- The Washington Times - Monday, January 13, 2003

It is not surprising to see an American flag at an exhibit about freedom, but it is surprising to find one with just nine stripes and 20 stars.
In 1859, the official flag had 13 stripes representing the original 13 Colonies and 33 stars standing for the states then in the Union, but the Stars and Stripes displayed in the new exhibit, "Freedom: A History of US," was made by abolitionists, who removed the stripes and stars of the slave-holding states.
The exhibit, at the New-York Historical Society (www.nyhistory.org) through Jan. 26, moves to the Decatur House in Washington on Feb. 4 and will run there through Feb. 14. It comprises 200 documents and photographs from two private collections. Some are well-known; many have never before been shown publicly.
"This is a once-in-a-lifetime exposure to American history," says Jim Basker, president of the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History (www.gilderlehrman.org), holder of one of the collections. "There is a thrill that comes from being in the presence of the real materials, like a piece of speech notes that Lincoln carried around in his sweaty pocket. It gives you goose bumps to think about where these documents have been."
The exhibit was developed to run in conjunction with an eight-week television series of the same name on how the American concept of freedom has evolved over 200 years. It airs nationally on PBS this month and on WETA Channel 26 Sunday at 6 p.m.
Broken into themes including "The Young Republic," "A Nation Divided" and "Emancipation," the exhibit focuses primarily on the founding era of the country and the 19th century through the Civil War.
One item, described by Mr. Basker as "breathtaking," is a draft of the U.S. Constitution dated August 1787, positioned next to a final copy printed a month later that belonged to Benjamin Franklin.
The draft begins, "We the people of the States of New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island ," while the final text begins, "We the People of the United States "
"Somewhere in between, the idea of one nation took off. Somewhere in those four weeks, you literally have the birth of the sense of a nation," Mr. Basker says. "The [Founding Fathers] worked themselves up to a state where they could imagine one country, instead of 13 confederated states."
Other highlights:
A letter in which president-to-be George Washington tells a friend, "It is among my first wishes to see some plan adopted by the Legislature by which slavery in this Country may be abolished by slow, sure & imperceptible degree."
A hand-colored engraving of the Boston Massacre by Paul Revere.
A letter from ex-slave Frederick Douglass offering affection to a former master and his family. "I love you, but hate slavery," Mr. Douglass wrote.
A Matthew Brady photograph of Gen. Robert E. Lee with a Confederate uniform hand-painted over the general's regular clothing because Mr. Brady couldn't get wartime access to him.
An 1864 letter from Abraham Lincoln to Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant saying that despite heavy Union losses, "I begin to see it. You will succeed. God bless you all."
A huge recruitment poster urging blacks to join the Union Army: "Men of Color: To Arms! To Arms! Now or Never."
The documents come from the Gilder Lehrman collection; almost all the photographs are from the Meserve-Kunhardt Collection (www.picturehistory.com), which Frederick Hill Meserve began collecting in 1897 to honor his father, who fought at Antietam.
Along with generals, presidents and senators, many of the photos depict ordinary Civil War soldiers. Some are paired with heartbreaking letters to wives and mothers.
"The Civil War was the first time that grisly images of war were photographed, the first time we saw slain bodies on the field, unburied," says Philip Kunhardt, Mr. Meserve's great-grandson. "It was the first time a war was brought home to the living rooms of everyday Americans, with all its horror palpable."
A traveling exhibit featuring copies of most of the documents and photos will tour 19 U.S. cities in addition to Washington including Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Richmond and Roanoke-Lynchburg, Va.

Sign up for Daily Newsletters

Manage Newsletters

Copyright © 2020 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

Please read our comment policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide