Lincoln’s Birthday

February 12

If I were two-faced, would I be wearing this one?

Abraham Lincoln

Young Abe Lincoln

There are only two Americans remembered with a federal holiday: George Washington and Martin Luther King Jr.

That’s right, Abe Lincoln, considered by many to be America’s greatest President, didn’t make the cut.

It’s true that many states celebrate ‘Presidents Day’ in honor of both Washington and Lincoln, while others celebrate Lincoln’s Birthday separately.

But on the national level ‘Presidents Day’ was never officially adopted. There were movements in Congress to create a new holiday on Lincoln’s birthday, or, since it was only 10 days before Washington’s birthday, celebrating the two on a single ‘Presidents’ Day. However the change never took effect. Though the date was changed, and the holiday is commonly called ‘Presidents Day,’ by the media and public, the Monday federal holiday is still officially “Washington’s Birthday.”

Here we have one of the earliest writing samples of Abraham Lincoln, when he was a young child:

Abraham Lincoln is my nam
And with my pen I wrote the same
I wrote in both hast and speed
and left it here for fools to read

Abraham Lincoln his hand and pen
he will be good but god knows When

My favorite Lincoln story stems from his Illinois lawyer days when he was defending a client by the name of Melissa Goings in the town of Metamora.

The 70 year-old Goings was accused of killing her husband, a well-to-do farmer, though she claimed she acted in self-defense. Her husband was known to be abusive and drink heavily. In her statement Mrs. Goings said she had wrested loose as he choked her, and struck him in the head with a stick of firewood, fracturing his skull. He died three days later. His last words were, “I expect she has killed me. If I get over it, I will have revenge.”

Even though Mrs. Goings’ story was consistent, awareness of domestic violence was not as broad as it is now, and Lincoln knew there was a good chance of her conviction.

Melissa posted her own $1000 bail. However, on the day of her trial she had a short conference with Lincoln, her lawyer, after which she walked out of the courthouse and was never seen again.

The court bailiff was angry with Lincoln. Unable to locate Mrs. Going, he accused Lincoln of “running off” the defendant. Lincoln denied the charge. “I did not run her off,” Lincoln insisted, “She wanted to know where she could get a good drink of water, and I told her there was mighty good water in Tennessee.” (Carl Sandburg, Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years)



Lincoln & Darwin: 200

[published Feb. 12, 2009]

Susannah Wedgwood and Nancy Hanks had little in common. They grew up on separate continents. Susannah was the first of seven children in a well-to-do English family and married a wealthy doctor named Robert Darwin. Nancy was the bastard daughter of Lucy Hanks and an unknown father, born in a cabin in rural West Virginia. She married a struggling Kentucky drifter by the name of Thomas Lincoln.

What Susannah and Nancy did have in common was that two hundred years ago today, on February 12, 1809, just hours apart, each of them gave birth to a son who in very different ways changed the course of human history.

Charles Darwin remembered almost nothing about his mother, though a childhood friend later recalled the boy bringing a flower to school, saying: “that his mother had taught him how by looking at the inside of the blossom the name of the plant could be discovered.” Even at that age Darwin did not take accepted knowledge of the natural world for granted. He allowed his observations to form his philosophy rather than relying on a predetermined philosophy to filter those observations. (Elegy for an Age)

Susannah Darwin died in 1817, when Charles was 8 years old.

Little is known about Lincoln’s mother, or what wisdom she imparted to him in the few years they had together. She died in 1818 when Abraham was 9.

Perhaps when Nancy read to young Abe from the family Bible, she interjected her abolitionist leanings. Perhaps her unknown roots, in a world where genealogy was everything, caused Lincoln to rethink the standards and social mores of his day. What we do know is that at nine years old, Abe Lincoln whittled the wooden pegs for his mother’s coffin.

He later said, according to his law partner William Herndon, “God bless my mother; all that I am or ever hope to be I owe to her.”

Nancy Hanks
Nancy Hanks

Nancy Hanks Eulogy

Bob Marley Day – Song of Freedom

February 6

How long shall they kill our prophets

While we stand aside and look?

Some say it’s just a part of it:

We’ve got to fulfill de book…

Redemption Song, Bob Marley

Most national and religious holidays commemorate the death (or the birth) of a martyr or martyrs executed for their beliefs.

