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THE MAKING OF A NATION - America Remembers Abraham Lincoln's Assassination

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People visit the Lincoln Memorial in Washington Sunday, April 12, 2009. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
People visit the Lincoln Memorial in Washington Sunday, April 12, 2009. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

This week, Americans remember an important date in history: one hundred fifty years ago, President Abraham Lincoln was killed. Museums and historic organizations all around the country have special exhibits and events.

President Lincoln was the first American president to be assassinated. It happened in 1865 at Ford's Theater in Washington, D.C. This month, the theater is showing objects from that tragic night. The objects are on display together for the first time.

More than 150 Civil War living historians will be at Ford's Theater. They will recreate the events after the shooting.

Sic semper tyrannis

On April 14, 1865, Abraham Lincoln and his wife Mary sat in the presidential box at Ford's Theatre in Washington. They were watching a play, "Our American Cousin." Everyone heard a gunshot, and the president fell.

The gunman was John Wilkes Booth, an actor. He supported the Confederate side in the Civil War. After he shot President Lincoln, Mr. Booth shouted "Sic semper tyrannis." This Latin phrase means "thus ever to tyrants." Then he dropped his gun and ran away.

Mr. Lincoln was carried to a house across the street where he died the next morning.

Freedom for the slaves

Many people believe Mr. Lincoln is one of this country's greatest and most beloved presidents. He died just as he was leading the nation out of a long and bloody Civil War. More than 620,000 soldiers died in that war between the Union and the Confederacy.

Michelle Krowl is a historian at the Library of Congress. She considers saving the Union one of the most important successes of his presidency.

"There were times when Lincoln was not sure that the war would necessarily be won. But he saw the United States as an experiment in democracy … he didn't want that experiment in democracy to fail and his perseverance helped make sure that it didn't fail."

Ms. Krowl adds that, "When you read the Gettysburg Address and he says 'this is a Government of the people, by the people, for the people,' he meant that."

Historian Martin Johnson says the Gettysburg Address became popular and important very quickly because it told people the lesson of the War in a very short speech.

After the War, Johnson says, the speech was recited "over and over, hundreds of times across the Union and elsewhere... it became rooted very quickly in American memory about what the Civil War meant. "

"School children around the world learn the speech as part of their lessons in English because it is recognized as one of the finest speeches by any American."

Abraham Lincoln -- the man

Michelle Krowl says Lincoln's language ability came from his love of storytelling. He was also a patient man, with a great sense of humor, and was a devoted father.

She said, "You really see the more tender side of Lincoln when you hear or read about him interacting - particularly with his sons Willie and Todd during their White House years."

Tracey Avant is Curator of Exhibitions at Ford's Theatre. She says one of the objects on display shows that tender side. It is his signature top hat. The hat is in the exhibit "Silent Witnesses: Artifacts of the Lincoln Assassination."

She says, "It's a beautiful, iconic piece; everyone thinks of Abraham Lincoln with a top hat. But what I love about it is it's got this beautiful band that he put on it to remember his son Willie who had died in 1862 of typhoid fever. It still remained on the hat in 1865 and to me, I'm a parent, it speaks to how deeply he felt that loss."

The exhibit also includes the small gun that John Wilkes Booth used to shoot the president.

Avant describes it as the weapon that changed American history. "In one small moment," she says, "one of our greatest presidents was brought down."

Another favorite item is President Lincoln's eyeglasses.

She says, "The arm on it had broken off at some point and he clearly still wanted to use them so he used a little piece of twine to tie it back together, and to me that just humanizes him so much and makes you realize how humble he still remained even though he was the president of the United States."

What President Lincoln leaves behind

Even though he died young, Mr. Lincoln's ideas continue today. More books have been written about him than any other American president. His face appears on U.S. money. Millions of people visit his memorial on the National Mall in Washington.

Many recognize Mr. Lincoln's efforts during his presidency for helping to make the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s possible.

Michelle Krowl believes Mr. Lincoln would have been happy to see an African American as president 150 years after the Civil War. There has been progress, she says. But there is still much room for improvement.

One hundred and fifty years after the death of their 16th president, many American believe in Abraham Lincoln's vision. Like many who came before him, he saw a nation where all are created equal. Americans hope that this vision will be true one day.

I'm Jill Robbins.

I'm Jim Tedder.

Julie Taboh reported and wrote this story for VOA News. Dr. Jill Robbins wrote it for Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.

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Words in This Story

assassinate - v. to kill (someone, such as a famous or important person) usually for political reasons

tragic – adj. extremely sad; terrible

sic semper tyrannis motto. "thus ever to tyrants" in Latin; a call to resist cruel rulers

tyrant – n. a ruler who has complete power over a country and who is cruel and unfair

recite - v. to read (something) out loud or say (something) from memory usually for an audience

appeal - n. a quality that causes people to like someone or something

vision - n. something that you imagine : a picture that you see in your mind

Now it's your turn. What are your thoughts on the 150th anniversary of Lincoln's assassination? Have his ideas influenced the leaders of your country? Write to us in the comments section.

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