 1909, attended by Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln – one of several people who had turned down an invitation to attend the performance at Ford’s Theatre where his father was assassinated. Bizarrely, Robert Lincoln was coincidentally present at two other assassinations. At President James A. Garfield’s invitation, Lincoln was at the Sixth Street Train Station in Washington, D.C., and an eyewitness when the President was shot by Charles J. Guiteau on 2 July 1881. Similarly, Lincoln was at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, at President William McKinley’s invitation, when the President was shot by Leon Czolgosz on 6 September 1901.
In 1911, the Memorial Building at Sinking Spring Farm was inaugurated by President William Howard Taft, who had served as Attorney General under President Ulysses S. Grant, commander of Lincoln’s Union Army. It was Grant who, attending Lincoln’s funeral in 1865, wept openly and called him “the greatest man I have ever known”.