How much can a piece of paper be worth?
Quite a lot, if it has Abraham Lincoln's signature on it. The actual value of the over-sized sheet of paper that went on display Wednesday at the New-York Historical Society has not been disclosed. That, after all, would be vulgar. And vulgarity has always been the bane of the Historical Society.
The sheet of paper in question is a handwritten copy of the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery, signed by President Lincoln. David Rubenstein, head of the Carlyle Group, recently acquired the document and has lent it to the museum, where it will be on display until April 1.
For Rubenstein, a collector of historical treasures (including one of the 17 known copies of the Magna Carta), the Thirteenth Amendment marks a crucial turning point in American history. He explained its significance Wednesday noon to a group of New York City schoolchildren, in the eighth and eleventh grades at three New York schools, I.S. 259, the Kipp Academy and the Notre Dame Academy.
Rubenstein was introduced by the president of the Historical Society, Louise Mirrer, who quoted historian David McCullough that we are living through "an epidemic of historical illiteracy." She went on to say that "history has the power to change lives," citing particularly "the indelible thrill of living history by examining original documents."
Rubenstein began by quoting "the most famous sentence in history, written by a 33-year-old in Philadelphia" more than two centuries ago: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable Rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
The statement, he said, contained two fatal flaws. The word men excluded women and it meant specifically white men. "We fought a Civil War over that."
On Jan. 1, 1863, he pointed out, Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in the states that had seceded from the Union (and were thus no longer under his jurisdiction.) Nor did the Proclamation cover the Border States. It was not until January 1865, when the Senate finally ratified the 13th Amendment and the Civil War was close to being won by the North, that the slaves were actually freed.
"The president is not required to sign amendments," Rubenstein noted. "But Lincoln considered it an important document, which is why he signed his full name rather than just A.Lincoln. It is a symbol of our country finally getting rid of one of the fatal flaws in the founding documents."
One of the students asked Rubenstein if the document would have been worth as much if it had been signed by Andrew Johnson, who became president when Lincoln was assassinated.
Rubenstein answered that Lincoln was one of the most important men in history and has probably had more books written about him than anyone except Jesus Christ. As a result, he said, "I'm happy to have paid a higher price than I would have if it had been signed by Andrew Johnson."
After the presentation the students went downstairs to the new DiMenna Children's History Museum. The walls on the staircase leading to the basement have important historical dates leading one back to 1600, before the arrival of Europeans, when, as the murals depict, the island of Manhattan was wild forest.
The new children's museum, part of the Historical Society's recent $65 million renovation, uses interactive exhibits to bring history to life.
In one exhibit you select an election year. The computer screen shows you a gallery of photographs and asks which people could vote. Since the year I chose was 1852 I knew that none of the women could vote. Nor could the African-Americans. But nor could one of the white men I clicked on. He was not eligible because he didn't own property.
In another exhibit one can follow the life of Margrieta von Varick, who emigrated to Brooklyn in the late 17th century. She had been born in Holland but had grown up in Malaysia. She had a store in her house, selling items she had acquired in traveling to the New World from Malaysia. The exhibit shows the extent of her worldly travels, which spanned four continents.
When she died an acquaintance made an inventory of the items that were left -- giving us a detailed glimpse into life in New York 300 years ago.
Another exhibit outlines the life of James McCune Smith, the first African-American to become a doctor. His mother had been a slave and when he was born, in 1813, New York still had slavery. His superior intelligence was noted early on and the community paid for him to go to medical school in Scotland -- African Americans were not accepted in American medical schools.
He returned to New York and opened a pharmacy. He became an abolitionist and a good friend of Frederick Douglass, a statue of whom now stands outside the 77th Street entrance to the Historical Society. (Lincoln greets visitors on Central Park West.)
The new emphasis on children is, one hopes, an antidote for McCullough's "epidemic of historical illiteracy." I encountered this epidemic recently when I was in the hospital. I was chatting with a nurse who lamented the fact he did not have a college degree. I noted that a college degree no longer implied that the possessor knew anything, citing a statistic from many years ago, that an appalling percentage of Harvard graduates could not identify the time frame of the Civil War.
I asked if he knew when it took place.
"1500?" he replied.
I wish I could remember his name so I could urge him to visit the Historical Society's children's museum. The exhibits are so well designed even an aged person like myself found them instructive and entertaining.
For someone who has known the Historical Society for nearly four decades the changes are quite startling. In the '70s, the museum might almost have been described as a well kept secret, except for every few years when it put items from its collection of the original Audubon drawings on display.
The museum had a kind of stodginess that jibed with its being the oldest museum in the city.The New-York Historical Society was founded in 1804. The hyphen was part of the original title. Back then it signified that New York was an adjective modifying Historical Society. Few today are so fussy about punctuation. But fussiness was also part of the institution's identity.
Its founder was John Pintard, who was alarmed back in 1804 at how rapidly the city was changing -- and destroying its past, a lament that has echoed down the centuries. In the '70s the museum was still governed by families with names that personified Olde New York.
Like the old families in Edith Wharton novels, who had dignity and taste but less and less money, the museum was becoming down at the heels by the '90s. In the new century a change of management was receptive to new money. The airiness of the design of the renovated museum suggests the fresh air that now fills the place.
As I was leaving I noticed that there is now a restaurant on the main floor, an elegant Italian place called Caffe Storico. I couldn't resist. I had a bresaola panini and, for desert, an amaretto semifreddo with heirloom squash confit -- both delicious and quite unimaginable 40 years ago. The sunlit restaurant, which has dishes from the museum's antique collection on its walls, faces the south facade of the American Natural History Museum, that is, the landmarked side.
I was surrounded by people who would have to be described as chic. In Edith Wharton's time this might not have been considered a good thing. But I believe she's dead. Assuming that the diners have actually spent time in the museum (you can enter the restaurant without paying the museum admission fee), they can dress as chic-ly as they wish. That a museum once musty is now fashionable can only bode well.