It’s been 150 years since a bullet fired in Ford’s Theater changed the history of the world, but in many ways Abraham Lincoln is more alive today than ever.
Lincoln’s likeness is still very much visible in today’s society and pop culture. He’s one of, if not the most, quoted president by aspiring leaders.
The country’s “bonds of affection” for Lincoln have only gotten stronger with the passage of time as evidenced by the over 15,000 books that have been written about the 16th president, a man who was born poor in a log cabin and rose to the highest office in the land.
“His story is still the great American story,” renowned Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer and author of the new book President Lincoln Assassinated!! told msnbc.com. “It’s still possible to be born in obscurity and rise to the top based on your talents alone.”
To find out how we got here let’s go back to that fateful night of April 14, 1865, when actor John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Lincoln with his Derringer pistol.
“Booth escaped through his native southern Maryland and he’s heading south while Lincoln’s funeral procession is heading north,” Holzer added. “Booth finally gets to see a newspaper and he expects to see at least some people to see him as a hero, but in both the North and South the overwhelming majority of people condemned him and lamented the passing of Lincoln.”
Lincoln’s two-week funeral train procession traveled 1,700 miles, through 180 cities and seven states. An estimated 12 million people saw the procession, a remarkable 1/3 of the entire U.S. population. It was America’s first national funeral.
“What’s so interesting about Lincoln’s legacy is he has such a relatable American story,” says Dr. Samuel Wheeler, a research historian at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, Illinois told msnbc.com. “No matter where you come from in the country, no matter how humble your background is, there’s something in Lincoln’s life you can relate to.”
With less than a year of formal education, Lincoln’s mind and words have become the foundation of America’s soul.
Phrases like “a house divided”, “a new birth of freedom”, and “the better angels of our nature” are iconic in history. His biblical-like second presidential inaugural address is still the gold standard for which every president’s speech after him is measured.
“He was the greatest writer about American liberty and opportunity and democracy that ever lived,” Holzer said. “He’s still the great apostle of democratic possibilities and freedom.”
There’s no better example than the 272 words Lincoln spoke on the Gettysburg battlefield in November 1863.
“I have people from all over the globe that come to [the Lincoln] museum who can recite pieces of the Gettysburg Address, his words are that inspiring to them,” Wheeler marveled. “It’s almost like you can have a conversation with Lincoln. His words are still relevant to the 21st century today.”
And so are his images. “He was photographed more often than any politician in history up to that point,” Holzer said. “Lincoln wanted people to see his erosion. He wanted people to be moved by that.”
When you look at those remarkable pictures of Lincoln, even today, you can feel the strains of war and the burden of nearly 400,000 dead U.S. soldiers on his face.
“The most powerful testament is when folks leave the [Lincoln] museum plaza and more times than not folks buy a book about Lincoln,” Wheeler said. “I think that is an amazing testament that folks would spend three to four hours of their day learning about Lincoln and by the end of the experience they want to learn more.”
Lincoln fought for human dignity, and won. He eradicated slavery, America’s greatest sin. He endured the bloodiest war this country has ever seen to advance the cause of freedom. He represents everything America stands for, everything we as individuals stand for, and everything we wish our leaders today would stand for.
Now that the 150th anniversaries have all passed for Lincoln and the Civil War, a new period of time begins where the endurance of Lincoln’s legacy will be tested.
“Something else will keep us going because there’s still more to do, still more to write,” Holzer said. “So I think Lincoln will go on.”