And then there are the victory holidays, of battles and wars, which essentially celebrate the deaths of somebody else’s martyrs.

And then there are Poets. History teaches us that unlike political and religious leaders, artists need not die for their cause to have a holiday named after them, provided they die young.

The Scots have Rabbie Burns, and the Slovenes have France Preseren. Jamaica and the world have Bob Marley, born this day in 1945.

Hard to believe he’d be in his sixties if he were alive today. He died at 36 of melanoma cancer. He left behind, not a traditional bible, but a legacy of spirit in song.

Buffalo soldier,

in the heart of America

Stolen from Africa,

brought to America

Fighting on arrival,

fighting for survival…

If you know your history

Then you would know where you coming from

Then you wouldn’t have to ask

Who the eck do I think I am…

–from Buffalo Solider

In an industry where the vast majority of popular music revolved around repetitive and vapid love songs, Marley’s lyrics articulated complex social issues: race, power, politics, and God. He filtered these themes through his own unique view of the world, one which saw beyond the arbitrary borders and distinctions of the society in which he lived. He once said:

“I don’t have prejudice against myself. My father was a white and my mother was black. Them call me half-caste or whatever. Me don’t dip on nobody’s side. Me don’t dip on the black man’s side nor the white man’s side. Me dip on God’s side, the one who create me and cause me to come from black and white…”

His first single, aptly titled “Judge Not,” was released in 1962, the year of Jamaica’s independence.

Marley spread the Rastafari philosophy around the world. His most famous concert may have been the 1978 One Love Peace Concert, during which he called the leaders of the ruling and opposing parties on stage to hold hands.

Exodus 20th Anniversary Edition

In 1999 Time Magazine called his 1977 album Exodus the “Best Album of the Century.”

The title alludes to the spiritual birth of the Judeo-Christian and Muslim religions. Marley’s lyrics consistently draw upon Biblical themes, Jamaican folk-lore, and his own experience to speak to the continuing struggle of the African Diaspora, particularly in the New World.

Open your eyes and look within:

Are you satisfied with the life you’re living?

We know where we’re going

We know where we’re from

We’re leaving Babylon

We’re going to our father land.

–Bob Marley, Exodus, 1977

Because of the timelessness of Marley’s lyrics and recordings, his legacy will continue to grow over the coming decades. The further we get from his death, the more people tend to recall the legend over the person.

In Before the Legend: The Rise of Bob Marley Christopher Farley touches on the very human side of Nesta…

“…near the end of his life, when his dreadlocks had begun to fall out because of the cancer treatments, he would still summon the strength to play with his kids. He would put on a Frankenstein mask from off the kitchen counter and chase his sons and daughters around their house in Miami. “A lot of people know Dad the musician,” [Marley’s eldest daughter] Cedella says. “We’ve always known him as Dad–who could be corny, funny, serious at times, but would never spank. If he saw a tear in your eye, he would look the other way. That’s the person that we know.”

He was called the “first Third World superstar,” but as he said of himself…

“…I don’t think Third World. To me, I am of the First World. I can’t put people in classes.”

Think Bob Marley’s legacy is overrated? It’s okay to say it, we’re all friends here. But think of this: It is culture and tradition that sustain a people separated from their homeland. Unlike previous diasporas, the Africa Diaspora was so brutal and so widespread that descendants were cut off from an evolution of culture and tradition that had been passed down for a hundred generations.

Marley’s success at embodying, expressing and popularizing a unique cultural movement in the 1960s and 70s, specifically of, by, and for the African Diaspora, was the culmination of hundreds of years of adaptation and indomitable faith. The movement redefined core values of peace, unity, God, redemption, and the enjoyment of life.

Nesta Robert Marley died in 1981. At his request he was buried with a bible, his guitar, a soccer ball, his ring, and a bong.

Nesta Robert Marley :  February 6, 1945-May 11, 1981

Songs of Freedom: The Music of Bob Marley as Transformative Education

Bob Marley’s Legacy Lives On

Marley Videos

Wolfgang Amadè Mozart’s Birthday

January 27

Today, January 27, is Wolfgang Amadè Mozart’s birthday.

