A Letter to Lincoln

he Abraham Lincoln statue at Centre College in Danville, Ky. (Abraham Lincoln Tours photo)

Note: This column originally ran in a personal blog, then on the Op-Ed Page of The Courier-Journal on Feb. 12, 2009.

Dear Mr. Lincoln,

Everybody here in Kentucky is gearing up for the bicentennial of your birth so I thought at least one of us ought to write to you.

I bet you’re getting a big kick out of all of these doings in Kentucky. The other day I saw a special license plate with “Kentucky: Birthplace of Lincoln,” on it, featuring our own logo for the bicentennial.

Even though we’re the state of your birth, most folks that live here now don’t remember that Kentucky wouldn’t claim you, at least politically, back when you were trying to scrounge up votes.

You didn’t do any campaigning in the presidential election of 1860, but did get an invitation to speak in Kentucky and joked back, “Would not the people lynch me?” A newspaper got hold of it and tried to paint you as a coward.

Yes, we’re celebrating all things Lincoln now, but you remember Mr. Lincoln, even if few here seem to, that you wound up getting less than one percent — ONE! — of the vote in Kentucky when you ran for president in 1860. Heck, a dead man can get less than one percent. No offense.

There is a speech you never gave, but it has been preserved. You wrote it in Springfield, Ill., before leaving for Washington to assume the presidency. You’d been thinking about dipping into Kentucky to speak to “the state of my nativity,” but the train route didn’t really allow it, passing through Indianapolis and Cincinnati. You had cut out three paragraphs from the typeset version your first inaugural address, intending to preview them for a Kentucky crowd. Around those lines, you had written a speech that I’m sure would have gone down in the history of this state, an appeal to the rule of law, and to the sensibilities of your fellow Kentuckians. You even included the words, “Gentlemen, I too am a Kentuckian.” You never got to give that speech. In Cincinnati you addressed Kentuckians directly, but in a different way. I sure wish you had gotten to give that original speech.

After four years in office, you managed to get only 30 percent of the vote in Kentucky in your reelection bid — against George McClellan, no less, a general you fired. The Civil War might still be going on if McClellan had been in charge.

Even after your assassination, when you passed into national legend overnight, few here in Kentucky thought much about preserving your history here. The cabin where you were born was torn down, the logs, maybe, used in the building of a nearby house. Maybe. Nobody is sure.

I guess there must have been some who sought out the farmland where you were born, but nobody here in Kentucky really considered the tourism potential until a Yankee named A.W. Dennett came down from New York nearly 30 years after you were gone, bought the farm and turned it into a tourist site. He used some logs from the farmhouse that supposedly contained some of the logs from the cabin where you were born and built a whole new cabin. But when it didn’t draw, that cabin was taken apart and sent on the road for exhibitions.

A Lincoln group bought some logs from that cabin and others and built yet another Lincoln’s birthplace. It’s the one that sits on the land now, where they have your National Historic Site. They built this neo-classical granite building around it. But the cabin was a little too big for people to get around inside, so they sawed the logs off the ends, and there you go.

I’m glad, at least, that Kentucky did make some contribution to your life, beyond giving you a place for your birth, and a mother you loved who encouraged your intellect. We gave you your best friend, Joshua Speed. Even he, though, didn’t vote for you. Still, I don’t know if you’d have grown to become the president you were without him. Nor do I know what would’ve become of you if you hadn’t gotten the chance to come to Louisville, to Speed’s family’s plantation, Farmington, to spend a month. You were in the dumps, your engagement broken off, political career flailing, Joshua having moved back to Kentucky. Spending that month here in the summer of 1841 might’ve put you on the road back.

Before that, it was a Kentuckian, John Todd Stuart from Fayette County, who encouraged you to become a lawyer in Illinois and run for the state legislature. He even lent you his law books. He, too, also wound up opposing you politically many times. He was your law partner for a time, and your second law partner, Stephen Logan, was born in Kentucky, as was your third and most important, William Herndon. Born in Green County, Ky., he was your longtime partner and the man probably most responsible for telling your life story to the nation after you died.

We also gave you your wife, Mary Todd. And your political hero, Henry Clay. And we gave you our continued presence in the union, though grudgingly.

But it was a very long time before Kentucky gave you its affection.

As you may know, we in Kentucky are slow to embrace things. The Thirteenth Amendment, officially outlawing slavery in the U.S., was a great legacy of yours, and passed the December after your death in 1865. But not by Kentucky. This state didn’t ratify it until 1976.

I suppose, though, the important thing is that your home state embraces you now.

You once told a group of ministers, “I would like to have God on my side, but I must have Kentucky.”

It took a long time, but I’d say your home state finally got there.