On this date, May 22, in 1849, Abraham Lincoln became the only U.S. president ever issued a patent. His invention, which was never manufactured, was a device to lift boats over shoals and other obstacles in a river. The invention was rooted in the two trips Lincoln took as a young man down the Mississippi from Illinois to New Orleans. The second trip, in 1831, was made on a flatboat built by Lincoln and a friend. By this point in our history we are surprised to learn a president is equipped to do anything other than collect votes and burnish his reputation. I suspect we haven’t yet taken Lincoln’s full measure.
In his 1952 biography (my copy I purchased years ago in the gift shop in the Lincoln Memorial), Benjamin P. Thomas writes: “Behind the solemn, furrowed countenance of Abraham Lincoln was an inquisitive mind. It ranged over the abstract and the infinite, the absolute and the immediate. It was philosophical, and at the same time intensely practical. On the practical level Lincoln’s curiosity directed itself, among other things, to mechanical devices.” That Lincoln, along with his other virtues, ranks among the nation’s greatest writers of prose should likewise not surprise us. Genius is always unknowable, no matter how much we think we know. Daniel Mark Epstein writes in The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage (2009):
“He was a secretive man, who kept his own counsel. He was an ambitious man of humble origins, with colossal designs on the future. And it would always be advantageous not to be closely known, never to be transparent. Passing a farmer on a dray, he would tip his hat and grin. Everybody knew him. Nobody knew him. He would play the fool, the clown, the melancholy poet dying for love, the bumpkin. He would take the world by stealth and not by storm. He would disarm enemies by his apparent naïveté, by seeming pleasantly harmless. He would go to such lengths in making fun of his own appearance that others felt obliged to defend it.”