If you’re like me, everything you know about Mozart comes from Falco’s immortal ballad “Rock Me Amadeus.”

“1756, Salzburg, January 27, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is born.
“1761, at the age of five Amadeus begins composing.
“1773, he writes his first piano concerto…

But did you know that, according to Marcel Danesi’s Forever Young: The Teen-Aging of Modern Culture:

There are solid data to suggest that even minimal exposure to the music of Mozart, for instance, benefits both children and adults in many ways.

Ironically, this maturing effect of Mozart’s music did not work on the great composer himself, who despite his musical genius, lived much of his life in a state of perpetual adolescence. Mozart’s letters are riddled with misspellings, unorthodox grammar, and references to his fecal and scatological obsessions.

“How I like Mannheim?–as well as one can like any place without Baasle [little cousin]. Pardon my poor handwriting, the pen is already old; now I have been shitting for nearly 22 years out of the same old hole and yet it’s not torn a whit!…Now I must close, as it so happens, because I am not dressed yet, and we’ll be eating soon so that afterward we can go and shit again, as it so happens. Do go on loving me as I love you, then we’ll never stop loving each other…”

Nov. 13, 1777, letter, to cousin Maria Anna Thekla Mozart, translated by Robert Spaethling, Mozart’s Letters, Mozart’s Life

Perhaps the fact that Mozart virtually “skipped” childhood [He wrote his first symphony at age 8.] led him to make up for it in later years. Granted, Mozart probably didn’t expect his personal letters to wind up on the Internet, but then who does. Anyway, his eccentricities didn’t detract from his following, either during his life or after.

Nearing the centenary of Mozart’s birth, The Musical World (1855) wrote:

There is no name in music which addresses itself more powerfully and universally than that of Mozart in appeals to the heart as well as to the intellect. From infancy his melodies are made familiar to us; they are hummed at our cradles, taught us at schools, sung at our theatres, and made the groundwork of our musical appreciation.

We’ll never know how Mozart would have aged. He died on December 5, 1791, at age 35. He died of illness, though specifically of what illness we may never know.

Young Mozart
Young Mozart

Mozart’s Requiem

The mystery of Mozart’s death revolves around his haunting final work: Requiem. The Requiem was commissioned anonymously, and conveyed by a “Gray Messenger.”

Before long he became convinced that the Messenger had come to warn him of his own mortality and that he was indeed composing the work for his own death. Concerned with this morbid fascination, his wife Constanze hid the score and forbade him to work on the Requiem for several weeks.  But, shortly after resuming work in mid-November, Mozart became ill and took to his bed. He gathered a choir of friends around his bedside the afternoon of December 4th to sing the movements he had completed. He died less than twelve hours later.

Robert Levin, Requiem by Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart

His death was fictionalized in Peter Schaffer’s Amadeus. Historians believe the Requiem was not a rival composer’s plot to kill Mozart, but was commissioned by an Austrian count and amateur musician who intended to pass the work off as his own, in honor of his deceased wife.

Over 200 years after his death, historians and musicians still place Mozart in a category of his own. Mozart’s ability to connect to music-lovers for over ten generations, and his ability to express the entire range of human consciousness through music is made more remarkable considering the two things the composer never had: a true childhood, and a true adulthood. As the current Pope Benedict XVI once said:

“His music is by no means just entertainment; it contains the whole tragedy of human existence.”

Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, 1996, quoted in God’s Choice: Pope Benedict XVI and the future of the Catholic Church

John Hancock: Handwriting Day

January 23

John Hancock

Break out those quills…today is National Handwriting Day. And by no coincidence it’s the birthday of Founding Father John Hancock, famous for signing his name on the Declaration of Independence large enough, so the story goes, for King George III of England to read it without his glasses.

John Hancock made his fortune by inheriting his father’s shipping business. During the days of high British taxes, Hancock was charged with smuggling, but he was lucky enough to have future President of the U.S. John Adams as his attorney. After a five-month trial, the charges were dropped for lack of evidence. The smuggling charges actually increased his popularity among the increasingly rebellious citizens of colonial Massachusetts.

In 1775, when the British declared that they would absolve charges against any colonists willing to put down their arms and live in peace, they made two exceptions: Sam Adams and John Hancock.

