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About the cover

  D e s e r t   E x p o s u r e   November 2009


Self-Made President

The Branigan Cultural Center hosts a major traveling exhibit marking the bicentennial of Lincoln's birth.

By Jeff Berg

"These capitalists generally act harmoniously and in concert, to fleece the people." — Abraham Lincoln

He's in your pocket, in your wallet, on the Illinois license plate, all over Washington, DC, and someplace it is noted that there are more than 16,000 books about his short life, not to mention hundreds of streets, towns and miscellaneous things named after him.


But now, at long last, Abraham Lincoln is coming to Las Cruces — sort of.

Beginning on Nov. 20 and running through Dec. 18, the Branigan Cultural Center will be one of only 40 institutions nationwide to host an amazing traveling exhibit, "Abraham Lincoln: Self-Made in America."

The exhibit comes from Springfield, Ill., which itself has many Lincoln claims to fame, and was put together by the Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum there. The program commemorates the 200th anniversary of Lincoln's birth, and is sponsored by the National Endowment of the Arts and the History Channel.

Dr. Dwight Pitcaithley, the former Chief Historian of the National Park Service and now a professor of history at NMSU, will be speaking at two events during the course of the exhibit. He'll talk at the grand opening on Nov. 20 and again on Dec. 5, on "Lincoln's Lasting Influence in New Mexico."

When one thinks of Lincoln's possible influence in New Mexico, it seems there would be little if anything that connects Honest Abe to the state beyond the fact that Lincoln County (which once encompassed nearly a quarter of New Mexico Territory), the town of Lincoln and the Lincoln National Forest bear his name.

But Pitcaithley begs to differ, pointing to the role of slavery in the origins of the Civil War. "In 1860, New Mexico had maybe 20 slaves (although that does not include other people subjected to coerced labor, such as American Indians and Mexican 'peons'), but we did have a Slave Code," Pitcaithley explains. "Miguel Otero, who was then the territorial representative of New Mexico, was married to a Southern belle, so he of course, favored slavery and supported the Slave Code. The territory itself was divided, with southern New Mexico — because of its ties to Texas — having pro-slavery sympathies, while support of slavery in the northern part of the state was non-existent."

In general, a Slave Code was a document that provided for the treatment of slaves by their owners, and the one for New Mexico "restricted slave travel, prohibited slaves from testifying in court, and limited the owners' right to arm slaves," according to the BlackPast.org web site: "This code was implemented to keep blacks out of New Mexico (there was an influx of runaway slaves from Texas) and preserve Native Americans as the major group of enslaved workers." It also prescribed fines or other punishment for anyone found helping a slave escape.

The Code required blacks living in New Mexico to post the sum of $200 to insure "good behavior," banned intermarriage, and required newly freed blacks to leave New Mexico within 30 days of manumission.

Otero helped draft one of the most extensive slave codes in the country, but it was never ratified by Congress, which fortunately was too busy with other things.

"John Tyler, the former president of the United States, stated during the Virginia Secession Convention that slavery had to move westward, and how would it get to the beautiful Mesilla Valley?" Pitcaithley says.

One answer was to come via the railroad. Four transcontinental lines were being planned in the 1850s, one of which was to follow a southern route, into New Mexico — one of the reasons for the Gadsden Purchase. A lesser-known reason for that 1853-54 deal, heavily influenced by Jefferson Davis, who was to become president of the Confederate States, was to allow New Mexico a chance to have slavery.

"The issue of slavery in the western territories was clearly a factor in many things," Pitcaithley says. "Utah and New Mexico are the most discussed, but everyone knew that Utah would never allow slavery, so New Mexico was the issue."

Pitcaithley notes that, of the 60 proposals on slavery aimed at resolving the issue short of secession and war, 49 concerned the western territories. He says that slavery would have been used for mines in Colorado and that California, like New Mexico, was split by the issue, with southern California very much for slavery.

When the Civil War did start and find its way to New Mexico, Confederate forces arrived in late July 1861, and Mesilla became the rebels' "capital." It remained so until the advancing Confederates were defeated at a battle in Glorieta, just north of Santa Fe, in March 1862. By the end of July of that year, all the Confederate troops had retreated back to Texas.

The traveling exhibit focuses not only on Lincoln's Civil War role but also on his younger days and pre-political careers as a surveyor and lawyer. It includes reproduced artifacts such as some of his favorite books, a campaign banner and even a stovepipe hat, which, it is said, he used as a briefcase to carry his important papers.

One interesting connection that Lincoln does have to New Mexico concerns something called "Lincoln Canes." These canes were presented in 1864 to the 19 Pueblo Indian Governors. Drawing from a tradition implemented by the Spanish and Mexican governments, the ebony canes, capped with a silver crown inscribed "A. Lincoln," were given in recognition of the Pueblos' newly received land patents and sovereignty. These canes have been passed down as the symbols of the authority of the office of the Pueblo governor ever since.

As for early New Mexico government beyond the Pueblos, a state history notes, "Lincoln's leadership in the Civil War era, coming as it did so soon after American sovereignty over New Mexico, made the then-fledgling Republican Party a strong force in early New Mexico politics."

But Pitcaithley adds, "Lincoln did mention New Mexico on occasion, but mostly to give a name to the territory to which he was referring. In a letter to William Seward on Feb. 1, 1861, however, he got a bit more specific. The letter describes his inflexibility toward compromising on the expansion of slavery into the western territories of New Mexico and Utah. The final paragraph reads:

"'As to fugitive slaves, District of Columbia, slave trade among the slave states, and whatever springs of necessity from the fact that the institution is amongst us, I care but little, so that what is done be comely, and not altogether outrageous. Nor do I care much about New-Mexico, if further extension were hedged against.'"

No wonder the Republicans have had limited success in New Mexico in most of the years since. . . .

For more information about the "Abraham Lincoln: Self-Made in America" exhibit, visit www.alplm.org/learning_station/exhibit.html Additional information will be added to the Branigan Cultural Center's web site, www.las-cruces.org/museums, in the coming months.

Senior writer Jeff Berg was born in Illinois, the Land of Lincoln. He lives in Las Cruces.



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