Abraham Lincoln and the stars

Posted by David Eicher
on Friday, February 13, 2009

Wisconsin CapitolThe connection between our 16th president and the cosmos is not deep, but there are moments in the Lincoln story that link him with astronomy. There’s the famous Almanac Trial of 1857, in which Lincoln the lawyer cleverly used the lunar phase as listed in an almanac to secure an acquittal for young William “Duff” Armstrong of a manslaughter charge.

As an even younger man, Lincoln witnessed the great Leonid meteor storm of 1833. On the day of Lincoln’s second inauguration, March 4, 1865, crowds in Washington made a rare daytime observation of the planet Venus. And most famously, Lincoln visited the U.S. Naval Observatory in 1862, when the young astronomer Asaph Hall showed him several astronomical objects. The same young astronomer would, in 1877, find the two moons of Mars.

But mostly the ties between Lincoln and the stars are ephemeral. Yesterday I spent time in Madison, Wisconsin, an hour west of Astronomy’s offices, as a member of Wisconsin’s Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, established by Governor Jim Doyle to help the state commemorate our 16th president. A short time after President Barack Obama spoke about Lincoln in the rotunda of the U.S. Capitol, I participated in a ceremony with the governor and other members of our commission in Wisconsin’s Capitol.

Afterward, our group met to discuss our program of spreading Lincoln knowledge across the state over the coming months. We then repaired to the Governor’s Mansion to hear a speech about Lincoln in Wisconsin by historian Jim Cooper, and to hear remarks by our chairman, Madison attorney John Skilton, and by Governor Doyle.

On this big day of Lincoln and the echoes forward to President Obama, the governor told his story about how last month he and his wife Jessica were on hand for the president’s inauguration and how they waited at the White House afterward, until the wee hours, for all the inaugural balls to conclude. By 1:30 a.m. the new president and his first lady arrived for the first time at the White House in office. The story sent a chill down the spines of the 50 or so people in the room, and the optimism with the new administration seemed to point back in time to the spirit of Mr. Lincoln overcoming some rather tough times of his own.

John Skilton, Madison attorney and chairman of Wisconsin’s Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. 

John Skilton Wisconsin Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission






















Our commission readying for a mid-afternoon meeting to discuss statewide activities for the remainder of the year. 

Wisconsin Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission 










 Approaching the Governor’s Mansion for a dinner, a talk by historian Jim Cooper, and remarks by the governor. 

Wisconsin Governor's Mansion 










Wisconsin Governor Doyle describing his moments at the White House after inauguration day, when in the early morning President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama first entered the residence as president and first lady. 

Wisconsin Governor Doyle




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