Lincoln Brought to Life, Ryan Cole, Wall Street Journal, February 24, 2010.
Often, an object is worth more than a thousand words.
In 1905, Arthur Hall, president of the fledgling Lincoln National Life Insurance Co., wrote Robert Todd Lincoln, the lone surviving son of Abraham Lincoln, requesting permission to use the late president's image on advertising and stationery. Lincoln complied and graciously sent Hall an original photo of his father.
As decades passed, this gift, supplemented by the company's acquisition of thousands of additional pictures, prints and personal effects, grew into one of the world's great Lincoln collections: the Lincoln Museum, located in Fort Wayne, Indinana.
But in 1999 the business, reconstituted as Lincoln Financial Group, changed ownership and left Fort Wayne for Philadelphia. In 2008 LFG officially ended its financial support of the Lincoln Museum, which closed its doors shortly thereafter. LFG then decided to donate the museum's $20 million in artifacts to another institution and launched a search for a suitable recipient. The company did not have far to look. Despite competition from the Smithsonian Institution and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, ultimately a Hoosier alliance of Fort Wayne's Allen County Public Library and the Indiana State Museum in Indianapolis crafted a winning pitch and was awarded the collection in December, 2008.
"With Charity for All," now showing at the Indiana State Museum, unveils highlights of the newly acquired prize and closes out the Lincoln Bicentennial celebration. The exhibition, open until July 25, shares space with "With Malice Toward None," a traveling exhibit from the Library of Congress. The items from the traveling exhibit—original drafts of the First Inaugural and Gettysburg Addresses, the contents of Lincoln's pocket on the night of his assassination—are more famous. But the lesser-known treasures of Indiana's collection are equally impressive. And unlike so much pontification about the 16th president, "With Charity for All" actually connects viewers to Lincoln the living, breathing man.
These are objects he actually wore, signed or handled. Here, our link to him is not through words, but through an immediate and intimate tactile connection. Contrast this to a gigantic television screen in a hallway between the two shows playing an endless loop of politicians and public personalities gushing about the man, no doubt seeing some glimmer of Lincoln in their own reflections.
These voices fade into white noise as viewers move into the exhibition space where they come face to face with objects—relics, really—that better narrate Lincoln's story. Ancient ledgers and land records bearing the name of Lincoln's father, Thomas, document the family's arrival in Kentucky in the first years of the 1800s. A beautifully crafted corner cupboard, carved by Thomas with the help of his son, evokes the Lincolns' life in the wilderness of southern Indiana.
Elsewhere, prints, lithographs and newspaper clippings recount his rise from circuit-riding prairie lawyer to national statesman. And campaign paraphernalia—original ribbons, songbooks, pins and banners—chart his successful dark-horse bid for the presidency in 1860. Lesser-known items provide unique insights into Lincoln's life and work in the White House. Here is a note imploring Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles to "Let master Tad have a Navy sword"—a diversion for his young son, left alone and restless after the death of his brother and playmate Willie in 1862. Also displayed is a faded brown-and-white houndstooth shawl that once covered the president's shoulders in the cold and drafty Executive Mansion.
Glimpses of Lincoln the master political tactician are seen in his letter to Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman requesting a furlough for Indiana troops in September 1864. With the electoral fate of Republicans uncertain in the coming fall balloting, the president made sure that every single vote at his disposal was cast. A few steps away is a signed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, one of 48 reproductions created to raise funds for wartime medical supplies. This document itself is just inches from Lincoln's ink well. And of course his assassination is documented here as well. Fragments of blood-soaked garments and towels are macabre reminders of the tragic April evening at Ford's Theater. Upon Lincoln's death, Secretary of War Edwin Stanton is reputed to have said, "Now he belongs to the ages." Today, it often seems that "Now he is lost to the ages" would be more appropriate.
True, our leaders constantly invoke him and he hovers over our history, his image emblazoned on our money and carved into countless monuments. But the real man, shrouded in a fog of top hats, impersonators, and log cabins or buried under an avalanche of scholarship, is often frustratingly elusive. Yet, thanks to a Lincoln collection that began over a century ago and a wonderful new exhibit, this most interesting and, arguably, most important of American lives is still within our reach.
Mr. Cole served in the administration of George W. Bush and on the staff of the U.S. Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.
Text and Top Image Source: Wall Street Journal
Second Image: Lincoln Bicentennial
Third Image: Indiana State Museum