CVC Notes Lincoln’s Hill Days

Posted February 11, 2009 at 4:00pm

Before he became America’s 16th president, Abraham Lincoln was a one-term Member of the U.S. House of Representatives. His 1847-49 stint in Congress may have been short, but it was enough for the Capitol Visitor Center to commemorate the 200th anniversary of his birth.

“What we have here conveys the aspect of Lincoln’s life and career,” said Tom Fontana, CVC’s director of marketing and communication. The exhibit includes “unique items that tie directly to Lincoln’s time at the Capitol,” he said.

Curators at the CVC’s Exhibition Hall have put on display artifacts that helped define not only the nation’s history but also Lincoln’s brand of leadership.

One such item is Lincoln’s handwritten annual message to Congress in 1862: “In giving freedom to the slave, we assure freedom to the free — honorable alike in what we give, and what we preserve.”

The CVC has also put on display letters Lincoln wrote at the height of the Civil War. One, dated Feb. 29, 1864, was his letter to the Senate nominating Ulysses S. Grant, then a major general in the military, to be lieutenant general in the Army. The letter recognized Grant’s war victories that earned him the respect of not only the president but also Congress.

Another fascinating item is a telegram dated Aug. 17, 1864. It is addressed to Grant, advising the general on how to topple the Confederates: “Hold on with a bull-dog grip, and chew and choke as much possible,” Lincoln wrote.

One recent visitor to the CVC talked about Lincoln’s influence. “I have lived through a lot of presidents now, but Lincoln’s temperament and leadership remains unparalleled,” said 57-year-old Gayle Pickering of Austin, Texas, who was in D.C. attending a conference of architects. “Most Americans held him in high regard and his leadership in times of turmoil was commendable. He kept the U.S. together,” she added.

Other items include legislation connected to the Pacific Railway Act of 1862, which Lincoln signed into law during his presidency. The act offered land grants as incentives to private companies to complete a transcontinental railway and telegraph line.

Also on display is a petition dating from 1844, long before Lincoln became president, when he joined fellow Illinoisans to speed up delivery of mail from 12 days to 36 hours.

Another artifact is the table Lincoln used for his second inauguration on March 4, 1865. Crafted by Benjamin French, the table was made from cast iron left over from the new Capitol Dome. The design of the table is a replica of the balusters on the Dome. The table can be seen on the framed photograph of Lincoln’s second swearing-in. French turned over the table to the Massachusetts Historical Society in 1866 after Lincoln’s assassination.

French also made another item included on display: the catafalque where Lincoln’s coffin was placed when he lay in state in the Capitol Rotunda in 1865. The catafalque was made of pine boards nailed together and covered with black cloth. Although the black drape has been replaced over the years, the cloth in the exhibit maintains the 1865 style.

“The Lincoln artifacts are my favorites here,” said Paul Rose, who mans the coatroom at CVC.

Before the CVC opened last December, the Architect of the Capitol placed the catafalque two floors below the Rotunda in an area intended for the remains of George and Martha Washington. Instead, the couple was buried at their plantation at Mount Vernon.

In April, the CVC will begin featuring Lincoln’s draft legislation to abolish slavery in the District while he was a House Member. Lincoln failed to solicit enough support for the bill.

“We rotate this artifact among museums and this legislation will come to CVC in April,” Fontana said. The draft legislation was the only artifact directly related to Lincoln’s term in the House that the CVC has identified. Because of the document’s age, it has to be kept in the dark for five years before it can be put on display for six months.

As to why there is so little left of Lincoln’s time in Congress, Fontana explained: “He was a young Congressman at that time. His importance won’t be known until 15 years later. It was not unusual that when a Member left office, he took some of his stuff with him or turned it over to another office.”

The Lincoln documents will be on display until Sept. 30.