Tag Archives: New York Historical Society

John Brown Anniversary Exhibit at NY Historical Society

By on


When John Brown led his now-legendary raid on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, Virginia, in 1859, hoping to secure weapons for a slave insurrection, he failed in his immediate goal but succeeded in raising tensions to a fever pitch between pro-slavery and anti-slavery forces. The conflict he had intensified, and which he had now come to symbolize, would lead by 1861 to secession and civil war.

One hundred and fifty years after John Brown’s raid, the New-York Historical Society in partnership with the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History presents the exhibition John Brown: The Abolitionist and His Legacy, exploring the beliefs, activities and continuing significance of this critical figure, vilified by some as a murderer and venerated by others as a martyr.

On view from through March 25, 2010, this exhibition of rare materials from the Gilder Lehrman Collection and the New-York Historical Society also sets the stage for the culminating presentation of the Historical Society’s Lincoln Year, with the landmark exhibition Lincoln and New York, opening October 9, 2009.

“John Brown’s attack at Harpers Ferry convinced Southerners that their political and economic survival was threatened, while outrage over his execution rallied and unified Northern abolitionists,” according to Louise Mirrer, President and CEO of the New-York Historical Society. “As we continue our year-long celebration of Abraham Lincoln, we hope these extraordinary and seldom-seen materials will not only shed light on Brown himself but will help illuminate events that led to Lincoln’s election in 1860.”

“John Brown: The Abolitionist and His Legacy examines Brown in the context of growing national divisions over slavery in the 1850s,” commented James G. Basker, President of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History. “Most African Americans and abolitionists saw John Brown as a martyr for a noble and humane cause. Others saw him as a terrorist who attacked legal institutions and was willing to kill to achieve his goals. This exhibition invites people to examine the tension between these divergent views at the critical moment in American history, with repercussions down through the Civil Rights movement of the 20th century.”

John Brown expected that his attack on Harpers Ferry, carried out by both white and black raiders, would inspire enslaved people to escape from plantations across the South. According to his plan, the former slaves would join him in safe havens in the mountains, where he would arm and train them for guerrilla warfare. The loss of slaves and the fear of insurrection would destabilize the South and build political support in the North.

On Sunday, October 16, 1859, Brown led twenty-one men (sixteen of them white and five black) to Harpers Ferry, Virginia, where they captured the armory, arsenal and rifle factory. A local mob quickly surrounded the town, preventing the raiders from escaping, while federal troops led by Robert E. Lee rushed to the scene. On Tuesday, October 18, soldiers successfully stormed the stronghold, seriously wounding Brown. He was tried and convicted of inciting slave insurrection, treason against Virginia, and murder. Before being hanged on December 2, 1859, Brown wrote prophetically: “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land will never be purged away but with blood.”

Visitors to the exhibition will encounter manuscripts never before exhibited, including dramatic letters by John Brown to his followers; a letter by Frederick Douglass praising Brown but distancing himself from the raid; Brown’s parting words on the eve of his execution; a letter from the mother of a Kansas murder victim, damning Brown on the scaffold; and reminiscences by Brown’s children and other eyewitnesses.

Lending dramatic context to these materials are powerful images, such as the 1859 sculpture “The Slave Auction” by John Rogers; the heroic 1867 painting by Thomas Satterwhite Noble, “John Brown’s Blessing”; photographs of Brown and his family members; photographs of his supporters, the “Secret Six”; and photographs of other key participants. Among the other important objects on view will be a “John Brown Still Lives!” broadside from 1859; a rare printing of the Emancipation Proclamation; a 1926 lynching poster; and other artifacts of the Jim Crow and Civil Rights eras.
The majority of the objects in the exhibition are drawn from the Gilder Lehrman Collection, currently on deposit at the New-York Historical Society.

‘Lincoln and New York’ Opens At New York Historical Society

By on


From the launch of Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 Presidential campaign with a speech at Cooper Union through the unprecedented outpouring of grief at his funeral procession in 1865, New York City played a surprisingly central role in the career of the sixteenth President—and Lincoln, in turn, had an impact on New York that was vast, and remains vastly underappreciated.

Now, for the first time, a museum exhibition will trace the crucial relationship between America’s greatest President and its greatest city, when the New-York Historical Society presents Lincoln and New York, from October 9, 2009 through March 25, 2010. The culminating presentation in the Historical Society’s Lincoln Year of exhibitions, events and public programs, this extraordinary display of original artifacts, iconic images and highly significant period documents is the Historical Society’s major contribution to the nation’s Lincoln Bicentennial. Lincoln and New York has been endorsed by the U.S. Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.

