Rocking chair used by Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theatre the night of his assassination

Date: 14 April 1865   The Henry Ford, Dearborn, Michigan, USA
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Rocking chair used by Abraham Lincoln at Ford's Theatre the night of his assassinationPresident Abraham Lincoln (1809-1865) was sitting in this rocking chair during a production of Our American Cousin at Ford's Theatre in Washington, DC when he was assassinated on April 14, 1865.

Lincoln was elected president at a critical time when the nation was at a breaking point over issues of states’ rights and slavery. As a direct result of his election, eleven states left the Union before his inauguration in 1861, touching off the Civil War.

Lincoln was committed to preserving the Union. He believed that the United States was more than an ordinary nation, it was the testing ground for a unique form of democracy. Many, including Lincoln himself, described one of his greatest achievements as the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, which shifted the goal of the war from a fight to preserve the Union to one of freeing the enslaved. With Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Lincoln’s vision of an indivisible and more perfect Union was fulfilled.

When Lincoln was assassinated on April 14, 1865, the nation was stunned; after winning a four-year struggle to preserve the Union, the leader of that struggle was gone. As a natural reaction, Americans poured out their grief. For days, people filed past Lincoln’s body as it lay in state in the White House and in the Capitol Rotunda. Then it was borne by a funeral train to Springfield, Illinois, making stops in major cities along the way to allow grief-stricken Americans to pay their respects. Upon reaching Springfield, the president was laid to rest on May 4, 1865.

It took longer for the chair to emerge as a symbol of Lincoln’s greatness and personal sacrifice. The comfortable parlour rocker had been placed in the theatre box by the manager of Ford’s Theatre for Lincoln’s use that evening. After the assassination, enterprising photographers sold pictures of the chair to a public eager for images in an age before photojournalism, and the chair was used as evidence in the trial of the conspirators. It then languished in storage until it was purchased by Henry Ford for his museum and historical village.

For decades, visitors to The Henry Ford have sought out the Lincoln rocker, drawn to it not simply because of its role at the centre of a tragedy, but as a symbol of a beloved president. There is a unique sense of awe and reverence that the chair provides. As such, this rocking chair personifies the sacrifice made by Abraham Lincoln in fashioning a more perfect Union.

Acknowledgements: From the Collections of The Henry Ford.