The Age of Abe
The Smithsonian's First Major Lincoln Retrospective Takes an Honest Look at the Towering Man
By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, Jan. 16, 2009
When Abraham Lincoln's top hat was brought to the Smithsonian in 1867, the top brass issued a gag order about its arrival. Secretary Joseph Henry worried that the hat would become a distraction. The Smithsonian's purpose, after all, was scientific. Although it already had some important historical and political treasures in its collection, it was not primarily a warehouse for presidential icons.
And so, according to the National Museum of American History's Harry R. Rubenstein, curator of the new exhibition "Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life," the hat went into a box and straight into storage at the Smithsonian Castle.
There is no reticence about showing it today. The ratty old hat, which has frayed around its edges and faded like an Old Master painting in a drafty church, is now the first and last thing you see when touring this small but poignant exhibition.
Brent Glass, director of the museum, says the show, mounted as part of the Smithsonian's institution-wide celebration of the Lincoln birth bicentennial, is the Smithsonian's first major retrospective devoted to the 16th president. It is small but thorough, with objects ranging from Lincoln's blue-collar days as a young man in Illinois to the funeral pall that covered his casket. The exhibition opens today, in time for the inauguration crowds, but it was planned before the nation decided to elect Barack Obama, whose Illinois pedigree, long and lanky form, and self-professed admiration for Lincoln make the exhibition accidentally relevant to the new national mood.
The Obamamania/Lincoln fetish echoes Lincoln's own self-fashioning. And the strength of "An Extraordinary Life" is its candor about these kinds of political myth. To illustrate the Lincoln the Rail-Splitter iconography, the exhibition reproduces a large 1860 oil painting showing Lincoln, with his shirt open to the navel, about to hammer a wedge into a log. The rail-splitter image as political brand was the invention of an Illinois politician, Richard J. Oglesby, who wanted to find "one thing in Mr. Lincoln's unsuccessful career as a worker that could be made an emblem." But by today's standards, the excess masculinity of the image is risible. If subjected to the cynical scrutiny of contemporary pundits, it might be compared with Michael Dukakis's embarrassing drive in a tank, or John Kerry touring the space shuttle in a ridiculous-looking blue safety suit.
Another object, a piece of fence rail supposedly split by Lincoln, even raises doubts about its own authenticity. Although accompanied by an affidavit from Lincoln's cousin John Hanks claiming that it is "one of the genuine rails split by A Lincoln and myself in 1829 and 30" -- shades of the One True Cross -- are we really certain that this isn't just a piece of re-purposed firewood?
Rubenstein suggests that the literal authenticity of the object -- a Lincoln fence rail -- matters less than the role the object played in creating the Lincoln myth.
"Hanks realizes that he has a good thing here," Rubenstein says. "So he takes a wagon down and takes apart the whole fence." Parts of it were sold off to raise money for Union troops. But one also sniffs a whiff of Billy Beer.
Even in Lincoln's time the rail-splitter myth was parodied, but at least one parody, an 1860 cartoon that shows Lincoln as a stick figure made up of rails, suggests that the problem wasn't the falsity or contrivedness of the image. Rather, it was a problem with the values -- simplicity, folksiness, untutored backwoodsiness -- that Lincoln was projecting. Was a rail-splitter qualified to be president?
Perhaps not, but maybe "famous inventor" would add to his luster. Among the curiosities on display is a patent model for Lincoln's device to refloat grounded boats, an invention made in 1848 while he was a congressman and perhaps a sign of his plans for Renaissance Man greatness. It was never put into production, and even Scientific American suggested that while many of its readers could invent a better boat-floater, few of them could get elected president. And according to the Smithsonian, Lincoln remains the only president to have received a patent.
What gets you into office can be a burden once in office. Rail-splitting, and even scientific invention, aren't necessarily qualifications for the social and political skill it takes to make the White House function as a power center. Next to the crude bricks of the Lincoln political myth, the exhibition displays the polished stone of the presidential facade: a silver service, gold watches, a beautiful purple dress with white satin piping for the first lady, all status symbols meant to establish the White House as an elegant cultural cynosure.
Lincoln's success as president, the rhetoric that seemed to come from the deepest, Christian conscience of the nation, and the Emancipation Proclamation have all erased direct memory of the contradictions and masks he had to wear. But the exhibition contains small reminders of the imperious Lincoln. A wall text refers to him, in the language of one of his aides, as "the Tycoon." The word, meaning "great leader," was a new borrowing from the Japanese, thanks to the recent voyages of Commodore Perry. But even if used ironically, it's not a label that comes to mind when we think of our saintly binder-up of the nation's wounds.