Abraham Lincoln's Birthday

By Zachary Siegel

On Abraham Lincoln’s 203rd birthday we continue to celebrate his legacy as a tremendous figure in the struggle for human rights. Since the year of his death, every generation of Americans has chosen to celebrate Abraham Lincoln in one way or another. Dependent on the world in which they lived, millions of Americans have taken a moment away from their lives to pause and reflect on the man who reunited a divided country while fighting for human equality. Whether a symbol of their struggle, a fountain of ideas, or a model for change, Americans have found ways to incorporate Abraham Lincoln’s legacy and teachings into their own lives.

In 1909, amidst one of the largest waves of immigration to the United States, President Theodore Roosevelt announced plans to commemorate Abraham Lincoln’s birthday with the first piece of American currency to have a president adorn the face. President Roosevelt soon accepted the work of a Lithuanian Jewish immigrant, Victor David Brenner, for the new coin creating the Lincoln Penny. In the words of the great American author and Lincoln admirer, Carl Sandburg, “The common, homely face of Honest Abe looks good on the penny, the coin of the common folk from whom he came to whom he belongs.”[1] Sandburg’s common folk included those millions of immigrants entering through the gates of Ellis Island, coming to America looking for opportunities, looking for the liberty that Abraham Lincoln strove to protect.

Fifty years later a new generation sought to honor Lincoln in their own way. In 1959, the Sesquicentennial of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, the country united behind the first federal organization created for Lincoln commemoration. Fueled by the growing power of the Civil Rights movement, Lincoln’s birthday became a day of commemoration and remembrance of America’s greatest champion for civil rights.

Today, we find Lincoln’s influence in every day of our lives. At President Lincoln’s Cottage, we reach across three generations to teach about how Lincoln and the Cottage play a role in our past, but also in our future. Opening on February 17 is the Cottage’s newest special exhibit, Can You Walk Away?: Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking in the United States.  This special exhibit challenges perceptions of slavery in America today and raises awareness of a growing humanitarian crisis. By posing the question, “can you walk away?” this exhibit inspires people to engage with the modern abolitionist movement and to see that slavery is an ongoing issue that requires big thinking and direct action, just as it did in Lincoln’s time.

[1] Golden, Harry. Carl Sandburg. The Word Publishing Company (New York: 1961). 246.

Mr. Siegel is a Historical Interpreter at President Lincoln’s Cottage.
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