Thursday, October 15, 2009

Lincoln and New York

One of the benefits of retirement is the ability to enjoy cultural pleasures at one’s leisure, without the crowds normally associated with weekend or holiday visits. Last week, as part of our membership in the New-York Historical Society, I took advantage of a preview of the society’s current exhibition, “Lincoln and New York.”

First a word about the N-YHS. You might have observed a hyphen between New and York. It’s there because that’s the way the society spells its name. I don’t know why it adopted that affectation. I’ve come across no explanation. Perhaps that’s the way New York was spelled back in 1804 when the society was founded. But that’s fodder for another blog entry.

I consider myself fairly well educated about the history of our country and New York, but I must say that “Lincoln and New York” was a continuing panel of revelations as I meandered through the exhibition. Some examples:

* New York City failed to support Abraham Lincoln in the 1860 and 1864 elections, though he did carry New York State both times;
* Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph, was a defender of slavery and part of the anti-Lincoln group known as the Copperheads;
* The Draft Riots of 1863 (which some of you may recall from the movie, “Gangs of New York”) were the bloodiest civil insurrections in our nation’s history (with the obvious exception of the Civil War itself);
* Lincoln could be considered the first “media” candidate. It seems that upon his initial visit to New York to deliver his now famous Cooper Union speech in February 1860, Lincoln visited the studio of Mathew Brady. The celebrated photographer, observing Lincoln’s long neck, reset the lanky politician’s shirt collar to hide most of it. He further posed him standing, with his left hand touching a book. This portrait dignifying a politician many thought to be a country bumpkin helped catapult Lincoln to national prominence;
* As now, New York was the center of media for the country. The city had 174 daily and weekly publications. Almost all had a point of view. Many were anti-Lincoln;
* During the Civil War he suspended the right to the writ of habeas corpus. That’s pretty commonly known, especially since it was used by George Bush and Co. to justify their actions after 9/11. But did you know that during his presidential campaign Lincoln’s followers banded together into a paramilitary organization called the Wide Awakes, complete with uniforms, songs and torchlight parades? As you gaze upon pictures of their marches, it is eerily reminiscent of Europe in the 1920s and 1930s.

Enough factoids. The exhibition will be open through March 25. The N-YHS is at 170 Central Park West, corner 77th St.

PS—I didn’t know this when I went, but it turns out one of my daughter Ellie’s friends, Jason Steinhauer, is a curator and archivist for the society. As research historian, Jason worked on this exhibition for 17 months. Kudos to him and all involved.