Big thoughts make conceiving of
and achieving big dreams and goals possible. When 10-year-old Malia Obama made her first visit to her new home, the White House, she scoped out a special spot to write important essays: the desk in the Lincoln bedroom. She told her father, Barack Obama, that "I'm going to sit at that desk because I'm thinking it
will inspire big thoughts."
Though today it's used as a bedroom, the Lincoln bedroom was never actually used by Abraham Lincoln as a bedroom. He used it as his personal office and Cabinet room (it was used in this way by all presidents between 1830 and 1902). With appealing simplicity, Lincoln called it "the shop."
During the Lincoln presidency, the walls in the room were covered with Civil War maps. Newspapers and mail were stacked on tables. Next to the window overlooking the Washington Monument stood Lincoln's "second hand mahogany upright" desk. To his clerk it looked as if it had come "from some old furniture auction." At that desk, Lincoln read his mail, wrote letters, and filed his own papers in pigeonholes. In one compartment marked "Assassination" he even preserved death threats (a file that vanished after his murder).
In that room, Lincoln wrote some of the most soaring words in American political literature: the "new birth of freedom" of the Gettysburg Address, the "malice toward none" of the second inaugural. And there, on January 1, 1863, he signed his greatest act, the Emancipation Proclamation which effectively ended slavery. His hand was trembling so much after hours spent greeting New Year's guests downstairs, that he worried future generations might study his shaky signature and conclude, incorrectly, that he wavered.
The actual desk that currently sits in the Lincoln bedroom of the White House is the desk Lincoln used at the Soldiers' Home – not the White House. The Soldiers' Home cottage served as Lincoln's residence for a quarter of his presidency. Lincoln and his family resided seasonally there to escape the heat and political pressure of Washington. The desk was reportedly at the Home throughout the Civil War, including the summer of 1862 when Lincoln was working on the second draft of the Emancipation Proclamation. The desk remained at the Soldiers' Home until 1927, when the Home transferred the desk to the predecessor of the National Park Service, which was planning a Lincoln museum at the time. In 1930, Mrs. Hoover requested the desk for her husband's office. It's been in the White House ever since.
Today, on the desk in the Lincoln bedroom, a holograph copy of the Gettysburg Address is displayed. This copy is the only one of five that is signed, dated, and titled by Lincoln.
Abraham Lincoln had many big goals, like ending slavery and keeping the nation whole during the Civil War, and is one of America's most important and beloved presidents. Find out more about his life through books and the Internet (one of the best websites is the Lincoln Bicentennial site). Click here for a brief biography to get you started.
Make a bubble diagram for Abraham Lincoln. In the center of a sheet of paper, write Lincoln's name. As you learn about the leader, write words and phrases you associate with him in bubbles around the center bubble. What do you think about Abraham Lincoln? What do you think he did that was important? Are there any ways you think you're like him? How would you like to be more like him?
Compare Lincoln's bubble diagram to bubble diagrams for Mohandas Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Barack Obama in the activity A Dream Realized: From Gandhi to King to Obama. What connections do you see between Lincoln and King? Lincoln and Obama? As people? In their ideas and actions? Barack Obama is, in fact, an avid reader of Lincoln history. How did Lincoln, the 16th President who signed the Emancipation Proclamation, make it possible for Obama to become the 44th President of the United States? Abraham Lincoln spoke of America as being the "last best hope of earth" in his 1862 message to Congress. He said that by giving slaves their freedom, we assure freedom to the free.
The lives of people who have achieved great things often inspire us to do great things. The dreams and achievements of one lift up the dreams and achievements of another. Malia Obama may well think "big thoughts" as she sits at Lincoln's desk. What can you do to help you think big thoughts? Maybe it's someplace you go – to sit under a special tree, curl up in a chair that gets the golden late afternoon sunlight, or look up into the stars at night. Maybe it's a book you have on your desk that you read when you feel down or uncertain. Maybe it's a quotation you put on your bathroom mirror. Or maybe it's even a gift you've received from someone important to you, like a good pen or book bag that makes you feel strong and confident. Find something that helps you think big thoughts – thoughts as big as Abraham Lincoln.
As a follow-on to this activity, once you've figured out what will help you think big thoughts, try Different Dreams to start thinking those thoughts.