Thursday, November 12, 2009

New Lincoln Books This Month

In the past few weeks, there have been a few Lincoln-related books released. Two are new hardcovers, two are new paperback editions of previously published books. Among them are a new collection of Lincoln photographs, an study of Lincoln's use of religious language, a dual biography of Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, and a book on the assassination.

Lincoln, Life-Size by Philip B. Kunhardt III, Peter W. Kunhardt, and Peter W. Kunhardt Jr. (Knopf, 2009, hardcover, 208 pages)

The Kunhardts, including the late Peter W. Kunhardt Jr., are documentary film producers and authors, who occasionally publish books related to their larger projects. This is their third Lincoln book, following Lincoln (1992), which was a companion to an ABC documentary, and this year's "Looking for Lincoln."

The thought behind this book is to take known photographs of Lincoln, including some pictures where Lincoln is only one person among many, and then to blow up Lincoln's face to life-size dimensions. It is an intriguing idea. Lincoln's face is very expressive in an odd sort of way, and there are so many images of Lincoln that the comparisons between them must be very interesting. My only concern is that some of these blown up images must be pretty blurry and grainy; otherwise, it sounds like an intriguing experiment that might offer new appreciation for Lincoln from the abundant photographs taken during his lifetime.

Lincoln's Gettysburg Address: Echoes of the Bible and Book of Common Prayer by A. E. Elmore (Southern Illinois University Press, 2009, hardcover, 280 pages)

Several books have been written about Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, including the recent The Gettysburg Gospel by Gabor Boritt and Gary Wills' Pulitzer Prize-winning Lincoln at Gettysburg. In both of these books and others, authors have rightly commented on Lincoln's use of religious imagery and language. None, to my knowledge, has focused only on the religious language until this book by A. E. Elmore, a professor of English at Athens State University in Alabama.

Such a study is long overdue. As significant as Wills' book is, with its effort to contextualize the address within its situational context -- including his fascinating presentation of the relationship of Lincoln's words to the nascent pastoral movement in cemetery design, he only devotes only one chapter to the words of the address itself. A careful consideration of the antecedents of the words, so many of which have complex layers of meaning, can only improve appreciation of Lincoln's careful use of language.

Giants: The Parallel Lives of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln by John Stauffer (Twelve, paperback, 448 pages)

The relationship between Lincoln and Douglass, often contentious given some of Douglass' writing about Lincoln during his administration, is most often remembered for Lincoln soliciting "my good friend Douglass'" opinion of his second inaugural address. ("A sacred effort," Douglass is reported to have replied.) However, the relationship was much more complicated, partially because both Lincoln and Douglass were self-made men who were best known for their ideas.

On the other hand, this is one of three recent books that have focused on Lincoln and Douglass. The relationship is intriguing, if only that Douglass' 1876 address about Lincoln at the dedication of the Freedman's Memorial may be the most honest assessment from any of his contemporaries. But three books in the past five years? Probably overkill. Having not read any of the three, I do not know which one should be read.

"They Have Killed Papa Dead!": The Road to Ford's Theatre, Abraham Lincoln's Murder, and the Rage for Vengeance by Anthony S. Pitch (Steerforth, paperback, 560 pages)

If there are too many books about Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, there are certainly too many about the Lincoln assassination. The interesting thing here is that Pitch has been a longtime Washington DC area tour guide, even appearing on C-SPAN, describing the events surrounding the assassination at their original location.

As such, I have no doubt that Pitch has an ear for the right way to tell the story, and I imagine that he has a wealth of stories to tell after his many years (given the 560 pages of the book, it appears that indeed he does have a wealth of stories). Will this book rival Blood on the Moon by Edward Steers Jr. as a must-have volume? Hard to say. It probably will be most interesting for serious students of the assassination looking for even more stories and details surrounding the tragic event.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Recent New Lincoln Books

Three books about Abraham Lincoln have been released in the past few days. One is a new volume; one is a reissue of a book out of print for decades; and one is a paperback issue of a recent bestseller.

Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief by James M. McPherson (Penguin, 2009, paperback, 352 pages)

McPherson is justly famous for his Pulitzer-Prize winning Battle Cry of Freedom, his one-volume history of the Civil War. Before and since, he has often written military histories about the war, including a well-received book on the Battle of Antietam.

Now the Civil War military historian turns his attention to the question of Lincoln's military leadership during the war. Given how central this was to Lincoln's presidency, it is amazing how poor the scholarship on this aspect of Lincoln's leadership has been over the years. One hopes that McPherson is successful in drawing more consistent and learned attention to Lincoln as commander in chief. And it is certainly a book that serious students of the Civil War have been awaiting.

Lincoln under Enemy Fire: The Complete Account of His Experiences during Early's Attack on Washington by John Henry Cramer, with an Introduction by Charles M. Hubbard (University of Tennessee Press, 2009), hardcover

This book, a reissue of the 1948 edition with a new introduction, sorts through all of the eyewitness testimony regarding Lincoln watching the 1864 battle at Fort Stevens on the northern outskirts of Washington. Cramer, a historian at what was then Youngstown College (now Youngstown State University) carefully recreates the most likely events surrounding how Lincoln came directly under enemy fire that summer day.

In some ways, this was the most audacious story of the war, with an American president voluntarily traveling toward a battle already in progress to see firsthand what was going on. A clear account of what happened surrounding that event is a worthwhile addition to the Lincoln bookshelf.

Walking with Lincoln: Spiritual Strength from America's Favorite President by Thomas Freiling (Revell, 2009), hardcover, 224 pages

This book seems to be an odd mixture of a religious daily devotional with Abraham Lincoln. Judging by an excerpt available online, Freiling combines stories about Lincoln, words by Lincoln, and Bible passages, covering fifty spiritual principles one can draw from Lincoln's example.

