It’s April 14, 1861. News of the surrender of Fort Sumter has reached Washington, D.C. A first term president elected with less than 40 percent of the popular vote, you have been in office for a little over a month.
Your first crucial decision as president was to re-supply Union troops at a fort offshore from Charleston, South Carolina, one of seven states that declared their secession from the United States after your election. When the supply boats went out to Fort Sumter two days ago, Confederate forces opened fire.
In the face of open insurrection, immediate action must be taken. But Congress – the branch with constitutional authority to declare war – is out of session. What should you do? Wait for Congress to reconvene in the summer? Or use your authority as commander-in-chief to take military action to suppress the rebellion?
This was just one of the many crises that President Abraham Lincoln faced during the Civil War – a dark period in our nation’s history that officially began when the first shots were fired at Fort Sumter 150 years ago this week.
Back in 2005, we explored these issues in a traveling exhibition called Lincoln: The Constitution and the Civil War. Though the original exhibition is no longer traveling, it continues on in the form of a panel show. The Lincoln: The Constitution and the Civil War Panel Exhibition was made possible by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. In partnership with the American Library Association Public Programs Office, it will travel to 250 libraries, community centers and national parks across the country by 2015.
Before hitting the road, it is making a pit stop at the National Constitution Center. You can see the panel exhibition on display (free with museum admission) until June 19th. The exhibition explores three major constitutional challenges that President Lincoln faced during the Civil War: secession, slavery and wartime civil liberties. In a nation where questions surrounding partisanship, equality and liberty v. security remain at the forefront, these topics are very relevant to us today.
The exhibition also includes the award-winning, online game Abraham Lincoln’s Crossroads. Playable at the Center, at home or in the classroom, the game presents various crossroads of the Civil War (like the aftermath of Fort Sumter) and asks you to determine “What would Lincoln do?”
So what did he do? President Lincoln made many tough decisions during his four years in office. But at the heart of every challenge was his belief that “it is rather for us to be … dedicated to the great task … that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.”
That was Lincoln’s task, and today, 150 years later, it’s ours.