On April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln was in an exceptionally good mood. Only five days before, General Robert E. Lee had surrendered at Appomattox, ending the war that had ripped the country apart for four long and bloody years. Lincoln himself had recently visited the fallen Confederate capital of Richmond and sat in the former seat of his adversary, Jefferson Davis.
As Harvard Business School historian Nancy Koehn recounts, many of Lincoln's family, friends, and acquaintances took note of his good spirits.
"A number of friends commented not only on his cheerful demeanor...but also on how good he looked," she said. "He sat proudly. He didn't look rumpled, as he often had. He was clean shaven, his coloring looked good—the sign of someone who is rested and ready for, literally, a new day."
Lincoln, of course, never lived to see that new day. That evening, while watching the play My American Cousin with his wife at Ford's Theater in Washington, the president was shot in the back of the head by actor-turned-white supremacist John Wilkes Booth. After the deadly shot, Booth leapt from the balcony, broke his leg on impact with the stage, and yelled "Sic semper tyrannis"—or, "thus always to tyrants," in Latin. Then, he bolted.
150 years later, it is so obvious as to border on trite to say that Lincoln's memory has endured. That's indisputable. His image adorns currency and anchors the National Mall, to say the least. But what is often lost about Lincoln in the midst of his larger-than-life afterlife is the extraordinary fact that he was, as Nancy Koehn says, just a mortal.
"He grew into the president that we so admire today, and long for in some sense," Koehn said. "He grew into it, in fits and starts with lots of depression and nights on his knees and losing a lot of weight and not sleeping."
"It's a messy, all-too-human story," she said.
To hear more from Nancy Koehn on Abraham Lincoln, Boston Public Radio above.