I am always fearful when someone writes about Lincoln's religious faith or example. The issues surrounding that debate are enormously complicated, owing to the fact that much of the evidence is anecdotal and second- or third-hand, meaning that some of it is highly suspect. Still, it appears from the introduction that Freiling is aware of this and refrains from claiming too much about Lincoln's religious beliefs. The devotional is an interesting genre for a Lincoln book, but given the complexity of the issue, might be wiser than a more traditional biography.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Book Review: Lincoln Legends: Myths, Hoaxes, and Confabulations Associated with Our Greatest President

Lincoln Legends: Myths, Hoaxes, and Confabulations Associated with Our Greatest President
by Edward Steers Jr.
(University Press of Kentucky, 2007), hardcover, 288 pages

With so many books and articles written about Abraham Lincoln over the last 150 years, and with the interest in Lincoln being so perpetually strong, it is inevitable that a number of mistaken stories have seeped into several biographies. "Mistaken," of course, is often a polite term. Alongside a number of legends that have grown over the decades through incorrect remembrances and exaggerations are a number of outright fabrications.

Edward Steers Jr., a Lincoln historian most known for his research into the Lincoln assassination, wades into several of these stories in Lincoln Legends: Myths, Hoaxes, and Confabulations Associated with Our Greatest President. In this book, Steers focuses on fourteen such stories, considering how they are often told, where they originated, and what credence, if any, they should be given.

These stories touch on all time periods of Lincoln's life. Many, such as questions about Lincoln's paternity and his New Salem romance with Anne Rutledge, are well known. Others, like the person of Andrew Potter, who figures prominently in many of the recent conspiracy theories surrounding the assassination, are likely unknown by all except the most voracious students of Lincoln stories.

The opening chapter, focusing on the log cabin enshrined at the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace Memorial in Kentucky, shows the pattern of Steers' analysis. He first presents the most common form of a legendary story -- in this case, the veneration of this cabin. Then he carefully tells the history of the legend, which in the case of the birthplace cabin begins in 1895 (over 80 years after Lincoln's birth) with an entrepreneur named Alfred Dennett, who thought that he could turn Lincoln's birthplace into a profitable tourist attraction. The story of Dennett's efforts, which are stranger than fiction, is well told by Steers, who then offers testimony by those who have defended the cabin as being authentic and by those who have challenged those claims. Finally, Steers offers his conclusion, which is that the cabin is a fake.

Steers is an engaging author. He tells the stories well, with humor and a human touch. He then proves to be a fair arbiter, weighing the evidence and testimony before offering his conclusions. Several of the chapters are exceptionally well done, including the four legends he recounts regarding the assassination: the previously mention Andrew Potter saga, the involvement of Dr. Samuel Mudd in the conspiracy, the "missing" pages of Booth's diary, and questions surrounding the man who held Booth's horse outside Ford's Theatre that fateful night.

Occasionally, Steers is a bit quick to form an either/or judgment about one of the legends, leaving out slightly more complex options, especially around the recent furor of the claims that Lincoln was gay. These are generally harmless -- and I might add, I almost always agree fully with Steers' conclusions.

However, the chapter on Lincoln's paternity, in which Steers considers claims that Thomas Lincoln was not really Abraham Lincoln's biological father, omits one significant factor in that controversy, which explains its persistence if not its veracity -- Lincoln himself wondered whether he, or his mother, was an illegitimate child. The reasons for this seem a little uncharitable -- Lincoln felt that he was nothing like his father, especially intellectually, and so looked for another genetic source for his intelligence on both sides of his family tree -- but they are likely the reason that William Herndon, Lincoln's law partner and greatest early biographer, pursued the question. While Steers rightly believes that the illegitimacy stories are farfetched, he fails to name their key source -- Lincoln himself -- which will always be enough to lead some to investigate these claims.

On the whole, though, Lincoln Legends is a satisfying volume, helping readers sort out fact from fiction in Lincoln biography. It is clear and efficient, brimming with entertaining anecdotes. For those unfamiliar with Steers' other work -- including Blood on the Moon, which is by far the best single book on Lincoln's assassination -- this book features the stamp of approval from Lincoln scholar de jure Harold Holzer, who provides the introduction. These readers will discover what Holzer and others know, that Steers is a first-rate historian whose considered views demand attention.

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Scholar Merrill Peterson passes away

University of Virginia historian Merrill D. Peterson, famous for his many books on Thomas Jefferson, passed away last week. The Washington Post ran the obituary today.

Over his career, Peterson wrote on many other subjects, including his 1994 book Lincoln in American Memory. This book, a Pulitzer-Prize finalist, echoed Peterson's first book, the Bancroft Prize-winning The Jefferson Image in the American Mind. In that book, Peterson chronicled the evolution of Jefferson's reputation and stature in American history. In Lincoln in American Memory, Peterson carefully chronicled Lincoln's image, and its evolution, in the years since his assassination.

While others have written on the topic, such as Lincoln-historian Benjamin Thomas a couple of generations ago. But no recent study had taken on the daunting task of tracking Lincoln's reputation -- in books, in memorials, in advertising, etc. -- for the (then-) past 130 years.

Since Peterson's book, sociologist Barry Schwartz has written a two-volume history on Abraham Lincoln in cultural memory. Even so, Peterson's book is an invaluable addition to the Lincoln bookshelf. Personally, I would place it on any list of "essential" Lincoln books, as does The Abraham Lincoln Book Shop in Chicago, which I notice has been updated to include Harold Holzer's Lincoln President-Elect (which I'm currently reading and enjoying).

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Random Recent Lincoln News

I've been playing catch-up for the past few days and haven't found/made time for Lincolniana. So, there are several blog posts bumping around in my mind and in some notes, including two book reviews. In the meantime, here's a few Lincoln-related stories that shouldn't be overlooked.

The Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College receives $850,ooo NEH grant

The National Endowment of the Humanities, as part of their "We the People" challenge grant program, has awarded its largest grant this year to Knox College's Lincoln Studies Center. The $850,000 challenge grant, which must be matched 3-1 in other fundraising (effectively Knox College must raise another $2.5 million) over the next 5 years, will be used to start a permanent endowment for the Lincoln Studies Center.

