The Idea of Lincoln: Man and Memory

January 1, 2018
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Beverly Hills Public Library
Beverly Hills, CA
May 6, 2008 - December 6, 2009
April 21, 2012 - October 28, 2012


This exhibition features letters in Lincoln’s hand, some of which testify to the mythic idea of him – his kindness, honesty, and mercy; and some reflecting the gritty reality of his life – law cases about hogs, choosing pragmatism over principle, crafting an image. Present too, are autographs of other presidents testifying to Lincoln’s effect on their lives and his place in history. Of special interest are a letter convincing Lincoln to grow a beard; a letter about presidential assassinations by Lincoln’s son, Robert Todd Lincoln who, unluckily, was present at three of them; and the only known letter written by President Lincoln the day the war ended, April 9, 1865. This virtual exhibit includes some select items that were displayed at the original exhibition. These items were also on display at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum 2012 exhibition, “Ideas of Lincoln and Hoover.”

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Abraham Lincoln's Character

Lincoln was so honest that at every stage and condition of life, to his name has been attached, justly, the appellation “Honest.”  Here what he noticed, of course, was that the request he was about to sign credited him with four days he did not work. The new president corrected the day of the month his salary should begin, crossing out “first” and writing in “fifth;”  a simple demonstration of his most famous characteristic.

President Lincoln spent considerable time reviewing the results of army courts-martial cases. He was especially interested in capital sentences, and the pleas made by ordinary citizens on behalf of men under military arrest and incarceration.  It seems likely that Lincoln, having for four terrible years presided over a conflict that had already taken the lives of 600,000 of his countrymen would do anything to prevent one more drop of blood being shed.

From the greatest day of his presidency, the day the Civil War ended, there is but one Lincoln autograph bearing that date, April 9, 1865: it is this pleasant and enigmatic letter to the captain of the afternoon’s river excursion, obliging a request, “so far as it can be done consistently with the public service.”

Before television, radio, or even the daily use of photography itself, Lincoln realized the political importance of his image: a Western Everyman, rawboned, striking but unhandsome, and instantly recognizable.

Hamilton & Ostendorf, O-87A

First-term Congressman Abraham Lincoln explains why he is not supporting his beau ideal of a statesman, Henry Clay, for a third run at the presidency.  It isn’t that he doesn’t admire Clay, but that Zachary Taylor has the best chance – the “only” one, he says here – to win.

Cassuis Clay, an enthusiastic but undisciplined Kentucky abolitionist, thought he should be the next president of the United States. Aware that Clay lacked the necessary judgment to manage a high office, Lincoln sidestepped Clay’s direct solicitation for a prominent place in the possible future Republican administration.

Lincoln attempts to assuage the pained feelings of his campaign manager, Norman Judd.  After losing the campaign, Judd had huge debts to pay, but Lincoln, too, was broke and unable to help his friend.  Two years later, Judd and Lincoln were back in business, with Judd making sure that the Republican national convention was held with every advantage for Lincoln.

Lincoln nominated Sherman a Brigadier General of Volunteers with this letter.  Waging unrestricted warfare against the civilian population, the South could hold no hope of victory against him and the Union.

©Shapell Manuscript Foundation. All Rights Reserved. For more information, please contact us at

General Robert Huston Milroy was known to be eccentric on the battlefield, cruel to civilians, and rabid with West Pointers. When he lost half his command at the Second Battle of Winchester, General Halleck had him arrested for the debacle. This set into motion Milroy’s letter writing campaign to secure his release, defend his actions, blacken Halleck’s name, and demand a Court of Inquiry.

Fighting an uphill battle against a better-financed, better-organized incumbent who attracted attention wherever he went, senatorial hopeful Abraham Lincoln’s election strategy was classic underdog:  follow Stephen Douglas around the state and speak where he spoke.  Tagging after the frontrunner, however, made Lincoln a laughingstock in the opposition press.  Why didn’t he just follow the traveling circus, they mocked – that way, he could always attract a crowd.  But the Republican press countered, calling for face-to-face debates between the candidates, and on July 24th, Lincoln challenged Douglas to share a platform…

These electrifying debates made Lincoln famous, and were the means of his astonishing “overnight” ascent to the presidency.

It may come as a surprise, but Lincoln is considered one of the greatest American lawyers ever – on a par, say, with Clarence Darrow, Louis Brandeis, and John Adams. Known in his day as a lawyer’s lawyer, Lincoln was a brilliant litigator – better before a jury, Stephen Douglas said, than anyone could compare – and justly famous for his unparalleled ability to untangle knotty land problems.

Edwin M. Stanton did not like Lincoln, at first, at all.  Lincoln, he told everyone, was a gorilla, an imbecile, and a disgrace.  But Lincoln only cared that Stanton was a brilliant administrator, and in one of the most magnanimous acts of his remarkably magnanimous presidency, made him Secretary of War.  Lincoln would work closer with Stanton, in fact, than any other Cabinet member – and Stanton, simply, came to love him.

Lincoln, perhaps more skillfully than any other president, used the power of patronage to secure and retain support.  Lawyer Harrison here endorses Senatorial Elector and Lincoln canvasser Will Cumback as worthy of “a mark of Administrative favor.”

