With Malice Toward None: The Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial

December 14, 2017
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February 2009 - April 2011


With Malice Toward None: The Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Exhibition commemorates the two-hundredth anniversary of the birth of the nation’s revered sixteenth president. More than a chronological account of the life of Abraham Lincoln, the exhibition reveals Lincoln the man, whose thoughts, words, and actions were deeply affected by personal experiences and pivotal historic events. This virtual exhibit includes some select items on display at the traveling exhibition.

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Prelude to the Civil War

The Kansas-Nebraska Act raised the sectional panic over slavery to a level that precluded reconciliation. Most controversial was the provision called “popular sovereignty,” which provided that settlers in the new territories could decide the issue of slavery for themselves. President Pierce not only lent his support to the provocative measure but also declared his support for the Confederacy.

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.

"The rail candidate" by Currier & Ives. Library of Congress.

Appearing well above the fray, as was the custom of presidential candidates, Lincoln spent the summer after his 1860 nomination in Springfield posing for portraits, writing letters, greeting visitors and even managing to practice a little law. He watched the campaign closely, monitoring its progress day by day and in early July, things began to look hopeful. Lincoln was heartened, if cautious, and wrote to political operative Phillips, “Just now, the skies look bright…”

Beardless Abraham Lincoln

Lincoln is generally thought to have sat for this widely reproduced portrait in 1858 during the Lincoln-Douglas Senate campaign. In reminiscing about this photograph, Roderick Cole stated, “I invited him to my gallery to give me a sitting… and when I had my plate ready, he said to me, ‘I cannot see why all you artists want a likeness of me unless it is because I am the homeliest man in the State of Illinois.’”

Lincoln’s second photograph with facial hair, his first with a full beard, was taken by Christopher Smith German in Springfield, Illinois, on January 13, 1861. This fine example from that sitting was inscribed by President-elect Lincoln on January 26 — less than two weeks before he left Springfield for Washington. Lincoln’s Springfield friends thought his adornment ridiculous, and teased he was “puttin’ on airs.” However, by the time the President-elect reached Washington, people meeting him for the first time were astonished to discover that he was almost handsome.

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"And the War Came"

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.

"Battle of the Wilderness: Desperate fight on the Orange C.H. Plank Road, near Todd's Tavern, May 6th, 1864." By Kuz and Allison, 1887. Library of Congress.

It was not until a young reporter arrived in Washington at 2:00 a.m. on a special locomotive, that Lincoln learned the results of the most ferocious fighting ever seen in North America: Grant had lost 17,666 men—18% of his command in the Battle of the Wilderness.  The Red River Campaign, meant to gain Union control in Louisiana, was also a dismal failure; Confederates had captured the U.S.S. Granite at Calcasieu Pass in Louisiana; and the Union gunboat Commodore Jones had been torpedoed and sunk at Tunnel Hill in Georgia. When Lincoln was asked to provide a “sentiment” for an autograph collector, his reply was short, and to the point: I would give a sentiment, but just now I am not in a sentimental mood.

Prior to his taking the Oath of Office for the second time, President Lincoln delivered a brief address at the Capitol; “Both parties deprecated war,” he declared, “but one of them would make war, rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish.” At this, there was so much cheering that Lincoln had to pause before finishing the sentence: “And the war came.” In not assigning blame, in not inciting rancor, in assuming an equality of devotion, he demonstrated to his listeners his refusal to become The Other.

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When John Wilkes Booth wrote this long and intriguing letter, was he just planning to abduct President Lincoln or to kill him? It is impossible to determine. Though most evidence suggests capture rather than murder was then his aim, that he was actively plotting is indisputable. Writing to long-time friend Boston theater manager Orlando Tompkins, Booth makes an urgent request.

John Wilkes Booth wanted poster
"$100,000 reward. The murderer of our late beloved President Abraham Lincoln is still at large," John Wilkes Booth wanted poster. Library of Congress.

On the evening of April 14, 1865, President Abraham Lincoln attended a play at Ford’s Theatre in Washington, D.C.  John Wilkes Booth – one of the most popular actors in the country – slipped unnoticed into the Presidential box and discharged a single bullet from a derringer into the back of Lincoln’s head.  The narrative presented here is that of Dr. Robert King Stone, Lincoln’s personal physician, who was summoned immediately to the cramped back bedroom where Lincoln had been transferred.  Upon his arrival he became the chief attending physician.  His narrative is written on pages stained with blood.