Meeting Mr. Lincoln

March 4, 2011

It’s not every day one gets to spend quality time with Abraham Lincoln. Indeed, in this particular context, it’s only one opportunity in a hundred and fifty years—this time at an event at the Unitarian Church in Buffalo.

Before the same congregation (albeit in a different edifice), on February 17, 1861, then president-elect Lincoln appeared, en route to Washington to take the oath of office. From February 11-23 he traveled from Springfield, Illinois, through more than 83 towns and cities—in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and Maryland—being greeted with enthusiasm by throngs of supporters. During the same period in 2011, the National Park Service celebrated the sesquicentennial of Lincoln’s journey by recreating the historic trip.

My wife, Diana Gawen Harris, and I thoroughly enjoyed the event, with reenactors providing an honor guard; the group, the Hutchinson Family Revival, singing period songs; former president Millard Fillmore (portrayed by Peter Wolfe) introducing the president-elect; Mr. Lincoln addressing us in an authentically nasal and hoarse voice (convincingly done by Fritz Klein); and a young ranger (the daughter of one of the Little Rock Nine) giving closing remarks which helped bridge the gulf between “Civil War and Civil Rights.”

As he had done during his trip in 1861, on the verge of civil war, “Lincoln” made an impassioned plea for peace and unity. (As we now know, however, on the day after his visit to the Unitarians on February 18, 1861, Jefferson Davis was sworn in as president of the secessionist Confederate States of America, and on April 12 the rebels began firing on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor. The rest, as they say, is history.)

We met with “Lincoln” afterward, and I must say he looked surprisingly fit after one hundred and fifty years (see Diana’s photo). He was kind enough to sign for me his “A. Lincoln.” As one who has examined numerous questioned Lincoln documents, authenticating many and exposing several spurious ones (see my Detecting Forgeries , 1996, and Real or Fake , 2009), I was able to provide the president-elect with a couple of pointers on his penmanship. In return, he regaled his newfound fans with many insights. What a likeable fellow, that Lincoln!

The National Park Service (and its local co-presenter, the Theodore Roosevelt Inaugural National Historic Site, and cosponsor, the Unitarian Universalist Church of Buffalo) should be commended both for the vision to have such a recreated event and for its high quality. Opportunities to so effectively revisit the past can help provide guidance as we move, inexorably, toward our uncertain future.