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Gilbert: Lincoln Farewell

02/10/11 7:55AM By Peter Gilbert
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(HOST) On February 11, 1861, Abraham Lincoln said goodbye to his home state of Illinois and began his journey to Washington, DC.  Commentator and Vermont Humanities Council executive director Peter Gilbert has the story of Lincoln's farewell.

(GILBERT) A hundred and fifty years ago tomorrow, one day before his fifty-second birthday, President-elect Abraham Lincoln boarded a train in Springfield, Illinois to travel to Washington, DC.    There, on March 4th, he would become the country's youngest president to date, but on that drizzly day, Lincoln felt anything but youthful.

The train, which consisted of a locomotive and just one passenger car, was to leave at 8:00 AM.  Historian Maury Klein writes that Lincoln shook hands with well-wishers in the waiting room at the train station, then walked on to the train's rear platform.  When he removed his hat, the rain trickled down his face, which quivered with emotion.  Then Lincoln addressed the crowd:  

"My friends, no one not in my situation, can appreciate my feeling of sadness at this parting.  To this place, and the kindness of these people, I owe everything.  Here I have lived a quarter of a century, and have passed from a young man to an old man.  Here my children have been born, and one is buried.  I now leave, not knowing when, or whether ever, I may return, with a task before me greater than that which rested upon Washington.  Without the assistance of that Divine Being who ever attended him, I cannot succeed.  With that assistance I cannot fail. Trusting in Him, who can go with me, and remain with you and be everywhere for good, let us confidently hope that all will yet be well.  To His care commending you, as I hope in your prayers you will commend me, I bid you an affectionate farewell."

The speaker and his audience both were moved to tears; even his closest associates had never seen Lincoln so profoundly affected.  For us, it's made even more poignant by our knowing that he would not return to Springfield until his funeral train, draped in black bunting, would bring his body back just over four years later.

The sadness that Lincoln says he feels seems to come not just from his leaving home, or even from his being about to take on the gargantuan task of preserving the Union, which amazingly, he explicitly compares with the challenges the great George Washington faced.  Even in his heartfelt expression of faith in Providence there's a sense of melancholy - even, perhaps, an intimation of death.

Here in these brief remarks is Lincoln's characteristically beautiful use of language, syntax, and rhetorical devices, like alliteration, parallel phrases, and juxtaposing opposites. "Here I have lived... and here passed from a young man to an old man.  Here my children have been born, and one is buried.  . . . Without the assistance" of God, he says, "I cannot succeed.  With that assistance I cannot fail."

Here, too, is Lincoln's characteristic warmth, generosity of spirit, and soft-spoken faith that, during the war, he will turn to often for support and solace.
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