Category Archives: Abraham Lincoln
Losing track of your keys is one thing, but this…
The Teaneck school district is trying to unravel the embarrassing mystery of what happened to the heavy, flip-top wooden desk that sat for almost a half-century in the front office of the township’s high school. It was believed to have been used by the 16th president when he was an up-and-coming political figure in Illinois.
No one can actually say when the desk disappeared; it could have been missing for six years or more. But a few months ago, a former school community relations official, Judy Distler, began asking about the desk. When no one seemed to know its whereabouts, she became worried.
“I can understand how everything changes,” said Distler, who retired in 1999. “But where is it?”
After you leave a reproduction of the deathbed in the Petersen House, you enter the new building, as if emerging into the Washington streets the morning after Lincoln’s death. Church bells are tolling; broadsheets are plastered on walls. The panel text makes the atmospherics even more vivid. We learn that when Edwin Booth, the Shakespearean actor, heard what his brother had done, he said, “It was just as if I was struck on the forehead with a hammer.”
Mary Todd Lincoln was so mad with grief that White House pallbearers went barefoot, so sounds would not distress her. She neither attended the Washington service nor accompanied the coffin on its 1,700-mile railway journey to Springfield for burial.
That journey is evoked in a gallery space resembling the train car that carried the coffin. And touch-screen monitors give us the details: seven million people viewed the body where it was shown along the way, or congregated along the tracks; 300,000 in Philadelphia alone. There were hints of Lincoln’s legacy in the tributes, and signs of unfinished business too. In Washington the 22nd United States Colored Infantry headed the procession; in New York the City Council refused to allow blacks to march at all. Its ruling was overturned by Lincoln’s secretary of war, Edwin Stanton.
In counterpoint to the funeral train, we get a survey of Booth’s flight through the Virginia marshes. Parts of his diary are transcribed onto touch screens. Booth was bewildered by the manhunt: “I am here in despair. And why? For doing what Brutus was honored for.” He is tracked to a tobacco barn that is set ablaze and is shot by an overzealous soldier; his co-conspirators are hanged. Reconstruction begins, falters and ends.
In a panel about Lincoln’s vice president, the Democrat Andrew Johnson, we see how quickly the world Lincoln opposed oozed back into place. As president, Johnson vetoed civil rights legislation, approved of “Black Codes” limiting the freedom of former slaves, and wrote, “This is a country for white men, and by God, as long as I am president, it shall be a government for white men.”
Was Booth, then, ultimately triumphant? He certainly altered the shape of Reconstruction. As a result, the exhibition points out, by the 19th century’s end, Lincoln was recalled differently from the way he had been just after the war. At first he was remembered as a liberator, undermining the culture of enslavement; later memorials emphasized instead his devotion to the Union.
But we also learn of Lincoln’s afterlife and nearly universal appeal. President Dwight D. Eisenhower kept a complete set of Lincoln’s writings in the Oval Office. Franklin D. Roosevelt declared that “it was time” for Democrats to “claim Lincoln as one of our own.” The only portrait that the Chinese leader Sun Yat-sen kept in his home was one of Lincoln, while Mao directed his followers to memorize the Gettysburg Address. Here too is Lincoln’s popular heritage, in Lincoln Logs, cartoons, knickknacks.
This is a radically different approach than the cabin-to-coffin exhibit at the ALPLM in Springfield, which ends on a note of somber resolution—the war won, Lincoln’s place in national pantheon secured. The narrative at Ford’s is less reassuring. This exhibit starts with Booth’s bullet, and then takes the visitor through the post-war debates over the changes Lincoln implemented. The story meanders through an America still dealing with the ripples of Lincoln’s presidency, a nation taking steps both forward and backward, both toward the transformations wrought by Lincoln and in the opposite direction of Black Codes and the collapse of Reconstruction.
And the way in which people remember Lincoln, in this narrative, is not set in marble in April 1865. Instead, the world contests his legacy down through the years, finding multiple meanings and dropping the ones that become inconvenient.
It seems to paint a messy, complicated, and often ambiguous picture of history and historical memory. In other words, it sounds like it’s worth a visit.
An Illinois lottery commercial, in which a ginormous orange Powerball rolls through the Land of Lincoln and past a statue of the Great Emancipator himself, has Professor Owen Youngman pretty upset. ”The state of Illinois’ using images of Abraham Lincoln in TV ads to sell lottery tickets,” he writes, “is (to borrow a phrase from a recent presidential debate) as close to despicable as anything I can imagine.”
Here’s the ad:
Personally, I don’t get the outrage, unless one objects to the very notion of a lottery. There are indeed a good many arguments against lotteries which are worth considering, but in the ad Lincoln’s face is just one among many features of the Illinois landscape. They don’t go so far as to specifically invoke Lincoln, unless the crack about “dreaming bigger” refers to the famously ambitious and upwardly mobile Abe, who was a firm believer in America as a haven for aspiring self-made men.
