Exhibit tells Honest Abe’s true story

By Luke Wilusz

Many Americans know Abraham Lincoln as the man who led our nation in a fight for freedom and equality during the Civil War, but one museum exhibit aims to dispel some common misconceptions about the Great Emancipator.

“Rather than a traditional biography of Lincoln, starting with the log cabin, to the White House and so on, I decided to focus on his changing views about slavery and the union, and the change came about during the crisis of the Civil War,” said exhibit curator Olivia Mahoney.

The exhibit, “Abraham Lincoln Transformed,” opened Oct. 10 and will remain open until April 12 at the Chicago History Museum, 1601 N. Clark St.

Mahoney said Lincoln didn’t make abolishing slavery his goal at the beginning of his political career.

“He was willing to allow for its existence in the South [and] to just leave it alone, in order to keep the union together,” she said. “Because above all, he revered the union—the country—as established by the founding fathers. And of course, they allowed for slavery. They compromised to keep the union together, so he wanted to continue in that tradition.”

Mahoney said that while Lincoln wanted to stop the spread of slavery beyond the states where it was legal, he was not a supporter of equal rights for freed slaves.

“Lincoln really didn’t believe that the two races could ever live together as equals,” Mahoney said.

She said Lincoln supported a program of colonization, which would send any freed slaves back to Africa if they wished to go.

“His views are very complex,” Mahoney said. “And at times you find in his writings, you know, deep empathy for black people, certainly leaning towards equality but never fully embracing it. It was a very radical thing at that time to talk about blacks as equals. He was not a radical, he was moderate. His views helped him get elected because that’s where most people stood.”

However, Lincoln’s election triggered the secession of several southern states whose citizens were fearful of his views on slavery before he could even take office, Mahoney said.

At the start of the Civil War, Lincoln still had no intention of abolishing slavery, although the pressures of the war would eventually lead him to reconsider this stance.

“There was a lot of pressure from abolitionists and others in Congress to do something about slavery because they could see that slavery really helped to maintain the South,” Mahoney said. “[Slaves] helped to maintain the armies because they were raising the crops and the cotton that was being sold to keep the money flowing in.”

Museum patron Zam Munies said he thought the exhibit did a great job clearing up a common misconception about the Civil War.

“Everybody thinks it was a war of slavery, but it wasn’t,” Munies said. “It was to keep the union together.”

According to Mahoney, Lincoln wasn’t considering equal rights or citizenship for blacks immediately after he issued his Emancipation Proclamation, although his views gradually changed as the war went on. A film made by local production company Zero One Projects is part of the exhibit to help explain this shift.

“As the result of black soldiers and their involvement in the war and their service, he came to see them as equal citizens,” Mahoney said. “So you can see he’s a person in transition.”

She said Lincoln first publicly endorsed equality and citizenship for blacks in a speech he made just after the war ended, from the balcony of the

White House.

“In the audience at that speech is John Wilkes Booth, who was a well-known actor, Confederate sympathizer and white supremacist,” Mahoney said. “And when he hears Lincoln endorse equal rights for blacks, he vows then to put him through, to kill him … Very few people make this connection; they just think Booth hated Lincoln. Well, it was really based on this: equality for blacks.”

In addition to featuring informative displays that tell the story of Lincoln’s changing views, the exhibit also features hundreds of Lincoln artifacts, such as the bed he died in and the flag his body was wrapped in afterward.

“This is what Lincoln fans really love to see,” said Kyle Kazmierczak, who works at the museum’s front desk, referring to the countless documents written and signed by Lincoln. “You know, after coming out of Illinois, being a lawyer, working his way into the Senate and the presidency. There are a lot of wonderful things up there to see.”

The information presented in the exhibit, along with photos of all the items on display, are available to view online at LincolnAt200.org.

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