Ask A Librarian

Exhibit Explores Lincoln’s Constitutional Challenges during Civil War

Posted by Monte Maxwell.
June 7th, 2013

Lincoln: The Constitution and the Civil War, a traveling exhibition opening at the Erickson Alumni Center on June 20, examines how President Lincoln used the Constitution to confront three intertwined crises of the Civil War – the secession of Southern states, slavery and wartime civil liberties. The exhibit is presented in conjunction with the WVU Libraries’ West Virginia Day celebration commemorating 150 years of statehood this year.

“Abraham Lincoln was president during a tumultuous time in our country’s history,” WVU Libraries Interim Dean Myra N. Lowe said. “This exhibit provides an opportunity to learn more about the complex issues Lincoln grappled with while fighting to preserve the Union.”

Historians debate Lincoln’s handling of these issues and therefore his place among America’s greatest presidents. While some hail him as a principled leader justly celebrated as the Great Emancipator, others paint him as a calculating politician willing to accommodate slavery.

Rather than offering a clear cut answer, the exhibit encourages visitors to form a nuanced view of Lincoln by engaging them with Lincoln’s struggle to reconcile his policy preferences with basic American ideals of liberty and equality. The exhibit provides a more complete understanding of Lincoln as president and the Civil War as the nation’s gravest constitutional crisis.

Elected president at a time when the nation was on the brink of war, Lincoln faced hard constitutional questions that divided Americans: Was the United States truly one nation, or was it a confederacy of sovereign and separate states? How could a country founded on the belief that “all men are created equal” tolerate slavery? In a national crisis, would civil liberties be secure?

“As a new president, Abraham Lincoln inherited enormous challenges,” said John Cuthbert, Director of the West Virginia and Regional History Center. “This exhibition shows how he wrestled with issues of secession, slavery, and civil liberties—all questions our country’s founding charter left unanswered.”

The National Constitution Center and the American Library Association Public Programs Office organized the exhibit, which was made possible by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH).

The traveling exhibit is based on an exhibition of the same name developed by the National Constitution Center. Composed of informative panels, the display features photographic reproductions of original documents, including a draft of Lincoln’s first inaugural speech, the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Thirteenth Amendment.

In conjunction with the exhibit, the WVU Libraries are sponsoring two events.

From noon-2 p.m., June 20, the public is invited to browse the exhibit and enjoy a reception with hors d’oeuvres and birthday cake. At 2 p.m., Lincoln impersonator Michael Krebs will tell stories and answer questions concerning the 16th president’s attitudes toward West Virginia statehood.

“Lincoln’s endorsement was essential to West Virginia statehood as he could have vetoed the statehood bill,” Cuthbert said. “We know that it was a decision that he struggled with due to the irony of fighting a war over the secession of states without the nation’s permission yet permitting what many saw as secession of a section of a state without the state’s permission.”

On July 16, Dr. Ken Martis, retired WVU geography professor and recipient of the 2007 WVU Foundation Outstanding Teacher Award, will speak on the political landscape that existed in Virginia and Western Virginia before and during the Civil War. He will also talk about Lincoln’s role in the state’s founding.

Lincoln: The Constitution and the Civil War will be on display at the Erickson Alumni Center through July 17. It will be open to the public from 8:15 a.m.-4:45 p.m. Monday-Friday. For more information, contact Monte Maxwell, 304-293-0306 or

Leave a Reply

XHTML: You can use these tags: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <s> <strike> <strong>