Also that year, the Second Continental Congress in Philadelphia elected John Hancock as its president. Under Hancock, the Continental Congress declared the independence of the United States of America and drafted the document which proclaimed it so.

In July, 1776, 100 “Broadsides” of the first Declaration of Independence were printed. These didn’t have any of the Founding Fathers’ signatures—Only two names: John Hancock, President of the Congress, and Charles Thompson, the Congress’s Secretary. And they weren’t signed. The names were printed. Had the Revolution failed at that point, Hancock and Thompson would have been screwed.

As fate would have it, the revolution didn’t fail. In August the entire Congress put their names to the nation’s founding document. That’s the Declaration we’re familiar with, with John Hancock’s scrawling signature overshadowing all others.

There’s no evidence he claimed the large signature was so “King George can read it without his glasses,” a story that gained momentum years after the signing. He was however known for his flamboyance and vanity, and the boast would not have been not out of character.

Hancock's famous signature on the Declaration of Independence
Hancock's famous signature on the Declaration of Independence

After the Continental Congress, Hancock became governor of Massachusetts, a position he held for much of the rest of his life.

Even today, the term “John Hancock” is synonymous with “signature.” Which is why today is National Handwriting Day, an unofficial holiday promoted by producers of writing tools, who have plenty of reason to promote this holiday.

Whereas penmanship was once considered an indicator of status and intellect, in recent years handwriting itself has joined the endangered species list. According to Lisa Marnell, Director of Handwriting Help For Kids:

Fourth- and fifth-grade kids are learning keyboarding when they would’ve been honing cursive writing, which is much faster than block printing…Also, many younger kids are starting school without the hand strength they need to write well – holding a mouse or playing with a Game Boy simply doesn’t develop fine motor skills.

These days you can write anything on a computer or even a phone, except for two simple yet untype-able words: your signature.

Who knows, we may go back to the olden days–the days when most ordinary people knew how to write only one thing: their signature. In which case, John Hancock would still be the most apropos symbol of our nation’s penmanship.

Broadside version, Declaration of Independence
Broadside version, Declaration of Independence

*Only 25 original Broadsides of the Declaration of Independence exist. One of the best preserved Broadsides was found in 1989 when a bargain-hunter at a flea market bought a $4 picture because he liked the frame. He took it home to discover the Declaration of Independence behind the picture. It last sold for $8 million.

Two American Heroes: MacDonald & Hostos

January 11

Okay, here I’m using ‘American’ in its broader sense. A Chilean once told me how he didn’t like the word ‘American’ or ‘America’ referring to one country. America stretches from the Arctic to Tierra del Fuego and encompasses two continents, he reminded me. Why let one country hijack the name? I suppose it’s because it’s shorter than saying ‘United States citizen’.

Today is the birthday of (North) American hero John A. MacDonald, the first Prime Minister of Canada and an unabashed drunkard.

But my Canadian sources tell me no one in Canada knows or cares.

So instead let’s look south to the island of Puerto Rico to celebrate the birthday in 1839 of another American hero, a man called “the Citizen of the Americas”: Eugenio Maria de Hostos.

Eugenio Maria de Hostos

[observed 2nd Monday in January]

Hostos is considered one of the great modern thinkers of education. He wrote scores of books and hundreds of essays in numerous disciplines, from the most revered discourse on Hamlet in the Spanish language, to La Peregrinación de Bayoán, his 1863 novel promoting Cuban independence. His seminal works on education preceded those of John Dewey by two decades, and…

“…Although Hostos did not conduct rigorous experimental research pertaining to the mind and its development, his encyclopaedic knowledge of philosophy, linguistics, psychology, sociology, history and other disciplines gave him a coherent conceptualization and an operational model of mind.”

Angel Villarini Jusino & Carlos Antonio Torre
Fifty Major Thinkers on Education

Eugenio Maria de Hostos
Eugenio Maria de Hostos

Hostos was born in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico in 1839, the year Spanish poet Salas Quiroga magnanimously declared, “Puerto Rico is the corpse of a society that hasn’t been born.

