President-elect Barack Obama on Jan. 20, 2009, will take the oath of office on a Bible from the Library of Congress’ collections that is steeped in history — the same Bible upon which Abraham Lincoln swore March 4, 1861, to uphold the Constitution.
The first Lincoln Inaugural is rife with historical significance, coming at a time when the survival of the United States was never more endangered, according to Clark W. Evans, an expert on Lincoln who heads the Reference Services Section of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division at the Library of Congress.
Following the lead of seven states in the lower South, Evans noted, the slave states of the upper South were threatening to secede from the Union. Amid fears of assassination, the president-elect had secretly arrived in Washington on Feb. 23, 1861.
To view the Lincoln Inaugural Bible today is to conjure up the remarkable scene which unfolded on the East Front of the Capitol almost 147 years ago. The oath of office was administered by Chief Justice Roger Brooke Taney, then 84 years old. As the author of the infamous “Dred Scott” decision of 1857, which held in part that Congress did not have the power to abolish slavery in the territories, Taney was clearly no friend to Lincoln or the cause of emancipation. In the Inaugural Address which followed, President Lincoln appealed to his countrymen to follow “the better angels of our nature.”
The Bible was originally purchased by William Thomas Carroll, Clerk of the Supreme Court. The Lincolns’ family Bible, which is also in the Library’s collections, had been packed with other belongings that were traveling from Springfield.
The Bible itself 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. The 1,280-page Bible was published in 1853 by the Oxford University Press.
In the back of the volume, along with the seal of the Supreme Court, it is annotated: “I, William Thomas Carroll, clerk of the said court do hereby certify that the preceding copy of the Holy Bible is that upon which the Honble. R. B. Taney, Chief Justice of the said Court, administered to His Excellency, Abraham Lincoln, the oath of office as President of the United States ... ”
The Lincoln Inaugural Bible will go on display at the Library of Congress Feb. 12 to May 9, 2009, as part of an exhibition titled “With Malice Toward None: The Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Exhibition.” The exhibit will then travel to five other American cities.
On March 4, 2009, the 147th anniversary of Lincoln’s first inauguration, the Library of Congress will convene an all-day symposium with several renowned Lincoln scholars. The Library is planning several other events and programming in commemoration of the bicentennial of the nation’s 16th president.
A companion volume, “In Lincoln’s Hand: His Original Manuscripts With Commentary by Distinguished Americans,” will feature original essays about the most important Lincoln documents– including the Gettysburg Address and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural– by such writers as John Updike, E.L. Doctorow and Walter Mosley; Presidents Jimmy Carter, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush; Lincoln and Civil War scholars Drew Gilpin Faust, Doris Kearns Goodwin and James MacPherson, and actors Liam Neeson and Sam Waterston. The book, published by the Library of Congress with Bantam Dell, goes on sale Jan. 27, 2009.