NEW YORK (AP) -- Pages of handwritten speeches and terse military communiques jotted by Abraham Lincoln make up a major portion of an illuminating exhibit titled, "Lincoln Speaks: Words that Transformed a Nation."
But the show at New York's Morgan Library, which overlaps the 150th anniversary of end of the U.S. Civil War and of Lincoln's assassination, also reveals him speaking in a personal voice that adds a touching dimension to the display.
Anyone who has pondered the mystery of how a young man from the backwoods with virtually no classroom schooling developed such an extraordinary command of language will be moved to see the small, leather-bound English grammar book he studied. This is not just an artifact of self-education, though; it represents, in effect, a love note. On the title page, Lincoln wrote that he was making his treasured book a gift to his first sweetheart, Ann Rutledge.
In a letter he wrote from the White House to a young woman about the death of her father in the war, he notes: "In this sad world of ours, sorrow comes to all; and, to the young, it comes with bitterest agony, because it takes them unawares. The older have learned to ever expect it." Lincoln, who had lost his mother when he was a boy, was then grieving the recent death of his beloved son Willie.
Here, his eloquence is fatherly, comforting. Other writing in the exhibit, such as that in a decoratively printed and signed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation, employs precise, dry legal language. The 1863 proclamation declared all slaves free in rebel states not controlled by the union.
This shows his special capacity to move "from role to role" as a writer, said Sandra Trenholm of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, who with the Morgan Library's Declan Keily curated "Lincoln Speaks." The exhibit at the midtown Manhattan museum runs through June 7.
Those unfamiliar with Lincoln the poet will find examples here -- he wrote verses occasionally from his teenage to his White House years. No one calls them great literature, but his poems illustrate both his humor and his melancholy.
The exhibit is full of surprises.
We see the formal "respite of execution" request in 1862 from a man convicted of slave-trading, a capital offense. Lincoln, otherwise known for his compassion and his pardons, refused the man's bid for clemency.
After Lincoln's death, someone retrieved his quill pen, used to write so many of his words, from his desk at the White House. It, too, is on display here.