Monday, December 29, 2008

The Hands of History: Lincoln, Obama, Ream

From one hand on a Bible, that of Abraham Lincoln during his first Presidential inauguration in 1861, to one hand on the same Bible, that of the first inauguration of Barack Obama in 2009, almost 148 years later.

That is not only history, but history in the making. All that Lincoln strived for in our country has come to be with the choice of our President-elect by voters.

I believe it is fitting that Obama has chosen to use Lincoln’s Bible to take his oath of office. President-elect Obama will be the first president to be sworn in using this Bible since Abraham Lincoln. Presidents are not constitutionally required to be sworn in using a Bible, though most choose to do so.

The Lincoln Bible, now in the Library of Congress, is burgundy velvet with a gold-washed white metal rim around the three outside edges of both covers. All its edges are heavily gilded. In the center of the top cover is a shield of gold wash over white metal with the words "Holy Bible" chased into it. The 1,280-page Bible was published in 1853 by the Oxford University Press and was purchased in 1861 by Supreme Court Clerk William Thomas Carroll for use in Abraham Lincoln's inauguration because the president-elect's family Bible was packed away in Illinois and was en route to Washington.

Today in doing research on Lincoln for my newest series of ebooks to be published on Inauguration day by , I discovered some information I did not previously know. And that had to do with women’s rights, and position in the mid 1800’s and with another pair of hands...the hands of Vinnie Ream, the young sculptor who did a marble bust of Lincoln and then after his death was awarded the commission to sculpt the statute of Lincoln which now stands in the Capitol Rotunda.

Although I had photographed the statue on a visit to the Capitol a few years ago, I did not know the history of the sculptor. And I was surprised to learn it was a very attractive young woman. At the time Lincoln sat for the bust she sculpted, she was 18 years of age, and then at 23, commissioned to do the Lincoln statue.

Vinnie Reams’ hands left an imprint on history, also.

She wrote: “Congress appropriated money to erect a marble statue of the martyred President in the Capitol, it never occurred to me, with my youth and my inexperience, to compete for that great honor; but I was induced to place my likeness of him before the committee having the matter under consideration, and, together with many other artists--competitors for this work--I was called before this committee. I shall never forget the fear that fell upon me, as the chairman (the Hon. John H. Rice, of Maine, who had a kind heart, but a very stern manner) looked up through his glasses, from his seat at the head of the table, and questioned and cross-questioned me until I was so frightened that I could hardly reply to his questions: "How long had I been studying art?'' and had I ever made a marble statue?'' My knees trembled and I shook like an aspen, and I had not enough presence of mind even to tell him that I had made the bust from sittings from life. Seeing my dire confusion, and not being able to hear my incoherent replies, he dismissed me with a wave of his hand, and a request to Judge Marshall, of Illinois, to kindly see the young artist home! Once there, in the privacy of my own room, I wept bitter tears that I had been such an idiot as to try to compete with men, and remembering the appearance before that stern committee as a terrible ordeal before unmerciful judges, I promised myself it should be my last experience of that kind."
"Judge then of my surprise and delight when I learned that, guided by the opinion of Judge David Davis, Senator Trumbull, Marshal Lamon, Sec. O. H. Browning, Judge Dickey, and many others of President Lincoln's old friends, that I had produced the most faithful likeness of him, they had awarded the commission to me-the little western sculptor. The Committee on Mines and Mining tendered me their room in the Capitol, in which to model my statue, because it was next to the room of Judge David Davis, and he could come in daily and aid me with his friendly criticisms. His comfortable chair was kept in readiness. He came daily, and suggesting ‘a little more here--a little on there--more inclining of the bended head--more angularity of the long limbs,’ he aided me in my sacred work by his encouraging words and generous sympathy.”

She wrote this after the unveiling of the Lincoln statue in January, 1871.

“This night when the Lincoln statue was unveiled in the rotunda of the Capitol was the supreme moment of my life. I had known and loved the man! My country had loved him and cherished his memory. In tears the people had parted with him. With shouts of joy and acclamations of affection they had received his image in the marble. Upon the very spot where a few years before they had gathered in sorrow to gaze upon his lifeless body lying there in state while a nation mourned, they had gathered again to unveil his statue. ‘The marble is the resurrection,’ say the old sculptors, and now the dead had arisen to live forever in the hearts of the people whom he loved so well.”

And I like what she wrote about Washington D.C. and the Capitol, which, of course, she had a special feeling for.

“We have a country the chosen of the earth, rich in the best of gifts and prosperous beyond all expectation. Our lines are cast in pleasant places. Those of us who live in Washington are particularly blessed. The sun has never shone upon a more lovely city. Beautifully situated, with healthful and favoring airs stealing up from the sea, between the picturesque banks of the Potomac, and with beautiful buildings rising on every side.”
"The grand old Capitol, with its majestic dome, towers above them all--a star by day and a pillar of fire by night. It is truly a picture for the artist always, whether in the sun, the storm, the rain, the mist or the moonlight. The Congressional Library is a never-failing fountain of knowledge. It is receiving now a new impetus and reaching out its arms in every direction. Its growth is so rapid that the Capitol cannot much longer contain it and it must soon build a temple unto itself. A storehouse of treasures is encompassed by the picturesque walls of the Smithsonian and the new museum will eventually become a second Kensington. The portals of art have been thrown wide open by the generous hand of Mr. Corcoran and the nation will preserve with gratitude and affection his noble gift: the Corcoran Art Gallery. We who live here cannot say that we lack advantages.”

"Our country's history and the grand destiny awaiting it, inspire us to action. Our beautiful Capitol will some day lay its proud head low, the grass will grow on our bright avenues and our pictures and statues will crumble into dust, but the recollection of great and good deeds will not die. Where are now the houses and the streets which the illustrious men of the past have inhabited? They have melted away into thin air. They have vanished, but the memory of these great men remains and the heart of youth beats high with aspiration and enthusiasm when listening to the recital of their glowing deeds. Let us all try to do something and do the very best we can. Some can make of themselves great men--all can be good men. Who can say there may not be in this very assemblage some boy who, striving to be good and great, may be revered in story and in song, when the ashes of centuries shall envelope this now fair city."

Vennie Ream lived from 1847-1914.

~ Linda

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