SAN MARINO, CA.-
Collecting material on Abraham Lincoln has, for some, been both an obsessive and competitive pursuitso much so that, in honor of his 200th birthday, The The Huntington Library, Art Collections, and Botanical Gardens
pays homage to collectors of so-called Lincolniana in a special exhibition in the Library West Hall.
The Huntingtons own extensive collection of rare Lincoln manuscripts, printed works, and artifacts is the source of the exhibition, titled The Last Full Measure of Devotion: Collecting Abraham Lincoln, on view from Feb. 7 through April 27, 2009. The exhibition explores the history of Lincolniana and pays tribute to collectors who had tracked down and preserved letters, manuscripts, campaign literature, posters, prints, and photographs that otherwise might have been destroyed or relegated to obscurity.
Items on display will include autograph letters and manuscripts, among them a scrapbook of Lincolns speeches about Negro equality that he prepared in 1858, during his celebrated debates with Stephen A. Douglas; 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); a number of relics, including a piece of rail that Lincoln purportedly split, which once belonged to Theodore Roosevelt; and a bronze life mask and cast of Lincolns hands. One of the most poignant manuscripts on view will be the handwritten pass by Lincoln that dispatched Ward Hill Lamon, Lincolns old friend and self-appointed bodyguard, to Richmond on April 11, 1865, inadvertently keeping him away from Fords Theatre the night of the presidents assassination.
In December 1848, Lincoln, then a U.S. representative from Illinois, received his first request for an autograph. He found the Philadelphia clerks 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, of course, was proven wrong, says Olga Tsapina, the Norris Foundation Curator of American Historical Manuscripts at The Huntington. A drive to collect everything Lincolnhis autographs and memorabilia as well as books and articles written about himbegan during his lifetime and only intensified after the presidents death, evolving into a distinctive field of American antiquarianism. This effort, however, was not always a sign of a universal admiration of the man, she says. It reflected the ever-changing image of Lincoln.
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, numerous 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 Lincolns signature out of genuine affection for Honest Old Abe.
Recognizing the popularity of the presidents autographs, charity organizations solicited them for fundraisers. Souvenir copies of the 13th Amendment with Lincoln signatures, one of which will be exhibited, almost immediately became collectors items.
The fateful night of April 14, 1865, transformed Lincoln into the nations first martyr. People immediately began hunting down every relic of the assassination, from the Fords Theatre playbills to strands of Lincolns bloodied hair. These somewhat gruesome mementos, plus a poster offering a reward for the capture of Lincolns murderer, are among the objects that will be on view.
Funeral eulogies and sermons also were popular collectibles. These orations, a sampling of which will be on display, were remarkably different in their interpretations of Lincolns death. Many orators bemoaned the tragedy as an atonement for the nations sins and painted Lincoln as a Christ-like figure. Others argued that Lincoln brought his fate upon himself through his leniency toward the South. And some extolled his martyrdom as part of Gods plan to put a tougher President Andrew Johnson in the White House to deal with Reconstruction. The first catalog of Lincolniana published in May of 1865, also on display in the exhibition, consisted almost entirely of funeral eulogies.
In the postwar years, the battle over Lincoln raged on, spurred on by Reconstruction, lingering political resentments, and the rise of Jim Crow. He was admired as an embodiment of American self-reliance, humor, and common sense and derided as an uncouth and poorly educated backwoodsman with a disturbing fondness for smutty jokes. Lincoln was alternately hailed as the Great Emancipator or dismissed as a hypocrite who exploited abolition for his own political advancement. Collecting activity was fueled by these debates, Tsapina says. Lincolns critics sought evidence vindicating their low opinion of the president; his admirers strove to preserve the memory of the slain president and to rescue the real Lincoln from both his detractors and his worshippers.
By the turn of the century Lincoln had become a national symbol, a towering figure in the American pantheon that stood side by side with Washington and Jefferson, and the debate shifted from his character to his enduring legacy. Lincoln relics still attracted collectors and fetched attractive prices at auctions. Yet it was his own words in their purest handwritten form that became most sought after by collectors. (Lincolns autographs also attracted forgers; the exhibition will display some samples of their handiwork.) By 1909, when celebrations marked the centennial of Lincolns birth, the number of individuals with significant Lincoln collections had reached 500. The field was dominated by an informal group known as the Big FiveDaniel Fish, William H. Lambert, Charles W. McClellan, Judd Stewart, and Benjamin Oakleaf. Together they amassed large collections of Lincolniana that, 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 well-planned 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.
The Last Full Measure of Devotion: Collecting Abraham Lincoln is supported by the Erburu Exhibition Endowment.