By GAIL FINEBERG
“President-elect Obama is deeply honored that the Library of Congress has made the Lincoln Bible available for use during his swearing-in,” said Emmett Beliveau, inaugural committee executive director. “The President-elect is committed to holding an inauguration that celebrates American’s unity, and the use of the historic Bible will provide a powerful connection to our common past and common heritage.”
A small Bible, its velvet cover fading from age and its pages yellowing, emerged from its protected place in the Rare Book and Special Collections Division of the Library of Congress to become one nexus in history on Inauguration Day, Tuesday, Jan. 20.
On March 4, 1861, Abraham Lincoln, a tall, lanky man from Springfield, Ill., rested one hand upon this Bible while taking his oath to become the 16th president of the United States. One year later, as the Civil War threatened to destroy the union and the Constitution he had sworn to protect, Lincoln issued the first of two Emancipation Proclamations that began the process, culminating with the 13th Amendment, of freeing blacks from bondage in America.
When Barack Obama, also from Illinois, became the first person of African ancestry in American history to take the presidential oath of office, he placed his hand upon the same Bible, in a ceremony before millions gathered below the West Front of the Capitol.
Lincoln’s Oath of Office
Standing before crowds assembled on the East Front of the Capitol 148 years ago, Lincoln was sworn into office by Supreme Court Justice Roger Brooke Taney, then 84 years old.
No friend of emancipation, Taney had written the majority opinion in the Dred Scott v. Sandford case in 1857, in which he said Scott “was a slave and not a citizen” of either the state of Missouri or the United States and therefore had no standing to sue his owner for freedom in either a state or federal court. Taney defined Scott as “mere chattel” that could be treated as any other property by his owner. In this case, the Supreme Court ruled that Congress did not have authority to prohibit slavery in territories, and that those provisions of the Missouri Compromise of 1820 were unconstitutional.
That irony, of being sworn in by Taney, was not lost on Lincoln, who devoted one long paragraph in his inaugural address to a discussion of the Supreme Court and whether “the policy of the government upon vital questions, affecting the whole people, is to be irrevocably fixed by decisions of the Supreme Court.”
President Lincoln assured dissidents on the brink of seceding that he had neither the power nor inclination to change or override the Constitution or state laws.
“In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war. The government will not assail you. You can have no conflict without being yourselves the aggressors. You have no oath registered in Heaven to destroy the government, while I shall have the most solemn one to ‘preserve, protect, and defend it.’”
A Rare Bible
The 1,280-page “Lincoln Bible,” which received special conservation treatment in the Library’s Preservation Directorate prior to its 2009 appearance, is bound in burgundy velvet with a gold-washed white metal rim around the three outside edges of both covers. All its edges are heavily gilt. In the center of the top cover is a shield of gold wash over white metal with the words “Holy Bible” chased into it. The book is 15 cm long, 10 cm wide, and 4.5 cm deep when closed.
Lincoln’s inaugural Bible is identical to a Bible that James Buchanan used for his inauguration four years earlier, on March 4, 1857. It resides at the Smithsonian Institution.
According to Clark Evans, a Lincoln expert who heads the Reference Services Section of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division, both of the King James translations were printed by Oxford University Press in 1853 and appear to have been ordered by Supreme Court Clerk William Thomas Carroll for justices officiating at such events.
In both the Lincoln Bible and the Buchanan Bible, Carroll certified that each was the Bible upon which Taney had administered the oaths of presidential office, first to Buchanan in 1857 and then to Lincoln in 1861. In each he also penned this inscription to his wife: “to Mrs. Sally Carroll from her devoted husband Wm. Thos. Carroll.”
If the Lincoln Inaugural Bible did in fact then belong to Sally Carroll, at some point in its history it was transferred to Lincoln’s family. In 1928 Mary Harlan Lincoln, the widow of Lincoln’s first son, Robert Todd (1843–1926), gave to the Library of Congress both the Bible from his first inauguration and the family Bible, which contains the Lincoln family record, part of it in Lincoln’s hand.
Evans said Lincoln probably had asked to borrow the Bible from the Supreme Court for his first inauguration. “In all probability, the family Bible was in transit from Springfield with the rest of Lincoln’s possessions,” Evans said.
Carroll and his wife, Sally, had another poignant connection with Abraham and Mary Lincoln. When the Lincolns’ son Willie, 11, died on Feb. 20, 1862, the Carrolls offered the use of a family crypt at Oak Hill Cemetery in Georgetown until the body could be moved to Springfield. The funeral train traveling to Springfield in May 1865 with the body of the slain president also carried Willie’s coffin.
Gail Fineberg is editor of The Gazette, the Library’s staff newsletter.