Collecting Lincoln

Feb. 7, 2009Apr. 28, 2009
Library, West Hall

On the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln’s birth, a new exhibition looks at the role of collectors in preserving his memory

In December 1848, Abraham Lincoln, then a U.S. representative from Illinois, received his first request for an autograph. He found the Philadelphia clerk’s letter asking for his “signature with a sentiment” rather amusing: “I am not a very sentimental man,” he replied, “and the best sentiment I can think of is, that if you collect the signatures of all persons who are no less distinguished than I, you will have a very undistinguishing mass of names.”

He was, of course, proven wrong. The public fascination that began during his lifetime for collecting everything related to Lincoln only intensified after his death. By the centenary of Lincoln’s birth in 1909, memorabilia associated with his life, presidency, and assassination had evolved into a distinct field of American antiquarianism known as Lincolniana.

The Huntington’s own extensive Lincoln holdings (which rank with the collections of the Library of Congress and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library as the most important in the nation) are the source of a new exhibition titled “The Last Full Measure of Devotion: Collecting Abraham Lincoln,” opening Feb. 7 and continuing through April 27 in the West Hall of the Library. While exploring the history of Lincolniana, the exhibition pays tribute to the collectors themselves —without whom, much of Lincoln’s writings, and many of the artifacts that tangibly connect us to our 16th president, might have been lost.

Timed to coincide with the 200th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, the exhibition will include dozens of autograph letters and manuscripts, among them his famous letter to Ulysses S. Grant, dated April 14, 1864 (“And now with a brave Army, and a just cause, may God sustain you”), and an 1858 scrapbook of speeches about “Negro equality” that Lincoln prepared during his celebrated debates with Stephen A. Douglas. One of the most poignant manuscripts on view will be a pass written by Lincoln dispatching his friend and self-appointed bodyguard, Ward Hill Lamon, to Richmond on April 11, 1865. Three days later, while Lamon was still absent from Washington, the president was fatally shot. The document is often referred to as Lincoln’s “death warrant.”

Lincoln relics will also be displayed, including a piece of rail that Lincoln purportedly split, which once belonged to Theodore Roosevelt, and a bronze life mask and casts of Lincoln’s hands.

“This fascination with collecting Lincoln wasn’t always a sign of a universal admiration of the man,” notes Olga Tsapina, the Norris Foundation Curator of American Historical Manuscripts. “Rather it reflected his ever-changing image.”

For his contemporaries, Lincoln was a highly controversial figure, says Tsapina. “He rose to political fame amid bitter partisanship and deepening sectional divisions. The South treated him with unmitigated hatred, while in the North, critics maligned Lincoln as being either too radical or not radical enough, and decried his administration as the seat of corruption and incompetence.”

Despite this barrage of criticism, Lincoln was besieged by autograph seekers. Some were moved by the fad of autograph collecting, which had become a popular obsession. Yet many others requested Lincoln’s signature out of genuine affection for “Honest Old Abe.” Recognizing the popularity of the president’s autographs, charity organizations solicited them for fund-raisers. Souvenir copies of the 13th Amendment with Lincoln signatures, one of which is exhibited, almost immediately became collectors’ items.

The fateful night of April 14, 1865, transformed Lincoln into the nation’s first martyr. People quickly began hunting down every relic of the assassination, from the Ford’s Theater playbills to strands of his bloodied hair. These somewhat gruesome mementos, plus a poster offering a reward for the capture of Lincoln’s murderer, are among the objects on view.

Yet, even as the funeral train made its mournful journey from Washington, D.C., to Springfield, Ill., the meaning of Lincoln’s life and death was being debated in a most unlikely forum: in funeral orations and eulogies. Many orators painted Lincoln as a Christ-like figure atoning for the nation’s sins. Others argued that Lincoln brought his fate upon himself through his leniency toward the South. Printed copies of these orations soon became collectors’ items in their own right. The first catalog of Lincolniana, published in May of 1865, consisted almost entirely of funeral eulogies.

In the postwar years, the battle over Lincoln raged on. Lincoln was alternately hailed as the Great Emancipator or dismissed as a hypocrite who exploited abolition for his own political advancement. He was described as a self-made man or an uncouth and poorly educated backwoodsman; a shrewd commander-in-chief or a bumbling amateur. Collecting activity was fueled by these debates, as Lincoln’s critics sought evidence vindicating their low opinion of him and his admirers strove to preserve his memory.

By the turn of the century, Lincoln had become a national symbol, a towering figure in the American pantheon who stood side by side with Washington and Jefferson. The debate shifted from his character to his enduring legacy. Although Lincoln relics still fetched attractive prices at auctions, it was his own words in their purest handwritten form that became the holy grail of collectors. Many enterprising forgers capitalized on that fact, and some examples of their handiwork will be on view. By 1909, the year of the centennial celebrations, hundreds of individuals had amassed significant Lincoln collections. The field was dominated by an informal group of Lincoln collectors known as the “Big Five”: Daniel Fish, William H. Lambert, Charles W. McClellan, Judd Stewart, and Benjamin Oakleaf. Together they amassed large collections of Lincolniana, which, with rare exceptions, found their way into museums and research libraries, including The Huntington.

Between 1914 and 1924, Henry E. Huntington made a series of acquisitions designed to build up a research collection of Lincoln materials, and those purchases included the Lambert and Stewart collections. This core collection has been expanding ever since, making The Huntington one of the primary repositories of Lincolniana in the country and an important center for Lincoln research.

Collectors of Lincolniana have been driven by various complex motives: political loyalty, personal devotion, the thrill of the chase, or pursuit of profit. But through their zeal they have been instrumental in preserving the corpus of Lincoln’s writings, and placing into safekeeping thousands of letters, manuscripts, pieces of campaign literature, posters, prints, and photographs that otherwise might have perished or remained in obscurity.

This exhibition is supported by the Erburu Exhibition Endowment.