Washington Rotary learns about 16th president

Christina Smith
Jim Bremmer, with the Washington Rotary, left, thanks Dr. Randall L. Saxon of Peoria after his talk about Abraham Lincoln.

Washington residents and community leaders kicked off the two-year Abraham Lincoln Bi Centennial celebration with a speaker on Lincoln’s birthday.

Students from District 50, Washington Community High School and Washington Christian Village residents attended the free event.

Dr. Randall L. Saxon, a Lincoln scholar and pastor of United Presbyterian Church in Peoria, spoke about “Why Lincoln Still Matters” during a Rotary meeting, Feb. 12 at the Evangelical United Methodist Church in Washington.

“I am an ordinary guy who has a love for Lincoln,” Saxon said.

His interest in Lincoln began as a Cub Scout living in Pennsylvania.

“I was 8 years old and my Scoutmaster, Frank Kramer, asked me to memorize the Gettysburg Address and recite it at the Declaration Day ceremony for Memorial Day weekend,” Saxon said.

“From there, I was hooked on Lincoln, the poetry of his prose and his gift of eloquence. I have been trying to understand Lincoln more and more ever since,” Saxon said.

Saxon lived in Gettysburg, Pa., in 1973 and spent five years working as a national park guide at Gettysburg Cemetery.

“When you walk those fields (at Gettysburg), you remember what (the Civil War) is all about,” Saxon said.

Humble beginnings

“Born during a thunderstorm Feb. 12, 1809, Lincoln drew his first breath three miles south of Hodgensville, Ky. No one knew that the long-legged little boy’s work and words would later shape American history,” Saxon said.

Despair, depression and loss were a constant part of Lincoln’s life.

Lincoln was 9 years old when his mother died, and about 10 years later, his sister, Sarah, died at 21, during childbirth.

Ann Rutledge, Lincoln’s love interest, died at the age of 22 in 1835. A year later, Lincoln started courting Mary Owens, who rejected his proposal in 1837.

Although Lincoln married Mary Todd Nov. 4, 1842, he experienced a period of depression after breaking off their engagement Jan. 1, 1841.

Saxon said Lincoln spent the summer of 1841 visiting his friend, Joshua Speed, who encouraged him.

During the next 12 years, one of Lincoln’s sons, Edward, died. After he became president, his son, Willie, died.

“Lincoln’s life shows us encouragement empowers accomplishment,” Saxon said.

Self-educated

Saxon said when Lincoln was asked about his education one time, Lincoln said it was defective.

Lincoln attended a one-room blab school, which is where students age 6 through 16 would recite their lessons at the same time, to prove they did their homework, Saxon said.

Despite not having a formal education, Lincoln read whenever he could and was known to say, “The things I want to learn are in books,” Saxon added.

In 1839, Lincoln was admitted to the U.S. Supreme Court, after self-educating himself in law from 1834 to 1836.

Lincoln lost his first run for the Illinois General Assembly in 1832. He then served as postmaster of New Salem and deputy county surveyor in 1833.

At the age of 24, Lincoln won the 1834 election for state senator, going on to be re-elected for three more terms.

Lincoln also lost the 1858 election to Stephen A. Douglas, only to win the Republican nomination for president two years later.

Winning 40 percent of the popular vote and 180 of 3,003 electoral votes, Lincoln was elected the 16th president Nov. 6, 1860.

The majority of Lincoln’ most memorable writing took place during his presidency, including the “House Divided Speech” on slavery and the Gettysburg Address.

Given June 16,1858, in the “House Divided Speech,” Lincoln said the Union, or country, could not stand with half of the states with slavery and half free.

“We must either become all one thing or the other,” Lincoln said.

“Lincoln was told to keep his remarks short and appropriate at Gettysburg. His speech was less than 300 words,” Saxon said.

While Edward Everett, a noted speaker of the time, talked for two hours, Saxon said Lincoln finished his speech before the reporters at the dedication ceremony were ready to take notes.

“People do not remember Everett, but they remember Lincoln’s address,” Saxon said.

Little known facts

Although Saxon spoke about the major milestones in Lincoln’s life, he also shared details about the former president which most people do not know.

“Lincoln was 6 feet 4 inches tall by the time he was 17, which made him about 12 inches taller than the average American male at that time,” Saxon said.

Because of his long legs, Lincoln looked to be the same height as everybody else when he was seated, Saxon said.

“He wore size 14 shoes and weighed anywhere from 160 up to 185 pounds at the most.”

Since Lincoln was not much of a dancer, he asked someone else to dance with Mary Todd at his first presidential inaugural ball, Saxon said.

“Who did he ask? Douglas, the Illinois senator from the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates,” Saxon said.

Throughout his life, Saxon said Lincoln teaches us that learning is fundamental to building a better country and a better person, along with reminding us that a “house divided cannot stand.”