The Barton Collection

This year the nation commemorates the bicentennial of the birth of Abraham Lincoln. Born in Kentucky on February 12, 1809, raised in Indiana, and brought to national attention by his political career in Illinois, Lincoln was indelibly shaped by the traditions and values of the West. In the decades following the trauma of the Civil War and the President's assassination, veneration of Lincoln became widespread in politics, popular culture, and intellectual life. Nowhere was this impact more strongly felt than in Illinois, the state that Lincoln had called home.

Among the most devoted students of Lincoln was the Rev. William Eleazar Barton (1861-1930). Born in Illinois in the same year Lincoln assumed the presidency, Barton grew up in an environment heavily influenced by reverence for Lincoln. After graduating from Oberlin Theological Seminary in 1890, Barton served several parishes before becoming the pastor of the First Congregational Church of Oak Park, Illinois. Barton devoted the last decade of his life to Abraham Lincoln, publishing books and articles, delivering lectures, and collecting books, manuscripts, prints, ephemera, and artifacts. Barton traveled widely in Kentucky, Indiana, and Illinois to visit Lincoln sites and acquaintances, and he also purchased historical materials amassed by other Lincoln collectors such as John E. Burton and Osborn H. Oldroyd. 

In 1932, at the urging of Professor William E. Dodd and other faculty members in the Department of History, the University of Chicago Library acquired the William E. Barton Collection of Lincolniana. The collection included thousands of historical books and documents associated with Lincoln and Lincoln studies; a signed broadside copy of the Emancipation Proclamation; letters of Lincoln and other figures of the Civil War era; Lincoln portraits, photographs, and paintings; and a large amount of ephemeral and artifactual material related to Lincoln, his parentage, Lincoln sites, and the Civil War.

In the summer of 1934, portions of the Barton collection were exhibited in the Illinois Host House at the Century of Progress Exposition in Chicago. Later that year, the Barton collection was installed in the Lincoln Room, a dedicated museum space in Harper Memorial Library, where it remained on public display for the next decade. In 1953, the Barton collection became part of the newly established Department of Special Collections (now the Special Collections Research Center). The books, documents, and artifacts in the Barton collection remain an important source of original research materials on the Civil War era and a vivid testimony to the continuing resonance of Abraham Lincoln in American national memory.