Honest Abe in the Big Apple

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Two years ago, noted historian and author Harold Holzer was asked to create a “wish list” of artifacts for an upcoming Lincoln bicentennial exhibition at the New-York Historical Society. After careful reflection, Holzer handed Louise Mirrer, the society’s president, a list of rare Lincoln artifacts and documents. Holzer, who splits his time between Rye, N.Y. and the Upper East Side, knew it was highly improbable that the original owners and institutions would allow these historic treasures to travel. But thanks to the remarkable persuasiveness of Mirrer, nearly all of the original “wish list” items have materialized in the current exhibition, “Lincoln and New York.”

Holzer recently sat down with Our Town to talk about putting together the exhibit, and how Lincoln’s image was forged in New York.

Historian Harold Holzer thinks Lincoln’s relationship with New York has been underappreciated. Photo by Andrew Schwartz

Historian Harold Holzer thinks Lincoln’s relationship with New York has been underappreciated. Photo by Andrew Schwartz

Q: Why has Lincoln’s relationship with New York been underappreciated until now?

A: I think because other states have always been in frenzied competition to claim that they made Abraham Lincoln who he was. If you go to Kentucky, you know that every building, every pathway, is marked as the place where Lincoln first opened his eyes and developed a love for the land. And, of course, Illinois geographically references his early career, the Senate races, his political development. Against that competition, it has been hard to make the case. But it is our contention, and I think we make a very good case for it.

Q: What kind of artifacts and documents are represented in the exhibit?

A: I’m so proud of what has been assembled from collections all over the country. It includes the lectern that Lincoln used at Cooper Union in his famous speech. The first painting made of Abraham Lincoln, which was made in his office in Springfield in June of 1860. He had never sat for an artist before, and it was commissioned by a New York publisher, and it really tells the story of how New York created the Lincoln image. There’s the uniform that was worn by the first Union officer to be killed during the Civil War. He was a New Yorker. He was a student in Lincoln’s law office, and one of his bodyguards. After the Civil War began, this officer marched across the river to haul down a Confederate flag from a hotel in Virginia that he could see from the White House. And the owner of the hotel shot him with a shotgun. And there is the uniform in the collection with a huge hole in the breast. It’s pretty startling.

Q: Was the Lincoln image largely made in New York?

A: Absolutely. This is where the artists and the publishers were. This is where the distribution networks were. Because just like today, New York was the media center of the nation. The biggest newspapers, the biggest picture newspapers, the biggest publishers, portraits, engravings, posters, tokens, all of those things, were manufactured here. That’s not to say that the image-makers here loved Lincoln. They simply saw him as a profit opportunity.

Q: What was Lincoln’s relationship with New Yorkers?

A: He won over the Eastern Republicans but he never won over New York. He only won 30-something percent of the vote here in 1860. He didn’t do much better in 1864. It was a big Democratic town. But all he had to do was to convince influentials like Horace Greeley and the young Republican moderates in New York that he was a viable alternative to William Seward, that he would be acceptable as a candidate. They wanted a Westerner, but they didn’t want a Western buffoon. And they had heard that Lincoln was, in fact, a sort of a buffoonish character.

Q: The New York poet Walt Whitman wrote a famous tribute to Lincoln for the 22nd anniversary of his death. Is this poem, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” included in the exhibition?

A: Yes, it’s written in huge letters to remind people of the grieving during that Easter period after Lincoln’s murder. So we emphasize it very much. And, of course, Whitman is important not just because he crystallized national emotions over Lincoln’s passing, but because he saw Lincoln so often in Washington. He actually saw him in New York when Lincoln came here as president-elect. Whitman was in a trolley or an omnibus, a double-decker, a horse-drawn of course, and he was pulled over near City Hall to wait until Abraham Lincoln arrived at that hotel. Whitman was very concerned that the crowd was too quiet. He found it very threatening, and he thought it portended a very serious and challenging time for Lincoln and for the country. Of course, he was right.

Q: What do you want people to take away from the exhibition?

A: I would like for them to take away a new sense of how crucial New York City is in the evolving reputation of Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. We never had a battle here, but we certainly had conflict and debate. We had violence on the streets. We had vicious newspaper attacks, and we had a boisterous community of support and compassion, and efforts to help the soldiers and to support the war financially. This was a very important state in the history of America and the American Civil War. And had Lincoln never come here to give his Cooper Union address, I am convinced that he would never have become president. When people walk into the show, the first thing they will hear is my friend Sam Waterston reading highlights of the address from Cooper Union.


Transcript has been edited for clarity and brevity.


“Lincoln and New York”

Through March 25
New-York Historical Society,
170 Central Park West
212-873-3400

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