At the time of his 204th birthday Tuesday, popular opinion on President Abraham Lincoln is all but unanimous.
Lincoln is consistently cited as one of the greatest American presidents, one who led the United States through perhaps its most turbulent period — the Civil War.
For those alive during Lincoln’s tenure, however, that might come as something of a surprise. Dr. Bryan LeBeau, academic vice president for the University of Saint Mary, said that Lincoln was actually elected in 1860 with only 40 percent of the popular vote, the smallest such margin of victory in American history. LeBeau said Lincoln’s use of executive power for efforts like the Emancipation Proclamation and the suspension of habeus corpus — the right of citizens to demand they be tried and face charges — caused some to cry foul, asserting that Lincoln had overstepped his boundaries. Signing the 13th Amendment of the Constitution that abolished slavery, a duty seen as specific to Congress, earned him an official legislative reprimand.
A copy of that amendment, with Lincoln’s signature, is among the items in the Bernard H. Hall Lincoln Collection at the University of Saint Mary’s DePaul Library. For the rest of the month, the university is celebrating the 16th president and its collection of Lincoln artifacts that some have called the largest west of the Mississippi with a series of events that began Tuesday with the opening of a traveling exhibit, “Lincoln, the Constitution and the Civil War,” at De Paul Library through March 22. The exhibit was organized by the National Constitution Center and the American Library Association Public Programs Office and made possible by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities.
“It’s more than just a collection of facts,” LeBeau said of the exhibit.
Divided into six sections, he said “Lincoln, the Constitution and the Civil War” takes visitors through the issues that Lincoln was facing and the actions he took at the time. By the time he was inaugurated March 4, 1861, seven states had seceded from the Union and Congress was not in session. The attack by Confederate forces on Fort Sumter in South Carolina would come about a month later, becoming the first shots fired in the Civil War.
“He had to make some decisions very quickly with no constitutional guidance and no Congress either to help or hinder,” LeBeau said.
Though the exhibit breaks the narrative into six sections, LeBeau said three major themes are at its core — slavery, secession and civil liberties. And while talk of the Civil War might seem far removed from more modern concerns, LeBeau said some of the same questions resonate today.
“We’re one of the freest countries in the world and yet there are times when we step back and think ‘what limits do we need to place on our liberties, on our freedoms?’ at times when the nation itself seems to be threatened,” he said.
Page 2 of 2 - Ashley Creek, access services librarian at the DePaul Library, said the exhibit is the largest such display the library has hosted. It will be open at the USM DePaul Library through March 22. The university announced this week it will host guided tours of the Bernard H. Hall Lincoln Collection as well as the traveling “Lincoln, the Constitution and the Civil War” exhibit Feb. 12 through March 6. Special tours are available by appointment from 1 to 2:30 p.m. every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon and from 4:30 to 9:30 p.m. every Wednesday evening through March 6. Call 913-758-6306 to schedule an appointment.