Abraham Lincoln: Introduction

Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life

Abraham Lincoln: Introduction

This website is based on an exhibition that was on view at the National Museum of American History from January 16, 2009 to May 29, 2011.

His story is as familiar to Americans as any children’s fable.

He was born in a log cabin.
He became the 16th president.
He freed the slaves and saved the Union.
He was assassinated at Ford’s Theatre.

How did an unschooled, backwoods politician rise to the presidency and guide the nation through its greatest crisis? Who was this individual who helped to define our country’s future through the force of his leadership and intellect?

Transfer from the War Department with permission from Mary Lincoln, 1867

Lincoln’s Top Hat

At six feet four inches tall, Lincoln towered over most of his contemporaries. He chose to stand out even more by wearing high top hats. He acquired this hat from J. Y. Davis, a Washington hat maker. Lincoln had the black silk mourning band added in remembrance of his son Willie. No one knows when he obtained the hat, or how often he wore it. The last time he put it on was to go to Ford’s Theatre on April 14, 1865.

The Hat at the Smithsonian

After Lincoln’s assassination, the War Department preserved his hat and other material left at Ford’s Theatre. With permission from Mary Lincoln, the department gave the hat to the Patent Office, which, in 1867, transferred it to the Smithsonian Institution. Joseph Henry, the Secretary of the Smithsonian, ordered his staff not to exhibit the hat “under any circumstance, and not to mention the matter to any one, on account of there being so much excitement at the time.” It was immediately placed in a basement storage room.

The American public did not see the hat again until 1893, when the Smithsonian lent it to an exhibition hosted by the Lincoln Memorial Association. Today it is one of the Institution’s most treasured objects.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Abraham Lincoln, age 54

Photograph by Alexander Gardner in Washington, D.C., 1863, probably taken 11 days before Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address.

"It is very strange that I, a boy brought up in the woods, seeing as it were but little of the world, should be drifted into the very apex of this great event."
—Abraham Lincoln, on the Civil War, July 1864