Abraham Lincoln springs to life at Campus Martius

MARIETTA – Playing Abraham Lincoln once – albeit in a Steven Spielberg film – could net Daniel Day-Lewis his third Oscar trophy on Sunday, but John Cooper of Baltimore, Ohio, has been embodying the nation’s 16th president for nearly 25 years.

Cooper spoke in character to children and adults on Monday, Presidents Day, at the Campus Martius Museum in Marietta. In the morning, a quartet of children participated in a two-hour session that allowed them to ask questions of the revered president, in addition to writing with quill pens and other activities.

Around noon, more than 70 children and adults – not quite four score – listened to Cooper-as-Lincoln speak of the president’s early life, including his activities on the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.

“What you may not know is I am an old riverboat man myself,” Cooper said after remarking on Marietta’s own riverboat heritage.

He described how Lincoln fell into his first job after paddling two men out to the middle of the Ohio from the Indiana shore so they could board a riverboat. As they exited Lincoln’s craft, each man turned and tossed him a 50-cent piece.

“Never in my life could I imagine earning a whole dollar in such a short time for such little work,” Cooper said.

The young Lincoln continued to make money in this way until a ferry captain accused him of operating a ferry without a license. The charge was dropped after Lincoln successfully argued his boat did not qualify as a ferry since he was not transporting passengers across the river.

“And so I won my first legal case as a teenager, long before I ever entertained any thoughts of becoming a lawyer,” he said.

He noted a proposal to improve river travel in Illinois was one of Lincoln’s main issues during his first foray into politics. Lincoln is the only president to hold a U.S. patent. It was for his method of getting riverboats over shallow areas without unloading their cargo, although Lincoln could never afford to produce it and the system was never used.

Tales like this and “self”-deprecating humor generated many laughs among the crowd.

“Everything I speak about and every story I tell has been documented (as) one that Lincoln told,” Cooper said.

But it isn’t just history that Cooper has to research, as the nation’s 16th president is appearing more and more in pop culture.

Cooper has watched Spielberg’s “Lincoln” three times in anticipation of people asking questions about it. He said many wonder about the behind-the-scenes scheming to acquire the necessary votes to ensure the passage of the 13th Amendment to abolish slavery.

“A lot of people say, ‘Well, being Honest Abe, would he have bought votes using patronage? Yes, he would,” Cooper said. “He was not above that. That was politics.”

While the setup of the movies – about efforts to pass the amendment before a lame-duck session of Congress ended – and portions of it are right, Cooper said there are some “glaring” historical inaccuracies. Still, he enjoyed the film and considers its popularity a positive.

“And it gets people talking about Lincoln and our country’s history, and that’s a good thing,” he said.

Cooper has watched National Geographic’s recently premiered “Killing Lincoln” film, but said his presentations are more accurate than the Bill O’Reilly book on which it’s based.

He has not bothered to view the other major Lincoln motion picture of 2012 – “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter.”

“We Lincolns were aghast at that, that the movie even saw the light of day,” he said.

Cooper’s presentations Monday appeared to impress audience members of various ages.

“We thought it was really cool and interesting to learn more about Abraham Lincoln,” said Tracy Dickerson, 12, of Davisville. “I was most interested in his childhood and how he lived.”

Dickerson’s sister, 10-year-old Shannon, and 8-year-old Marietta resident Ella McFarland said they enjoyed reading the letter Lincoln received from 11-year-old Grace Bedell suggesting he grow a beard to improve his prospects of becoming president.

McFarland said she was a fan of Lincoln well before Monday.

“I’ve always liked Abraham because he made the rule of letting the slaves out and he’s a good role model for kids,” she said.

The event got a thumbs-up from Marietta resident Dell Nicholas, 75, as well.

“I thought he did an excellent job. I learned a lot of things I didn’t know,” she said.