Two centuries after his birth, and nearly a century and a half after his presidency, Abraham Lincoln remains a live presence in American culture and politics. In the course of the 20th century the Lincoln Memorial came to be a key site for grounding the struggle for civil rights in a vision of the historic unfinished promise of founding American ideals. Politicians of both major parties have quoted Lincoln and admired him as the model of a wise statesman in times of crisis. The recent election and inauguration of an eloquent lawyer from Illinois with a reputation for combining pragmatism and idealism was bound to bring Lincoln even more vividly to the forefront of popular historical consciousness. President Obama’s own symbolic choices, from the announcement of his presidential campaign in 2007 to his oath of office in 2009, have been premised on his deep respect for Lincoln.
At the same time, the attributes of Lincoln’s likeness are so familiar that even caricatures of him are instantly recognizable. His image lends dignity to the penny and the five dollar bill, but less staid representations of him have been used to sell car insurance, market insomnia drugs, fleshjack boys, enliven sporting events. Kitsch, too, is an enduring, perhaps even a vital part of Lincoln’s posthumous legacy.
In the web exhibitions on this site we have sought to offer a thoughtfully curated selection of historical documents and artifacts to help us, living in 2009, make sense of Lincoln and his own times through the evidence of primary sources. Our web exhibition is just one of hundreds of publications, exhibitions, events, and activities taking place all over the U.S. and on the Web in 2009 in commemoration of the Lincoln bicentennial. Many of these activities are cataloged on the Web site of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission or the sites of the various state commissions.
In 2009 the Web itself has become part of the creation of culture and popular memory. Beyond the formal ceremonies Lincoln can be found in Flickr photostreams, blog entries, and numerous Facebook groups. Personal photos of a visit to a historic site are nothing new, nor are commonplace books for copying out inspirational quotations ascribed to historical figures, but today records of individual engagement with history can be made public almost instantly. They can generate a public conversation, and tacitly change the sense of public conversation.
Popular historical memory is not the primary theme of the web exhibitions on this site, but any project involving a historical anniversary necessarily develops with an acute consciousness of the complex relationship between history and memory.
We hope to use this blog as an informal means of continuing to participate in making sense of Lincoln in 2009.
Two centuries after his birth, and nearly a century and a half after his presidency, Abraham Lincoln remains a live presence in American culture and politics. In the course of the 20th century the Lincoln Memorial came to be a key site for grounding the struggle for civil rights in a vision of the historic…