I took a trip to Washington, D.C., to the National Museum of American History recently, to see "Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life" before it closed. Braving throngs of tourists and students, I edged my way through the crowds of sweating people. I'm glad there were crowds there, right up to the last minute.
The exhibit showed many of the physical objects associated with Lincoln's life. They had the iron wedge Lincoln used as a young man to split rails. Even in his fifties, Lincoln could hold an axe at arm's length between his fingers. That was no mean feat of physical strength.
As a teen, Lincoln became a champion wrestler, showing amazing skill. The experience would serve him well when he debated Brandon, Vt., native son U.S. Sen. Stephen Douglas of Illinois in 1858. Lincoln, a respected lawyer and one-term congressman, used his Democratic opponent's worldwide fame against him. Those debates were printed and distributed. They made Lincoln's reputation among the ranks of the new Republican Party and positioned him for the presidency two years later.
I saw Lincoln's gold watch. That log cabin birthplace and those too-short homespun trousers are surely part of the Lincoln legend, but so is his pride in his success as a courtroom lawyer. Oddly, Lincoln's watch is engraved. Inside the works, a Washington, D.C. jeweler inscribed "Jeff Davis."
What? Who would dare put the name of Lincoln's Confederate rival inside the watch of the President of the United States? It might have been a joke. Or an act of defiance? That jeweler might have been secesh. The nation's capital was full of Southern sympathizers.
Good for the unnamed jeweler, anyway. Perhaps he meant that time was running out for Jefferson Davis. Indeed, it was running out for the Confederacy as well as for the man who saved the Union.
There's an illuminated banner there that was carried in Lincoln for President rallies in 1860. It calls him "Old Abe: Prince of Rails." Everybody in the nineteenth century was old. Old Hickory (Jackson). Old Rough and Ready (Taylor). Lincoln was only 51 years old when elected president, but in his touching farewell address to his neighbors in Springfield, Ill., he refers to himself as an old man.
That Prince of Rails line was a great joke. In October 1860, in the middle of the four-way presidential race, the Prince of Wales became the first British royal ever to visit the United States. Lincoln's supporters were proud of his humble beginnings, and the "prince of rails" line was a way to emphasize his hard physical labor.
The exhibit shows a life mask done of Lincoln's homely face and his powerful hands.
They're from 1860, when he was nominated for president. The Museum folks made a copy of the right hand, which is holding part of a broom handle, and you can match your own hand to his. Lincoln had been shaking hands all day when the mold was cast, so he went into the back yard of his Springfield home and sawed that broom handle to steady his right hand.
I used to tell my high school students how Gov. Nelson Rockefeller had shaken hands with an elderly man named Henry Herndon in Indiana in 1968. Rocky was tickled. That's because as a boy, Henry Herndon had shaken hands with Abraham Lincoln. And I shook hands with the governor in 1971. So when I shook hands with them, my students had a direct link to President Lincoln. Now, to make it even better, I recently shook hands with Navy Petty Officer Longstreet, a descendant of Confederate Gen. James Longstreet. That gives me my link to Robert E. Lee!
The exhibit emphasizes that Lincoln was unschooled. Yes, but don't confuse that with uneducated. Lincoln wrote in 1860 to a reporter. The reporter, named Scripps, was trying to write a campaign biography of the presidential candidate. People were desperate for information about him. Lincoln wrote it was great folly to try to make anything of his young life. You will find it described, he said, in Gray's Elegy, "the short and simple annals of the poor."
That Abraham Lincoln could quote from memory long passages from poetry, from Shakespeare, from the Bible should remind us that he was anything but uneducated.
We have volumes of Lincoln's writings.
Here's one Lincoln quote we should all memorize: "Nothing stamped in the divine image was sent into the world to be trod upon." He said it of the slaves. But it applies with equal force to the unborn. I hope they send the Lincoln exhibit around the country by train. It would be great for Americans to visit once again with their Prince of Rails.