Pages of handwritten speeches, terse military communiques jotted by the Civil War commander in chief, many documents signed with the familiar “A.Lincoln” — these make up a major portion of an illuminating exhibit titled, “Lincoln Speaks: Words that Transformed a Nation.”
But the show at New York’s Morgan Library, which overlaps the 150th anniversary of the war’s end and of his assassination, also reveals Abraham Lincoln speaking in a personal voice that adds a touching dimension to the display of public pronouncements that resonate profoundly today.
Anyone who has pondered the mystery of how a young man from the backwoods with virtually no classroom schooling developed such an extraordinary command of language will be moved to see the small, leather-bound English grammar book he studied. This is not just an artifact of self-education, though; it represents, in effect, a love note. On the title page, Lincoln wrote that he was making his treasured book a gift to his first sweetheart, Ann Rutledge.
In a letter he wrote from the White House to a young woman about the death of her father in the war, he notes: “In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all; and, to the young, it comes with bitterest agony, because it takes them unawares. The older have learned to ever expect it.” Lincoln, who had lost his mother when he was a boy, was then grieving the recent death of his beloved son Willie.
Here, his eloquence is fatherly, comforting. Other writing in the exhibit, such as that in a decoratively printed and signed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, employs precise, dry legal language.
This shows his special capacity to move “from role to role” as a writer, said Sandra Trenholm of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, who with the Morgan Library’s Declan Keily curated “Lincoln Speaks.” They drew from their own institutions’ holdings and from others. The exhibit at the midtown Manhattan museum runs through June 7.
Those unfamiliar with Lincoln the poet will find examples here — he wrote verses occasionally from his teenage to his White House years. No one calls them great literature, but his poems illustrate both his humor and his melancholy. And they remind us of his love of forms that influenced his public writing. Personal copies of some of Lincoln’s favorites are on display — including a collection of Alexander Pope’s witty, wise verse essays and an oversized “Macbeth,” which he would sometimes read from or recite.
The exhibit is full of surprises.
We see the formal “respite of execution” request in 1862 from a man convicted of slave-trading, a capital offense. Lincoln, otherwise known for his compassion and his pardons, refused the man’s bid for clemency.
And in notes for one of his famous 1858 Senate race debates with Stephen Douglas, we see this passage, which seems so modern: “In this age and this country, public sentiment is everything. With it, nothing can fail; against it, nothing can succeed. Whoever moulds public sentiment, goes deeper than he who enacts statutes, or pronounces judicial decisions.”
The curators place a 19-word message to the Union commanding general, Ulysses S. Grant, endorsing a strategy late in the war — “I begin to see it. You will succeed,” it says, in part — near a broadside copy of Lincoln’s second inaugural address, anticipating an end to “this mighty scourge” and calling for “charity for all.” The document is in blue ink, meaning it was printed in the month between the inauguration and Lincoln’s assassination in mid-April 1865, after which black ink was used.
After Lincoln’s death, someone retrieved his quill pen, used to write so many of his words, from his desk at the White House. It, too, is on display here. Like two sculptural pieces nearby, a life mask and bronze molds of his large hands, this artifact brings Lincoln the man uncannily present.
But in the end, as the curators say, Lincoln lives in his words: “As president, he deployed ethical teaching, painstaking reason, and wry humor; he resisted easy demagoguery and personal abuse. By these means, Lincoln — the common man — reached uncommon heights of eloquence.”
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