Some clichés are more tiresome than others: “The pen is mightier than the sword,” for example. Then you see in front of you a pen that actually was, and cliché turns into revelation.
The item in question is the pen Abraham Lincoln used 150 years ago to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. It’s in a small exhibition at the Massachusetts Historical Society, “Forever Free: Lincoln & the Emancipation Proclamation.” The show runs through May 24, as do the equally small “Abraham Lincoln in Manuscript and Artifact” and the more substantial “’Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land: Boston Abolitionists, 1831-1865.”
The pen is just a pen — except, of course, that it’s not. There’s nothing fancy about it. The pen has a cedar handle, with a steel mounting for the metal nib. There are ink stains on the handle. Carl Sandburg, that shameless gasbag, claimed to be able to detect teeth marks. Whether chewed or not, the pen has the beauty that comes of forthright functionality. Then there is the astonishing association it came to possess.
Maybe sword isn’t the right weapon. In his book “American Ground: The Unbuilding of the World Trade Center,” William Langewiesche writes that, “For thirty years the Twin Towers had stood above the streets as all tall buildings do, as a bomb of sorts, a repository for the prodigious energy originally required to raise so much weight so high.”
Well, this pen proved to be a bomb of sorts, too. Certainly, it was a fuse. Packed within it was the prodigious moral energy — passion or righteousness might be a better word, but both come down to energy — that led to the ending of slavery in the United States. The power of that energy is evident throughout the stern, unyielding faces to be seen in “’Proclaim Liberty Throughout All the Land.’” These men and women were closer in time to the Puritans than we are to them, and that closeness shows. Men like William Lloyd Garrison, women like Harriet Beecher Stowe (more demurely, true, but, if anything, far more effectively) were akin to human turbines, generating enormous force.
Why should they have cared so much? What could have powered these turbines? Civics-class answers won’t do. Of course slavery was a horror. But it was a horror that was far away. It was a horror that, in the form of King Cotton, provided handsome profits for New England textile owners. And then, no less than now, the world did not lack for horrors.
The answer may not lie in the texts and images in “Proclaim Liberty,” though some of them can be very powerful indeed. Southworth & Hawes’s daguerreotype of the branded hand of Captain Jonathan Walker is one of the great polemical images of the 19th century, still shocking in its simplicity and directness. After being apprehended trying to help slaves escape in Florida, Walker was sentenced to have his hand branded with the letters “S.S.,” for “slave stealer.” An extended hand, that universal symbol of greeting, reveals evidence of barbaric cruelty. Or there’s the letter from Anthony Burns, a fugitive slave who’d been returned to bondage in Virginia, pleading for help in regaining his freedom.
Yet their impact pales before that of two objects in the show: an iron yoke used on slaves, as might be used on cattle; and a branding iron, also used on slaves. It takes nothing away from Southworth & Hawes or Captain Walker to note the lesser appeal branded slaves held for daguerreotypists. Seeing these items, even 150 years after the end of slavery, one feels a sense of consternation. What must it have been like to see them
then, knowing that the use of similar items was going on in this country? Seeing these items, one understands better the moral provenance of two others in the show: the imposing stone Garrison used to put together his newspaper, The Liberator; and, even more perhaps, John Brown’s five-shot revolver.
“Abraham Lincoln in Manuscript and Artifact” (the artifacts are hand and face casts, made in 1860) includes the future president’s 1855 letter to his friend Joshua Speed. Lincoln was a man stern but not inflexible. It took months of war to make him an Abolitionist. Yet even the better part of a decade before that, he could write of how the sight of “ten or a dozen slaves, shackled together with irons,” in 1841, “was a continued torment to me.” No stranger to torment, Lincoln surely did not use that word lightly. Did Sandburg ever see the pen with which he wrote those words? That particular implement, one suspects, really was chewed upon, and to no small degree.Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.