Throughout his life, Abraham Lincoln wondered if he would leave his mark on history. Today, 200 years after his birth, people around the world still find inspiration in his story.
Like no other American, his life is entwined with the history and culture of the nation. His rise from poverty to the presidency has inspired others to believe in the promise of opportunity; his triumph in preserving a democratic nation is one of our greatest triumphs; and his death is our American tragedy.
This unschooled politician from the western frontier has encouraged generations with his generous spirit and his willingness to give his life so that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
"Some men stand still, amazed, when the tempest darkens around them; others grow and rise to the height of the occasion; but few have ever grown and risen as did this man; his mind maturing and his views expanding under the stirring of his times."
—Robert Dale Owen, reformer and Indiana congressman, 1870
Gift of Theodore Mills, the artist’s son, 1889
Mill’s Mask of Lincoln
On February 11, 1865, about two months before his death, Lincoln permitted sculptor Clark Mills to make this life mask of his face. This was the second and last life mask made of Lincoln.
The strain of the presidency was written on Abraham Lincoln’s face. His secretary, John Hay, remarked on the dramatic difference in Lincoln’s two life masks. He noted that the first (displayed earlier in the exhibition) “is a man of fifty-one, and young for his years. . . . It is a face full of life, of energy, of vivid aspiration. . . . .The other is so sad and peaceful in its infinite repose . . . . a look as of one on whom sorrow and care had done their worst without victory is on all the features.”
As the nation mourned, Union soldiers were hot on the trail of John Wilkes Booth, who many in the audience had immediately recognized. After fleeing the capital, he and an accomplice, David Herold, made their way across the Anacostia River and headed toward southern Maryland.
The pair stopped at the home of Samuel Mudd, a doctor who treated Booth’s broken leg. (Mudd’s actions earned him a life sentence that was later commuted.) They then sought refuge from Thomas A. Jones, a Confederate agent, before securing a boat to row across the Potomac to Virginia.
On April 26, Union troops surrounded the Virginia farmhouse where Booth and Herold were hiding out and set fire to it, hoping to flush the fugitives out. Herold surrendered but Booth remained inside. As the blaze intensified, a sergeant shot Booth in the neck, allegedly because the assassin had raised his gun as if to shoot.
Carried out of the building alive, Booth lingered for three hours before gazing at his hands and uttering his last words: “Useless, useless.”
Four of Booth’s co-conspirators were convicted for their part in the assassination and executed by hanging on July 7, 1865. They included David Herold and Mary Surratt, the first woman put to death by the federal government, whose boardinghouse had served as a meeting place for the would-be kidnappers.