Serving as chief historian for Lincoln and New York and editor of the accompanying catalogue is noted Lincoln scholar and author Harold Holzer, co-chairman of the Lincoln Bicentennial Commission. He has also organized the Historical Society’s year-long Lincoln Series of public conversations and interviews. Serving as curator is Dr. Richard Rabinowitz, president of American History Workshop and curator of the exhibitions Slavery in New York and New York Divided: Slavery and the Civil War at the New-York Historical Society.

Lincoln and New York brings to life the period between Lincoln’s decisive entrance into the city’s life at the start of the 1860 Presidential campaign to his departure from it in 1865 as a secular martyr. During these years, the policies of the Lincoln administration damaged and then re-built the New York economy, transforming the city from a thriving port dependent on trade with the slave-holding South into the nation’s leading engine of financial and industrial growth; support and opposition to the President flared into a virtual civil war within the institutions and on the streets of New York, out of which emerged a pattern of political contention that survives to this day.

To begin this story, visitors follow the prairie lawyer eastward to his rendezvous with “the political cauldron” of New York in the winter of 1860. Visitors will learn something of his background and of the rapidly accelerating political crisis that had brought him to the fore: the battle over the extension of slavery into the western territories.

Then, in the six galleries that follow, visitors will discover the interconnections between these two unlikely partners: the ambitious western politician with scant national experience, and the sophisticated eastern metropolis that had become America’s capital of commerce and publishing.

Campaign (1859—1860) immerses visitors in the sights and sounds of the city, then the fastest-growing metropolis in the world, while re-creating Lincoln’s entire visit in February 1860 when his epoch-making address at the Cooper Union and the photograph for which he posed that same day together launched his national career. The displays will cast new light on the lecture culture of the antebellum city, the political divisions within its Republican organization, the strength of its publishing industry and the bustling, somewhat alien urban community that Lincoln encountered. The video re-creation of Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech, produced on site with acclaimed actor Sam Waterston’s vivid rendering of Lincoln’s arguments, brings that crucial evening to life. Visitors will re-enact for themselves how Lincoln posed for New York’s—and the nation’s—leading photographer, Mathew Brady, whose now-iconic photograph began the reinvention of Lincoln’s public image. As Lincoln himself said, “Brady and the Cooper Union speech made me President.”

Objects on view will include the telegram inviting Lincoln to give his first Eastern lecture, the lectern that he used at Cooper Union, the widely distributed printed text of his speech, photographic and photo-engraving equipment from this era and torches that were carried by pro-Lincoln “Wide Awakes” at their great October 6 New York march. Also on view will be a panoply of political cartoons and editorial commentary generated in New York that established “Honest Abe” and the “Railsplitter” as a viable and virtuous candidate, but concurrently began the tradition of anti-Lincoln caricature by introducing Lincoln as a slovenly rustic, reluctant to discuss the hot-button slavery issue but secretly favoring the radical idea of racial equality.

The next gallery, Public Opinions (1861—62), registers the gyrating fortunes of the Lincoln Administration’s first year among New Yorkers—especially the editors and publishers of the city’s 175 daily and weekly newspapers and illustrated journals, who wielded unprecedented power. In the wake of his election, and the secession of the Southern states, the New York Stock Exchange had plummeted and New York harbor was stilled. Payment of New York’s huge outstanding debts from Southern planters and merchants ceased, and bankruptcies abounded.

Scarcely one docked ship hoisted the national colors to greet the new President-Elect in February 1861 when he visited on his way to Washington and the inauguration, and eyewitness Walt Whitman described his welcome along New York’s streets as “ominous.” Mayor Fernando Wood proposed that the city declare its independence from both the Union and the Confederacy and continue trading with both sides. Even New Yorkers unwilling to go that far desperately tried to find compromises with the South that in their words, “would avert the calamity of Civil War.”

Just two months later, though, in the wake of the attack on Fort Sumter, it suddenly appeared that every New Yorker was an avid defender of Old Glory. After war was declared, business leaders, including many powerful Democrats, pledged funds and goods to the effort. The Irish community, not previously sympathetic to Republicans, vigorously mobilized its own battalion in the first wave of responses to Lincoln’s call for troops to crush the Rebellion. But after the Confederate victory at Bull Run, the wheel turned again. From July 1861 onward for more than a year, the news was unremittingly bad. Battlefield mishaps, crippling inflation, profiteering among war contractors, corruption in the supply of “shoddy” equipment and clothing for the troops, the ability of Confederate raiders to seize dozens of New York merchant ships right outside the harbor, the imposition of an income tax and a controversial effort to reform banking, alarming New York’s regulation-wary financial institutions: all these led to relentless press and public criticism of Lincoln. New York’s cartoonists, as shown in the exhibition, found every possible way to caricature the President’s homely appearance and controversial policies. Even abolitionists and blacks despaired of the President’s reluctance to embrace emancipation and the recruitment of African-Americans into the Union war effort. Former allies such as Horace Greeley slammed Lincoln for putting reunification above freedom as a war goal.