From inauspicious beginnings, Hostos went on to attend secondary training at the University of Bilbao, Spain, and law school at Central University in Madrid. There he joined the Spanish republican movement, protesting government restraints on basic freedoms, but he was disillusioned in 1869 when the creators of the new Spanish constitution dashed all hopes for an independent Puerto Rico.

Hostos then sailed to New York City, where he became a Cuban revolutionary 90 years before Che made it hip. In those days Cuban revolutionaries fought for independence from Spain rather than U.S. imperialism. Hostos believed that a free Cuba would lead to a free Puerto Rico, and a “Federated Antillean Republic”, composed of Cuba, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic.

Hostos trekked across the Americas speaking on this and other various causes:

In Chile, he lobbied successfully for the education of women.

In Argentina, he helped establish a trans-Andean railroad.

In the Dominican Republic he founded the first Teacher’s College.

In Cuba, he hastened the abolition of slavery.

And wherever he traveled he espoused the basic rights of all peoples and the importance of progressive education throughout the Americas as both a means and an end.

In order for humans to be humans, that is, worthy of realizing their life goals, nature bestowed them with awareness of herself, the ability to know their own origins, their own strengths and frailties, their own transcendence and interdependence, their rights and obligations, their own freedom and responsibilities, the capability for self-improvement and for self-enobling of their ideal existence.

Eugenio Maria de Hostos (1839-1903)

However, Hostos was gravely disappointed when in 1898 the United States annexed Puerto Rico and Cuba from Spain, rather than granting them independence.

Hostos died in the Dominican Republic in 1903.

Cuba won its independence from the United States 18 months before Hostos’s death. Hostos requested that his remains be transfered back to Puerto Rico only when his homeland gained its independence. Needless to say, Hostos has been resting in the Dominican Republic’s National Pantheon for a hundred years and counting.

For the centennial of his birth, the 8th International Conference of America bestowed upon Hostos the title “El Cuidadano de las Americas”: Citizen of the Americas.

Gentlemen, I don’t have to tell you who I am. I am an American. I have the honor of being a Puerto Rican and a federalist. Being a colonial, a product of the colonial despotism, and hindered by it in my feelings, thoughts and actions, I took vengeance upon it by imagining a definitive form of liberty and I conceived a confederation of ideas, given the impossibility of a political confederation. I am a federalist because I am American, because I am a colonial – because I am Puerto Rican.

Eugenio Maria de Hostos, speech at the Madrid Ateneo, 1868

Puerto Rico celebrates Hostos’s Birthday on the second Monday of January.

Hostos statue, San Juan, Puerto Rico
Hostos statue, San Juan, Puerto Rico © Kurt


Eugenio Maria de Hostos: After One Hundred Years, by Muna Lee, from A Pan-American Life (2004)

Eugenio Maria de Hostos, by Angel Villarini Jusino & Carlos Antonio Torre, from Fifty Major Thinkers on Education (2001)

Works by Hostos, Hostos Community College

Birthday of the King: Elvis

January 8

The Mississippi Delta was shining
Like a National guitar,
I am following the river
Down the highway
Through the cradle of the civil war,

I’m going to Graceland, Graceland
In Memphis Tennessee…
…I’ve reason to believe
We both will be received
In Graceland

Paul Simon, Graceland

Today is the birthday of the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll Elvis Presley. Though not an official holiday in any nation, it is observed throughout the world.

Elvis statue Elvis worshipper

(Above: the author praises the King in Memphis, Tennessee)

The focal point of the celebration is Graceland, Elvis’s former home in Memphis, Tennessee. Festivities begin each year with a gospel tribute at the Gates of Graceland at midnight.

Graceland was not named by Elvis, but by the original owner S.E. Toof after his daughter Grace.

Elvis Presley was born in Tupelo, Mississippi. At age 13 the Presley family moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where Elvis lived for most of his life.

In 1957 the 22 year-old superstar purchased the Graceland mansion in Memphis. He was proud to move his parents into it, a long way from the two-room house where Elvis was raised. His mother Gladys died the following year.

Graceland living room

Early viewers of Elvis’s concerts, such as rock legend Roy Orbison, cite his instinct and incredible energy as a performer as separating him from the artists before him. It is difficult to convey the novelty of Elvis after the half-century of imitations and changes that followed. Various morality groups assailed him for his “vulgar” and “obscene” music and movements on stage.

