The Library of Congress, which houses Abraham Lincoln’s papers, celebrated the 16th president’s 200th birthday with a bicentennial exhibition, a companion volume, a symposium and a series of teacher institutes to introduce educators to the Library’s online resources for the study of Lincoln and the Civil War era.
By GAIL FINEBERG
Abraham Lincoln’s humanity and compassion for the common man shine through rarely seen original documents—his handwritten speeches, proclamations, letters and other items, more than 200 in all—that comprise the Library’s major exhibition marking the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth on Feb. 12, 1809.
Titled “With Malice Toward None: The Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Exhibition,” the display opened with a press preview on Monday, Feb. 9, followed by an evening gala event, a congressional ribbon-cutting on Thursday, Feb. 12, and a public viewing from 5 to 9 p.m. on Feb. 12.
Mounted in the South Gallery, Second Floor, Thomas Jefferson Building, the exhibition is on view through May 10, after which it will travel to five U.S. cities. The exhibition may also be viewed online at www.loc.gov/lincoln/.
“Sen. Richard Durbin has described this exhibition as the centerpiece of the national celebration of the Lincoln Bicentennial,” Librarian of Congress James H. Billington said at the press preview attended by dozens of reporters and photographers representing 30 national and international news organizations.
Billington said the exhibition is “unique in two major respects”: This is the first opportunity in 50 years for people to see the rare materials from the world’s largest Lincoln collection “here at the Library of Congress,” and the items on display have been linked to an online educational-outreach presentation designed for teachers and students.
Mike Rock, senior vice president of government relations for Union Pacific Corporation, which sponsored the exhibition, explained why Lincoln is special to the company. By signing the Pacific Railway Act of 1862, Lincoln enabled Union Pacific to build its rail line westward from Omaha in a race with the Central Pacific Railroad that was building its line eastward from Sacramento, Calif. (The two lines were joined in 1869 as the Transcontinental Railroad at Promontory Summit, Utah.)
The Librarian then introduced the exhibition curator, John Sellers, “the pride of the Manuscript Division and one of the world’s foremost experts on Lincoln.” Sellers took the press through a guided tour of the exhibit.
He explained briefly the layout of the exhibition, which generally focuses on “Lincoln the Man” in displays along the outer edges of the display space and “Lincoln the Politician,” whose political life and accomplishments are documented by displays in interior cases.
In an overview of what reporters were about to see, Sellers said Lincoln, by his own admission “not a gifted lawyer,” was a man of integrity who found his guiding beacon in the opening words of the Declaration of Independence, that “… all men are created equal …” “He stood by that,” Sellers said, and he never backed down.
“I cannot remember when I did not think or feel slavery is wrong,” Lincoln once said, according to Sellers.
Leading a press tour of the exhibition, Sellers said Lincoln “found his voice” in 1854 with the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which repealed the Missouri Compromise and allowed people in the western territories to decide whether to allow slavery within their borders.
Adamantly opposed to the spread of slavery, Lincoln debated the issue with Stephen A. Douglas during their 1858 race for U.S. senator from Illinois. Sellers pointed out a scrapbook Lincoln kept of newspaper clippings that reported the debates.
Although Lincoln lost his Senate bid, his following grew, and the Republican Party drafted him to run for president in 1860.
Sellers paused at a case holding two letters, brought together for the first time in this exhibition. One, written by 11-year-old Grace Bedell of Westfield, N.Y., encouraged Lincoln to grow a beard, which she thought would enhance his cause as a presidential candidate. Telling Lincoln her father supported him, Grace said, “If I was a man I would vote for you.” Lincoln wrote back, asking if she didn’t think his growing a beard would be viewed as an affectation. (See related story on page 39.)
Sellers said Lincoln’s campaign train later took him near Westfield, and he called out for Grace from the rear train platform. He leaned over and kissed her cheek, and she was so excited that she ran off, still carrying the flowers she had brought to give to him.
Grace’s letter is marked by water drops, from tears or falling snow, Sellers speculated.
(The Lincoln letter is on loan from the Benjamin Shapell Family Manuscript Foundation, and the Bedell letter is loaned by the Detroit Public Library.)
On Sellers’ walk through the exhibition, he pointed out his favorite rare Lincoln documents from the Library’s collections, which include:
- Lincoln’s poignant Farewell Address, which he wrote to the friends and neighbors he was leaving behind in Springfield, Ill. He was sitting on a moving train, heading toward Washington, and his hand was so tired from shaking hands that he could write only the first five lines and then had his personal secretary John Nicolay finish it for him, Sellers said.
- A handwritten draft of the Gettysburg Address. Written in ink on one side and pencil on the other, this so-called “reading copy” is believed to be the earliest draft, which Lincoln is believed to have written and then folded and tucked into his pocket before giving his address at the Civil War burial ground in Gettysburg. He later gave this copy to Nicolay. “He didn’t read it. He ad-libbed; he remembered it that well,” Sellers said, giving this as one of several examples of Lincoln’s capacity to read, remember and recite with ease not only his own speeches, but also poetry and long passages from Shakespeare and the Bible.
- Lincoln’s first draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, which he presented to his cabinet on July 22, 1862. “Nobody liked it,” Sellers said. Lincoln came back to his cabinet with a second draft in September, and admonished members to comment not on substance but on his style.
By themselves, the Lincoln materials are interesting artifacts of a beloved American hero. With Sellers’s footnotes to history, the documents come alive, and Lincoln speaks through the ages.
Made possible through the generous support of Union Pacific Corporation, “With Malice Toward None: The Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Exhibition” marks the greatest assemblage of objects from the Library’s Lincoln collections in history, with original drafts of documents in Lincoln’s hand such as his first and second inaugural addresses, the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address. “In Lincoln’s Hand: His Original Manuscripts With Commentary by Distinguished Americans,” published by the Library in association with Bantam Dell Publishing Group, is the official publication of the Library of Congress bicentennial exhibition.
After the exhibition closes in Washington on May 10, it will travel to The California Museum in Sacramento, Calif. (spring/summer 2009); the Newberry Library in Chicago (fall 2009); the Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis (winter/spring 2010); the Atlanta History Center in Atlanta (fall 2010); and The Durham Museum in Omaha, Neb. (winter 2011).
Gail Fineberg is editor of The Gazette, the Library’s staff newsletter.