Ann (the irrepressible), also known as LincolnBuff2, has written a full article on her blog award the grant award and about the good work over the past decade of the center. The college has also posted a news release about the grant, including their many plans for the endowment proceeds, the most exciting of which sounds like funds for a salary, likely somewhat generous, for the center's director -- "intended as a position of distinction for a major scholar in Lincoln studies."

Lincoln Cottage website launches online educational feature about emancipation

Last week, President Lincoln's Cottage at the Soldier's Home launched another online interactive educational feature, "Lincoln's Toughest Decisions, Debating Emancipation." The presentation allows students to learn about how different members of Lincoln's cabinet advised him on the issue of emancipation by answering questions as one of those members. The program is interesting and seems to target Middle School age students. You can explore the online program for yourself here.

Abraham Lincoln Birthplace Shrine to close for renovations

The National Park Service is closing the Memorial Building, or as I like to more accurately describe it the Birthplace Shrine, for renovations from this week until sometime in 2010 -- the NPS site now says February 2010, but some previous reports have given a range of completion dates into next summer. Evidently the renovation will focus primarily on significant roof improvements and a new heating/cooling circulation system.

Mike Kienzler over at The Abraham Lincoln Observer wryly notes that the restoration of "the faux-Classical temple" which houses the fake birthplace cabin is probably a questionable use of money. I agree that the "traditional" or "symbolic" birthplace cabin, depending on who you ask, is almost certainly not the log cabin of Abraham Lincoln's birth. But the exterior shrine and the interior log cabin are organically related: the purported birthplace cabin, when initially placed in the shrine, was deemed too large for the memorial building, and the logs of the cabin -- then believed to be authentic -- were shortened so that it would be more aesthetically pleasing. (I came across this tidbit in Barry Schwartz' Abraham Lincoln and the Forge of National Memory, Univ. of Chicago, 2000, p. 282 and also found it in a NPS report on p. 57.)

So, was it good for you? Considering the Lincoln Bicentennial's effects

Brian Dirck, over at A. Lincoln Blog, posted an open question about the long-term impact of the Lincoln Bicentennial celebrations. He wonders whether all the Lincoln hoopla, and all of the books, lectures, panels, etc. involved, have increased our collective knowledge about Lincoln. He wonders too whether it has increased our academic scholarship about Lincoln.

The post ends with two questions to the blogosphere, which Dirck will himself address at some future date.
First, do we now have a better understanding of Lincoln than we did before the bicentennial, on a purely scholarly level? And second, is the national community, as a whole, stronger for having paused and engaged in this year-long act of celebrating Lincoln's life and career?
I don't know if anyone has read enough of the academic work published this year (books, journal articles, magazine articles, Internet pieces, speeches, etc.) to substantively answer the first question. I know that I have yet to read any of the big bicentennial books, especially the biographies by Ronald White and Michael Burlingame, so I am unwilling to comment about the recent scholarly output.

As for the second question, I think that the answer is yes and no. The awareness of Abraham Lincoln, judging by things like Lincoln-related book sales (and the Lincoln publishing industry is still very strong) and Lincoln-related TV programs, was already high even before the bicentennial, at least compared with other historical figures. I'm not sure that the bicentennial really added much to the already very real interest in all things Lincoln.

On the other hand, I imagine that the myriad of exhibits related to Lincoln this year, all across the country, have had some positive impact. From my perspective, both as someone who has read countless press releases for these exhibits, and visited some of them, I think that they were marvelous on numerous levels. Aside from the sheer number of Lincoln artifacts on display, there was obviously an attempt to contextualize these items for a large audience, especially to engage their interest by relating them to our times and to explain their historical milieu. If they were successful, they served to slightly improve the general American awareness of the art and science of history, which will benefit the national community in the years ahead.

However, I think it would be helpful to consider how the first Lincoln bicentennial effected both the Lincoln scholarship of the day and the national community. Merrill Peterson, in Lincoln in American Memory (Oxford, 1994), notes that much writing was produced in 1909, but "[t]he only truly important historical contribution was the Diary of Gideon Welles" (p. 186). Perhaps Peterson shortchanges some other writings of that year (I've not studied the 1909 publications closely), but I imagine he is mostly correct.

Still, I've always believed that the centennial outpouring about Lincoln led to the subsequent rebirth of Lincoln studies in the 1920s, and fertilized the popular imagination to embrace Sandburg's six-volumes, which might have laid the groundwork for modern Lincoln studies and their dual role in academia and popular publishing. Although there seems to have been an explosion of excellent Lincoln-related scholarship in the last 25-30 years, I imagine that the bicentennial may perpetuate, and maybe even increase, such widely-welcome studies for years to come.

The first centennial provided the impetus for a host of Lincoln-related memorial structures and sculptures, including the Lincoln Birthplace Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. While the bicentennial has mostly seen renovations instead of new edifices (such as yet another renovation of Ford's Theatre and the renovation of the Birthplace Memorial building), it has highlighted the wealth of such resources and perhaps will slow the decline in tourism to many of these. But any such impacts will likely be difficult to measure.

I look forward to reading Brian's answers to the questions he poses. But I think he's still hoping for more reader response before he adds his two cents. Here's hoping he gets it.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Lincoln Movie Updates

News about the new Robert Redford Lincoln-related project, "The Conspirator," has brought a comment from Steven Spielberg about his long-gestating Lincoln project. Brian Dirck over at A. Lincoln blog has posts about the news coverage here, here, and here.