His discoverer, Sam Phillipsof Sun Studios, said Elvis “put every ounce of emotion…into every song, almost as if he was incapable of holding back.”

When Elvis first entered the Sun Studios, receptionist Marion Keisker asked him who he sounded like. He is reported to have said “I don’t sound like nobody.”

While this was true in mainstream radio, Elvis was heavily influenced by the black gospel singers he had seen at Memphis’ Ellis Auditorium and black blues performers in the clubs along Beale Street.

Stories make it sound like Elvis walked into Sun Studios and the rest is history, but in fact, after his first recording in 1953, Elvis politely hassled Sam Phillips for a year—while working as a truck driver—before Sam teamed him up with bassist Bill Black and guitarist Scotty Moore. The three recorded a high-energy version of black R&B artist Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right, Mama” in July and the single was released that month. Some white disc jockeys refused to play Elvis’ music at first, believing Elvis was black.

In January 1956 RCA released Heartbreak Hotel, co-written by a part-time Florida schoolteacher Mae Boren Axton, who was inspired by the newspaper epitaph of a suicide victim: “I walk a lonely street.”

Heartbreak Hotel slowly and steadily climbed the charts, entering at #1 68 in March, and making its way to #1 in May.

Elvis the #1 Hits: The Secret History of the Classics

Though Graceland is considered the musical Mecca for Elvis fans, do not miss Sun Studios just to the east on Union Avenue, for a more in-depth historically revealing tour about Elvis and Memphis music history.

Zamenhof Tago!

December 15

Originally celebrated as Zamenhof Day, Esperanto Day is the birthday of Esperanto founder L.L. Zamenhof. He would be 149 today.

The son of a German teacher, Zamenhof was born in Bialystok, Russia, in what is now Poland. He spoke all three of those languages as a child, and studied Greek, Latin, Hebrew and French. He grew up to be a doctor, but had an incredible ability to pick up languages. During his formative years in Poland, conflicts in Eastern Europe led Zamenhof to believe that much of the world’s violence could be stemmed by a common language. Zamenhof set out to create an international language, easy to learn, simple to use, that could unite the world’s speakers for the first time since the Tower of Babel.

In 1887 he published a booklet of the rules of “An International Language” using the pseudonym Dr. Esperanto (one who hopes).

Ludoviki Lazaro "Dr. Esperanto" Zamenhof

The pseudonym became synonymous with the language, and Esperanto was born. It was an uphill battle promoting his language. At the first Esperanto congress in 1905 in Boulogne-sur-Mer, France, Zamenhof stated:

And now for the first time the dream of thousands of years begins to be realized. In this small French seaside town I have met men from the most varied countries and nations, and they meet each other not as deaf-mutes, but they understand one another and speak to one another as brothers, as members of one nation.

One common criticism of Esperanto is that English has become the default “international language”. However, we forget how many languages have attained that position during the peak of their mother country, only to ebb away. The Romans, the Spanish and Portuguese, and the French empires once could say the same.

After the First World War delegates from Europe, South America, Africa, and Asia submitted a proposal that the League of Nations: to make Esperanto the working language of the league. Ten voted for the proposal, one against…

The French delegate, Gabriel Hanotaux, argued that French was and should continue to be the language of international affairs. It didn’t work out that way. Because of Hanotaux’s objection, the League of Nations failed, and the world plunged into the Second World War.

Okay, maybe the chain of cause-and-effect wasn’t that drastic, but the twentieth century proved that the ability to communicate was of paramount importance to international peace and stability.

Today France is the leading host country of Esperanto’s Pasporta Servo, where Esperanto speakers can travel the globe practically for free, lodging at the homes of Esperanto hosts in 92 countries. The Pasporta Servo is actually a major incentive for young people to learn Esperanto, which can be learned in a fraction of the time of other languages.

Pasporta Servo host map
Pasporta Servo hosts

Of course with the growing popularity of sites like Babelfish, and increasingly accurate voice-recognition software, it may be that one day everything we say will be instantly translated into whatever language the listener desires.

But until that day…mi provas lerni Esperanton.

Esperanto FAQs