By BRETT WEISS
Antique Week Correspondent
In the 1992 feature film, Wayne’s World, Garth Algar, speaking to Wayne Campbell, compliments Cassandra — the film’s requisite bodacious beauty — with the following epithet: “If she were a president, she would be Babe-raham Lincoln.”
So entrenched is Abraham Lincoln in the collective consciousness of America that even a mindless Hollywood comedy can — without hesitation and with nary a lick of context — name-drop the 16th president in a joking manner and expect everyone in the audience, even younger viewers, to immediately get the reference.
Widely regarded as the best president in the history of America (numerous surveys, including a 2007 Gallup poll, have ranked him number one, ahead of such luminaries as George Washington and Ronald Reagan), Abraham Lincoln deserves his posthumous fame and his reputation as a great leader, thanks in no small part to his brilliant leadership during the most trying time in the history of the country: the Civil War.
While in office Lincoln had his share of detractors, including many slave owners in the South and those who violently opposed his suspending of the writ of Habeas corpus during the Civil War. However, these days you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn’t love Lincoln. And even people who only have a rudimentary understanding of American history know Lincoln was assassinated by actor and Confederate spy, John Wilkes Booth, on April 14th, 1865. One of Lincoln’s most ardent admirers is Dan Weinberg, owner of the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop (www.alincolnbookshop.com), which, as the name suggests, specializes in Lincolniana. In addition to rare books, the store carries autographs, manuscripts, prints, paintings, sculptures, stamps, pamphlets, and much more.
According to Weinberg, who began his involvement with the store in 1971 and in 1984 became sole proprietor, Lincoln was indeed the greatest American president.
“When I came to the shop 39 years ago,” Weinberg said, “I knew about Lincoln’s major accomplishments, of course, but when I began studying him in depth I discovered that the ‘mythology’ surrounding Lincoln is essentially correct. His honesty, ethics, and morality were second to none. He was an amazing leader and a true genius.”
Abraham Lincoln was born on Feb. 12, 1809, in a one-room cabin in Kentucky. In December of 1816, the Lincoln family, who lost their land partly due to a faulty title, moved to Indiana. Abe’s mother, Nancy, died of “milk sickness” when he was only nine years old. In 1819, Abe’s father, Thomas, married Sarah Bush Johnston.
Thomas was a frontiersman, meaning Lincoln grew up doing exhaustive, physically demanding labor, including splitting fence rails, chopping firewood, and plowing fields. Despite his rural upbringing, Lincoln had an aversion to killing animals, and didn’t care for hunting and fishing.
Lincoln received limited formal education and was primarily self-educated, literally reading everything he could get his hands on (books were a rare commodity in largely illiterate frontier Indiana), including such volumes as Robinson Crusoe, Dillworth’s Spelling-Book, and Life of Washington (it should come as no surprise that Lincoln greatly admired the founding fathers).
In 1842, the tall and gangly, yet athletically adept (he was a renowned wrestler) Lincoln married Mary Todd. Prior to being elected the 16th president of the United States on Nov. 16 of 1860, Lincoln held a variety of jobs, including general store owner, postmaster, county surveyor, congressman (initially a member of the ill-fated Whig Party, Lincoln later helped shape the new Republican Party), and lawyer (practicing law under Mary Todd’s cousin, John T. Stuart).
“Part of Lincoln’s brilliance is that he was self-taught,” Weinberg said. “Through self-directed study and innate genius, he was able to understand issues and the law. He learned how to write speeches, how to be a lawyer, and how to be the Commander in Chief.”
Lincoln’s exploits during his presidency are the stuff of legend. His famed Emancipation Proclamation helped ensure the freedom of more than three million slaves and provided the groundwork to outlaw slavery altogether. His concisely elegant Gettysburg Address, which typified his rarified oratory skills, remains one of the most quoted political speeches in history. And, of course, there’s that little matter of preserving the state of the Union.
“We [as a nation] were very lucky to have him in office at that tumultuous time in history,” Weinberg explained.
“A lesser president might have let half the country go. Or, on the other end of the spectrum, inclined toward real dictatorship (as opposed to merely suspending Habeas corpus and shutting down a newspaper or two).”
While Lincoln has been elevated to virtual sainthood over the years, he, like all presidents before and after him, wasn’t perfect, something Weinberg freely admits.
“I wish Lincoln would have learned the military aspects of being president more quickly,” Weinberg said. “Strategy he understood almost immediately, but I wish he would have found a general more quickly. Maybe then the war could have ended a year or three earlier.”
Also, while it’s generally understood that Lincoln was fond of children, he didn’t necessarily take to parenting right away.
“He had to learn how to become a father,” Weinberg said. “I don’t think he was a good father in the beginning.
He was away a lot, and I think Robert [Lincoln’s first son] may have felt that. It really wasn’t until Willie [Lincoln’s third son] came along that he learned fatherhood.” Lincoln had a total of four children — all boys.
Despite these perceived shortcomings, Lincoln remains largely above reproach. And, in addition to being regarded as the greatest president of all time, he’s the most collected as well. Collectors all over the world clamor for original Lincolnalia from the 19th century.
According to Weinberg, some of the rarest, most valuable Lincoln items are letters written by Honest Abe. “I had one spectacular letter that sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars. It was written to Thomas Corwin during the presidential campaign of 1860. Lincoln succinctly explained that he was against slavery and that he would do something about it.”
In addition to selling Lincoln items, Weinberg is a collector as well. “Hanging on my wall right now is the only known instance of Lincoln misspelling his name. He crossed it out, and it became ‘Linclon.’
He crossed it out and did it again until he got it right.”
One-of-a-kind Lincolnalia, such as the aforementioned letter, are clearly out of the price range of the average collector. However, there are many vintage Lincoln items that are highly affordable, including such mass produced items as books, electoral tickets, and pamphlets.
Even more affordable are replicated items, such as archival quality reprinted photos, which can sell for as little as $55.