Evidently Variety got Spielberg to comment on whether the Redford film will make it harder for him to make his movie. His response:
We are very happy that Redford will be doing this Lincoln movie. It is completely different from what our DreamWorks Lincoln movie will be, and we believe that it will add to the commercial potential of our film. Lincoln as a subject is inexhaustible.
Perhaps Dirck is right in his assessment that the script must not be finished yet. I think that Spielberg had an opportunity to film it this fall, if he had wanted. Obviously, something is holding the project up, and I don't think it's funding anymore.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Inspecting Lincoln's Medicine Cabinet

There's a story out of Great Britain this week that the British Royal Society of Chemistry is looking to investigate the "Blue Mass" pills used by many in the 19th Century, including Abraham Lincoln. The RSC is hoping to find a pill to examine (and they're offering a reward, in case you happen to have one of these pills lying around).

Used to treat several ailments in the mid-1800s, blue mass featured mercury as a key ingredient. (Now it is known that high levels of mercury are dangerous.) Recent scholars believe that Lincoln used blue mass to combat his melancholy -- though Gore Vidal, in his novel Lincoln, suggests that Lincoln used blue mass as others commonly used it: to deal with constipation.

The most complete scientific analysis of Lincoln and blue mass was written by Dr. Norbert Hirschhorn, a noted physician, in a 2001 article in the journal Perspectives in Biology and Medicine. The article is available in full on Hirschhorn's personal website. In Hirschhorn's analysis, the high levels of mercury would have caused erratic personal behavior -- and which was sometimes attributed to Lincoln in the 1850s. Hirschhorn wonders aloud, in his dramatic final paragraph, if Lincoln's choice to stop taking blue mass at the start of his presidency had a significant effect on history:
If blue pills prompted Abraham Lincoln's remarkable behavior in the decade before he went to the White House, then his insightful decision to stop taking them may have been crucial to the outcome of the Civil War. Imagine a President Lincoln impaired by the bewildering effect of mercury poisoning while trying to cope with political intrigue, military reversals, the incompetence of his generals, and his own personal tragedies. His calm steadiness was at least as necessary in preserving the Union, it may be argued, as battlefield decisions, military appointments, or political strategies that history records as important for the success of the Federal cause. (Perspectives in Biology and Medicine, summer 2001, vol. 44, no. 3, p. 329)
I'm not qualified to judge much of the biology, but I find the discussion fascinating. Could the presence or lack of a little pill in someone's medicine chest affect the course of history? Not only are such discussion interesting cocktail party conversations, but sometimes they can get at the heart of the study of history -- the answer to the deeper questions behind "What Happened?" "Why Did it Happen?"

Monday, September 7, 2009

New Museum Honors Stephen A. Douglas

This weekend, the house in which Stephen A. Douglas was born opened as a museum honoring the legendary senator and presidential candidate as well as the community's history. Douglas, who was in many ways Abraham Lincoln's measuring stick for his political ambitions, was born in Brandon, Vermont.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Book Review: Lincoln's Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words

Lincoln's Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words
by Douglas L. Wilson
(Knopf, 2006), hardcover, 352 pages

In the recent resurgence of books about Abraham Lincoln, which rivals the output of the early 1900s in quantity and significance, there have been a number of books about individual Lincoln speeches. Beginning with the Pulitzer Prize-winning Lincoln at Gettysburg by Garry Wills, recent books by Harold Holzer, Gabor Boritt, and Ronald White have focused on the Cooper Union Address, Gettysburg Address (again), and the Second Inaugural Address, respectively. These books, and others like them, show the context within which Lincoln wrote these famous speeches and include an often excellent examination of the meaning of Lincoln's words.

Douglas Wilson goes deeper, though, in his excellent study Lincoln's Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words. While he refers to the context and meaning of the Lincoln works that he studies, he focuses on Lincoln's process of deliberately shaping his words. Focusing on writings and speeches of President Lincoln for which there are multiple drafts, Wilson paints a picture of a man who skillfully crafts his public statements through careful writing, editing, and re-writing.

Following an opening chapter on Lincoln's famous "Farewell Address," given as he departed his hometown Springfield for Washington to assume the presidency, where Wilson examines how Lincoln edited his extemporaneous remarks into a more polished speech for publication in newspapers, Wilson digs into several key Lincoln writings, including the famous speeches (First and Second Inaugurals and Gettysburg), key government papers (the Emancipation Proclamation, messages to Congress), and some public letters (notably Lincoln's famous response to Horace Greeley's editorial "The Prayer of Twenty Millions").

Wilson's observation that Lincoln meticulously prepared his words is not original; others have detailed how Lincoln carefully wrote things like the Cooper Union Address or the First Inaugural. In the case of the latter, attention has been paid to how Lincoln incorporated the advice of others who read a draft of his speech, famously Secretary of State-designate William Seward, into his final address. Wilson instead details how Lincoln consistently crafted his words and shows how the process allowed Lincoln to clarify his aims.

The analysis of the July 4, 1861 Message to Congress, in which Lincoln called for a massive increase in military spending to counter the rebellion, exemplifies Wilson's skillful attention to the nuances of Lincoln's drafting. One particularly interesting passage involves Lincoln's use of the word "sugar-coated" to describe the public rationale given by southern leaders supporting secession. The printer thought the word undignified; Wilson shows that it perfectly conveys the thrust of Lincoln's argument against secession.

At the end of this particular chapter, Wilson details some of the reactions to Lincoln's message, including a couple that remark favorably on Lincoln's skill as a writer. With these comments, Wilson begins the overarching and original argument of his book: Lincoln grew to recognize the power of his own words and became more confident and capable using them to shape public opinion and public understanding. Such an hypothesis is perhaps not novel; being a sophisticated reader able to demonstrate a shift in context through written words alone, though, is indeed unique. In the process, Wilson offers satisfying analyses of these selected writings and adds to the understanding of why Lincoln's writing remains so influential, while rather convincingly arguing that Lincoln's greatest attribute as a wartime leader was his disciplined writing.

