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Get to know the real Honest Abe


In a dank, stony hallway beneath a towering obelisk, I stand in the reverent shadows of the innermost part of Lincoln's Tomb, as close to the president's remains as any person can be.

Here lay also the bodies of his wife and three sons who died before manhood, part of a family scarred by personal tragedy, yet marked by public triumph. From Lincoln's humble log cabin beginnings he rose to become the 16th and perhaps greatest president.

But while we can get this close to the body, how near can we come to the man? As the bicentennial of his birthday approaches in February, many people will go on this quest in search of Lincoln. And as we prepare to vote for a new president, many will study Lincoln to discern the qualities of a great leader — and to decide which current candidate measures up best.

A mile and a half away in downtown Springfield, I set out to find the man at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. More than 1.6-million visitors have come since it opened three years ago.

Unlike any other presidential museum, it is revolutionary, controversial and successful. Designed by former Disney Imagineers in consultation with historians, it blends a Disney aesthetic with a serious purpose true to history. Its multiple layers allow people to approach it in different ways.

"We wanted to connect the head and heart in the way people connect to the story," said Tom Schwartz, the Illinois state historian. "When people walk through that (exit) door, they need to be changed."

They are. Here's how it works.

Visitors enter a rotunda where they see lifesize, realistic models of the Lincolns and can pose for pictures. From there, it's best to prepare for the museum by watching Lincoln's Eyes, a rapid-fire multimedia affair. Scrims rise and fall in staccato succession, projecting images and voices telling the story of Lincoln's life. Seats shake and lights flash. Remember, Disney is involved. There's even a cannon boom signaling the start of the Civil War — the only weapon in evidence throughout the museum. It's a good set-up to the rest of the visit. As the narrator says, "Each of us might see part of ourselves in Lincoln's eyes."

The museum is divided into two "journeys," first, the formative years leading to the White House, followed by the Civil War presidency. The sum effect is to keep Lincoln complicated and contradictory, yet whole.

Man of contradictions

Lincoln was born in Kentucky, but the first exhibit shows a representation of a cabin that the young Lincoln would have lived in after his family moved to Indiana. Attention to detail is everywhere. Inside the cramped cabin young Abe reads by the dying embers as the rest of the household sleeps. The sounds are so realistic that when we first visited the museum last year, our guide dog puppy quietly woofed at the sounds of Joe, the dog resting beneath Lincoln's feet.

Move from there to a slave family being separated at the auction block. At the museum's "soft" opening, the state historian said, a colleague's young daughter didn't really understand slavery but fully realized the look of anguish on the faces of the mother and child. That, he said, was how the museum tries to reach people.

Enter the next room and see the New Salem store of 1833 that Lincoln co-owned, which failed. At the Lincoln-Herndon law office, see a very unmuseum-like display in the incredible mess of Lincoln's work arrangements. Nearby, Lincoln's young boys giggle and use inkwells for a ball and a broom for a bat. Ink splatters stain the walls throughout the office.

That room sums up the contradictions of Lincoln, disorganized yet hardworking and principled. "He liked law, and he was very good at it," said Schwartz. People often fail to grasp "his enormous capacity for work."

The exhibits flesh out Lincoln the man, an ambitious, adroit politician yet a flawed, fallible human being who suffered from melancholy, and maybe depression. Nonetheless he would become a great statesman even though he held only one national office — two years in the U.S. House — before the presidential election.

One exhibit puts the 1860 election into perspective. You're in a television control room as the late Tim Russert recaps the 1860 presidential stakes. Each of the four candidates' slogans becomes clear when their political ad appears on TV: Lincoln for union, Stephen Douglas for popular sovereignty, John Breckenridge for property and states' rights, and John Bell for compromise.

It's a clever way to convey the cacophony of the 1860 election and to crystallize the issues in a few minutes of watching TV monitors. Funny are the crawls across the bottom of the screen with breaking news about Louis Pasteur and his experiments with germs, the Pony Express and a repeating rifle called the Winchester.

It was a risky exhibit to try. "It was a judgment call," said Schwartz. "And I had to make it."

In consultation with master teachers, Schwartz knew that schoolchildren fully understand that TV didn't exist in antebellum America but that they have a hard time grasping the milieu of 1860 politics. This anachronism is obvious enough to work effectively. And it's a great way to remind people that more people voted against Lincoln than for him in 1860.

Politics and war

Now begins the second journey, the White House years. Rather than a dull chronological narrative, the museum skips through time, hitting major themes. It takes you through the White House kitchen, a smart way to hear the voices and opinions and gossip of African-Americans as well as to see what happened behind the scenes at the White House.

Small touches of realism abound. The stove is hot to the touch (hot water is pumped through it). Rather than recount every moment of White House strategy, the exhibit opens on to the Cabinet meeting where Lincoln announces to his rivals that he will issue an Emancipation Proclamation. Rather than the famous dignified engraving (now at the Smithsonian) by Alexander Hay Ritchie of a seated Cabinet drinking in the news, this lifelike tableau shows men raging as well as ecstatic, with placards explaining each man's position on abolition and attitude toward the proclamation.

