Filling the Void: President Lincoln's Cottage at Ten Years

Both before and after our Grand Opening exactly ten years ago this month, we’ve been fortunate to work with dozens of wonderful scholars. Working with scholars across many disciplines, we’ve certainly had a stronger interpretative and thematic foundation thanks to their assistance. For our ten-year anniversary, we asked our Scholarly Advisory Group the following prompt: In a few sentences or so, please answer what you think has been added to the Lincoln story by President Lincoln’s Cottage being open and available to the public. In other words, what void are we filling? What part of the Lincoln story is made possible by the Cottage being here? Or, why is the Cottage a must visit? Read below for their answers.

Michelle Krowl, Library of Congress

President Lincoln’s Cottage adds to the larger conversation about the life and legacy of Abraham Lincoln in several ways. But perhaps one of its greatest strengths comes from what might initially be perceived as a weakness. Whereas other Lincoln sites offer objects Lincoln used during his life or recreations of environments he might have encountered to interpret his life, the Cottage has fewer contemporary objects or documentary evidence of how Lincoln interacted with each room in the building. Instead of limiting what the Cottage has been able to offer visitors, the staff of the Cottage have been liberated to instead allow the walls to talk and focus on the ideas Abraham Lincoln would have thought about or discussed in the residence and on the grounds, rather than the exact chair he sat on while thinking. Visitors to the Cottage get a visual sense of the physical space Lincoln inhabited at the Soldiers’ Home, but also leave with a better understanding of the joys and sorrows he experienced there, and the larger issues of his day. As a “museum of ideas,” President Lincoln’s Cottage can extend the discussion of those ideas from Lincoln’s day into our own, whether it examines the nature of freedom, the history of immigration, or the rights of citizenship. At other museums visitors learn important lessons about Abraham Lincoln. At President Lincoln’s Cottage visitors also learn valuable lessons about themselves.

Chris DeRose, American Historian

The Cottage is the place where I feel closest to President Lincoln. He doesn’t have a Mount Vernon or a Monticello. But he did have a refuge from the national crisis. A place where he composed the most significant act of his presidency. Abraham Lincoln is associated with many sites. But none meant more to him.

Matt Pinsker, Dickinson Cottage

The opening of President Lincoln’s Cottage has provided visitors — and especially teacher and student visitors — with a unique opportunity to experience the legacy of the living and breathing Lincoln. Here is where he found private sanctuary during the difficult war. There was no other place in his life quite like it. But that also means that in this still-quiet space, modern-day guests can reflect more deeply than anywhere else on what he was like both as a person and a president and how his example might inspire them.

Harold Holzer, Hunter College

Unless one scores an invitation to Camp David or Mar-a-Largo — and actually accepts it! — there is no better way to imagine the life of our presidents than at the extraordinary President Lincoln Cottage at the Soldiers’ Home. Here visitors can step back in time to authentically experience Abraham Lincoln’s wartime summer residence, whose solitude he appreciated so much he ultimately spent up to half of each of his final years under its roof. Here Lincoln worked on his Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation, the act for which he knew he would be best remembered. There is no site like this one anywhere in Washington — a convergence of our greatest president’s public and private spheres in one spectacular setting that has been impeccably restored, meaningfully interpreted, and brilliantly programmed. It’s a treasure.

Jason Silverman (Advisory Group Chairman), Winthrop University (retired)

To many, Abraham Lincoln is larger than life. The Great Emancipator, the author of the Gettysburg Address and the Emancipation Proclamation, and the initiator of the only bill in American history to encourage immigration, we feel like we know him and his triumphs and tragedies. So, too, do we know of Camp David, the presidential retreat where presidents have been taking refuge since the 1950s. But, for Lincoln, his Camp David was the Cottage he visited very often at the Armed Forces Retirement Home and not enough people know that. To visit there is to absorb a side of Lincoln that seldom makes it into the history books. It was here that Lincoln sought relief from the horrors of war and to escape the stifling heat, humidity, and disease engulfing the White House. It was here that Lincoln met and conversed with wounded soldiers and learned more first hand about the war than he could had he sequestered himself in the White House. It was here where he drafted the Emancipation Proclamation. And it is here today where people can see and feel Lincoln in his Camp Davidesque world. But make no mistake; there were none of the amenities that modern presidents seek when they escape the White House. Lincoln listened, conversed, learned, reflected and decided when he was in the quiet confines of his Cottage at the Soldiers’ Home. No other Lincoln site to the best of my knowledge does a better job through talks, symposiums, exhibits, and tours to place Lincoln’s life and thoughts in context and to make them extremely relevant to today’s challenging and troubling world. Visiting the Cottage is getting closer to Lincoln in a unique and poignant way.

Chandra Manning, Georgetown University

President Lincoln’s Cottage allows for a contemplative encounter with Lincoln’s presidency that really is not possible elsewhere. At the Cottage, it is easy to imagine Lincoln engaged in conversation, an art form he valued and that we can strive to emulate there. Moreover, as President, Lincoln faced the gravest crises that have confronted the United States, searched for a way to end the centuries-long crime of slavery — which he came to regard as a shared national sin — while preserving the primacy of civil over military authority, and coped with personal tragedy, loss, and sorrow. Those struggles all took place within the walls of President Lincoln’s Cottage, and the Cottage’s spare interior makes room for us to enter into them in the interior of our own minds, and in conversation with others.

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