It is not surprisingly that Wilson, co-director of the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College, offers such a sophisticated study, given his previous work with Lincoln. After spending years, with his co-director Rodney Davis, sorting through and editing all of the letters and interviews William Herndon collected about Lincoln's youth from people "who knew him when," Wilson then wrote the best account of Lincoln as a young adult: Honor's Voice, which won the Lincoln Prize in 1999. After spending years overseeing the transcription and annotation of the Library of Congress' collection of Lincoln materials, again with Davis, he wrote this fine volume, which won the Lincoln Prize in 2007.

It is difficult to quibble with Wilson's work. Certainly those without a working knowledge of the timeline of the Lincoln presidency will find it challenging to get their bearings, as Wilson supposes some familiarity with the Lincoln presidency and the issues surrounding the Civil War. However, the writing itself is clear and comprehensible, if not rather beguiling. It is a significant addition to the vast bibliography of Lincoln-related scholarship, particularly relating to Lincoln the writer, Lincoln the orator, and Lincoln the shaper of American memory.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

New Lincoln Film Announced; Evidently No Progress on Spielberg Project

In the past week, news broke of a new Lincoln-related movie project. The new project, to be directed by Robert Redford, will focus on one of the people convicted of conspiracy after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. You can read the brief AP story here or the best of the blog stories here.

Titled "The Conspirator," the movie will evidently focus on Mary Surratt, who owned the boardinghouse where Booth met with others to plan to kidnap Lincoln (hoping to exchange him for the release of tens of thousands of Confederate POWs) and later to kill him. While Surratt was never tied to those meetings (though her son John was apparently heavily involved), she was accused of housing the conspirators and taking items to the family tavern in Surrattsville, MD for assassin John Wilkes Booth to pick up on his flight from Washington. On the basis of this testimony, she was sentenced to death and became the first woman hung by the US Government.

Even before her execution, there were many who believed that Mary Surratt was innocent, and her involvement in the conspiracy has been debated over the years (a debate that is only slightly less passionate than the one surrounding Dr. Samuel Mudd, who set Booth's leg during his escape). As such, one wonders how Redford and screenwriter James Solomon will approach the touchy subject.

On an aesthetic note, one also wonders which Redford will show up. Will it be the director of the masterful "Quiz Show," the Oscar-nominated film that looked into the game show scandals of the 1950s? Or will it be the director of "The Legend of Bagger Vance," a 1920s period piece about golf, which just may be the worst high-profile film ever made?

This now makes three high-profile Lincoln-related projects in the works. In addition to this one, there is also the long-gestating Steven Spielberg project, based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's "Team of Rivals," and another assassination-related project, based on James Swanson's "Manhunt: The 12-Day Search for Lincoln's Killer," once supposed to be a film starring Harrison Ford, but now in development as a miniseries for HBO.

Of the three, it seems that Redford's will beat the others to the screen, as it is slated to begin filming sometime this fall. There seems to be no movement on Spielberg's project -- certainly no recent news -- which all but ensures that production will not begin before 2010. As for the proposed HBO project, there seems to be no news about it in almost a year.

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Restored Lincoln Carriage Back on Display

Yesterday, a new exhibit at the Studebaker National Museum opened featuring the carriage Abraham Lincoln rode to Ford's Theatre on the fateful night of April 14, 1865. The dark green carriage was made especially for Lincoln and presented to him earlier in 1865.

Last year, the carriage underwent a careful restoration, funded by a Save Americas Treasures (SAT) Grant, which revealed Lincoln's initials on both doors in an elaborate raised golden pattern. The restoration also revealed that the carriage, which appeared to be painted black, was originally a dark green.

The carriage was sold after Lincoln's assassination, and was eventually purchased by Clement Studebaker and added to the company's collection. Now, evidently, the carriage is owned by the city of South Bend, Indiana (where the museum is), though it is a permanent part of the Studebaker National Museum collection. (This is only partially explained on the museum's website.)

A few years ago, the carriage was part of a fantastic temporary exhibit on Lincoln's assassination at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum. The first such exhibition at the then-brand new museum was "Blood on the Moon," which commemorated the 140th anniversary of the assassination. Along with the carriage, the exhibition also featured the Lincoln death bed (and other furniture from the Peterson House room in which Lincoln died) on loan from the Chicago Historical Society (while they were renovating their space), numerous photographs and documents from the Taper Collection (some of which may have since been donated to the ALPLM as part of Louise Taper's large donation of material to the museum), and other artifacts.

In this impressive exhibit (which may never be topped in regards to having so many significant items related to the assassination in one place), I felt that the carriage was the most touching piece. Partially this was because it was unexpected -- somehow I had overlooked that it was included when I read about the exhibit before my visit -- and suddenly I was face to face with it. Unlike the parts of the exhibit that were related to Lincoln's death, this was also related to Lincoln's life. I recalled the famous story of the carriage ride Lincoln and his wife Mary took the afternoon of April 14, speaking about their future, including their need to find happiness -- likely a reference to the fact that both still grieved the death of their son Willie three years before.

Perhaps when displayed by itself, the carriage does not conjure such melancholy emotions. Still, it will always be more associated with Lincoln's death than with his life.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Update on Spielberg's Lincoln Movie

A brief article from The Belfast Telegraph reports that Liam Neeson is ready to begin production of the long-awaited Lincoln biographical film based on Doris Kearns Goodwin's award-winning Team of Rivals. The Steven Spielberg-helmed film, with a script by Pulitzer Prize-winner Tony Kushner, has been in the works for years, but recent reports had suggested that there were financial problems.

While the report is good news, I have been unable to find additional reporting suggesting that production is about to begin. If it does begin soon, though, Spielberg may realize his hope of releasing the film in December of 2009 (just in time for awards season).

Monday, June 1, 2009

Kentucky Lincoln Site Destroyed by Fire

The Lincoln Heritage House, a restored cabin originally built by Hardin Thomas and his friend Thomas Lincoln, was destroyed by fire in the wee hours on Friday.  Authorities believe that the fire was deliberately set and have arrested a suspect.

