Pam and I chortle as we watch the video monitors and listen to the commentator report the 1860 presidential campaign in 21st-century style. We are in the Campaign 1860 Gallery in The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield, Illinois.Â Have I ever laughed aloud in a museum before?Â Not that I can remember.Â Here, though, humor helps us quickly understand the issues and politics of the 1860 election.Â Running against three opponents in that campaign, Abraham Lincoln was elected the 16th president of the United States with less than 40 percent of the vote.
Lincoln's journey to the White House began in Springfield, the capitol of the State of Illinois and the location of many Lincoln historical sites. My daughter Pam and I traveled to Springfield 15 years ago to visit them, but we hadn't yet been to the Presidential Museum since it didn't open until 2005.Â Now in 2009, the bicentennial of Abraham Lincoln's birth, we have returned to visit the new Museum and to revisit sites we had seen before.
The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum located at 212 N. Sixth Street, Springfield, IL 62701 opened in 2005.Â The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, a public, non-circulating research facility that contains material on all aspects of Illinois' history, is located across the street.
Using professional staging and high-quality audio and visual effects to present Lincoln's life, times, and work, the Museum engages not only my mind, but also my heart and senses. Symphonic music composed, orchestrated and conducted by David Kneupper and based on music from the American Civil War era plays in the background and adds emotional depth to the visual displays and performances.Â I seldom buy souvenirs when I travel, but I am so taken with the music that I buy the CD in the gift shop.
The special effects used in the depictions of Civil War scenes add realism to the stories being told.Â As gunshots punctuate the audience area and I experience the brief blasts of light and the tremors of explosions during Civil War scenes, I feel confused as I might if I were in a war zone.Â In The War Gallery, an electronic map shows the progress of the Civil War--which side was doing what when.Â Seeing the boundaries shift and hearing an explosive sound when and where a major battle was fought makes me feel the tragedy and victory of the war as well as give me facts.Â A boundary shift during war doesn't just mean victory or progress.Â It means people died--perhaps horrifically--and lives were uprooted. The galleries give notice of these audiovisual effects to warn anyone who might be adversely affected by them.
1860 Presidential Campaign
Arriving in the Campaign 1860 Gallery, Pam and I sit down on benches facing an array of video monitors similar to what we might encounter in a contemporary television control room.Â A newscast covering the 1860 election campaign in 21st century style and hosted by the late NBC commentator Tim Russert is in progress.Â In CNN fashion, screen scrawl at the bottom of the monitor churns out bits of news of the day, including the breaking news that "French scientist Louis Pasteur claims boiling milk kills germs that cause illness. American doctors call him a quack." The scrawl further scrolls out "Best sells: The Mill on the Floss, The Woman in White."Â There's also something about somebody working on a horseless carriage.Â We chuckle our way through the breaking news.
Political ads for the four presidential candidates mimic contemporary campaign sound bites and make Pam and I laugh aloud.Â Each candidate gets several screens of graphics and voiceover to relay his political message, slogans, and the group that paid for the ad.Â
Candidate 1.Â Abraham Lincoln, Republican and former U.S. representative from Illinois, stands for Union.Â His ad is sponsored by the Wide-Awakes.Â Vote for Lincoln and Hamlin.
Candidate 2. Northern Democrat and Lincoln's debate opponent Stephen A. Douglas, a U.S senator from Illinois, is for Choice.Â Let states choose their position on slavery. The ad shows people as puppets on a string.Â A scissors--perhaps representing Douglas or the election--cuts the strings.Â Douglas extends his arm to pull one of the men up from the floor where the man lies crumpled and ushers him into the voting booth.Â Vote for Douglas and Johnson.
Candidate 3.Â John Breckenridge, vice president and Southern Democrat from Kentucky, is campaigning on a Pro-slavery ticket.Â His ad features a happy young family, the mother holding a baby, standing near a mansion.Â A few strong-faced ancestors are behind them.Â A group of slaves of various ages also stand in the background.Â While viewers watch, a voice intones something like, "You and your ancestors have worked hard to build your home and manage your property."Â Â Next, a hook slides in from the side and pulls the slaves, mansion, and ancestors out of the picture, leaving the family with drooping and fearful faces.Â As this happens, the voice drones, "Now someone wants to take your home and property away from you."Â Paid for by the Patriots.Â Vote for Breckenridge and Lane.