This strikes me as much ado about nothing. Now, that upscale Lincoln eatery in D.C., on the other hand…
Hat tip: Abraham Lincoln Observer
I’ve been thinking about all the irrelevant and sometimes false Lincoln quotes that pop up in the news, which prompted a post over at the Lincoln Institute blog. Enjoy!
While we’re on the subject of befuddled tourists, check out Of Battlefields and Bibliophiles for a horror story from Little Bighorn.
Since people seem to have gotten a kick out of the Legend of Virginia Beach, here are a few other anecdotes from the good old days when I worked at a Lincoln/Civil War museum. Once again, these stories are all, unfortunately, true.
- When I was an undergraduate intern, one of the first projects with which I was involved was an exhibit on black troops in the Union Army. One day a visitor marched into the lobby in a huff and demanded to know why that exhibit didn’t include any information about Confederate soldiers.
- On a related note, another guy once asked why the museum—the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum, mind you—didn’t give equal space to Jefferson Davis.
- I answered my phone one morning and took a call from a gentleman who demanded to speak to the museum’s director in order to correct him on a point of history. When I asked him to be a little more specific, he told me that he had watched an interview with the director on C-SPAN and took issue with a remark about Lincoln’s presidency. Turned out he thought he’d called the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum in Springfield, IL. I gave him their main number and wished him good luck. That was back when Richard Norton Smith was running the ALPLM; I wonder if the guy ever managed to get hold of him. If he did…sorry about that, Dr. Smith.
- A woman sent us a letter with detailed recommendations about improving the tours we offered to school groups. She suggested we give each child a kepi, a uniform coat, and a toy musket to take home with them. Alas, she didn’t suggest how we should pay for all this.
- A visitor asked me if we ever “got into trouble” for having a Lincoln museum in a Confederate state. In retrospect, I wish I’d asked him with whom we could have gotten into trouble. The guys who hanged the East Tennessee bridge burners in 1861, maybe?
- A surprisingly large number of visitors informed me that they were direct descendants of Lincoln, whose last undisputed descendant died in 1985.
- Another surprising thing was the number of panicked high school students who e-mailed me to ask if I could send them “all the stuff you have about Abraham Lincoln” for an assignment. Conscientious fellow that I am, I eventually put together a standardized packet of material for these requests. I didn’t manage to get “all the stuff” we had into it, but in my defense, that would’ve been a heck of a lot of stuff.
- Finally, here’s the only story that rivals the one about the Virginia Beach guy. One of the items in the museum’s collection is a portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln. Painted by her niece Katherine Helm in 1925, it depicts Mary as she would have appeared on her wedding day. Two ladies came out of the gallery one day and informed me that the exhibit label for this painting contained a typographical error. Surely, they said, Mary Todd Lincoln was dead by 1925. Indeed she was; it had not occurred to them that artists occasionally paint pictures of people who are no longer alive. When I pointed this out, they remarked that they had “fixed it.” Alarmed, I ran to the gallery and looked at the label. Sure enough, one of them had taken an ink pen, marked an “X” over the date, and written “1825″ above it. (For the record, Mary Todd Lincoln did not get married in 1825. Child marriage never really took off in nineteenth-century Lexington.)
I don’t want you to get the impression that my basic attitude toward visitors was one of disdain. I miss doing public history, and it was both an honor and a pleasure to share the past with people on a daily basis. These days, when I find myself at a museum or a site, I’m the one on the other side of the admission counter. I just hope I never take an ink pen to a label.
A few days ago I had the opportunity to see the National Constitution Center’s traveling exhibit “Lincoln: The Constitution and the Civil War” during its stay at the East Tennessee History Center in Knoxville. It’s a fine piece of interpretation, analyzing the thorny constitutional issues Lincoln faced during his presidency.
The Knoxville version of the exhibit features supplementary material from historical collections in Tennessee, including the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum in Harrogate, where I used to work. Some of this stuff is usually locked away in the vault out of public view. They’ve also included a section on Lincoln’s relationship with Tennessean Andrew Johnson.
The East Tennessee Historical Society is one of my favorite public history institutions. Anything they undertake is definitely worth your time, so stop by and see this exhibit if you get the chance. And while you’re there, you can take in their fantastic permanent exhibit, which covers the history of this region from prehistory to the modern era.
I’ve always said that if somebody put me in charge of casting a Civil War movie and gave me an unlimited budget, I’d want Russell Crowe to play Grant. He’s a dead ringer.
If you’re going to cast an A-list actor like Crowe, though, it would probably be in a starring role, meaning you’d need some Grant-centric subject matter. So who’s up for a Shiloh movie?