By Sue Botos
When Abraham Lincoln was elected as the 16th president of the United States in 1860, the country was on the verge of civil war. In this greatest test of the nation’s constitution, Lincoln was faced with three complex questions: Was the United States really one nation, or a confederacy of sovereign states? How could a country founded on the belief that “all men are created equal” tolerate slavery? In a national crisis, would civil liberties be secure?
Thanks to the traveling exhibit “Lincoln: The Constitution and the Civil War,” which opens at the Rocky River High School media center on Oct. 8, the community will have the opportunity to look into Lincoln’s struggle to save the union, and how he used the Constitution to confront these challenges, ultimately transforming the document and creating the nation as it stands today.
The exhibit has made numerous stops throughout the country during its three-year tour, but Rocky River is one of only two high school libraries to host it. Its monthlong stay will kick off on Tuesday with a program for the community featuring a keynote talk by James L. Swanson, author of the nonfiction best-seller “Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln’s Killer” and a young adult version, “Chasing Lincoln’s Killer.” Earlier in the day, Swanson will hold an all-school assembly at the high school to discuss the book and exhibit.
“The reason we looked into bringing it here is that it’s a wonderful opportunity for the library to offer a program that prompted the student body and community to think about these issues and how they relate to our world today,” noted high school media specialist Yvonne Morbitzer.
She added that the exhibition was made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH): Great Ideas Brought to Life. The National Constitution Center and the American Library Association Public Programs Office organized the display, which is based on an exhibition of the same name developed by the National Constitution Center.
Morbitzer added that funds were also donated by the Rocky River Public Library, the Rocky River Education Foundation and the PTA.
Lincoln is revered as one of the United States’ greatest presidents, with many modern-day commanders-in-chief citing him as an inspiration. But to his contemporaries he was controversial, and was denounced as a tyrant for his civil liberties policies and vilified for issuing the Emancipation Proclamation 150 years ago.
While the exhibit offers no easy answer to the question of whether Lincoln was a “calculating politician” willing to accommodate slavery or “The Great Emancipator,” it gives visitors some food for thought, encouraging them to form their own opinions.
Morbitzer explained that it will consist of five stations, an introduction, the three issues of secession, slavery and civil liberties, and the last, which “prompts you to examine these ideals” as well as presidential powers during times of war.
A variety of activities and displays will surround the exhibit throughout the month, including a student Civil War re-enactor’s photos, a bronze Lincoln face and hand casts from the Western Reserve Historical Society and Civil War artifacts courtesy of middle school history teacher Ben Purdy and the Rocky River and Lakewood historical societies. High school technology students even created a life-sized Lincoln “Fathead” poster.