The Story Behind the Lincoln Bible at Obama's Inauguration

Obama will be sworn in on the same Bible Abraham Lincoln used.

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I spoke with Clark Evans, the Library of Congress's head of reference services, rare books, and special collections division, about the Abraham Lincoln Bible that Barack Obama will be sworn in on at his inauguration next month. Excerpts:

This wasn't Lincoln's personal Bible?

It was not the Lincoln family Bible. That was probably traveling by train from Springfield [Lincoln's hometown, in Illinois] to Washington, so he had no personal copy of the Bible available for his inauguration on March 4, 1861. But William Thomas Carroll, clerk of the Supreme Court, had a few Bibles available. He'd given the same edition, published in Oxford in 1853, but a different copy to James Buchanan. Did Lincoln hold on to the Bible afterward?

After the inauguration, it remained with William Thomas Carroll and his wife, Sally. We don't know when the Carrolls passed it back to Abraham and Mary Lincoln, but it would have been shortly thereafter. Carroll was not just a passing acquaintance to the Lincoln family. When Lincoln's son Willie died in 1862, the Carrolls offered their vault in Georgetown for the body, and it remained there until 1865, when his body and Lincoln's went from Washington to Springfield. [The Bible] remained with the Lincoln family until 1928, when the wife of Robert Todd Lincoln, who died in 1926 and was the only Lincoln son to make it to adulthood, gave it to the library. From the pictures, the Bible looks to be showing signs of wear.

The condition is quite good, actually. It's not a leather binding. It's a burgundy-colored velvet, and over the last 150 or so years, some of the velvet has been crushed and stained in spots, but it's in very good condition. There's little that's required for its general use and care. This Bible is not distinguished unto itself. It's not a rare-edition Bible. An 1853 Oxford Bible with no historical associations would get $30 or $40 today. But by association, it becomes priceless. There is no way to put a dollar sign on it.

Whose idea was it for this Bible to be used in Obama's inauguration?

I would defer to anyone involved in the transition for that. I'm just talking as John Doe Citizen—but Obama will be taking the oath on the Bible used by the great emancipator, and he's the first African-American president. Both men are from Illinois. And both faced some controversy over their limited time in elected office. Lincoln served only a single term in the House of Representatives and was very much an unknown quantity to the eastern establishment in 1861 and seemed like an unlikely candidate to save the union. The Bible's inscribedwhat does the inscription say?

On the back flyleaf, you find the seal of the Supreme Court and a record of the event written out by William Thomas Carroll. What jumps out at you is that the Supreme Court justice at the time [who administered the oath to Lincoln] was Robert Taney, who had written the majority opinion in the Dred Scott decision of 1857 that permitted slavery to spread into the territories. There was a palpable tension between the justice and the president. 

  • Read more by Dan Gilgoff.
  • Read more about Obama's inauguration.