In this gallery, the objects that tell the story will include colorful recruitment posters for the Union army, the great, seldom-lent Thomas Nast painting of the departure of the 7th Regiment for the Front, rare original photographs of the great rally in Union Square on April 21, 1861, and the bullet-shattered coat of Lincoln’s young New York-born friend, and onetime bodyguard, Colonel Elmer Ephraim Ellsworth, the first Union officer killed in the war.

Gallery 3, titled Bad Blood (1862), illustrates the mutual animosity of New York’s pro- and anti-Lincoln forces by exhibiting bigger-than-life, three-dimensional versions of the era’s political cartoons. On one side are the Democratic Party politicians and their backers, caricatured by their opponents as bartenders in a political clubhouse, “dispensing a poisonous brew of sedition and fear.” On the other side, a caricature of Lincoln’s New York supporters—officials of the United States Sanitary Commission—shows them enjoying a sumptuous feast, celebrating the ethic of economic opportunity for the rich and the values of hard work, obedience, and self-discipline for the poor. Visitors will see how a powerful New York party of Peace Democrats, or Copperheads, portrayed Lincoln as a despot, warned against “race mongrelization,” and encouraged desertion and draft-dodging. At the same time, the gallery will show how some New Yorkers reaped the benefits of the war, given that their city was the principal home of many of the industries and services Lincoln needed: munitions, shipbuilding, medical supplies, food supplies, money lending and more. Interactive media in Gallery 3 will help visitors (especially of school age) explore the economic issues that so bitterly divided New York.

Gallery 4, Battleground (1862—1864), re-creates seven different conflicts in the city between 1862 and 1864. In each one, the visitor is invited to choose a side, listen to “the talk of the town,” and locate historic landmarks that survive from this era. Among the political and social flashpoints were Lincoln’s issuance of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation; the suspension of habeas corpus and press freedom; the institution of a military draft; the promotion (by Lincoln’s elite Protestant supporters) of a new ethic of civic philanthropy, industrial progress, and national expansion; and the bitter Presidential campaign of 1864. Visitors will be brought into the setting of Shiloh Presbyterian Church (on the corner of Prince and Lafayette Street) on “Jubilee Day,” January 1, 1863, when emancipation was proclaimed; re-live the four-day Manhattan insurrection of July 1863 known as the Draft Riots, which claimed more than 120 lives before they were put down by troops from the 7th Regiment, recalled from Gettysburg; glimpse the crowded pavilions of the loyalists’ Metropolitan Sanitary Fair of April 1864; and see a multitude of cartoons, engravings, pamphlets, flags, posters, lanterns, and campaign memorabilia.

The evolution of Lincoln’s image—from Railsplitter to Jokester to Tyrant to Gentle Father—is the subject of Gallery 5, Eyes on Lincoln. Four iconic portraits, all enormously influential, mostly from life, and none ever displayed together in such a suite—one by Thomas Hicks, one by William Marshall, and two by Francis Bicknell Carpenter (of Lincoln alone and of the assembled family)—anchor the investigation. Interactive programs allow visitors to learn more about the creation and re-production of these images, their iconographic roots in western art, and the artists’ biographies.

The last major gallery, The Loss of a Great Man (1865), takes the visitor from Lincoln’s victory in the 1864 election to his New York funeral procession, perhaps the largest such event yet held in world history, involving hundreds of thousands of participants and inspiring an outburst of mourning among whites and blacks, Christians and Jews, that signaled the transfiguration of the late president’s heretofore-controversial image. A video documents the triumphant events of March and April 1865: the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment outlawing slavery, the delivery of the second inaugural address, and the surrender of the Confederate armies. In New York, a gigantic parade celebrated Lincoln on March 5, 1865. And then, after Lincoln’s assassination on April 15, the fierce political antagonisms surrounding Lincoln suddenly evaporated, and a new image emerged of a Christ-like, compassionate, and brooding hero who gave his life so that the nation would enjoy a “new birth of freedom.”