Candidate 4. Tennessean John Bell of the Constitutional Union party stands for Compromise.Â The commentator describes Bell's message as vague, and it is.Â It seems to say, "Why can't we all just get along?"Â The graphic shows two hands clasped together in a handshake.Â Vote for Bell and Everett.
So much more
What I've described above only gives a taste of the Museum and of Lincoln's life.Â There is so much more to see and experience.Â Many people disliked and even hated Lincoln for his attempts to bring healthy and vitalizing change to the country as shown by the political cartoons and insinuations in the darkened Whispering Gallery.Â Feeling the hate behind the messages, I move quickly through this Gallery.
Some galleries display artifacts and documents.Â Others show Lincoln's home life with his wife Martha Todd Lincoln and their four sons.Â Only the Lincolns' oldest child, Robert, lived to adulthood.Â Two of his children, Eddie, age 4, and Willie, age 11, died while Lincoln was alive, and Tad at age 17.Â Particularly hard on Lincoln and his wife was the death of Willie in February 1862 while Lincoln was in the White House.Â All these years later, I, too, feel the Lincolns' grief.Â
The Museum also touches on Lincoln's interaction with his cabinet, which included all of his major rivals for the Republication nomination for president in 1860. He sought their advice regarding the Emancipation Proclamation.
The exhibits portraying Lincoln's last months are sobering. At last there was good news, and events seemed to affirm Lincoln's policies and efforts.Â He won re-election and was sworn in for a second term. The 13th Amendment ending slavery was passed.Â Peace came to the fractured country. As Washington celebrated, Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865.Â Walking through the exhibits related to his death, my heart is heavy and I feel angry.Â It just doesn't seem fair that Lincoln could not live to enjoy the success of his arduous efforts and live to help extend the peace. Not fair to Lincoln.Â Not fair to the emancipated slaves.Â Not fair to the South.Â Not fair to the country.
A more perfect Union
Lincoln's personal and professional life experiences prior to becoming a president likely helped inform and shape his viewpoint, hone his skills, and fit him to be a leader.Â With only a few months formal schooling in a one-teacher school, a determined Lincoln educated himself and despite many difficulties and defeats along the way, became the president of the United States. But great and inspiring as his pre-presidential achievements and struggles are, they are not what set him apart from other presidents.
As I walk through the Museum's exhibits, a phrase from the Preamble to the United States Constitution, "a more perfect union," keeps running through my mind.Â With eloquence and empathy, Abraham Lincoln led the country in reinterpreting the Preamble's aim "to form a more perfect Union."Â Under his leadership, the country became more inclusive, yet more diverse, one that set itself on a course to expand the "Blessings of Liberty" to posterity, which includes me.Â With such a legacy, he is, as the Museum demonstrates and claims, the greatest president the country has had thus far.Â Â Abraham Lincoln left the United States and the world a tremendous moral legacy.Â He is a historical figure everyone should study and know, and his Museum is a place Americans should try to visit.
In the 1860 Presidential Campaign section, the words in quotes are the understanding and memory my brain ascribed to what was on the screen, not documented quotations.Â Since use of electronic equipment was not allowed in most places in the Museum, I did not take notes with my PDA as I usually do, and I did not have a note pad with me.Â I also could not take photos, which would have helped to refresh and document my memory.
Being unable to take notes or photos and not given brochures, I wrote my experience from memory with some help from my daughter and Internet sites.Â There could also be other inaccuracies in my description of the Museum, but I believe they would be minor and/or subjective opinion.
Preamble to the United States Constitution
We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. [emphasis added]
Video preview of The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum
The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum
Plan your visit to The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum
Unofficial fan site of The Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum
Listen to some of the music of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum, composed, orchestrated and conducted by David Kneupper, including
Dixieâ€™s Land (1859) by Daniel D. Emmett
The Battle Cry of Freedom (1862) by George F. Root
Gettysburg (2005) for Two Choruses and Orchestra
The Emancipation Proclamation