Lincoln Up Close

Once, at the Library of Congress in Washington, I was shown the contents of Lincoln’s pockets on the night that he was shot at Ford’s Theater. There was a Confederate bank note, perhaps acquired during the President’s recent excursion to the fallen capital, Richmond; a pocket knife; a couple of newspaper cuttings (good notices for his administration); and two pairs of spectacles. It was eerie to hold in one’s hand what looked to be the same spectacles that he wore as he was photographed reading the Second Inaugural Address, the month before his murder. One of the wire “legs” of the spectacles had broken off and someone, presumably Lincoln himself, had clumsily repaired it with a piece of darning wool. I tried on the glasses: he was indeed farsighted, and what must have been to him the clearly printed lines, “let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds,” was to my myopic eyes a gray quartz-like blur.

Next, I was shown the Bible which the President had kissed as he swore his second oath to preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States; the oath that he often used, in lieu of less spiritual argument, to justify the war that he had fought to preserve the Union. The Bible is small and beautifully bound, with a tiny lock and key. To the consternation of the custodian, I turned the key and opened the book. The pages were as bright and clear as the day that they were printed; in fact, they stuck together in such a way as to suggest that no one had ever even riffled them. Obviously the book had been sent for at the last moment; then given away, to become a treasured relic.

Although Lincoln belonged to no Christian church, he did speak of the “Almighty” more and more often as the war progressed. During the Congressional election of 1846, Lincoln had been charged with “infidelity” to Christianity. At the time, he made a rather lawyerly response. To placate those who insist that presidents must be devout monotheists (preferably Christian and Protestant), Lincoln allowed that he himself could never support “a man for office, whom I knew to be an open enemy of, and scoffer at, religion.” The key word, of course, is “open.” As usual, Lincoln does not lie—something that the Jesuits maintain that no wise man does—but he shifts the argument to his own advantage and gets himself off the atheistical hook much as Thomas Jefferson had done almost a century earlier.

Last, I was shown a life mask, made shortly before the murder. The hair on the head has been tightly coveredover; the whiskers greased. When the sculptor Saint-Gaudens first saw it, he thought it was a death mask, so worn and remote is the face. I was most startled by the smallness of the head. In photographs, with hair and beard, the head had …

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Letters

Lincoln Addendum November 21, 1991