Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Day 241 - Lincoln: The Constitution and The Civil War

I have never been to a National Constitution Center exhibit. While the bulk of these exhibits are housed at the National Constitution Center Museum in Philadelphia, I stumbled upon the fact that the museum hosts traveling exhibits that bring expositions on American history and American historical figures to cities across the United States. When I learned such an exhibit, Lincoln: The Constitution and the Civil War, was being hosted at the nearby Verona Public Library over this winter, I decided I would set aside some time to visit the location and experience my first ever National Constitution Center exposition as a part of my “I have never...” year. As a result, I pinpointed an evening where a featured speaker would accompany the exposition and marked the date on my calendar. I didn’t fully know what to expect from the experience, but I knew I would likely walk away with plenty of newfound knowledge and a bounty of perspective on the 16th president of the United States.

Verona Library
Upon arriving at the Verona Public Library, I was immediately taken by the building’s beautiful, Frank Lloyd Wright inspired design. The angular vaults of the building were adorned with walls of windows that made me the library feel warm and welcoming. Once inside, the Lincoln exhibit was hard to ignore. Stationed near the back of the library’s massive interior, colorful arched walls displayed prominent photos of Lincoln and other Civil War era scenes. With a massive copy of Lincoln’s portrait prominently displayed at the center of the exhibit, I stopped briefly as the library doors closed behind me and took in the sight of the exposition. The span of the displays made it clear there was a bounty of information to take in, which caused me to drift toward the exhibit in anticipation of another new experience.

Inside the library 
When I approached the rear of the library, I took note of the surprising size of each display in the Lincoln exhibit. Scrawled across colorful sheets of vinyl canvas, photographs of important people, documents, and historic moments told the story of turbulent times in the United States. With particular focus on Lincoln’s intentions and decision making leading up to and through the civil war era, each image contained detailed explanations of the meaning and impact of the items on display. The photographs of handwritten letters between political foes, of local news reports during the late 1800s, of period political cartoons, and of historical artifacts provided context around the Civil War unlike any I had encountered before.

The exhibit 
Universally, each element of the display showed the broad impacts of simple words and important decisions, in some cases revealing the follies that led to the overwhelming bloodshed and loss of life during the Civil War. Although there was plenty of information that spoke to Lincoln’s legacy and his moments of great leadership, the displays of his revised inaugural addresses, his documented moments of doubt, and personal accounts of the president made Lincoln seem more human than anything I had learned about him before. From the exhibit it became clear he was a man bound on preserving the fundamental aspects of democracy by doing whatever necessary to maintain a Union in the United States. In his eyes, the ability for a state to leave the Union because they didn’t agree with the decisions made through majority rule was an affront to the fabric of Democracy, and although he was a man that sought to avoid conflict at all costs, his commitment to the American concept made him willing to make unfathomable sacrifices.

That perspective provided a real moment of insight that had a resonating impact. Throughout my life everything I had learned about the Civil War and the decisions leading up it was based on the occurrence of events, but for the first time I felt like I was getting a glimpse those events in American history through the eyes of a real person. It was strange, but enlightening, and I had yet to sit through the evening’s presentation on Lincoln’s legacy. As a result, I took in the last segments of the exhibit before finding my way to a nearby meeting room where a talk on Lincoln presented by a local legal professional was slated to be held tonight.

John Wilkes Booth was a creeper...

I promptly took a seat among the several other people in attendance when I arrived in the meeting room. Shortly after I arrived, a woman from the library introduced the presenter for the evening, who announced she would be reading an essay on Lincoln written by the Honorable Russell E. Carparelli, a previous appellate court judge in the United States. Without delay, the woman began from the start of the essay, which was quick to draw attention to Lincoln as a person, rather than as a president. As the presenter read, the essay moved between historical fact, personal accounts of Lincoln, and passages quoted from Lincoln himself. The man’s prominence and high regard was consistent throughout the comments on Lincoln’s character, and each quotation from the president carried power and permanence that resonated through the room. Despite his passing nearly 150 years ago, Lincoln’s I could feel Lincoln’s words as if they had been spoken only days prior. That discovery was astounding to me, and it made all the claims of Lincoln’s greatness seem much clearer in my mind.

When the presentation drew to a close after a round of questions, I moved from my chair and walked back through the library on my way toward the exit. As I adjusted my coat and prepared to zip it closed, I stopped and turned toward the massive portrait of Lincoln at the center of the exhibit. Thoughts of the impacts Lincoln knew his decisions would make, the burden he carried at the outcomes of those decisions, and the ultimate sacrifice he made for the sake of an idea struck me in an unfamiliar way. The reality of it all made the current political environment and political divisions in the United States seem so petty and insignificant in the face of Lincoln’s leadership. I realized in that moment I would find it nearly impossible to find the courage and strength needed to leave such an impact. “You’re a better man than I,” I said quietly as I looked into Lincoln’s face at the opposite side of the room. With that, I turned to the door and forced my way into the cold.

My thoughts settling, I recalled the more memorable moments from the exhibit and did my best to gauge the impact of today’s experience. I knew I would learn plenty from my first National Constitution Center exhibit, but I never expected the exposition to create such a personal connection with Lincoln, the man. The perspective I gained on his beliefs, his personality, and his unrelenting commitment to the idea that founded the United States made Lincoln seem more human than glorified president; however, that view made it obvious why the man is so celebrated in the nation’s history. I didn’t know quite what to expect from tonight’s “I have never...” experience, but I learned a lot and gained some unique insight from making time to visit Lincoln: The Constitution and the Civil War this evening. In my mind, any day I can learn and discover is a good day, which leaves me feeling today was a great success.

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