Francis Bicknell Carpenter painted the giant Emancipation Proclamation that hangs near the Senate’s west stairway in Washington, D.C. It took him six months to complete the painting and he literally lived in the White House while he worked.
One evening while he was painting, Mr. Lincoln leaned his head on the back of his chair and said: “There is a poem which has been a great favorite with me for years, which I will repeat to you.” Closing his eyes he began “O, why should the spirit of mortal be proud?” He then recited all the verses without a break.
The day after the assassination, Carpenter copied the poem and took it to a Mr. Bryant who published it in the Evening Post. At Sunday services Rev. Vinton, rector of Trinity Church read the poem. It was soon reported across the nation as Lincoln’s favorite poem
Carpenter went on to say: “Mr. Lincoln told me the poem was first repeated to him by Jason Duncan, a companion of his youth. Some time afterward he found the verses in a newspaper. He cut them out and carried the slip in his pocket till he knew the lines by heart. He said he had made many inquiries, but never discovered the author.”
The poem was written by William Knox, a Scotchman, who was a contemporary of Sir Walter Scott. It is called Mortality, has 64 lines and is much too long to publish here, but can easily be found on the Internet.
Here are some lines:
For we are the same our fathers have been;
We see the same sights our fathers have seen;
We drink the same stream, we view the same sun;
We run the same course our fathers have run.
The thoughts we are thinking, our fathers would think
From the death we are shrinking, our fathers would shrink,
To the life we are clinging, they also would cling,-
But it speeds from us all like a bird on the wing.
(Part of the information used in this story was taken from an article published in the Chicago Daily Tribune on February 12, 1894)
Wayne Rethford, President
Scottish American History Club
A Division of the Illinois St. Andrew’s Society