16th president makes a long-delayed journey west

In the spring of 1865, President Abraham Lincoln informed an old friend that he had "long desired to see California."

He revealed his plan to visit our state after the transcontinental railroad, an internal improvement authorized by his signature of 1862 legislation, was completed.

Just weeks later, John Wilkes Booth shot Lincoln, ending his life and his dream of surveying California.

On the 200th anniversary of his birth, Lincoln finally visits us in the form of a traveling exhibition from the Library of Congress. Originally displayed in Washington, D.C., "With Malice Toward None: The Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Exhibition" appears at the California Museum in Sacramento.

The exhibition is no museum blockbuster like King Tut, but a more modest accumulation of original artifacts and high quality reproductions of papers and photographs, a sort of modesty that befits a statesman of a republic.

The crowd pleasers include campaign paraphernalia, Mary Todd Lincoln's Tiffany jewelry and items in Lincoln's pockets the night he was assassinated.

The large Lincoln family Bible helps open the exhibition. Later you learn that this Bible was still packed during the first inauguration. The clerk to the Supreme Court fetched another for the ceremony.

That same second Bible displayed here was used to swear in President Barack Obama this past January.

A truly striking sculpture by Leonard Wells Volk in 1860 of Lincoln's hand grasping part of a broomstick leads one to ponder the hand that split rails writing words and signing orders to prevent the split of the less than 90-year-old Union.

We should remember he was counting his four score and seven from the Declaration of Independence of 1776 rather than the Constitution of 1787. Is this Lincoln's warning about the limits of majority rule? Perhaps a rebuke of Illinois Sen. Stephen Douglas' "moderate" approach of "letting the people decide" the question of slavery expansion state by state without regard to the rightness of the matter?

He may want us to remember that certain self-evident truths and inalienable rights can vanquish popular sovereignty or the tyrant's call of "might makes right" if, with Lincoln, we sometimes "have faith that right makes might."

The presentation properly is dominated by the then-new art of photography and the age old art of writing.

"Properly" because these two arts as practiced in the years before and through the Civil War make Lincoln and his contemporaries both modern and old.

The photographic images make them seem like us. Faces we can study. Political crowds showing an engagement today seen in tea parties and town halls. Horrifying dead on the battlefields we can mourn as if they were killed in today's wars. You will rarely be able to study famous Civil War photographs in the super-sized format adorning the walls of the exhibition.

But the writing is old. The Bible and Shakespeare inform Lincoln's letters, debates and speeches. You can see the scrapbook of newsclips he kept of the Lincoln- Douglas debates that formed the basis for the first publication of these debates over the expansion of slavery into the free territories of the West.

You may view the earliest version of the Gettysburg Address as if it was a script rewritten on a movie set. The first page is on Executive Mansion stationery, but the last page is reworked on a scrap likely snatched for the rewrite of luminous words: "... that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom."

Lincoln never saw California. Do not miss seeing him in his only visit to the American West.

Petrulakis, a Modesto attorney, is member of a local committee organizing Lincoln Bicentennial observances.


The Lincoln Bicentennial exhibit is at the California Museum, 1020 O St., Sacramento, through Aug. 22. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission: $8.50 for adults, $7 for seniors over 65 and college students, $6 for ages 6 to 13, free for 5 and under.

The annual American Heritage Scholarship Series lecture and essay contest will focus on Lincoln. The lecture is scheduled for 7 p.m. Oct. 14 in the Martin G. Petersen Event Center, 720 12th St., Modesto. The speaker will be Daniel Farber, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, and author of "Lincoln's Constitution."

Another exhibit, "Abraham Lincoln: A Man of His Time, A Man for All Times," will be at the Modesto Library next June. Details are yet to be announced. Admission will be free.

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