- “Now He Belongs to the Ages”: The Legacy of Abraham Lincoln, Abstract and Concrete
A small unframed photograph was one of the last artifacts a visitor saw at the Chicago showing of The Last Best Hope of Earth: Abraham Lincoln and the Promise of America. Measuring about three by four inches, it showed the assassinated president lying in state in New York’s City Hall guarded by two soldiers. In the dim light, the visitor strained to see the details of this somber faded image—to make out the features [End Page 871] of Lincoln’s face—and learned from the adjacent label that this was the only such photograph to survive. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton (who stood at Lincoln’s deathbed and coined the phrase “Now he belongs to the ages”), upon hearing that photographs had been taken of the late president ordered that all negatives and prints be seized and destroyed. Yet the forbidden image was later found in Stanton’s personal papers; the Secretary had violated his own order.
Stanton’s action attests to the power of the collecting impulse, the desire to possess an object that provides a connection to Lincoln. Similar desires may have attracted visitors to this show. They may have come to stand in the presence of documents written by his hand, of his top hat and eyeglasses, to see, if not possess, artifacts associated with Lincoln. And visitors were not disappointed at the wealth of things to see. Among the rarities displayed were such diverse items as an autograph manuscript of the Gettysburg Address, the gloves and handkerchief Lincoln carried to Ford’s Theatre on the night of his assassination, racist anti-Lincoln books and pamphlets, campaign posters, numerous letters to friends, family, generals, legal and political associates, and sets of White House silver and china.
But the curators of this exhibition intended to provide much more for us than simply a chance to see a large collection of Lincolniana. The show’s title, The Last Best Hope of Earth, was taken from Lincoln’s Annual Message to Congress, delivered in December 1862 during the depths of the Civil War. In it he said, “we know how to save the Union. . . . In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free—honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve. We shall nobly save, or meanly lose, the last best, hope of earth.” 1 In Lincoln’s view, the United States was the world’s “last best hope” for democracy, freedom, republican government and economic opportunity. This exhibition sought to demonstrate how Lincoln developed these ideas in the context of the political events and social issues of his time.
Thus, the show favored the written word. As James McPherson stated in the catalog’s “Foreward,” the answers to what exactly Lincoln meant by the “last best hope” “lie in the letters, speeches, and other documents” contained in the exhibition. 2 The curators went on to state that the show “is a library exhibit which relies primarily on documents—original manuscripts and rare printed materials—to tell Lincoln’s story. . . . The objects, artifacts and memorabilia . . . supplement the documents.” 3 What remained unexplored in the exhibition was the [End Page 872] exact nature of this supplementary relationship, and how the audience’s reception of both texts and objects might affect or stand in the way of ongoing critical examination of Lincoln’s ideas. These questions raise...