Just what sort of president was Abraham Lincoln, and how did he rely on the U.S. Constitution in developing his strategies for handling the Civil War? Those are tough questions, and there are no easy answers, but a new exhibit at Gettysburg National Military Park is expected to spur more than a little debate over those questions.
Lincoln: The Constitution and the Civil War is a travel exhibition that examines how President Lincoln used the Constitution to confront three intertwined crises of the Civil War—the secession of Southern states, slavery, and wartime civil liberties.
Now on display at the park's museum and visitor center, the display doesn't provide any clearcut answers to the questions of whether he "was he a calculating politician willing to accommodate slavery, or a principled leader justly celebrated as the Great Emancipator."
According to a description of the exhibit from the Gettysburg Foundation, the exhibit "encourages visitors to form a nuanced view of Lincoln by engaging them with Lincoln’s struggle to reconcile his policy preferences with basic American ideals of liberty and equality. This exhibition develops a more complete understanding of Abraham Lincoln as president and the Civil War as the nation’s gravest constitutional crisis."
Abraham Lincoln was elected President of the United States in 1860, at a time when the nation was on the brink of war. Lincoln struggled to resolve the basic questions that divided Americans at the most perilous moment in the nation’s history: Was the United States truly one nation, or was it a confederacy of sovereign and separate states? How could a country founded on the belief that "all men are created equal" tolerate slavery? In a national crisis, would civil liberties be secure? President Lincoln used the Constitution to confront these three crises of war, ultimately reinventing the Constitution and the promise of American life.
"We are delighted to have been selected as a site for this exhibition," said Gettysburg Foundation President Joanne Hanley. "As a new president, Abraham Lincoln was faced with enormous challenges. This exhibition shows how Lincoln struggled with issues of secession, slavery and civil liberties—all questions our country’s founding charter left unanswered.
"Each section of the exhibit features information about a different aspect of Lincoln’s presidency. For example, the section about slavery examines the various policy options Lincoln once embraced and how his thoughts about slavery evolved over time," Ms. Hanley continued. "Most importantly, the exhibit helps visitors understand why Lincoln’s struggle with the Constitution still matters today."
Lincoln: the Constitution and the Civil War was organized by the National Constitution Center and the American Library Association Public Programs Office. The traveling exhibition has been made possible by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Lincoln: the Constitution and the Civil War is based on a previous exhibition of the same name developed by the National Constitution Center.
The traveling exhibition, which will remain on display at Gettysburg through July, is composed of informative panels featuring photographic reproductions of original documents, including a draft of Lincoln’s first inaugural speech, the Emancipation Proclamationand the Thirteenth Amendment.