Please welcome guest author Steven Wilson, Assistant Director and Curator of the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum. Mr. Wilson has been with the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum for nearly twenty years, and is responsible for the development of fifteen temporary and traveling exhibits. He moved to Tennessee in 1977 and considers the Appalachian region his home. A novelist, five of Mr. Wilson’s works have been published by Kensington Books. He is currently at work on The Heretic.
Abraham Lincoln is claimed by at least four states, several families, one to two religions, and anyone else who finds Lincoln worthy of emulation. Lincoln would have been amused at his popularity considering his contemporary enemies and even some of his friends labeled him the “original gorilla,” the “Illinois ape,” or a “baboon.”
Death and Memory: Abraham Lincoln in American Culture is an exhibit at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum that captures and interprets the material culture of an icon. Commercial, honorary, and commemorative artifacts illustrate the impact of Lincoln on American society. Some pieces, such as the Chia Pet Lincoln, or women’s stocking bearing the image of the 16th president, or Lincoln ashtrays, are tokens. Lincoln medallions, medals, pins, and ribbons were created to honor Lincoln. Posters or counter cards from a few of the many Lincoln movies, television programs, or stage plays, represent attempts to resurrect what many Americans remembered as a remarkable man guiding the nation in the midst of a great war.
Here is something that should be regarded about artifacts. Call them things if you wish, or objects, or relics. Without interpretation and analysis these items are useless, and the museums that hold them, warehouses. Perhaps this view is too harsh, and unfair to those scholars and curators who are diligent in their care and interpretation of the material culture surrounding a theme, a nation, or an individual.
Consider this. Humanity has to be linked to any artifact to give it value. In craftsmanship, creation, pedigree, or circumstance. The 1867 children’s block set “Parlor Monuments to the Illustrious Dead” commemorates Abraham Lincoln. It is one of three complete sets in the world. Two years after the president’s assassination children are encouraged to commemorate Abraham Lincoln with carefully stacked blocks in the parlor of the family home.
Although Lincoln is reduced to the status of a souvenir in some cases, or the subject of fine art, he is forever emblazoned in the nation’s consciousness. No rhetoric is as powerful as the fact that the 16th President is an American icon, or more importantly, an international champion of humanity.
This exhibit not only interprets the historical Lincoln, it presents the legendary Lincoln—a figure molded from the collective memories of Americans. Call it the creation of a folk hero, a self-perpetuating myth built on a number of salient points. Lincoln was a kindly man. Lincoln was humble. Lincoln was honest and fair. He freed the slaves. He bound the nation together. Partially true, but then isn’t some truth the basis for all myths?
Death and Memory: Abraham Lincoln in American Culture uses artifacts from three centuries to tell two stories. That of Lincoln, of course, but also that of the American societies who have embraced Lincoln in their own way for their own purpose. America during World War II enlists Lincoln’s aid to defeat the Axis Powers. The first decade of the 21st Century sees Lincoln fighting vampires, and to a lesser degree, zombies. Forty years before these fantastic battles we see a seated, gentle Lincoln, reading to a group of adoring children in a poster distributed to schools across the country. This time the foe is illiteracy, and the victory one of education.
Let’s stretch the two stories identified above to three. In the third Lincoln is interpreted as a citizen of 19th Century America.
It’s true that the souvenirs in the exhibit far outnumber the inspirational Lincoln posters, plaques, or medallions. But they both support an important theme of the exhibit—Abraham Lincoln is a timeless ingredient in the development of the nation. How else do you explain 16,000 books about Lincoln, or thousands of articles? Can one historical figure possibly be that interesting, or have that much of an impact on America? Abraham Lincoln was, as were his contemporaries, a product of the American experience.
His father, as a child, traveled along the Wilderness Road, within sight of the White Cliffs of Virginia, under the gaze of the brooding Pinnacle Rock, and over the Cumberland Gap, into the fertile lands of Kentucky. In 1809, amid the gentle hills of Hardin County, Abraham Lincoln was born. In 1816, “partly on account of slavery, but chiefly on account of land,” Thomas Lincoln took his family to Indiana. He was a portion of the great national migration that changed the face of the nation. From 1810 to 1820 the population of Indiana grew from 24,529 inhabitants to 147,178. Abraham Lincoln matured on the frontier, but a frontier that drew sustenance from its more established sisters.
As a boy, Lincoln recounted in an autobiography, he “had an axe put into his hands at once.” The two were inseparable, like Thor and his hammer, King Arthur and Excalibur. It was the young, scrawny Lincoln however who split more rails at any given time than a dozen men. As a product of the frontier he was expected to clear land, farm, and raise crops. Lincoln grew to despise physical labor. He was drawn to machines. Devices fascinated Lincoln. During his days on the circuit he would slip away from other lawyers just to examine farm machinery. He became an inventor and was awarded a United States Patent for a bellows-like device to lift boats off of shallow river shoals in western rivers. A facsimile of a 19th Lincoln invention proves it was an impractical device. A painting on a 1930’s issue of Popular Mechanics Magazine cover shows Lincoln and a hand carved model of his invention.
If the president had an opportunity to wander around the exhibit, strangely reminiscent of his management still, he would be fascinated by the items that filled the gallery, and by the process that manufactured them. But that is to be expected. The nation that produced Lincoln is the nation that was built on machines.
Many of the items in the exhibit are paper products—posters, counter cards, photographs, and ephemera. During Lincoln’s time high speed printing presses increased the production of books, papers, and other items. This to meet the demands of an increasingly educated middle class. Even Lincoln read Dime Novels, when he tired of Shakespeare, but they came to him, as well as printed materials to millions of Americans, by train. Webs of railroads crisscrossed the nation, linking America as it had never been joined before. Lincoln was the most successful corporate attorney in Illinois, specializing in railroads. The railroads that carried the nation’s commerce were the railroads that Lincoln’s army relied on during the war. Machines that like others, so fascinated the 16th President that he became a champion of the Monitor ironclad, and the Spencer repeating rifle.
The real memory and true accomplishments of Lincoln remain today because they represent the greatness of one individual in a time of great turmoil. No matter how commonplace or silly the artifacts associated with Abraham Lincoln are, or how they are viewed by today’s Americans, they were created, and exist, because Lincoln is embedded forever in the national memory.