Monday, January 19, 2009

bibles for historical occasions

When Barack Obama is sworn in as the 44th President of the United States, he will be using the same Bible that Abraham Lincoln used at his first inauguration in 1861. Much has been made of the symbolism of the moment, and of the many connections between the two men from Illinois, the one who freed the slaves and the one who will be our first African-American President.

The physical presence of Lincoln's Bible is key to making that connection explicit. It's not a physically imposing bible, as you can see from pictures. It's easily held, bound in burgundy velvet with gilt edges.

What I find the most interesting about it is that although it holds a great deal of significance to us, it did not for Lincoln. Lincoln's own family Bible was still en route to Washington with the rest of his belongings, so Supreme Court Clerk William Thomas Carroll purchased this Bible for the swearing-in ceremony. The Bible itself (an 1853 Oxford edition) was opened to a random page when the oath was administered. (There's a compilation of inaugural Bibles used and scriptures chosen put together by the Library of Congress.) But the importance of this object is brought home in Carroll's inscription at the end, certifying that this is the copy of the Bible that was used to swear in President Lincoln.

(A full set of images of Lincoln's Bible is on flickr.)

Lincoln's Bible is in contrast to the one that Joe Biden will be using when he is sworn in as Vice-President. He'll be using the same Bible that he's used every time he was sworn in as a senator, and that his son has used as Delaware's Attorney General, a Bible that has been in the family since 1893. As you can see from this photo (taken for the New York Times by Stephen Crowley), in which his wife Jill pretends to be staggering under its weight, this is no easily carried book.

According to news reports, Biden almost didn't have the Bible with him for the Senate swearing-in, but made it in time, complete with jokes about its size. (There's a nice story about this in Delaware Online.) Jokes aside, though, it is clearly something that is important to Biden and an integral part of how he sees taking office.

I've been struck with these stories about the Bibles being used for this Presidential Inauguration, and for others, because they aren't about what the Bible means. That isn't irrelevant, by any means. I happen to be fond of the story about John Quincy Adams, who took his oath of office upon a "Volume of Laws" because it was the Constitution he was swearing to protect. But what is driving so many of these stories is an emphasis on the physical book itself. Biden's Bible has been passed on through his family for generations. When Obama lays his hand on the Bible to become our 44th President, he is touching the same book that our 16th President did. The physical book makes connections through the generations.

I'll close with a couple of images of historical Bibles in the Folger's collections. Neither will ever be chosen to swear in a new President, and that's just as well--I don't think their resonances will play as smoothly.

The first is a copy of the 1568 Great Bible presented to Queen Elizabeth and probably used in her private chapel. It is bound in a crimson velvet with silver clasps and bosses engraved with Tudor roses and her coat of arms. It's a lovely book. (Full catalogue record here.)

The second is less beautiful but perhaps more haunting. It's a Salisbury Book of Hours that was given to Henry VIII by Anne of Cleves, also known as wife number four. At the back of the book she has written, "I besiche your grace h[umble?] when ye loke on this remember me. yo[u]r gracis assured anne the dowgher of cleues." (See the catalogue record.)

What did Henry think when he looked upon this? I can't imagine. But I do like knowing that she got to keep her head long after his had been laid to rest. Perhaps her Book of Hours helped her navigate her way past him.

No comments: