The Prince of Rails

There's an illuminated banner there that was carried in Lincoln for President rallies in 1860. It calls him "Old Abe: Prince of Rails." Everybody in the nineteenth century was old. Old Hickory (Jackson). Old Rough and Ready (Taylor). Lincoln was only 51 years old when elected president, but in his touching farewell address to his neighbors in Springfield, Ill., he refers to himself as an old man.

That Prince of Rails line was a great joke. In October 1860, in the middle of the four-way presidential race, the Prince of Wales became the first British royal ever to visit the United States. Lincoln's supporters were proud of his humble beginnings, and the "prince of rails" line was a way to emphasize his hard physical labor.

The exhibit shows a life mask done of Lincoln's homely face and his powerful hands.

They're from 1860, when he was nominated for president. The Museum folks made a copy of the right hand, which is holding part of a broom handle, and you can match your own hand to his. Lincoln had been shaking hands all day when the mold was cast, so he went into the back yard of his Springfield home and sawed that broom handle to steady his right hand.

I used to tell my high school students how Gov. Nelson Rockefeller had shaken hands with an elderly man named Henry Herndon in Indiana in 1968. Rocky was tickled. That's because as a boy, Henry Herndon had shaken hands with Abraham Lincoln. And I shook hands with the governor in 1971. So when I shook hands with them, my students had a direct link to President Lincoln. Now, to make it even better, I recently shook hands with Navy Petty Officer Longstreet, a descendant of Confederate Gen. James Longstreet. That gives me my link to Robert E. Lee!

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