Lincoln lives

Honest Abe will soon be hanging out at The California Museum

The California Museum

1020 O St.
Sacramento, CA 95814

(916) 653-7524

Abraham Lincoln is coming to town—or at least a very thorough reflection of his life, which began 200 years ago on February 12 and ended with a bullet at Ford’s Theatre, after he preserved nothing less than the United States of America.

Honest Abe will be hanging at the California Museum at 10th and O streets from June 24 through August 22. And it’s the only place on the West Coast this majestic illumination of the 16th president’s life, compiled by the Library of Congress, is going to appear. Sacramento is also the first showcase since Washington, D.C.

“It’s a big deal for the whole region. This is a show of national significance,” said Amanda Meeker, deputy director of The California Museum and coordinator of the exhibit.

If you’re not already a Lincoln fan, With Malice Toward None: The Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Exhibit will change all that.

Here are the budding politician’s prep notes before his high-stakes debates with Stephen Douglas. Here too are the newspaper clippings of how the debates fared. What politician wouldn’t keep score?

A draft of the Emancipation Proclamation, the Gettysburg Address and the Bible Lincoln and President Barack Obama used to take their oaths of office will be present, its surface now scratched.

Creepy yet compelling are the contents of Lincoln’s pockets the night he was shot. Also, there’s the stark reality of his autopsy report.

The Great Emancipator, whose goal was to safeguard the Union, not necessarily free slaves, was almost entirely self-taught. In an autobiography he wrote in third-person to help sympathetic newspapermen understand his early life, Lincoln says his formal schooling lasted less than one year.

“He never was in a College or Academy as a student; and never inside of a College or Academy building till since he had a law license,” Lincoln writes in his spindly script. “He studied English grammar, imperfectly of course, but so as to speak and write as well as he now did does,” the Library of Congress transcription reads.

Would that be what today is called a “campaign bio”? It’s part of the exhibit. And so is the book that helped him speak and write his “imperfect” English.

“Personally, I think that’s one of the neatest things, the grammar book,” said Meeker. “It’s amazing we have that piece from so early in his life.”

Unveiled by the Library of Congress this year on Lincoln’s birthday, the show ended its D.C. run on May 22. It is visiting only four other cities. California seemed a natural location for a West Coast showing because of its linkage to the rest of the country by the Transcontinental Railroad, which wasn’t completed until 1869, four years after Lincoln’s death.

Sacramento vied with a library in San Francisco for the privilege of hosting the exhibit, but the Library of Congress opted for the state capital.

“For a number of reasons, including the fact that it was commended to us by the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, the California Museum was our most viable option,” said Matt Raymond, director of communications for the Library of Congress.

The museum also serves as the public display location for the contents of California’s official archives. The archives contain items as varied as old license plates, papers of former governors and lawmakers, and the gun Sirhan Sirhan used to assassinate Robert Kennedy at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, 41 years ago this month.

Lincoln will occupy about 3,000 square feet on the museum’s second floor. Admission won’t cost extra. Neither the museum nor the Library of Congress wants a surcharge placed on the exhibit, a policy made easier by underwriting of much of the exhibit’s initial expenses by Union Pacific, the railroad of transcontinental fame. PG&E is helping the museum defray its costs.

During the exhibit’s two-month run, a series of events have been planned, including a formal first-night opening, a family activities day, a panel discussion on Abe’s legacy and a film night which, hopefully, will include the classic with Henry Fonda portraying Carl Sandburg’s Lincoln.

Oddly, Lincoln’s greatest gift to California is missing from the display. In 1864, at the height of the Civil War, the Republican president signed a bill granting Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove to California. It was the country’s first public preserve.

There’s a lot to learn from reading Lincoln’s prose or perusing some of the poetry from Walt Whitman, a conscientious objector who served as a nurse in the Civil War, included in the exhibit. Photos starkly show the toll the war took on the man from Springfield. More deeply furrowed lines and grayer hair are the reward for every occupant of the residence Harry Truman called the White Sepulcher, but for Lincoln, the transformation is astounding.

He was square-jawed, clean-shaven and youthful in 1860 when he was elected—a man of 51. Five years later, the daguerreotype captures a face that’s haggard, haunted and careworn, some of the gauntness hidden by whiskers. Compare the exhibit’s 1860 and 1865 life masks.

Without spoiling the ending, what’s revealed here is a smart and determined politician—read his letter to the woefully underperforming Gen. George Meade. Lincoln may play folksy and homespun, but he practices a mean hardball.

Like Truman 80 years later, Lincoln made the tough call and stuck with it. His credo was to keep the United States united, which he did at great cost—America’s bloodiest war the result.

Lincoln’s life and his example of leadership is something Sacramentans, particularly those who work nearby at the Capitol, ought to reflect on.