SPRINGFIELD, Ill., April 19 -- President Bush honored the memory of Abraham Lincoln on Tuesday, saying the courage and conviction the nation's 16th president exhibited to defend liberty has driven American history from the abolition of slavery through the war on terrorism.
Speaking to an audience assembled for dedication of the $90 million museum here memorializing the president often called "the savior of the nation," Bush said, "to understand the life and the sacrifice of Abraham Lincoln is to understand the meaning and promise of America."
Bush, who aides say admires Lincoln more than any other president, said Lincoln's influence on U.S. history extends beyond his work to end "the great national sin of slavery" and to keep the nation together in the face of the Civil War.
"Citizens enlisted Lincoln's principles in the fight to bring the vote to women and to end Jim Crow laws. When Martin Luther King Jr. called the nation to redeem the promissory note of the Declaration [of Independence], he stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial -- and Lincoln was behind him in more ways than one," Bush said. "From the lunch counter to the schoolhouse door to the Army barracks, President Lincoln has continued to hold this nation to its promises."
Tying Lincoln's legacy to his own desire to spread democracy around the globe, Bush said that the belief in liberty that motivated Lincoln to rise above the racist culture and abolish slavery is relevant outside the United States. "Our deepest values are also served when we take our part in freedom's advance -- when the chains of millions are broken and the captives are set free, because we are honored to serve the cause that gave us birth," he said.
Bush was joined at the dedication by Illinois officials, including Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D), House Speaker J. Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Sens. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.). Obama, the only black U.S. senator, offered a different view of Lincoln, pointing out his vacillation about ending slavery and the strategic motives for the Emancipation Proclamation. Still, he said, Lincoln "kept his moral compass firm and true."
Before the dedication ceremony, the president and first lady Laura Bush were led on a 20-minute tour of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, said to contain the largest collection of Lincoln artifacts in the world. The collection includes a handwritten copy of the Gettysburg Address and an original version of the 13th Amendment, which outlawed slavery.
It also features high-tech, Disney-style exhibits that museum curators say are aimed at making Lincoln's story more accessible. They include a model of the White House south portico and array of lifelike figures, from Sojourner Truth to Gen. George B. McClellan. In one exhibit, Lincoln, who historians say was a lenient father, is reading the paper while one of his sons tosses an inkstand and another swings a broom as if it were a bat. In an exhibit recreating the White House kitchen, fictional conversations of black kitchen workers gossiping about the seances led by Mary Lincoln and rumors of Lincoln issuing an Emancipation Proclamation are piped in.
Some have criticized the museum for distorting history through these recreated conversations and by paraphrasing the words of such figures as Chief Justice Roger B. Taney, author of the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision upholding slavery, but the museum is expected to double tourism in Springfield.
The dedication drew an estimated 10,000 people to this city's Union Square, across the street from the museum and in front of the train station where President-elect Lincoln left for Washington in 1861. Lincoln's body was returned here for burial in 1865, after being taken to 10 cities for 10 funerals after he was assassinated.
"When his life was taken, Abraham Lincoln assumed a greater role in the story of America than man or president," Bush said. "Every generation has looked up to him as the Great Emancipator, the hero of unity and the martyr of freedom. . . . In all of this, Lincoln has taken on the elements of myth. And in this case, the myth is true."