Historian Harold Holzer says it's no accident that the past five American presidents -- three Republicans and two Democrats -- were big admirers of Abraham Lincoln.
"Lincoln's appeal is a unique combination of someone who was able to express in sublime language why democracy and equality were worthy ideals and who personally lived the American dream," Mr. Holzer said. "He went from a log cabin to the White House. America promises that opportunity, and Lincoln took advantage of it.
"His words and his life continue to resonate with us."
Mr. Holzer will be the featured speaker Friday at the opening of a new exhibit at The State Museum of Pennsylvania in Harrisburg called "Emancipation: Lincoln and His Proclamation." Visitors will see a rare copy of the famous executive order, signed by Lincoln, that freed all slaves living in the Confederate states.
This month marks the 150th anniversary of the proclamation.
"It was a controversial act at the time," historian Rick Beard said of Lincoln's decision. Conflicting reactions are reflected in two letters from Union soldiers that are part of the museum exhibit.
One soldier writes of his renewed admiration for "Father Abraham" and his willingness to continue to fight in the war.
"In another letter, a soldier writes that Lincoln is a despot and all he cares about is Negroes -- but he uses a much more objectionable term," Mr. Beard said.
"He wrote that he hoped the rebels would burn Harrisburg to alert the North about all the bad things Lincoln had been doing."
Mr. Beard is senior adviser to Pennsylvania Civil War 150, which is coordinating the state's sesquicentennial commemoration of the nation's bloodiest conflict.
The exhibit also includes satirical cartoons, drawings and engravings, almost all of which come from the state museum's archives.
One item is a color lithograph of the 1864 Great Central Sanitary Fair in Philadelphia. Similar fairs were held during the war in other northern cities, including Pittsburgh, to raise funds for the care of wounded and sick Union soldiers.
Organizers of the Philadelphia event had printed 48 copies of the Emancipation Proclamation, and Lincoln agreed to sign them as a fundraising project. Secretary of State William Seward and one of Lincoln's private secretaries, John Nicolay, also signed the documents.
They were then sold for $10 each, the equivalent of at least $148 in modern currency.
The copy included in the state museum exhibit is on short-term loan from The Union League of Philadelphia, a private club.
Mr. Holzer will make his presentation at 7:30 p.m. Friday. The free program will center on his book, "Emancipating Lincoln: The Proclamation in Text, Context and Memory." The event is sponsored by the Pennsylvania Heritage Foundation and includes a preview of the exhibit.
Mr. Holzer is the author, co-author or editor of 43 books on Lincoln and the Civil War era. His works include "Lincoln: How Abraham Lincoln Ended Slavery in America," which is a young-adult book about the events portrayed in director Steven Spielberg's motion picture "Lincoln." Mr. Holzer served as a content consultant for the movie.
He is chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Foundation. His awards include the National Humanities Medal, presented in 2008 by President George W. Bush. He is senior vice president for external affairs at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The film "Lincoln" tells the story of the president's political maneuvering in January 1865 to persuade members of a divided House of Representatives to pass the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, which outlawed slavery.
"It tells a specific story accurately," Mr. Holzer said. He called screenwriter Tony Kushner a brilliant writer. As is the nature of fiction films, the movie takes liberties in imagining some of the emotions and thoughts of the characters, he said.
Hollywood motion pictures, however, have the potential to reach and teach mass audiences about history. "More people will see 'Lincoln' than have read all of my books combined by a factor of 10 or even of 100," he said. "It is a boost to us working in the field -- everybody wants to know more."
Mr. Holzer's talk Friday will focus on "how Lincoln sometimes acted as his own worst enemy" in the period between June 1862 and Jan. 1, 1863, when he finally signed the Emancipation Proclamation.
"He issued a lot of statements and comments that made it seem like his heart wasn't in [the idea of emancipation]," Mr. Holzer said. "That has hurt his reputation."
Lincoln had donated or loaned drafts of the proclamation for sales or display at various charity fairs. The final draft ended up in Chicago, where it was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1871.
Of the 48 signed copies printed up for Philadelphia's sanitary fair, 26 are known to exist. Several have been lost to fires, including a second copy that had been owned by the Union League, Mr. Beard said.
It's likely that some of the rest still are waiting to be rediscovered.
"You might look in the bottom of your family trunk," Mr. Beard said.
"Emancipation: Lincoln and His Proclamation" will open Saturday and run through Feb. 3. The State Museum of Pennsylvania, 300 North St., Harrisburg, is next to the Capitol building. Museum hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. Admission is $5 for adults and $4 for children and senior citizens. The website is www.statemuseumpa.org. The phone number is 1-717-787-4980.
Len Barcousky: email@example.com or 412-263-1159. First Published January 7, 2013 5:00 AM