“In the end, it's not the years in your life that count. It's the life in your years.” - Abraham Lincoln
The current election cycle might cause one to reflect on the presidential races of old and the means by which candidates appealed to their potential voters. It is a reflection on where we have been, how we have changed, and how, in many ways, we have not. The ideals of character in a leader are still present, but how those ideals are embodied have changed, and the way in which we identify with them has changed. Lincoln’s enduring image of a tall man, deep in the woods with an axe in hand, wiping the sweat from his brow, has remained a symbol of nostalgic Americana; a time when the grit and timber of a man was bound to his destiny. Lincoln was an ideal of the every-man, and what’s more, he was genuine.
The Rail Candidate
An 1860 poster of Abraham Lincoln "The Rail Splitter"
If there was one chore every farm boy and rancher knew all too well, it was fencing and fence mending. Cattle had become a major industry for America and the days of free-roaming herds had vanished with the growing population. There were a few ways to contain livestock that did not require the cutting down of a tree and the making of a fence. Trees were often planted, such as the Osage Orange in the mid-west\mid-south, which provided a natural and lasting barrier…eventually. Barbed wire would not be invented until 1874, 14 years after Lincoln’s election, which mean that most ranchers had to rely on hand built fences.
Unlike many of the candidates that were beginning to flood the political fields, Lincoln was not born to a well-to-do family. As most likely know, he had to work hard at everything that he accomplished, including helping build his family’s log cabins. As a candidate his prowess with an axe became legendary and was soon billed as the “Rail Candidate” for his ability to split fence rails like a machine.
For the people of his day, the notion of a “Rail Candidate” was not simply a remark on Lincoln’s strength and backwoods upbringing, rather it created an image they were all too familiar with; an image of the character of a man forged under sweat of brow. The thoughtfulness in eyeing the run of the grain, the patience in sharpening the axe, the fortitude under the strain of the day’s work and the many days ahead, the inherit danger of the work, the deft swing of an axe or mallet, and the many, many hours a man spends alone with his own thoughts. To be given the title of “Rail Candidate” did not simply make Lincoln a “man of the people”, it made him a man among men.
Letting Chips Fly
“Hew to the block, let the chips fly where they will.” – Abraham Lincoln’s Motto
Since his days on the campaign trail, authentic pieces of Lincoln’s fence railing have been highly sought after. Lincoln actually used a cane, which was made by an old acquaintance from Indiana, from one of the fence rails he split in his boyhood. A few stories still survive of his skill with an ax well into the tumultuous years of his presidency. In April of 1865, just days before his assassination, Lincoln visited a military hospital near Petersburg, VA. As one wounded soldier recounts:
“After this handshaking, and before leaving, be picked up an ax in front of the steward's quarters and made the chips fly for about a minute, until he had to stop, fearful of chipping some of the boys, who were catching them on the fly.”
I doubt a young Abe Lincoln thought about how much those early lessons in felling trees and spitting and hewing fence rails would define him for the rest of his life. I wonder how often he thought back on that time in the woods, the hard work ahead, and compared those days to the tumult of the Civil War. One thing is certain, however. When the people thought of Lincoln, they thought of a strong man with ax in hand. How is it that we will be remembered?