Abe Lincoln lives.
The man who managed to end slavery while saving the Union can still impel people to think deeply about freedom, liberty, and individuality 130 years after his assassination, as an exhibition at the Huntington Library in San Marino, Calif., shows.
Over the past year, nearly 280,000 visitors, including 15,000 schoolchildren, have filed through the $1- million exhibit, ``The Last Best Hope of Earth: Abraham Lincoln and the Promise of America.''
The exhibit, which focuses heavily on Lincoln's writing, includes nearly 100 original letters and documents signed by Lincoln, including a handwritten copy of the Gettysburg Address, as well as such artifacts as his famous black beaver stovepipe hat.
The broad details of his life are well-known: He was born in a log cabin, worked as a common laborer before becoming a lawyer and splendid orator, and as the 16th president he set slaves free.
But the exhibit fills in the gaps left by school history classes: One series of photographs shows the harrowing toll four years of war and the White House took on his progressively lined face. We learn that the night he went to the Ford Theater was merely a month after the Civil War ended and was the first night he had allowed himself to celebrate.
The writings show his wit and incisive mind, but they reveal kindness, too: There's a gauze bandage on which the president took time to write 14 words that spared the life of the wounded deserter.
At the end of the exhibit, the library invites visitors to share their views about Lincoln's ideas and legacy and provides a table and a stack of cards on which to do so. Many people accept the invitation, and pinned up on a nearby bulletin board are dozens of comments.
In between the lines, one can sense the resonance Lincoln's words have today, particularly in an area that not too long ago witnessed violent racial unrest. Here are a sampling of those comments.
The exhibit will close Nov. 13. `Lincoln taught us to never give up when we believe in something.'
- Age 8 `His understanding of law, moral law, that is over us all, and to which all men must yield, would serve us well today. However, such yielding to law would require the end of self-interest and relativism in morals. Without a development of moral law and a love for one's neighbors, we are heading for a new kind of slavery.' `As a black woman, I am grateful that Lincoln held these principles because, maybe, if it weren't for him, I wouldn't be here today free to walk in this exhibit.' `Lincoln believed in a morality that existed apart from our own creation; an idea considered offensive by today's value-free society. He's proof of what man can accomplish when he strives to be his best, rather than just be!' `As in all great examples of courageous leadership, Lincoln evinces two necessary qualities: He spoke and stood for truth, and he acted to overcome evil with good.' `A shining example of home-schooled excellence: unshakable integrity, morals, wisdom, and the ability to influence and communicate. Quite a challenge to us parents today!' `We are reminded to ever be aware of the responsibility, collectively and individually, of freedom - ours and that of others.' `Whatever our opinion of his ideas, I expect we can all agree that Lincoln expressed them with grace and wit, in a manner demonstrating respect for his audience - both those who shared his views and the many who reviled them. How many of us can say the same?' `This exhibition is a vivid example of the sacrifices that men and women of principle are willing to make to better the lot of their fellow men. Social change is risky.' `I think his ideas are around today. I never would believe a little poor boy from Illinois could change a country so much.'
- Age 13 `The battle against prejudice will be long and bloody as long as there are people who are unable (or unwilling) to learn about the issues they fear. I sincerely pray that there will come a day then we are more afraid of ignorance than war.' `One individual, committed, focused, and sincere for the welfare and fairness to others can make all the difference in the world.' ` ``As I would not be a slave, I would not be a master'' encourages all people in power today to treat all people respectfully, with grace.' `Lincoln gave the United States its soul.' `Each time I am ``reintroduced'' to Lincoln, I feel so strongly that he was meant to lead us through that pivotal time in the life of our country. What he brought is what we need in every crisis: vision, courage, concern for others.' `Lincoln set the stage for a society based on equality and [he] must wonder what on earth is taking us so long to achieve it.' `Abraham Lincoln showed us what true leadership is - the firm resolution in the midst of opposition, but with the humility to respect his opponents.' `We should all listen to the Lincoln inside us.'