Mid-Week Spotlight: “Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life”
Last spring, I had the good fortune of going to Ford’s Theatre to see the reading of a new musical written by the father of one of my college friends. The absolutely delightful musical, Lincoln in Love, concerned the young Abe Lincoln and his future bride, Mary Todd, as they met and began their courtship. I thought this one evening of singing (and laughter!) would be the closest I would come to seeing this giant of a man for the human he was.
The National Museum of American History has been giving Meet Our Museum talks on Thursdays, where curators talk to the public about objects and exhibits of interest. This week, I had the amazing good fortune to take a tour with Harry Rubenstein, curator of “Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life,” of this exhibit, which, while grounded in the larger historical events of the period, focuses on Lincoln the person–Lincoln the self-made man, Lincoln the rail-splitter, Lincoln the coffee-drinker.
I won’t give away all of Harry’s stories–after all, you should come see the exhibit!–but two stick out quite poignantly in my mind, based on objects to which Harry refers as “bookends” of Lincoln’s life.
- On the left-hand wall shortly after entering the exhibit is a case with a small metal wedge, which has the initials “A L” carved into it. The curator spoke of his initial skepticism that this wedge actually belonged to Lincoln–after all, couldn’t anyone take a metal wedge and carve letters into it and claim greater artifact value? After reading the affidavits that came with the object, however, its true value became clear. The wedge had been found during renovations of a house in New Salem, Illinois, that had belonged to Mentor Graham, a friend of Lincoln’s; Graham’s daughter spoke of Lincoln having given her father the wedge as a present when he left for Springfield, and then of having misplaced the wedge after new flooring was put down. A further affidavit recounted Lincoln bringing his wood-splitting ledge to a blacksmith to have his initials carved in it. When the blacksmith declined, saying he was “no scholar” of letters, Lincoln borrowed the smith’s tools and carved his initials himself.
- At the end of the exhibit is a White House coffee cup. On April 14, 1865, as the Civil War drew to a close, Abraham and Mary took a carriage ride, just the two of them, to discuss their future. Abraham spoke of wanting to see the gold mines of California; Mary wished to go to Europe with her husband. Full of joy and hope, they decided they would go to the theatre that evening. When they departed, Lincoln had been drinking a cup of coffee, which he set down on a windowsill. After news of the president’s death came to the White House, a servant who had seen Lincoln put down the cup retrieved it from the windowsill and saved it. The cup would be passed to Robert Todd Lincoln, one of Abraham’s children, before coming into the Smithsonian collection. Perhaps this, more than anything else, brought home the humanity of this man of legend.
From the exhibit wall (and webpage):
“During the drive he was so gay, that I said to him, laughingly, ‘Dear husband, you almost startled me by your great cheerfulness,’ he replied, ‘and well I may feel so, Mary, I consider this day, the war, has come to a close’—and then added ‘We must both, be more cheerful in the future—between the war and the loss of our darling Willie—we have both, been very miserable.'”
—Mary Lincoln recounting the carriage ride they took the afternoon before attending Ford’s Theatre on April 14th, 1865
The exhibit is on the third floor of the National Museum of American history inside the “American Presidency” gallery. If you’re in the area, swing by next Thursday at 12:15 for the next Meet Our Museum–and make sure you get upstairs to spend awhile with Abe.