One hundred and fifty years ago today, President Lincoln was assassinated. The acute shock and the grief that followed can still be seen a century and a half later, culturally embalmed in everything from some of the most moving American poetry to communities that mark where his funeral procession ran through town to discussions of whether Reconstruction could have worked had he survived. But looking back now, of course, we also commemorate the man.
Educated by a few itinerant schoolmasters and then largely by himself, Lincoln cannot even be said to be a high school dropout. He became perhaps our most far-sighted President. He read for the law (studying and taking the bar, rather than going to law school)—a practice that is no longer allowed—and then proved himself to be one of the most successful lawyers in the country. (If you satisfy your clients and peers today as a lawyer but did not go to law school, we will throw you in jail.) He was a peerlessly elegant orator, a better strategist than his generals, a gifted politician—the savior of his country. And by our lights, he was completely unqualified.
The U.S. has gone from being a nation that lived by Lincoln’s credo, “Whatever you are, be a good one” to one that fetishizes credentials above all else, whether in choosing our Presidents (the last three of which attended Harvard, Yale, or both) or our degree-holding baristas. Is this working out any better for us?
So yes, read “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d” today. Look a little bit more closely at your pennies. You can even read a fascinating Slate article on whether Our American Cousin, the play Lincoln was seeing at Ford’s theater, was funny. (We groaned.) But spare a thought, too, for where the next Abraham Lincoln is going to come from—and what we’re doing to bar or clear the path.