A superb collection of memorial material produced and distributed in the city is accompanied by artwork representing Lincoln’s apotheosis. Included will be the recently discovered scrapbook of a New Yorker who roamed the streets after Lincoln’s death sketching the impromptu written and visual tributes that sprung up in shop windows and on building façades in the wake of Lincoln’s murder. Perhaps the greatest memorial of all was New Yorker Walt Whitman’s poem “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.”

As a coda, the exhibition concludes with a brief tour of how New Yorkers have continued to memorialize Lincoln—in the names of streets and institutions; in the development of an egalitarian national creed; in a powerful sense of nationhood; and in a constantly evolving sense that this is the most representative and inspiring of all Americans.


The exhibition will be accompanied by an illustrated, full-color catalogue edited by guest historian Harold Holzer, who has also contributed an introductory essay and a chapter on the city’s publishers and the making of Lincoln’s image in New York. Additional essays have been written by historians Jean Harvey Baker, Catherine Clinton, James Horton, Michael Kammen, Barnet Schechter, Craig L. Symonds, and Frank J. Williams, with a preface by New-York Historical Society President and CEO Louise Mirrer, all featuring seldom-seen pictures, artifacts, and documents from the Society collections.

Support for Lincoln and New York

Objects in the exhibition come from the New-York Historical Society’s own rich and extensive collections; from the Gilder Lehrman Collection, on deposit at the New-York Historical Society; Brooks Brothers; and from other major institutions including the Library of Congress, The Cooper Union, Chicago History Museum, John Hay Library at Brown University, Union League Club, New York Military Museum, Cornell University, the University of Illinois, and the New York Public Library.

In addition to generous funding from JPMorgan Chase & Co., the U.S. Department of Education Underground Railroad Educational and Cultural (URR) Program, and the National Endowment for the Humanities, additional project support for the exhibition and related programs has been provided by The Bodman Foundation, public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, the Motorola Foundation, Brooks Brothers, Con Edison, and the New York Council for the Humanities. Thirteen, a WNET.ORG station, is media sponsor.

About the New-York Historical Society

Established in 1804, the New-York Historical Society (N-YHS) comprises New York’s oldest museum and a nationally renowned research library. N-YHS collects, preserves, and interprets American history and art. Its mission is to make these collections accessible to the broadest public and increase understanding of American history through exhibitions, public programs, and research that reveal the dynamism of history and its impact on the world today. N-YHS holdings cover four centuries of American history and comprise one of the world’s greatest collections of historical artifacts, American art, and other materials documenting the history of the United States as seen through the prism of New York City and State.

Photo: Print by Currier and Ives “The Rail Candidate, 1860” Lithograph. New-York Historical Society.

Underground RR Audio Tour at NY Historical Society

By on


The New-York Historical Society is presenting an audio tour exploring the Underground Railroad during the time of the Civil War, highlighting how issues of slavery and freedom influenced national politics and the actions of Ulysses S. Grant (1822–1885), commander of the Union armies, and of Robert E. Lee (1807–1870), commander of the Confederate forces. The Run for Your Life audio tour adds a layer of interpretation to the current exhibition Grant and Lee in War and Peace and can be accessed when you visit the gallery and at nyhistory.org or on iTunesU.

Over the past five years, the New-York Historical Society has showcased documents, art and artifacts relating to the abolitionist movement and network known as the “Underground Railroad” by publishing the papers of the African Free School in print and on the Web and through the exhibitions on Alexander Hamilton; Slavery in New York; New York Divided: Slavery and the Civil War; and French Founding Father: Lafayette’s Return to Washington’s America.

This year, the N-YHS takes the story of the abolitionist movement and Underground Railroad through the Civil War, focusing significant attention on its role in the turbulent 1850’s through the time that the resources of the Underground Railroad were drawn on to assist four million freed people to participate in a new, unified democracy.

These activities, including the Run For Your Life audio tour, are developed with grant funds from the U.S. Department of Education Underground Railroad Educational and Cultural (URR) Program.

The tour is comprised of seven thematic stops:


When Grant and Lee attended West Point, no men of color were allowed to enlist in the US Army, however by the close of the Civil War over 180,000 African Americans had fought for the Union – many of them recently escaped from slavery. The larger saga of escaping slaves and relentless political struggle show how the African American quest for freedom held the country accountable to the principles so forcefully stated in the Declaration of Independence.

Black Seminoles Flee South

As enslaved people in Georgia and Florida sought sanctuary with the Seminole tribe, the U.S. government became more and more determined to conquer (in three different wars) the various Seminole groups who received these fugitives. Some bands became known as Black Seminoles because of the massive influx of African Americans and subsequent intermarriage.

