It’s February 12th and Abraham Lincoln’s birthday. So…as I ate lunch today, I started wondering if Lincoln had any birthday parties during his lifetime. Now, my research and reference books were not with me, but thinking through what I remember and doing a little digging on the history of birthday parties, I’m going to venture the conclusion that the sixteenth president probably did not have a birthday celebration in the way we think of those parties today. (And if you have historical evidence that suggests otherwise, please add a comment! I’m always willing to learn.)
Now, birthdays had been a thing to celebrate in different cultures for centuries. (There’s evidence that Ancient Egyptian pharaohs might have been among the first to throw a birthday bash.) During the Civil War era, though, I haven’t seen references for birthday parties as a cultural norm. Birthdays are certainly noted in journals and letters, by both the person getting older, parents, or other family members, but I haven’t come across references of expecting gifts or the steady tradition of having a sweet dessert with all friends singing at the honorary person. Any celebrating that was observed seems to have been with family and probably more likely for children than adults.
Certain ages – particularly for men – still had significance when laws limited property ownership to those above a certain age. And “reaching a majority” had implications for inheriting or simply not being legally bound to obey your parents. Women sometimes referenced birthdays in their private writings, but not usually in a positive way after the teen years.
Now, to reel this back to Lincoln… We know his family struggled and did not have means during his youth. Any birthday remembrances from his parents or sister would have been simple, but probably still delightful if it happened. I’m not sure Lincoln—the busy, self-made-man—would have taken time to celebrate his birthday as he forged his way in the world. We know that Mary Lincoln had some fantastic cake recipes and supposedly—according to family tradition—she made an almond cake that her husband praised as: “the best cake I ever ate.” Coming from more affluent means and liking a reason to celebrate, she may have found Mr. Lincoln’s birthday a good reason for a family celebration or cake-baking.
I’d like to think that Lincoln got to experience a nice birthday party, and maybe a good source will turn up to prove this. But what I can tell you today: Lincoln has had a lot of birthday parties since 1865.
Part of this comes from the tradition of celebrating George Washington’s birthday – which was a cultural and political movement in both North and South prior to and during the Civil War. The ending of the Civil War, the abolishment of slavery, and Lincoln’s assassination all contributed to raising Lincoln to hero and redeemer levels in some communities. As time passed, Lincoln gained almost as much status in memory as George Washington, and if George Washington’s birthday was celebrated…it was an easy step for Lincoln admirers.
One of the first recorded celebrations of Lincoln’s birthday happened in Buffalo, New York in 1873 or 1874. Julius Francis, a local pharmacist, had an enduring admiration for Lincoln and made it a life goal to honor Lincoln and build his memory. Francis repeatedly petitioned Congress to make February 12th a legal holiday. (Spoiler alert: It never was a Federal holiday, though some states have adopted it.)
Also, in the wake of the Civil War and during the growth of the Republican Party, it became fashionable to celebrate Lincoln’s birthday as a sort of political rally. Since he had been the first Republican president, it seemed like a great idea to make some speeches and keep the party spirit strong on Lincoln’s special day.
Though Lincoln may not have had a grand birthday bash during his lifetime, his memory ensures that there are plenty of parties (or at least free museum admission) two centuries later. Whether you love, have mixed feelings about him, or don’t rank him as a favorite, I think I can safely surmise that Lincoln would want us to say: “with malice toward none, with charity for all,” let’s have a piece of cake!