Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Abe, Whig In The City*

I took in the new Lincoln and New York show at the New York Historical Society recently. The show strikes a pretty good balance between the type of (theoretically) kid-friendly, interactive, multimedia exhibits that have become standard history and science museum fare in recent years - touch screens allowing you to create your own 1860's era political cartoon, a sound and light room meant to recreate the chaos of the Draft Riots, a shooting gallery-style lineup of Copperheads with sound tubes allowing you to listen to their anti-Lincoln grumblings - and the more traditional artifact-based approach to presenting history. For me, the slickest, most graphic-rich touch screen imaginable could never be as meaningful as being inches away from the inkwell that Lincoln used to sign the Emancipation Proclamation, but different strokes...

The show is arranged in a logical, chronological fashion, from Lincoln's visit to New York to deliver the Cooper Union speech that helped make him a serious contender for the Presidential nomination to the laying in state of his body at City Hall after the assassination. The portion dealing with the Cooper Union trip contains some fascinating displays, including a section on his visit to Matthew Brady's studio and a large map detailing Lincoln's movements in Manhattan and Brooklyn (where he attended Henry Ward Beecher's Plymouth Church in Brooklyn Heights, the initial source of Lincoln's speaking invitation). The map was of particular interest to me, as I fall squarely in the overlap zone of the "maps+Lincoln" Venn diagram.

The complexities of Lincoln's actions during the Civil War are well represented in the show, with a focus on how his policies were received in the deeply divided, sometimes violent atmosphere of wartime New York. Few of Lincoln's wartime acts were as complex, in execution or implication, as the Emancipation Proclamation. Alternately seen as a divinely inspired writ of liberation and as a coldly strategic military document, the Proclamation was neither entirely one nor the other, and can't be fully understood or placed in context without taking into account the 13th Amendment that followed and the fact that Lincoln actively pushed for its passage and ratification. The exhibit covers all of this, but someone moving quickly through the exhibit might miss the Amendment, seemingly doomed to live forever in the shadow of the Proclamation.

Although Lincoln's assassination is one of the most well known facts about him, after spending a lot of time in the exhibit pouring over the details of his wartime struggles, his death still managed to carry a measure of shock and horror - "how could the story end like that?" The final wall with excerpts from Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd" is a fitting conclusion, an American elegy suitable in stature to the life it commemorates. In fact, I can think of only one other artistic response to Lincoln that succeeds on the level of Whitman, landscape architect Jens Jensen's Lincoln Memorial Garden in Springfield, Illinois. Whitman's elegy is full of landscape and plant imagery; Jensen's garden takes a poetic, symbolic and associative approach to commemorating Lincoln. Both are alive in ways that a more literally representational stone or bronze monument can never be.

The Lincoln show is a lot to take in, but the one-room John Brown exhibit upstairs makes for a nice aperitif or digestif (chronologically, I suppose it makes more sense to see it first). Brown was also commemorated by a great American writer, that other Civil War poet, Herman Melville.

*Lincoln left the Whigs for the recently formed Republican Party in 1856, making the title of this post historically inaccurate insofar as his 1860 visit to New York is concerned.

Bonus Links

The best thing I've read on Lincoln by one of his contemporaries: Frederick Douglass' oration at the dedication of the Freedmen's Monument in 1876. How could a speech containing these lines also be perhaps the greatest, most apt tribute Lincoln ever received?:

"He was preeminently the white man's President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men. He was ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people to promote the welfare of the white people of this country."

Read it and find out.

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