John Brown: Escapes and Revolt

Abolitionist John Brown not only fought pro-slavery militias in Kansas in the mid-1850s, he led a band of fugitive slaves openly through the territories up to Canada, trying to prove that the Fugitive Slave Law was blatantly defied by antislavery citizens. Fulfilling the nightmare that haunted the South, he then tried to spark a general slave uprising, after capturing arms at Harper’s Ferry. When Brown was sentenced to death he gave a farewell address in which he linked his Underground Railroad expedition to Canada with his attempted insurrection.

Lee at Arlington – Wesley Norris

Right before the Civil War, Lee inherited a large number of slaves at the Arlington estate through his wealthy wife. By the terms of her father’s will, the Arlington slaves were to be freed upon his death. Lee’s slowness in doing this, and his policy of breaking up families by hiring people out to distant plantations angered Mary Custis Lee’s slaves. Some fled, since they considered themselves already free. One such fugitive slave ended up living as a freedman on the very Arlington estate where he used to work.

Grant and the Davis Plantation

The story of Isaiah Montgomery is a startling window into the chaotic period of the war when the newly freed and the newly fleeing joined together to improvise new lives. From the beginning of the war thousands of enslaved people liberated themselves and fled to Union lines, as Federal forces secured pockets of Southern territory. Grant settled them in contraband camps or arranged for their protection on plantations of their former owners seized as punishment for supporting the Confederacy. The most notable of these were the properties of Jefferson and Joseph Davis in the Mississippi River, where the former slaves took control and successfully planted cotton and ran their own schools. Benjamin and Isaiah Montgomery, slaves only two years before, turned a profit of $160,000 in 1865 on the plantation of their former owners.

Lincoln, McClellan and Frederick Douglass

Frederick Douglass, the leading black statesman, condemned Lincoln’s policy of returning fugitive slaves and refusing to allow them to enlist in Union forces: “We are striking the guilty rebels with our soft white hand, when we should be striking with the iron hand of the black man, which we keep chained behind us. We have been catching slaves, instead of arming them… Slavery has been, and is yet the shield and helmet of this accursed rebellion.” Soon, however, Lincoln declared that slave labor was supporting the Rebel war effort. Then some of his more openly abolitionist generals, such as Benjamin Butler, could treat the escaping people as “legitimate contraband of war” seized from the enemy to prevent aid to the Rebel cause. The flight of thousands of slaves is called by some the Last Chapter of the Underground Railroad, as African American southerners added their efforts to the Union side, and subtracted their labor from the rebels.

About the New-York Historical Society

Established in 1804, the New-York Historical Society (N-YHS) comprises New York’s oldest museum and a nationally renowned research library. N-YHS collects, preserves and interprets American history and art; its mission is to make these collections accessible to the broadest public and increase understanding of American history through exhibitions, public programs, and research that reveal the dynamism of history and its impact on the world today. N-YHS holdings cover four centuries of American history and comprise one of the world’s greatest collections of historical artifacts, American art, and other materials documenting the history of the United States as seen through the prism of New York City and State.

New York Historical Society Revising Development Plans

By on


The New York Times is reporting that the New York Historical Society’s plans to build an enormous tower in Central Park West has been seriously revised following heavy pressure from historic preservation interests:

After a year and a half of controversy and intense opposition by preservationists and neighborhood groups, the New-York Historical Society at 77th Street and Central Park West has abandoned its pursuit of a $100 million, 23-story luxury condominium tower, along with a five-story annex that would have risen above an adjacent empty lot the society owns at 7-13 West 76th Street.

Instead, the society has embarked on a $55 million, three-year renovation of its galleries, entrance and facade that will create a permanent main-floor exhibition hall showcasing some of its treasures, an interactive multimedia orientation program in its auditorium, an 85-seat cafe and a below-ground children’s gallery and library, society officials said…

A wide coalition of opponents had criticized the height of the tower — 280 feet, doubling the 136-foot height of the current structure — and had charged that the tower would deform the skyline of Central Park West and cast a shadow on Central Park. The society’s building has landmark status individually, and as part of the Upper West Side-Central Park West Historic District and a smaller domain, the Central Park West-76th Street Historic District.

The New York Historical Society is the city’s oldest museum and research library. It was founded on November 20, 1804. Facing economic distress and inadequate management the society limited access to its collections in the early 1990s. In 1988 hundreds of paintings, decorative art objects, and other artifacts were discovered in horrendous conditions in a Manhattan art warehouse. That same year, the board dismissed nearly a quarter of its museum staff, closed half of the gallery space and curtailed visiting hours. James B. Bell, the society’s director since 1982, resigned.