October 9, 2009
Exhibition Review | ‘Lincoln and New York’
When Honest Abe Met This Querulous Metropolis
By EDWARD ROTHSTEIN
When Abraham Lincoln visited New York in February 1861, Walt Whitmannoticed that an “ominous silence” greeted the president-elect as he arrived at the Astor House hotel. There was no overt hostility or shouted insult, Whitman wrote, but the “silence of the crowd was very significant,” compared with the “wild, tumultuous hurrahs” that typically greeted distinguished personages.
Harold Holzer, the chief historian for the compellingly informative exhibition “Lincoln and New York,” opening on Friday at the New-York Historical Society, explains in the equally incisive companion catalog that when Lincoln attended a performance of Verdi’s new opera “Un Ballo in Maschera” on that visit, he received a thundering ovation from the audience at the Academy of Music. But he left before the final scene in which the governor of Colonial Boston is assassinated by conspirators. That might have been because of fatigue, Mr. Holzer suggests, but The New-York Herald reported that the police had received notice of a plot to kill Lincoln at the same moment as the onstage murder.
These fragments of history are powerful not just because of their ominous foreshadowing of the conspiracies and hatreds that Lincoln would later inspire, but also because they shock our contemporary complacency about how we make sense of our city and its past. We New Yorkers tend to be almost provincial in our pride, as if we could prove that the city had always been on the right side of history, or at least at its very center.
But look more closely, as the Historical Society has been doing under the presidency of Louise Mirrer, and matters become more complicated. Richard Rabinowitz, a historian and the president of the American History Workshop, a Brooklyn company that designs museum exhibitions, was the curator of two major shows in recent years that focused on New York’s relationship to slavery and the Civil War. Much of the city’s commerce depended on the Southern slave trade, those exhibitions pointed out, and while New York had a “determined antislavery movement” in the mid-19th century, it was also a “hotbed of pro-slavery politics.”
In the new show Mr. Rabinowitz again makes it impossible to be too sanguine about New York’s past, demonstrating that however beloved Lincoln became, it was not until after his assassination, when 150,000 mourners stretched almost a mile up Broadway to see him lie in state at City Hall, that there was anything resembling a hallowed consensus in New York. Lincoln lost presidential elections in the city by substantial margins in 1860 and 1864; the 1862 midterm state elections also served as a rebuke, making a fervent opponent, the Democrat Horatio Seymour, New York’s governor.
The exhibition begins with a telegram inviting Lincoln to lecture in New York — a talk that became a two-hour oration in February 1860 at the Cooper Union(the podium he used is here) — and closes with a wall containing Whitman’s great elegy “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.” But in between lies the fracas. In political cartoons, early photographs, handwritten documents, touch-screen displays and artifacts, we see New York’s version of the Civil War being fought using words, ideas, images and, at least during the 1863 Draft Riots, a fair amount of blood, with Lincoln as the battles’ nexus.
Lincoln’s distinguished Cooper Union speech, for example, in which he suggested that disapproval of slavery was inscribed in the Constitution and that the practice should be strictly contained, was hailed by Horace Greeley, the editor in chief of The New-York Tribune, which also distributed copies of the speech: “No man ever before made such an impression on his first appeal to a New-York audience.” But the Democratically aligned New-York Herald described it as “unmitigated trash, interlarded with coarse and clumsy jokes.”
This was the kind of polarized opinion that characterized New York as a news media center, with its 174 daily and weekly publications wielding substantial influence: The Herald had a circulation of 100,000, The New-York Times 75,000 and Harper’s Weekly 120,000. Most publications had highly partisan allegiances; a display here charts their temperaments. The Leader, The Express and The Daily News shared Democratic opposition to Lincoln, but he found support from Greeley’s Tribune, along with The Times and its founder, Henry Raymond, who was chairman of the Republican National Committee .
This tumult, though, might have aided Lincoln’s national standing. The exhibition argues that his success as a candidate could not have been achieved without the influence of New York and its news media, which even, perhaps, helped him carry New York State with its prized 35 electoral votes. Moreover, Lincoln, in a savvy move during his 1860 visit, sat for a photographic portrait at Mathew Brady’s studio. Brady knew precisely how to frame Lincoln, the supposedly rural rail splitter, posing him with his hand resting on two well-read tomes atop a classical pillar. That photograph, the show points out, was copied and spread, reshaping Lincoln’s popular image as a “dignified public figure.”
