Tuesday, February 08, 2011

The Legend of Lincoln's Fence Rail

Check out this article from Smithsonian Magazine on Abe Lincoln's legends. It starts by saying that most of the legends around him are based on fact:
Remarkably, most of the stories that underlie Lincoln’s legacy seem grounded in fact (in contrast, for example, to the apocryphal tale of George Washington and his cherry tree, invented by biographer Parson Weems). Lincoln, arguably more than Washington, embodies the American dream: an up-from-poverty hero who became a giant not only to Americans but to much of the world. “Washington is very unapproachable,” says Harry Rubenstein, chair of Politics and Reform at the National Museum of American History (NMAH). “His mythic stories are all about perfection. But Lincoln is very human. He is the president who moves us to the ideal that all men are created equal. The many tragedies of his life make him approachable.”

So how did fence rails get associated with his campaign?
According to Rubenstein, Richard J. Oglesby, a canny Illinois politician and Lincoln supporter, came up with the idea of sending Lincoln’s cousin, John Hanks, back to the family farm in Decatur, Illinois, to collect a couple of the wooden fence rails that he and Abe had split years before. “At a key moment of the state convention,” Rubenstein says, “Hanks marches into the hall carrying two pieces of the fence rail, under which a banner is suspended that reads ‘Abe Lincoln the Rail Splitter,’ and the place goes wild.”

After the state convention threw its support to Lincoln, Hanks returned to the farm and collected more of the hallowed rails. “During the Civil War,” says Rubenstein, “lengths of the rails were sold at what were called ‘Sanitary Fairs’ that raised funds to improve hygiene in the Union Army camps. They were touchstones of a myth.”

You can go see one of the fence rails that is on display at the NMAH as part of an exhibit on Lincoln through May 30th:
The piece of rail now at the Smithsonian had been given to Leverett Saltonstall in 1941, when he was governor of Massachusetts (he later served 22 years in the U.S. Senate). In 1984, five years after Saltonstall’s death, his children donated the artifact, in his memory, to the NMAH. The unprepossessing piece of wood was accompanied by a letter of provenance: “This is to certify that this is one of the genuine rails split by A. Lincoln and myself in 1829 and 30.” The letter is signed by John Hanks.

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