Who is Abraham Lincoln?
When we think of Abraham Lincoln the image that is foremost in our minds is that of a tall lanky figure in a tall black hat and a long black coat. That image has become an archetype even in the mind of American school children. Most Americans will also tell you Lincoln’s most important achievement was freeing the slaves. Few will mention that Lincoln tried to hold a fractured nation together during the Civil War. As with many things, there is more to our 16th president than meets the eye. Hailed as a self-made man, praised as Honest Abe, variously titled Father Abraham and the Great Emancipator, lauded as Savior of the Nation during the Civil War, Lincoln was all of those and more. The common thread joining Lincoln’s images together was his love of country and reverence for the ideas in the Declaration of Independence (life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness) and the Constitution (we the people). Both before and during his presidency Lincoln articulated a new vision of American nationhood. To see this inner Lincoln we have to look past the hat and coat to the ideas underneath. We need to examine Lincoln’s ideas about the nation and what influenced him as well as how Northerners’ response to Southern secession indicated growing patriotism for a nation. The interior of Lincoln’s coat itself reveals something about the president, nationalism, and Civil War patriotism.
- Lincoln Wears his Heart on his Sleeve
Next to Abraham Lincoln’s tall top hat, the President’s coat is his best known item of apparel. This coat, which he wore to his second inaugural ceremony and was wearing the night he was assassinated, is made of fine wool, described at the time as “finer than cashmere”. The coat was a gift to Lincoln from Brooks Brothers gentleman’s clothing store in New York City. Although New York was predominantly Democratic, there was a strong Union faction. Mary Lincoln frequently shopped in New York City and Lincoln was in New York several times himself. Although Brooks Brother claims Lincoln was a frequent customer, I did not find evidence that he visited the store personally. The president's measurements could have been obtained from Mrs. Lincoln. The irony is that the president did not like dress clothing and was notoriously ill-dressed.
- A closeup of Abraham Lincoln giving his second inaugural address in March 4, 1865.
- Great examples of the range of mid-nineteenth century men's clothing from original daguerreotypes and ambrotypes.
The interior of Lincoln's overcoat was quilted. In the days before down and high-tech fabrics, quilting cotton batting into a lining made for a warmer garment. Ladies often wore quilted under-petticoats in winter, for example. For the President who gave a large part of his heart to the nation, the quilting would have had special meaning. The decorative quilting is in the form of an American eagle surrounded by Union shields. The eagle bears a ribbon in its beak declaring, "One Country One Destiny". The motto probably refers to Daniel Webster’s “One country, one constitution, one destiny” statement from a speech Webster gave in 1837 after the South Carolina nullification crisis. This is a unique artifact demonstrating the patriotism Lincoln and the American citizens expressed for their nation during the Civil War.
A close-up showing the quilted lining. This website also has good information about Brooks Brothers. According to the New York TImes, Agnes Breckenridge who did the quilting said it took her 2 days (10 hours of work). Dressmakers in NYC earned an average of $1.33 per day in 1851. Corrected for inflation, that's about $36.00 today.
- The overcoat President Lincoln wore to Ford's Theater in April, 1865 is on display there for six months of the year.
- These kinds of artifacts can be extremely delicate and curators need to balance the needs of the public to connect with history and their mission to preserve artifacts for future generations.
- Abraham Lincoln in 1846-47.
- One Country
Any discussion of Lincoln’s patriotism or nationalism must begin with his first two heroes: George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. During the new president’s inaugural procession to Washington, D.C. Lincoln stopped to give a speech in Trenton, New Jersey where he reflected on the impact Parson Weems’ Life of Washington had upon him as a child. He tells the New Jersey Senate that he wants to preserve the Union, Constitution, and personal liberties the founding fathers fought for. A week later he tells the nation in his first inaugural speech he considers the Union perpetual and not broken by Southern Secession. Historian Mark Neely maintains that the entire inaugural address is an “argument for the perpetuity of the Union” (Neely, One Country One Destiny, 2012, p. 23). Lincoln’s path to the presidency was also built on the words of his second hero, Thomas Jefferson. Repeatedly throughout the 1850s Lincoln referred to Jefferson’s famous phrase, “all men are created equal”. Historian Sean Wilentz joked that Lincoln the Whig and future Republican referred to Jefferson almost as much as the Democrats, the heirs to Jefferson’s ideas. Ultimately, Graham Peck argues, for Lincoln a country where all men are created equal meant a nation without slavery. The new Republican party brought that idea to the American public, declaring the nation was dedicated to freedom. Lincoln quickly became on of the chief spokesmen for the new party. Putting Lincoln in context, Mark Neely points out that that in addition to those ideas Lincoln was influenced by the nationalism of the post War of 1812 era where the United States sought to create a nation that could withstand “national enemies” (One Country, p. 21).
- Listen to an audio recording of Lincoln's first inaugural address.
- Historian Eric Foner discussing the influence of the idea of freedom on Americans.
- Historian Mark Neely on the root's of Lincoln's ideas.