Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Election Day primer: Start with A. Lincoln

Election Day is upon us. Analyses will be written tonight, new careers will be born, others will fade away.

Monday, on the eve of the voting, I drove down to the Atlanta History Center to see the Library of Congress exhibit, “With Malice Toward None,” honoring the enduring legacy of the 16th president.

The show moves on after Sunday and I figured I’d never have another chance to see such an assembly of Abraham Lincoln writings, photographs, sketches, personal items and, yes, the items found in his coat pockets after he was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre.

Lincoln was a consummate politician and a lawyer. He knew the shrewd game of give and take.

His sole term in the U.S. House of Representatives was a disappointment. But he learned as he went and persevered.

Few Americans knew Lincoln’s name in 1858 when he debated Stephen Douglas seven times during his unsuccessful bid for the U.S. Senate seat in Illinois.

His speeches lifted him to the national stage, even in defeat, and a familiar line made itself into the American lexicon.

"A house divided against itself cannot stand. I believe this government cannot endure permanently half slave and half free. I do not expect the Union to be dissolved; I do not expect the house to fall; but I do expect it will cease to be divided. It will become all one thing, or all the other.”

“With Malice Toward None” opens with a multimedia presentation that explores the myth and realities of Lincoln. Video commentaries reveal personal connections to the documents the 16th president wrote.

Photos throughout the exhibit depict Lincoln over the years, with the Civil War’s heavy toll evident in an Alexander Gardner portrait taken several weeks before he died.

A cane-bottom chair from an old law office tells you a lot about the man from Springfield, Ill.

“The strength and durability of furniture is said to have interested Lincoln more than its appearance.”

The exhibit has the powerful documents we know so well: Drafts of his second inaugural address, the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address.

But the “little” letters speak of Lincoln’s humanity.

In October 1860, Grace Bedell (left, during the 1870s), a young girl from New York, wrote to candidate Lincoln asking him to grow whiskers because his face was so thin.

“All the ladies like whiskers and they would tease their husbands to vote for you and then you would be President,” reads a portion of the letter, which is in the exhibit.

Shortly afterward, Lincoln grew his now-familiar beard.

In December 1862, as the war wore on, the president wrote to Fanny McCullough, the daughter of a friend killed in battle.

“I am anxious to afford some alleviation of your present distress. Perfect relief is not possible, except with time,” Lincoln wrote. “You can not now realize that you will ever feel better. Is not this so? And yet it is a mistake. You are sure to be happy again.”

I make no political statement here. It's my hope at the end of today that we appreciate the resiliency of our political process. And that we continue to turn to Lincoln for lessons in statesmanship, discourse and love.

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