Lincoln and Darwin: 2 legends, 200 years

Posted Feb. 11, 2009, at 10:10 p.m.

I once toured the British Isles and lost count of how often I saw Winston Churchill, Admiral Lord Nelson and Queen Victoria memorialized in stone and bronze. But one face I never expected to see was Honest Abe’s in an Edinburgh graveyard.

“There, on your right, is America’s 16th president,” chirped the Scottish guide to our bus full of curious Yankees.

Sure enough, looking Lincolnesque without his stovepipe hat, was a statue of Abraham erected in 1893 as a memorial to the Scottish-American soldiers of the U.S. Civil War. Lincoln worshiped Robert Burns, Scotland’s national poet, so it is fitting that Abe graces the capital city 200 years after his birth.

Can you think of another historical personage more widely known or better respected than Lincoln? Buy a box of Pop-Tarts or a bottle of 7 Up and there’s his craggy profile in a handful of change consisting of pennies or $5 bills.

today’s poll

Who do you think was more influential, Abraham Lincoln or Charles Darwin?

Abraham Lincoln

Charles Darwin

Now, thanks to Barack Obama’s copious references to Lincoln’s wit and wisdom, it’s all Lincoln, all the time. His face adorns T-shirts and magazine covers. To us Lincolnphiles who have made the pilgrimage to Ford’s Theater, the house where Lincoln died and the Lincoln Memorial, not to mention the hallowed ground of the Gettysburg Address, this is music to our ears.

Growing up on Bangor’s East Side in the 1950s and ’60s, I envied the kids at Abraham Lincoln School. But the few times I entered the principal’s office at Mary Snow, another Queen City elementary school, there was Lincoln, along with George Washington, staring at us from paintings on the wall.

Before Presidents Day linked the two men in a convenient Monday holiday, Feb. 12 (Lincoln’s birthday) and Feb. 22 (Washington’s) were separate holidays that provided teachers like Miss Carrie Rowe, my amazing third-grade mentor, an opportunity to explain what made each commander-in-chief unique.

Now, perhaps because of Ken Burns’ Civil War series and the immediacy of Matthew Brady’s Lincoln portraits, Lincoln has eclipsed Washington in popularity. There’s something about those wistful eyes and tragic smile that bespeaks a life of war both on the battleground and in the 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. mansion he called “this damned old house.”

“Lincoln is all around you,” Miss Rowe used to exclaim every February. She would point out that Hannibal Hamlin, Lincoln’s first vice president, lived and died in Bangor. A Virgo to Lincoln’s Aquarius, Hamlin was born Aug. 27, 1809; Lincoln came into the world Feb. 12, 1809.

Hamlin, who died on July 4, 1891, is buried at Mount Hope Cemetery near family members who include his daughter Sarah, who witnessed Lincoln’s assassination on April 14, 1865. Hamlin was dropped from the ticket in 1864 in favor of Andrew Johnson, who had a political edge over a Mainer since he came from the border state of Tennessee. Hamlin never met Lincoln until after the 1860 election, and the two politicians were not close friends.

Other local connections include two Lincoln autographs and a lithographic copy of the Emancipation Proclamation at the Bangor Museum and Center for History. It also has a plaster cast of the president’s right hand, said to have been swollen from a life of political glad-handing.

Lincoln never set foot in Maine, although he was invited in 1860 by the Portland Republican Committee “to visit our City, at any time that may suit your convenience, with a few weeks, and address our citizens on political questions.”

The future president was in New Hampshire at the time visiting his son Robert, a student at Phillips Exeter Academy, and delivering speeches. This followed Lincoln’s often-quoted address to the Cooper Institute in New York City on Feb. 27.

“Let us have faith that right makes might, and in that faith, let us, to the end, dare to do our duty as we understand it,” said Lincoln.

Happy birthday, Mr. Lincoln. The world still notes and long remembers your words and sterling example two centuries after your birth.

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