Friday, October 17, 2008
Today's Cincinnati Enquirer (Ohio) brings the news of yet another new exhibit about Abraham Lincoln. Opening today is "Lincoln: The Constitution And The Civil War" at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, located in downtown Cincinnati, Ohio.
The exhibit aims to examine how Lincoln dealt with the major constitutional issues he faced while president. Secession had already begun before he was even inaugurated. Barely a month into his presidency, the Civil War ignited at Fort Sumter, S.C. Finally, civil liberties were a major issue during the war itself.
A spokesman for the museum points out that the exhibition is not the typical homage to Lincoln. It critically examines his role in the suspension of the writ of habeas corpus, which caused prisoners to be held without trial. Lincoln also didn't hesitate to halt publication of newspapers which were critical of his policies and administration. His crackdown on civil liberties during the war became a huge controversy. In fact, it was a significant issue in the election of 1864, which for a time Lincoln was not at all assured of winning. Democrats and other war opponents hammered him hard about the freedoms being lost during the war.
The exhibit will feature more than 100 artifacts on loan from the now closed Lincoln Museum in Fort Wayne, Indiana and other national institutions. Photos, documents signed by Lincoln, and other items will be on display. Visitors will be able to hear Lincoln's "voice" as recorded by the actor Sam Waterston as "Lincoln" reads from some of his speeches and letters. Other parts of the exhibit include recreated jail cells, a re-creation of Lincoln's inaugural speech, and an opportunity to "vote" in the 1864 election.
All in all, the exhibit seems as if it will be fascinating to those of us who study Lincoln. I think it's important that we examine the interaction of Lincoln and the Constitution, not just to learn more about Lincoln, but because there are lessons we can still learn today. Government of our own time is struggling to balance our civil rights with the need to protect our nation against terrorism while fighting two wars. Personally, I am angered that the government can now listen in on our phone conversations without search warrant and even demand from libraries a list of books we have borrowed. By viewing this exhibit, I hope to learn more about Lincoln and his own balancing act between civil liberties and preserving the union.
Originally created in 2005 by the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, the exhibit runs at the Freedom Center in Cincinnati until January 11, 2009.