The cabin was outside of Elizabethtown, Kentucky, where Abraham Lincoln's father Thomas lived prior to his famous son's birth.  A well-known carpenter, Thomas was thought to have built the stairways, fireplace mantles, among other woodwork in the cabin (according to the guide to Lincoln sites In Lincoln's Footsteps by Don Davenport).

Located in Freeman Lake Park, the cabin had been restored by the Hardin County Historical Society, opening to the public in 1973, when it was also listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  The cabin was open to the public during the summer months, and would have opened for the season today.  A picture of the cabin is available on the Elizabethtown website here.

It goes without saying that the destruction of a historical site is a loss.  It is ironic as a group in Virginia has begun an effort to purchase the home of one of Lincoln's ancestors, in the hopes of turning it into a museum, another such Lincoln tourist site has been destroyed.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Lincoln Letter Rediscovered

Interesting news from the National Archives, which displayed a 'new' Lincoln letter on Thursday.  Evidently the letter, which might better be described as a mid-19th century inter-office memo, had been removed from a collection of such letters sent to the Department of the Treasury sometime before that collection was obtained by the National Archives in the 1940s.

The letter itself is not particularly interesting, contrary to some of the news reports.  It is valuable, given that it has Lincoln's famous signature, and also because it seems to have been written in Lincoln's hand.  (I've seen no official comment on this fact, and I'm not an expert in handwriting, but the script looks like Lincoln's handwriting to me.  It also looks like it was written in a hurry, larger and messier than Lincoln's polished writings -- like handwritten copies of the Gettysburg Address -- but who knows?)

It is a standard piece of Lincoln correspondence, where he directs one of the federal departments to do something.  The Collected Works is filled with such writings, usually brief, and often dealing with personal requests.  This one is a request by Lincoln on behalf of the son-in-law of a former Oregon senator -- who had been removed as the superintendent of the San Francisco mint.  Full text of the letter is available here.  

The AP story gets a director at the Archives to suggest that the letter "is an extremely important key to understanding Lincoln's relationship with Sen. Baker."  However, Lincoln is well-known to have responded to personal requests whenever he could, often for political allies and friends, but sometimes just for people who waited to see him in his office.  It seems pretty routine to me.

Still, a rediscovered letter by Abraham Lincoln is better than a Lincoln writing lost to history.  Correspondence such as this is important to show how Lincoln continued to do the non-war related work of the government in the midst of the virtually all-consuming war.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Michael Burlingame to Chair Lincoln Studies Department

In these days in late May, it seemed unlikely that there would be any major Lincoln-related stories for the next few days.  But that assumption was way off the mark.  Earlier today, the University of Illinois at Springfield announced that it had lured Michael Burlingame out of retirement to take its named chair of Lincoln Studies, previously held by the late Philip Paludan.

Burlingame has been in the news recently for his now-(finally)-published two-volume biography of Abraham Lincoln, which has been in the works for several years.  Burlingame, who has a reputation as a supportive colleague of other Lincoln scholars (invariably showing up in the acknowledgements as the one who pointed the author to previously-unknown material), was a long-time professor at Connecticut College.  He retired a few years ago to concentrate full-time on the biography.

Now 67, Burlingame was lured out of retirement to take what is probably the most prestigious Lincoln-related university position, chair of Lincoln Studies at the University of Illinois.  Previously, the Lincoln Studies program has boasted big Lincoln names (both among faculty and students), including Paludan.  For years, J. G. Randall headed the program (at University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana years before Springfield campus opened in 1995) and was recognized as the nation's foremost Lincoln scholar of his generation; among his many noted students was the recently deceased David Herbert Donald.

The appointment is quite a coup for the university, though I imagine that the prestige of the position is quite a lure for Burlingame too.  After the death of Donald, it is likely that Burlingame is now the unofficial "dean of Lincoln scholars" (with a nod toward Harold Holzer).  So it is appropriate that he now holds this position.  Selfishly, it also gives hope for more writing from Burlingame, given that Burlingame is only required to teach one course per semester (nice work if you can get it).

It is also big news.  Here is coverage from The State Journal-Register, Lincoln Buff 2 (special thanks to Ann for pointing out a mistake in an earlier version of this post), and The Abraham Lincoln Observer.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Studying Lincoln's Boots

Physical items associated with the assassination of Abraham Lincoln are among the most sacred artifacts of Lincolniana.  The contents of Lincoln's pockets are owned by the Library of Congress (and are included in their fantastic bicentennial exposition "With Malice Toward None").  The bedroom furniture of the room in which Lincoln died is owned by the Chicago Historical Museum (formerly the Chicago Historical Society).  Ford's Theatre (part of the National Park Service) has the assassination weapon, a .44 derringer, but the bullet that killed Lincoln is owned by the National Museum of Health and Medicine.  The rocker in which Lincoln was seated at the theater, though, is owned by the Henry Ford Museum.

Interestingly, most of the clothes that Lincoln wore to Ford's Theatre that fateful night are owned by Ford's Theatre, including his frock coat and his boots.  While Ford's Theatre has been undergoing a massive renovation over the past 18 months (the theatre reopened in February, while the basement museum is now scheduled to reopen in July), its collection has been has been in storage.  The police-escorted process of moving the collection was described in The Washington Post in 2007.

Last week, a bootmaker was given permission to examine Lincoln's boots in the storage facility.  Evidently, this is a rare occurence.  A Washington Post article quotes the Park Service saying that this is the first time in almost 20 years that such an examination has been allowed.

There are interesting aspects to the article, especially at the end.  The bootmaker, Michael Anthony Carnacchi, describes the boots as the height of men's fashion at the time.  In fact, a notice of decorative cross-hatching on the heel, along with the description of Moroccan goatskin, make them seem like designer artifacts.  Such an item does not match popular conceptions of Lincoln, the homespun frontier lawyer become homespun president.  While more attention is usually paid to Mary Lincoln's expensive fashion tastes, there are bits of evidence that Lincoln himself occasionally purchased fine clothing.

