Lincoln’s Birthday

Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth President of the United States, was born in a single-room log cabin on Sinking Spring Farm in LaRue County, Kentucky on February 12, 1809. He was the son of Thomas Lincoln, an illiterate pioneer farmer, and Nancy Hanks Lincoln, who died when Abraham was nine years old. It was Thomas Lincoln’s second wife, Sarah Bush Johnston who, while illiterate herself, recognized Abraham’s “uncommon natural talents” and encouraged his famous bookishness.

Abraham Lincoln Birthplace, Hodgenville, Larue County, KY. Historic American Buildings Survey, creator; Lester Jones, photographer. Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record/Historic American Landscapes Survey. Prints & Photographs Division

Self-taught and from humble origins, Abraham Lincoln became one of the most revered and uniquely appealing United States Presidents. Known as Honest Abe, the Rail-splitter, and the Great Emancipator, Lincoln was a skilled orator who preserved the Union during the American Civil War and issued the Emancipation Proclamation. His assassination in 1865 contributed to Lincoln’s legendary place in American history and culture.

Despite his stature among many Americans as one of the greatest United States presidents, only a small number of U.S. states, including Connecticut, Illinois, Missouri, and New York, observe Lincoln’s birthday on February 12 as a legal, public holiday. In other states, Lincoln’s birthday is celebrated in combination with President George Washington’s birthday on the third Monday of each February. The combined federal holiday is officially named Washington’s Birthday but is also known as Presidents Day.

Abraham Lincoln. Between 1861 and 1865. Liljenquest Family Collection of Civil War Photographs. Prints & Photographs Division

Washington’s Birthday was first declared a federal holiday in 1879 by an Act of Congress. The Uniform Holidays Act of 1968 changed the date of commemoration from Washington’s actual birthday on February 22 to the third Monday of February. Because of this Act, and the fact that President Lincoln’s birthday falls on February 12, many people now refer to the holiday as “Presidents Day” and consider it a day honoring all American presidents. However, neither the Uniform Holidays Act nor any subsequent law changed the name of the holiday from Washington’s Birthday to Presidents Day.

President Heads Nation in Honoring Great Emancipator at Lincoln Memorial…. Harris & Ewing, photographer, February 12, 1940. Harris & Ewing Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

Several Lincoln devotees have attempted to create a holiday in honor of the sixteenth President. In 1873, Julius FrancisExternal, a shopkeeper from Buffalo, New York, proposed a holiday celebrating President Lincoln. Francis, a bachelor and collector of Civil War and Lincoln memorabilia, declared that his campaign for a Lincoln holiday was “my wife and my life.” Francis sent Congress elaborate memorial pamphlets as part of his campaign and organized the first public celebration of Lincoln’s birthday in Buffalo. Until his death in 1881, Francis held annual celebrations of Lincoln’s birthday, renting a hall and organizing speakers, poets, and musicians to celebrate the martyred president. His attempts to persuade Congress to establish a legal Lincoln’s Birthday holiday were not successful, but in 1877 Francis organized the Buffalo Lincoln’s Birthday Association to continue the campaign after his death.

In 1951, Californian Harold Stonebridge Fischer formed a Presidents Day National Committee and lobbied Congress for the creation of a holiday to honor the office of the president rather than a particular president. He proposed March 4, the original Presidential Inauguration Day, as the date for “Presidents Day.” The bill was defeated in the Senate Judiciary Committee, but several state governors subsequently issued proclamations declaring March 4 “Presidents Day” in their states.

Maryland Division […] Lincoln birthday anniversary. February 12, 1925. National Photo Company Collection. Prints & Photographs Division

Even in locations where it is not a legal holiday, many groups and individuals celebrate Lincoln’s birthday, and annual wreath-laying ceremonies take place at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. and at the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace National Historic Site in Kentucky. The ceremony in Washington has been conducted every year since the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in 1922. Activities in other locations include re-enactments, parades, concerts, and readings of the Gettysburg Address.

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Thomas Moran, Painter

February 12 marks the birth of painter Thomas Moran(1837-1926).* His depictions of Western landscapes inspired Americans to conserve and cherish spectacular wilderness areas as part of their national heritage.

Thomas Moran. Napoleon Sarony, photographer, ca 1890-96. The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920.

In the summer of 1871, Moran joined the U.S. Geological Survey of the Territories. Headed by Ferdinand V. Hayden, this scientific exploration of lands along the Yellowstone River in northwestern Wyoming and southeastern Montana included a painter and a photographer. Visual documentation not only served to verify textual reports but also stimulated public interest.

The Great Blue Spring of the Lower Geyser Basin, Yellowstone… Thomas Moran, artist; chromolithograph by L. Prang & Co., c1875. The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920.

Collaborating closely with William Henry Jackson, the expedition photographer, Moran took extensive notes and made numerous watercolor sketches of sulphur fields, hot springs, geysers, waterfalls, and evergreen mountain peaks. Returning East, Hayden displayed many of Moran’s sketches and Jackson’s photographs in Washington, D.C.

These images helped convince Congress to set aside the Yellowstone area as a national park. Legislation establishing the park took effect March 1, 1872. Congress later purchased two of Moran’s panoramic landscapes to embellish the U.S. Capitol: The Grand Cañon of the Yellowstone (1872) and The Chasm of the Colorado (1873-74).

The Tower of Tower Falls, Yellowstone… Thomas Moran, artist; chromolithograph by L. Prang & Co., c1875. The Evolution of the Conservation Movement, 1850-1920

Moran continued to travel and paint in the West. Although Scribner’s, Harper’s Weekly, and other influential magazines published black-and-white engravings of  his art, Moran’s paintings of wilderness spectacles attracted the widest acclaim. Beginning in  1874, Thomas “Yellowstone” Moran (as he sometimes signed his name) created a series of watercolors that were published as chromolithographs by L. Prang and Company in 1876. Louis Prang was a pioneer in the full-color reproduction of American art; his chromolithographs of Moran’s paintings added a new dimension to public appreciation of Western scenic beauty.

Moran was less interested in exactly replicating the marvels of nature than in capturing their overall impression on the human spirit. In this, he was deeply influenced by the British painter J.M.W. Turner, whose works he copied and studied in his youth; and by Turner’s champion, the British critic John Ruskin, who expressed admiration for Moran’s art.

Brush Burning. Edward Moran, artist; photograph of painting, ca 1900-1912. Detroit Publishing Company. Prints & Photographs Division

Two of Moran’s brothers also were painters. Edward, known mostly for his maritime paintings, was Thomas’s principal mentor. This photograph of a painting relies on yellow and brown hues similar to those in Thomas Moran’s Western landscapes.

    * Moran gave his birthdate as January 12, but biographer Thurman Wilkins recently discovered the correct date on Moran’s birth certificate.

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