A Personal Glimpse of Lincoln, through Ezra Cornell’s Eyes


Ithaca, N.Y. (Sept. 9, 2015) “He looks much as the pictures represent him and I was favorably impressed with his appearance,” wrote Ezra Cornell in a letter to his wife, Mary Ann, on March 3, 1861.

“Tomorrow, God willing, he will be installed as the head of the Government, and I trust it may inaugurate a new era of honest and patriotic administration of laws.”

‘He,’ of course, is President Abraham Lincoln, and the meeting took place on the eve of his first Inauguration. The Cornell family recently donated the letter and other materials to the Cornell University Library Division of Rare and Manuscript Collections.

The public will have an opportunity to view the letter, alongside original documents, photographs and artifacts setting Cornell’s history in context with Lincoln and the Civil War, at a special viewing on Saturday, Sept. 19, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., on Level 2B of the Kroch Library on Cornell’s Ithaca campus.

Written in straightforward prose, the letter offers an unusually intimate glimpse of a pivotal moment in American history. Cornell’s assessment of Mary Lincoln is unsparing but kind, mentioning her “short plump body,” “fresh healthy look,” and “plain becoming attire.” For a fuller portrait, visitors can read the following day’s entry in Cornell’s diary, also on view, in which he recounts marching with the New York delegation and hearing Lincoln’s “forcibly” delivered Inauguration speech.

“Ezra Cornell is describing things exactly as he sees them. He doesn’t idealize Lincoln or his wife, and yet his optimism comes through,” said curator Lance Heidig. “At this point in time the country had been in turmoil and rigorous debate over the issue of slavery for so long, but here Cornell expresses sincere hope that this president and his government would be able to find peaceful resolutions.”

Curators will be on hand for the viewing, which takes place on Homecoming Weekend and offers one of the final chances to visit Cornell University Library’s “150 Ways to Say Cornell” and “Lincoln’s Unfinished Work” exhibitions, both of which close Sept. 30.

The event is free and open to the public.