More intriguing, at least to me, is the final observation in the article, in which the bootmaker describes the heels of the boot.  His last quotation is fascinating -- and also runs counter to the common perception of the meditative, low-key Lincoln.  "When Lincoln walked on a wooden floor, the sound would have been commanding.  'You would have known when the president walked in the room,' he said."  Maybe there is more to the appellation Nicolay and Hay gave Lincoln -- The Tycoon.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

David Herbert Donald, Dean of Lincoln Historians, Passes Away

News is out this morning about the death late Sunday of David Herbert Donald, American historian who wrote several important works about Abraham Lincoln, including the best one-volume biography, Lincoln.   The two-time Pulitzer-Prize winning historian, whose writings extended beyond far beyond Lincoln was 88 years old.  After studying under noted Lincoln scholar James Randall at the University of Illinois in the 1940s, Donald eventually became a named professor at Harvard University.

Obituary from The Washington Post can be found here and from The Gray Lady here.  An appreciation from Brian Dirck at A. Lincoln Blog was also posted early this morning.  Another touching appreciation from one of his former graduate students, now a professor at McGill University is here.

Donald was a premiere historian, mixing detailed and extensive research with a clear writing style, and his work was at the same time accessible and important.  His work focused on Lincoln and his contemporaries, though his interests spread throughout the 19th century.  His most famous works were biographies.  In addition to the classic Lincoln biography, Donald wrote a two-volume biography of noted abolitionist senator Charles Sumner (the first of which won the Pulitzer).  His first book -- his doctoral dissertation -- was a seminal biography of Lincoln's law partner and biographer William Herndon.

The Herndon biography, Lincoln's Herndon, published in 1948, is a critical book in the history of Lincoln scholarship.  Aside from being the best scholarly biography of Herndon (then and still today), Donald wrote it at a time when Herndon's reputation was taking a beating from historians.  He was seen as careless, and his extensive range of interviews (in person and by letter) with those who knew the young Lincoln were thought to be filled with errors -- not just errors of memory, but significant errors in Herndon's collection process.  Herndon showed that Herndon was not a drunken dope, but a quasi-intellectual (not of the first order, but sincere) who corresponded with leading intellectuals of the day; he also served as mayor of Springfield in the 1850s.  He also defended Herndon's research into Lincoln's youth, which has grown now into a resurgence in using Herndon's sources (greatly assisted by the careful editing and publication of Herndon's Informants, a collection of all the source material by Douglas Wilson and Rodney Davis).

Late in his career, Donald advocated for another rehabilitation in the world of Lincoln scholarship.  During interviews after Lincoln was published in 1995, Donald spoke movingly of his pity for the way Mary Lincoln is often viewed.  At times, he even said that he felt sorry for her and the position she found herself in, especially during Lincoln's presidential years.  While Donald did not pursue this in a specific book, other historians are taking up his challenge.  One senses that we are in the midst of a huge swing in thinking about Mary Lincoln.  While the credit for this extends beyond Donald, his rather emotional speaking on the topic probably had an impact.  For years, when Donald spoke, the community of Lincoln scholars listened.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

Changes to Lincoln's Home?

Early this week, The State Journal-Register (the newspaper of Springfield, IL) reported that the Abraham Lincoln Home National Historic Site is almost finished developing a new "General Management Plan" to guide the park for the next 15-20 years.  The process, undergone by all of the National Park Service sites from time to time, envisions the visitor experience to the site in the future.

This planning process started in 2005.  The National Park Service is considering four options to further develop the site, including doing almost nothing at all or further developing the lots surrounding the Lincoln house.

The various plans, as they stood in 2006, are available in this .pdf document.  None of them seem to propose changes to the Lincoln home itself.  Instead, they focus on possible changes to the neighborhood around the house (which is part of the National Historic Site).  There also are some mundane proposals, like the addition of some restrooms or moving the tour bus pick-up location.

One of the intriguing proposals is to show where some of the other houses and outbuildings (barns, carriage houses, and privies) existed in the neighborhood while the Lincoln family lived there, not by building them, but by building steel frames of them.  (Evidently, this has been done in Philadelphia to show where Benjamin Franklin lived.  Of course, it would be more expensive to build a 3-story brick colonial house in Philadelphia than a wood frame house in Springfield, so one wonders why you wouldn't just build the house exterior.)

The neighborhood is the most underused part of the Lincoln home site, even though there are displays in two of the houses (and offices in others).  Some interpretive signs talking about the neighborhood and the Lincolns' neighbors would be an excellent addition to the site, regardless of whether they construct buildings, frames, or foundations on the lots.  I realized this potential while on a tour of the house with a guide whose tour focused on the Lincoln family as one family in the neighborhood.  [Sidenote: the best part of touring the Lincoln home is the freedom that the rangers have to shape their own tours.  I've been through the house a half dozen times or so, and the tours have all been very different and very good.]

While any changes may take years to complete, the general plans should be decided in the near future.  It will be interesting to see what they decide.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

New Lincoln Books This Week

There are two Lincoln-related books set to be released this week.  One is yet another collection of Lincoln's speeches and writings.  The other is not specifically about Lincoln, but claims to reclaim a misunderstood part of Lincoln's legacy in a new examination of the impeachment of Lincoln's successor, Andrew Johnson.

The Essential Lincoln: Speeches and Correspondence edited by Orville Vernon Burton (Hill and Wang, 2009, hardcover, 192 pages)

Vernon Burton, a professor of history and sociology at the University of Illinois, was overlooked for his recent book about Lincoln and the Civil War era, The Age of Lincoln (2007), an audacious book that sought to be a sequel of sorts to Arthur Schlesinger's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Age of Jackson (which, astonishingly, had been Schlesinger's bachelor's thesis at Harvard).  That book received only limited attention, though the few reviews noted Burton's clear writing style.

