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New Lincoln Exhibit Tells how New York City Shaped his Image
A giant bust of Abraham Lincoln is on display at the new exhibition, "Lincoln and New York," celebrating the bicentennial of Lincoln's birthday at the New-York Historical Society, New York, Tuesday Oct. 6, 2009. Abraham Lincoln came to New York City only five times in his life, yet the growing 19th century metropolis played a central role in burnishing his enduring public image. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews)

By: Ula Ilnytzky, Associated Press Writer

NEW YORK, NY (AP).- Abraham Lincoln visited New York City only five times in his life, and only once as president, yet the growing 19th-century metropolis played a central role in burnishing his enduring public image.

That's the point of a new exhibition, "Lincoln and New York," that opened Friday at the New-York Historical Society on Manhattan's Upper West Side to celebrate the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth. The exhibition runs through March 25.

It begins with Lincoln's historic speech at Cooper Union in 1860 and the iconic Mathew Brady photograph taken the same day, more than two months before he won the Republican presidential nomination. The events led Lincoln later to state: "Brady and the Cooper Union speech made me President."

It concludes with his 1865 funeral procession down Broadway, an event attended by hundreds of thousands of mourners. Along the way, it traces New Yorkers' varied reactions to Lincoln, from veneration to vilification.

There are many other Lincoln bicentennial exhibitions around the nation, but the one thing they all miss, said Harold Holzer, the exhibition's chief historian, "is how Lincoln achieved the status he achieved, and how did it morph into something approaching secular sainthood over a period of only four years."

Filling six galleries, the exhibition shows how New York City's place as the center of media, commerce and finance enabled it to transform Lincoln's image "from the debater and jokester to a serious, learned, dignified politician fully capable of taking the country through what became the secession crisis," Holzer said.

During the 1860s, New York had 174 daily, weekly and monthly newspapers, all wielding huge influence over the emerging and changing political scene.

"Because of the power of the New York media and the influence of New York politicians, Lincoln's New York visits transformed him, from a prairie politician, and an ungainly one, into a serious alternative for the nomination of the presidency" in 1860, said Holzer, the author of numerous books on Lincoln, including "The Lincoln Image" and "Lincoln at Cooper Union."

Brady, the nation's most famous photographer, worked in Lower Manhattan, as did the leading engravers, printmakers, photographers and journalists — all churning out editorial cartoons, political commentary and caricatures on Lincoln.

Examples include those by famous lithographer Currier & Ives, which produced both beautiful portraits of Lincoln and vicious anti-Lincoln cartoons.

Many of the cartoons were racist and offensive. "You see that Lincoln is derided from many sides," said Kathleen Hulser, the museum's public historian, who was on the exhibition's curatorial team.

To help viewers understand some of the illustrations, a cartoon decoder — a pull-down screen that overlays the cartoon — identifies the figures and explains what their comments mean.

A video re-enactment of the Cooper Union speech with actor Sam Waterston as Lincoln; a copy of the original speech in which Lincoln discusses his views on slavery; the lectern he used; and funeral photographs and memorabilia are among the featured artifacts.

The exhibition also includes the most famous letter to the editor — Lincoln's reply to New York Tribune editor Horace Greeley's blistering editorial accusing the president of not issuing the Emancipation Proclamation sooner.

Parts of the exhibition are "immersive," allowing visitors to appear to walk into Cooper Union and hear Waterston delivering the address or into a Lower Manhattan tavern where visitors can hear the voices of people vilifying Lincoln for the war.

In the end, Lincoln's impact on New York also was significant, said Hulser. For example, she said, the state provided more men and material to the Union war effort than any other, despite the city's sometimes racist and violent resistance to Lincoln's policies.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press.

New-York Historical Society | The Bicentennial of Lincoln's Birth | Sam Waterston |

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