Lincoln's forgotten birthday

Today is Abraham Lincoln's 209th birthday.

Sadly, you would hardly know it. It might get a passing mention in your newspaper or on TV, but not much more.

There was a time not so long ago when Lincoln's birthday was a big deal. Schoolchildren outside the Old South got the day off, a nice break in the cold northern winters of February. That automatically produced a warm spot in students' hearts for Lincoln, even if they weren't quite sure why he was being honored.

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But by first grade, teachers began to make sure we knew the importance of Lincoln to our nation and to our lives.

They used the tale of a young Lincoln, born to humble parents in a Kentucky log cabin, reading and teaching himself by candlelight, to stress the value of working hard in our own studies. If he could so it under difficult circumstances, they would say, you who have it much easier can do it, too.

They also told us how Lincoln bravely stood tall against terrible taunts and threats and freed the slaves, sacrificing his own life so that all men could be free and the union preserved.

One common school assignment in those days was to have students draw and color pictures of Lincoln cutting the chains that bound the slaves. The tableaux were then tacked to the bulletin board for parents to see on PTA night.

A related assignment was to draw and cut out Lincoln stovepipe hats from black construction paper. They were tacked onto the bulletin board between the student drawings of the slaves being freed.

As students got older, they were assigned to memorize or recite Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, delivered in 1863 at the dedication of the battlefield cemetery where thousands of Civil War dead, Union and Confederate, were buried.

It was common for a group of students to stand in front of the class and each recite one line of the 272-word speech (shorter than this article). They started with "Four score and seven years ago" and concluded with the powerful "that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

It was moving then. It is moving now.

But for the most part, all that is a thing of the past. Lincoln observances fell into decline after Congress passed the Uniform Monday Holiday Act in 1971 and designated George Washington's birthday (Feb. 22) to be celebrated on the third Monday of February. Somehow, that has morphed into Presidents Day. As a result, Lincoln and Washington, two of our greatest presidents, no longer get their deserved and rightful honors.

A handful of states such as Illinois (Lincoln's adopted home state), Connecticut, New York and California still officially recognize Lincoln's Birthday as a holiday, and mark it in various ways. Most California public employees have the day off.

  • There will be a traditional wreath-laying ceremony today at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington.
  • The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Ill., is offering free admission today. School groups can tour free all month long.
  • And in Bayonne, N.J., the public library will be closed all day, hardly an observance our 16th president would have approved. But at least it's something.

Happy Birthday, Mr. President.

Benedetto is a retired USA Today White House correspondent and columnist. He teaches journalism and politics at American University and in the Fund for American Studies program at George Mason University. Email him at benedett@american.edu or follow him on Twitter @benedettopress.

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