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Must read: New Lincoln exhibit tells how NYC shaped his image

NEW YORK - Abraham Lincoln visited New York City only five times in his life, and only once as president, yet the growing 19th-century metropolis played a central role in burnishing his enduring public image.

That's the point of a new exhibition, 'Lincoln and New York,' that opened Friday at the New-York Historical Society on Manhattan's Upper West Side to celebrate the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth. The exhibition runs through March 25.

It begins with Lincoln's historic speech at Cooper Union in 1860 and the iconic Mathew Brady photograph taken the same day, more than two months before he won the Republican presidential nomination. The events led Lincoln later to state: 'Brady and the Cooper Union speech made me President.'

It concludes with his 1865 funeral procession down Broadway, an event attended by hundreds of thousands of mourners. Along the way, it traces New Yorkers' varied reactions to Lincoln, from veneration to vilification.

There are many other Lincoln bicentennial exhibitions around the nation, but the one thing they all miss, said Harold Holzer, the exhibition's chief historian, 'is how Lincoln achieved the status he achieved, and how did it morph into something approaching secular sainthood over a period of only four years.'

Filling six galleries, the exhibition shows how New York City's place as the center of media, commerce and finance enabled it to transform Lincoln's image 'from the debater and jokester to a serious, learned, dignified politician fully capable of taking the country through what became the secession crisis,' Holzer said.

During the 1860s, New York had 174 daily, weekly and monthly newspapers, all wielding huge influence over the emerging and changing political scene.

'Because of the power of the New York media and the influence of New York politicians, Lincoln's New York visits transformed him, from a prairie politician, and an ungainly one, into a serious alternative for the nomination of the presidency' in 1860, said Holzer, the author of numerous books on Lincoln, including 'The Lincoln Image' and 'Lincoln at Cooper Union.'