But if that portrait was triumphant, everything else was contested. Lincoln’s supporters formed an organization, the Wide Awakes, with its own paramilitary uniforms and songs. In 1860 30,000 Wide Awakes marched in a five-hour torchlight parade through New York City streets; one of their torches, amazingly, is on display here. But the same number of marchers gathered in 1863 for a demonstration against Lincoln and his policies.
This exhibition steers deftly in these churning waters, pointing out that even allies had differing shades of opinion. Lincoln’s advocates became known as the Loyalists and are portrayed in an image as if seated at an upper-crust dining room table, paying homage to a strong central Union. They included George Templeton Strong and Frederick Law Olmsted (who opposed slavery and lobbied for a federal military draft). But Loyalists did not necessarily affirm Lincoln’s views; some based their advocacy of the Union not on ideals of democratic liberty, but on claims of divine legitimacy.
The Loyalists also seem a bit more inclusive here than they might have been; even Frederick Douglass is seated at their table. But their influence should not be underestimated. They gave birth to the Union League Club in New York, which haltingly advanced black interests in the Union cause, recruiting and financing a black militia in November 1863. (A painting here commemorates the Union Square send-off of the Colored Regiment.)
There is less complexity here in the portrait of the Democratic Copperheads, who are shown at a tavern, perhaps because one of their leaders, Fernando Wood, was a bar owner before he became mayor of New York. But the Copperheads also included wealthy merchants who saw their fortunes threatened by the end of trade with the South, as well as ardent defenders of slavery, like Samuel F. B. Morse.
One of the most fascinating artifacts here is a book Lincoln owned of satirical limericks attacking these opponents. (“There once was a Copperhead vile…”) A touch screen allows you to read every page.
By 1863, the exhibition shows, there was a full-fledged propaganda war, as opposing organizations published pamphlets and staged demonstrations, disputing the prosecution of the war, Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus and the growing powers of the federal government. Morse declared for the Copperheads, “It may be necessary to destroy the Administration in order to preserve the Government.” Henry Bellows for the Loyalists called support of Lincoln “the first and most sacred duty of loyal citizens.”
But in July 1863, that war of words turned bloody. A telegram from the Republican financier John Jay to Lincoln announced, “Our City is at the mercy of a mob.” In four days of riots, partly inspired by opposition to military conscription and its exemptions for the wealthy, looting and destruction were aimed not only at Republicans like Greeley but also at black New Yorkers. The Colored Orphan Asylum was pillaged and burned, and the Colored Sailors’ Home was attacked. An order from Lincoln (displayed here), following close on the heels of the battle at Gettysburg, declared martial law.
Calm was restored, but with 120 dead and 2,000 injured, the exhibition notes, it was “the worst civil disorder in the nation’s history — except for the Civil War itself.”
Lincoln received only 33 percent of the city’s vote for president in 1864, though he carried New York State. Nothing ended the civil and uncivil battles over his reputation like his death. A display here shows the text of sermons in the week that followed.
And on the day of his assassination an anonymous diarist filled a remarkable book with drawings of the texts, signs and banners he saw posted in New York’s storefronts, fire stations and homes (a touch screen allows you to leaf through the book): “Such a death saddens even victory,” reads one. “Our country weeps,” read another. “In God we trust.”
There were other shifts to come in the president’s image, briefly hinted at in closing displays, but the strange thing about this rich and suggestive exhibition is that even though it is centered on Lincoln, it reveals much more about the city. New York’s virtue was not in being on the right side of history, but in being a hothouse of passionately held beliefs and ardently argued convictions. And ultimately, the city’s developing sense of itself as a microcosm of the Union did not arise out of uniformity and agreement, but out of disagreement, difference and, finally, deference.
“Lincoln and New York” continues through March 25 at the New-York Historical Society, 170 Central Park West, near 77th Street; (212) 873-3400, nyhistory.org.
American History Workshop Mobile
588 Seventh Street
Brooklyn NY 11215
Peter J. Wosh
Director, Archives/Public History Program
New York University
53 Washington Square South
New York NY 10012
Phone: (212) 998-8601
Fax: (212) 995-4017