The presidential election of 1860 was, no doubt, one of the most contentious elections this nation has ever experienced, along with the current one. The very survival of the union was riding on it, and the American people chose Abraham Lincoln, a rather obscure railroad lawyer and former one-term congressman from Illinois, for the job.
Sitting in a small glass case at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History is President Lincoln’s stovepipe hat, the very same hat he was wearing when he went to Ford’s Theatre and was assassinated on the evening of April 14, 1865.
The hat itself is unremarkable except for the ravages of time. It is now more copper-colored than black, and the silk has faded and separated from the felt foundation of the hat.
Not many people looked at it when I was there. There was more foot traffic over at the presidential lectern, where you could take a selfie or two in front of a TV screen.
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The American people choose who figuratively gets to wear Lincoln’s hat – and Washington’s, and Jefferson’s, and all of the other legendary and not-so-legendary men who have held the presidency.
Thus far, the republic has chosen more or less wisely.
The country has withstood James Buchanan, Franklin Pierce, Chester Arthur and other lesser lights. More often than not, the office transforms the officeholder.
Lincoln’s 150-year-old hat is empty and decaying in a case, but his office, the one that he used to fight the Civil War, is still vibrant. It is not a place for someone unprepared to lead in a nuclear age.
Oct. 29 marked the 54th anniversary of the end of the Cuban Missile Crisis. It is not at all difficult to comprehend what might have happened had the wrong person been holding the office of president.
To laugh off the need to elect someone with a stable personality could be catastrophic. The need for a president with a deep understanding of the complexities of government must not be secondary to the desire to send some sort of message.
Lincoln was a melancholic man who suffered blow after blow during his presidency. The country ripped in half, rebels edged close to the nation’s Capitol. But even the death of his beloved young son did not deter him from his duty to the nation.
The ancient stovepipe hat in a glass case is just an object, something that, like Lincoln, now belongs to the ages.
A presidential candidate doesn’t have to wear Lincoln’s hat and have it fit exactly, but he or she does have to be mindful of the meaning and the example set by the person who wore it.