Happy Presidents’ Day!
As you know, this holiday was originally set aside to honor George Washington’s birthday. But as Abraham Lincoln’s birthday is also around this time of year, many states began celebrating the two dates together. More recently, the day has become dedicated to all presidents.
Recently, I came across a speech about Abraham Lincoln given by a man named Phillips Brooks. But this was no ordinary address. It was, in fact, a eulogy for our sixteenth president.
Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865. Most people don’t realize this was Good Friday – an important holiday for many people. It was also the start of the Easter weekend, a time when churches around the country would fill to capacity. But on that weekend, religious leaders were suddenly faced with a dilemma: How to comfort thousands of grieving, bewildered people. People mourning the sudden, unthinkable death of their president.
Phillips Brooks was one of these leaders. As the rector of one of the largest churches in Philadelphia, he wrote down his thoughts about Lincoln for a eulogy that he delivered the following weekend. The same weekend when Lincoln’s body passed through Philadelphia on its way back to Illinois.
In honor of the holiday, I thought I would share a few excerpts with you. While Presidents’ Day is not as celebrated as, say, July 4 or Memorial Day, I think Brooks’ words perfectly illustrate why it still matters. They also illustrate why we were so lucky to have a man like Abraham Lincoln as president of the United States.
The Life and Death of Abraham Lincoln
by the Reverend Phillips Brooks1
While I speak to you today, the body of the President who ruled this people is lying, honored, and loved in our City. It is impossible for me to stand and speak of the ordinary topics which occupy the pulpit. I must speak of him today, and I therefore…invite you to study with me the character of Abraham Lincoln, the impulses of his life, and the causes of his death. I know how hard it is to do it rightly, how impossible it is to do it worthily. But I shall speak with confidence because I speak to those who love him.
We take it for granted, first of all, that there is an essential connection between Mr. Lincoln’s character and his death. It is no accident, no arbitrary decree of Providence. He lived as he did, and he died as he did, because he was what he was.
In him was vindicated the greatness of real goodness and the goodness of real greatness. The twain were one flesh. Not one of all the multitudes who stood and looked up to him for direction with such a loving and implicit trust can tell you today whether the wise judgments that he gave came most from a strong head or a sound heart. If you ask them, they are puzzled. There are men as good as he, but they do bad things. There are men as intelligent as he, but they do foolish things. In him, goodness and intelligence combined and made their best result of wisdom.
Mr. Lincoln’s character [was] the true result of our free life and institutions. Nowhere else could have come forth that genuine love of people, which in him no one could suspect of being either the cheap flattery of the demagogue or the abstract philanthropy of the philosopher, which made our President, while he lived, the center of a great land, and when he died so cruelly, made every humblest household thrill with a sense of personal bereavement which the death of rulers is not apt to bring. Nowhere else than out of the life of freedom could have come that personal unselfishness and generosity which made so gracious a part of this good man’s character.
How many soldiers feel yet the pressure of a strong hand that clasped theirs once as they lay sick and weak in the dreary hospital. How many ears will never lose the thrill of some kind word he spoke – he who could speak so kindly to promise a kindness that always matched his word. How often he surprised the land with a clemency which made even those who questioned his policy love him the more; seeing how the man in whom most embodied the discipline of Freedom not only could not be a slave, but could not be a tyrant. In all, it was a character such as only Freedom knows how to make.
[Now], the new American nature must supplant the old. We must grow like our President in his truth, his independence, his wide humanity. Then the character by which he died shall be in us, and by it we shall live. Then Peace shall come that knows no War, and Law that knows no Treason, and full of his spirit, a grateful land shall gather round his grave and give thanks for his Life and Death.
He stood once on the battlefield of our own State, and said of the brave men who had saved it words as noble as any countryman of ours ever spoke. Let us stand in the country he has saved, and which is to be his grave and monument, and say of Abraham Lincoln what he said of the soldiers who had died at Gettysburg: ‘That we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that Government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.’
May God make us worthy of the memory of Abraham Lincoln.
I hope you enjoyed reading these words as much as I did. And on behalf of Tina and me, I wish you a very happy Presidents’ Day!
1 “The Life and Death of Abraham Lincoln,” by the Rev. Phillips Brooks, April 23, 1865. http://name.umdl.umich.edu/ACK8574.0001.001