Turn down a hallway tunnel and hear a riot of voices as floating heads yell their divergent views as you pass. It's hard to leave that hall without feeling, as well as understanding, the sense of disharmony that had settled upon the country. End at a wizened Lincoln standing over a desk, documents at his hand.

Leave there, and understand the true cost of war. See a mural of the black regiment whose fight was commemorated in the movie Glory, and then slip into a gallery that depicts the Civil War and its casualties in four minutes. On a big screen, one week passes in a second as a ticker counts the casualties for the North and South. Booms ring out as battle names appear on the screen and the battle lines move back and forth until Sherman's March to the Sea turns most of the map into Union colors.

Move down the hall and come to Ford's Theater, and see John Wilkes Booth slowly opening the door to the president's box. And then, the end.

The president's body lies in state in a closed coffin draped in black. The museum bent history a bit here. In reality, the casket was open. That same little girl who was so disturbed by the slave auction was unsettled by the casket. "I don't like this," she told her mother. "Let's go." The state historian defended this slight distortion: "Can you imagine what that would have been like had she seen a face?" He added: "We felt we might be creeping people out."

Artifacts of a life

At many points along the way, historians have compiled a reading list of great books for those whose appetite has been whetted to learn more. There are many references to other places to see the spot where the history occurred, from the battlefields of Gettysburg to where Lincoln was born in Kentucky to spots around Springfield — the one house he ever owned, the old Capitol and others.

Across the street at the library — the collection of papers and documents doesn't circulate but is accessible to the public — Schwartz took me down into the vault where more than 1,600 Lincoln artifacts are kept. I held a cuff link Lincoln wore the night he was assassinated.

The historian opened a box and showed me Lincoln's beaverskin stovepipe hat — long, soft indentations evident from where his fingers grasped the hat to doff it, and the inner band stretched from holding important papers. I also held a telegram Lincoln had written by hand to Gen. George McClellan, who had complained that his horses were too sick for the army to attack. The short note shows Lincoln's wit, his steely will and his exasperation with a general reluctant to fight. "Washington, D.C., Oct. 24, 1862. Majr. Genl. McClellan, I have just read your despatch about sore tongued and fatigued horses. Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the Battle of Antietam that fatigue anything? (signed) A. Lincoln."

Those physical objects felt almost mystical, like touching greatness. Yet the museum does a better job than those mementos — which aren't now on public display — of making Lincoln real. On one wall is a photographic enlargement showing Lincoln's Tomb, and the outsized bust of the president in front of it, its nose polished by the constant rubbing of passers-by. In the photo as in real life, the nose has been rubbed — and that part of the picture worn through — by visitors treating it as the real thing.

And that's the glory of the museum. It makes Lincoln real. You begin to understand a man whose grandfather was shot dead in an Indian raid, who grew up teaching himself to read, who gained the respect of men close to him even as he became the most hated man in America. A man who, though he had already delivered the Gettysburg Address and signed the Emancipation Proclamation, might have lost his re-election bid in 1864 had his generals not started winning, including the burning of Atlanta. He died mere months later, at the height of his popularity, his legend set to grow. The museum brings that legend down to earth and makes the man available to us mere mortals.

Jim Verhulst is the Perspective editor of the St. Petersburg Times. He can be reached at [email protected]


Lincoln's influence

Presidential nominees John McCain and Barack Obama have ties to Abraham Lincoln or to Illinois, the Land of Lincoln. As we entered the museum, I asked Illinois state historian Tom Schwartz which part of the museum he would take them to.

For McCain, nominee of the party of Lincoln, the historian walked me to a mural of the war and then to the gallery showing the casualties, "the Civil War in four minutes."

"The military aspect of the Civil War exacted a large cost in American blood and treasure," Schwartz explained. "As a decorated veteran from the Vietnam War, Sen. McCain fought to preserve some larger ideals. Lincoln fought the Civil War to preserve Union and larger ideals that he felt America uniquely represented. As president, how would he compare his ideals to Lincoln's?"

For Obama, senator from Lincoln's state of Illinois, Schwartz took me to the auction of the slave family. "Slavery and its elimination is one of the main story lines in the museum," the historian said. "If Sen. Obama is elected president, his administration will correspond with the 150th anniversary of the Civil War. How (or would) the commemoration of the Civil War be used to advance racial healing in this county?"

Jim Verhulst

If you go

The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum is located at 212 N Sixth St., Springfield, Ill.; (217) 558-8844 or The museum is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily (closed New Year's Day, Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day). Admission is $4 to $10.

On the Web

For a Q&A with Illinois state historian Tom Schwartz, go to

Get to know the real Honest Abe 09/25/08 [Last modified: Monday, September 29, 2008 12:34pm]
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