I learned a lot about World War II from my father, who served in the Philippines. Being from the Motor City and often driving past the Highland Park Ford plant—which produced the Model T—I was familiar with the technological and industrial revolution of the 20th century too. I grew up inspired by the civil rights and anti-war movements of the 1960s and knew a good deal about the related people and events. But when it came to learning about the Civil War in high school, I found myself constantly surprised.
First, there were the battles—they were terribly destructive to life and property and the numbers of dead and wounded dwarfed every other American war. Then, there were the great men and powerfully independent women who made clear to me that the struggle for civil rights didn’t start with Rosa Parks and the women’s movement hadn’t begun with Betty Friedan. There was the technology, too—rifles that could kill at a quarter mile; railroad artillery; and the telegraph sending instant messages. Not all that long before the war no human thought, order, message, or idea ever moved any faster than a horse could run or pigeon could fly! It seemed to me that everything about the period was surprisingly ahead of its time.
When we started planning programs to support our new exhibition, "Abraham Lincoln: An Extraordinary Life," I wanted to relate the Civil War and President Lincoln’s leadership to the challenges our nation faces today. Lincoln first met with Frederick Douglass in 1863. It wasn’t for another hundred years that a president would meet in the White House as near equals with an African American to discuss improving the nation (LBJ and MLK in 1963). The first program in our series, held March 26, explored these intriguing relationships between presidents and civil rights leaders.
Before there was a National Academy of Sciences or Office of Science and Technology Policy set up to inform the president, Lincoln needed advice on science. He also needed help evaluating the countless and sometimes crazy inventions people presented to him to assist the war effort. Our next discussion (April 23), "Lincoln, the Smithsonian, and Science," focuses on Lincoln’s use of the Smithsonian Secretary as one of his science advisors. President Obama’s science advisor, John P. Holdren, will shed light on today’s challenges to presidential science advising. (If you can't make it to this discussion in person, we'll be webcasting it live. Submit your questions and comments here during or before the event.)
As the old saying goes, “if you think it’s new, think again.” The bicentennial year of Lincoln’s birth is a good time to reflect and to learn some surprising things about what our ancestors were thinking, doing, and confronting 150 years ago. Because so many issues are still major challenges today, studying the past offers a great opportunity to better understand the 21st century world in which we live. I hope you’ll join us for the upcoming discussions in the series, when we’ll discuss issues like presidential powers during wartime, civil rights, emancipation, and African Americans in the military. I’d love to hear from you about what you’d like to discuss—why do you think we should care about Lincoln?
Christopher Wilson is the Director of Daily Programs and the Program in African American Culture at the National Museum of American History.