As much if not more than any other quality, Lincoln valued hard work. It was, he believed, the essential element in achieving individual success and social advancement.  When asked by a needy mother in October 1861 to supply army jobs for her eager boys, the new President was barely able to contain a newfound cynicism when he obliged with this letter of referral.

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Recollections of & Tributes to Lincoln

No poet writing about Lincoln could resist bringing Walt Whitman into the story – and Sandburg says here that he didn’t either.

Listening in the crowd at Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, was Frederick Douglass, born into slavery but now, the greatest living example of racial equality.  Later, at the White House inaugural reception, that equality would be challenged, when policemen barred him at the door, refusing to admit a person of color.  Lincoln, however, got word of the outrage, and not only ordered Douglass admitted, but on seeing him approach, greeted him warmly, and asked in a loud voice how he liked his inaugural address.  “There is no man in the country,” he added, “whose opinion I value more.”

Six weeks later, at a public memorial service for the murdered president, Douglass would recall “the immortal words” of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address.

Many soldiers have felt the urge, although few have been afforded the opportunity, to call their President and Commander-in-Chief a “damn fool” face to face – but legend has it that Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, as a Captain in the Civil War, shouted just that at Abraham Lincoln.  When the President, visiting the front at the Battle of Fort Stevens, stood up and made himself a target, Holmes is said to have yelled “Get down, you damn fool!”  In this account, Holmes recalls the perimeters of the alleged incident.

Even heroes have heroes and Theodore Roosevelt’s, he says here, was Lincoln.

Every president since Lincoln has looked to him as a model, that they too might by virtue of their honesty, integrity and dedication, make Americans proud. Here, President Ford declares Lincoln is the person he admires most.

Although Lincoln died on Saturday, April 15, 1865, news of his assassination did not reach some of the armies in the field until days later.  Here an Ohio Lieutenant, serving in Alabama, describes how the troops there received, and took, the dire news.  Whole divisions, it was said, sobbed together upon hearing that “Father Abraham” was the war’s final casualty.

Head Quarters, Larkinsville, Alabama, April 20, 1865.  To his brother, Christian Sollaw in Ohio

Truman thanks a Paul Nachtman for a copy of Nicolay and Hay’s Lincoln biography; he had previously owned all the Lincoln biographies but this one.

With this letter, Ida Tarbell, the discoverer of so much Lincoln documentary evidence, salutes a man who also “discovered” a new Lincoln. Isaac Markens’ seminal study of Lincoln and the Jews pioneered the genre in Lincoln literature.  He has sent Tarbell his manuscript and she responds that she is very interested.

Harding notes a curious anomaly: the further away from Lincoln time takes us, the larger he becomes. In fact, not only does Lincoln seem larger, but he makes everyone around him larger too. The generation ending with the Civil War was “a sort of golden age of American statesmanship”, Harding surmises, in which giants roamed the political landscape.

First-year Senator Benjamin Harrison declines here to add “anything that would be appropriate or fitting” to Oldroyd’s almost six hundred page The Lincoln Memorial: Album-Immortelles. When one attempts to say anything of the illustrious Lincoln, Harrison explains, one should be very careful of his words – and he simply hasn’t the time.

Pass to President Abraham Lincoln’s Funeral in the East Room of the Executive Mansion. Shapell Manuscript Collection. ©Shapell Manuscript Foundation. All Rights Reserved. For more information, please contact us at

Sometime before noon on Wednesday, April 19, 1865, some six hundred mourners entered the Executive Mansion to attend, in the East Room, the funeral of Abraham Lincoln. The notation “East” at the top of the card refers to the section of the room where the bearer was to sit.

If in the annals of American history, there was ever an expert witness on Presidential assassinations, that person would have to be Robert Todd Lincoln – he who was so unique, and unlucky, as to have been on the scene at three assassinations.  He was at the bedside of his father, Abraham Lincoln, when he died; at the Washington railroad station when Garfield was shot; and at the Pan-American Exposition as McKinley, too, was mortally wounded. This letter, written just nine days after the death of Garfield, is about the awful specter of assassination.

Lincoln called a Cabinet Meeting with this summons to  Secretary of the Navy Gideon Welles.  Welles’ diary entry for that day recorded that Lincoln related to the Cabinet a dream he had the night; “I seemed to be… moving with great rapidity toward an indefinite shore…”

On the morning of April 15, 1865, while boarding a train, a battle-hardened General Hayes heard a report that Lincoln had been assassinated. Feeling sure it was true, and pained and shocked as never before, he wrote this letter to an army chaplain.

Every generation, it would seem, views Lincoln, somehow, as a symbol of its time.  To the young poet Vachel Lindsay, facing the horror of World War I, Lincoln was a ghostly apparition, sleeplessly pacing the streets of Springfield, Illinois, and carrying on “his shawl-wrapped shoulders” all the bitterness, folly, pain in the world. Here, in one of his most famous poem, he salutes Springfield’s most famous citizen: “Abraham Lincoln Walks at Midnight (In Springfield, Illinois)”, on three typed pages, with autograph emendations, and accompanied by an autograph letter, signed in full (“Nicholas Vachel Lindsay”) concerning the Springfield flag.