Two hundred years ago, Abraham Lincoln was born in Kentucky. As he grew to young adulthood, his impoverished family often picked up and moved—farming all the way from Kentucky to Indiana to Illinois.
Once on his own, he moved to Springfield, Illinois, in 1837, arriving on a borrowed horse and with only two saddlebags of worldly possessions. In the ensuing years, Mr. Lincoln, without benefit of any significant formal education, became a respected attorney and state political leader.
In 1849, shortly after the end of his one term as a Whig Congressman from Illinois, Mr. Lincoln was offered a political plum—the governorship of the Oregon Territory, which then encompassed both present-day Washington and Oregon. Abraham Lincoln declined President Zachary Taylor’s offer.
With the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854 and the infamous Dred Scott decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1857, Mr. Lincoln became ever more deeply involved in opposition to the further expansion of slavery into the western territories of the United States. In 1860 at the Republican Party’s nominating convention in Chicago, he became that party’s candidate for president, and was inaugurated our country’s sixteenth president on March 4, 1861.
The two great intertwined causes of his political life were the preservation of the Union and the abolition of slavery. We honor him today, and for all time, because he accomplished both.
Apples find their way into Abraham Lincoln’s life story in ways both great and small. Andrew Ferguson relates in his Land of Lincoln: "Have you ever wondered how Lincoln ate an apple? [Lincoln’s law partner] Herdon’s your guy: ‘He disdained the use of a knife to cut or pare it. Instead, he would grasp it around the equatorial part, holding it thus until his thumb and forefinger almost met, sink his teeth into it, and then unlike the average person, begin eating at the blossom end. When done he had eaten his way over and through rather than around it. I never saw an apple thus disposed of by anyone else.’" Apples were Mr. Lincoln’s favorite fruit.
Moving to the great, we see apples used in one of the most serious expressions of the newly elected president’s political philosophy. In a fragment, which has been closely analyzed by scholars and likely was written before the First Inaugural, President Lincoln attempted to develop a convincing argument why slavery should be restricted—if not eliminated—even though the U.S. Constitution, which was written in 1787, gave that "peculiar institution" its direct protection. The answer arrived at by Abraham Lincoln was to go back to the Declaration of Independence as the bedrock political statement of the meaning of the new republic, a document which at its outset in 1776 clearly announced, in the words of Thomas Jefferson, that: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness."
President Lincoln, although not a member of any congregation, had a deep understanding of the Bible. He knew the King James version of Proverbs Chapter 25: "A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver."
Abraham Lincoln wrote in his fragment the primary cause of "our free government and consequent prosperity" was the principle of "Liberty to all’—the principle that clears the path for all—gives hope to all—and, by consequence, enterprise, and industry to all." This was the key expression of the Founders in their Declaration of Independence.
"The assertion of that principle, at that time, was the word, ‘fitly spoken’ which has proved an ‘apple of gold’ to us. The Union and the Constitution are the picture of silver, subsequently framed around it. The picture was made, not to conceal, or destroy the apple; but to adorn, and preserve it. The picture was made for the apple—not the apple for the picture.
"So let us act, that neither picture, or apple shall ever be blurred, or bruised or broken." Through this logic, President Lincoln made his law-abiding way beyond the Constitution’s protection of slavery and back to the fundamental right of personal freedom given in 1776 at the founding of our country—to everyone.
But those in the South did not agree. In the sad, reflective words of President Lincoln’s Second Inaugural: "And the war came."
At the Civil War’s bloody conclusion on April 9, 1865, General Ulysses S. Grant’s messenger came upon a defeated Robert E. Lee. The rebel general was resting along a road at the edge of an orchard, under an apple tree. Official surrender came later the same day. The Union was saved and slaves set free.
Abraham Lincoln on April 14 was too busy for lunch; instead, he ate an apple as he worked. That night he went to Ford’s Theatre.