Now Burton unveils a collection of Lincoln's writing, with introduction and notes.  The publication announcement promises that the Cooper Union Address, the 1862 letter to Horace Greeley (with the famous "if I could save the Union" by freeing no, some, or all slaves), the Gettysburg Address, and the Second Inaugural.  Other selections are "skillfully edited down," including pieces of the Lincoln-Douglas debates -- understandably -- and the Emancipation -- less understandably, except that most people find it rather boring.  The Macmillan website (Hill and Wang is a publishing house within the larger company) lists 29 included selections.

This collection likely falls short of other compilations of Lincoln's words, including the classic The Living Lincoln by Paul Angle and the two-volume Library of America collection (although there is also a single paperback "Selections" edition from the Library of America), given the few selections included.  

Impeached: The Trial of President Andrew Johnson and the Fight for Lincoln's Legacy by David O. Stewart (Simon & Schuster, 2009, hardcover, 464 pages)

David O. Stewart is a lawyer turned author, who has written his second book.  The first, a new account of the Constitutional Convention of 1787, was relatively well received.  The second promises to be intriguing, at least to students of Lincoln.

Even though Stewart's focus is on the impeachment and Senate trial of Andrew Johnson, the press notes suggest that he is arguing for a radical reconsideration of the mantle of Lincoln in this trial.  He suggests that most historians believe that Johnson was impeached for trying to preserve Lincoln's goal of a lenient reconstruction, Stewart evidently claims that it is the Radical Republicans who are the true heirs of Lincoln's legacy.

From Stewart's website:
Impeached challenges the traditional version of this pivotal moment in American history, which portrays Johnson as pursuing Lincoln's legacy by showing leniency to the former rebels.   Impeached shows the compelling reasons to remove this unfortunate president from office, reveals the corrupt bargains that saved Johnson's job by a single senator's vote, and credits Johnson prosecutor's with seeking to remake the nation to accord with the ideals that Lincoln championed and that the Civil War was fought for.
This certainly is a unique interpretation of the Republicans in Congress, who had a rather contentious relationship with Lincoln while he was alive.  On the other hand, it is certainly clear that many sides fought to claim Lincoln's mantle to justify their positions.  As such, this book has the potential to shift understanding of the fight for Lincoln's legacy in the years immediately following his death.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Recent Headlines: No to DNA Test; Looking for Mary; Michael Burlingame

Museum Decides No DNA Testing on Lincoln's Blood (for now)

Three weeks ago I posted a brief note about John Sotos' request to run DNA tests on a piece of the pillowcase with Lincoln's blood, taken from the room in which he died.  This week, the museum board voted not to allow testing at this time.

This is not a surprising development, for a host of reasons.  Any testing of the artifact will lead to some destruction of the artifact.  Considering the relatively small size of the strip of the pillowcase, any museum would be understandably squeamish about approving such testing.

I was going to write an extensive post about this, but then I discovered that Ann Tracy Mueller, at her blog Lincoln Buff 2, has already published an outstanding article about this issue.  Her take is much more detailed than anything I would write, includes comments from several key Lincoln scholars -- including Harold Holzer wisely questioning the provenance of DNA on the pillowcase.  (Interestingly, when this story came out, it was called "Lincoln's Shroud of Turin."  Given the controversy of the physical testing of the real Shroud of Turin, some of these issues, such as possible contamination of the artifact over the years, make it highly unlikely that any results of such testing would be indisputable.)  All I can say is: Go read it.

The only thing I would add to Tracy's excellent article is the humorous observation given to me by a teacher a few years ago.  (I paraphrase): Archaeology is the systematic destruction of that which is studied.  In order to study a square of ground, working through the layers of history, one much destroy recent layers to reach older layers.  So often, science is like this.   The History Channel convinced the National Park Service to take core samples of the Abraham Lincoln Birthplace Cabin in order to run carbon-dating tests (the wood tested dated to the 1850s and 1860s).  The NPS knew that the wood would be destroyed in the testing, but the cabin has a large amount of wood (even though it is slowly deteriorating).  There are some strands of Lincoln's hair around, but they'd be destroyed in any testing, so testing is very unlikely.

Looking for Lincoln -- Mary Lincoln, That Is

In all of the hoopla around the Lincoln Bicentennial, most of the attention has been focused on Abraham Lincoln.  But Janis Cooke Newman, author of the recent historical novel Mary (which I recently purchased but haven't read yet), offers a fine article in The LA Times focusing on the often unfairly maligned Mary Lincoln.

Michael Burlingame at Illinois College (courtesty of YouTube)

Noted Lincoln scholar Michael Burlingame spoke in April at this year's Illinois History Symposium, hosted at Illinois College.  He considers the question of whether there is anything new to write about Lincoln -- an interesting thing for him given his recent 2000+ page, two-volume biography on Lincoln.  Someone has thoughtfully posted his lecture (in four parts) on YouTube, each linked below.    (A tip of the hat to Kevin Levin at the very fine blog Civil War Memory for writing about this video previously.)

Additionally, Wayne Temple, longtime Deputy Director of the Illinois State Archives and author of many books on Lincoln -- and like Burlingame, a legendary source of support to other Lincoln scholars -- spoke at the symposium.  Temple told the fascinating history of the unused Lincoln tomb in downtown Springfield, where certain movers and shakers had wanted to bury the martyred president (close to the railroad station, as a tourist attraction).  His lecture is posted on YouTube in three parts, each linked below.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Are There More Lincoln Papers?

Last Friday evening, Forbes magazine broke a story on their website about the protracted legal battle of several of Gideon Welles heirs over several purported Civil War era artifacts, including hundreds of notes written by President Abraham Lincoln to Welles, his Secretary of the Navy.  The eagle-eyed Abraham Lincoln Observer from Lincoln's favorite newspaper caught the story and posted about it that evening.

Since then, I've waited for some media attention.  When a nationally recognized news organization, like Forbes, breaks a story on their website at 7:15 pm on a Friday, it's because they are trying to brand the scoop.  Since then, only The Hartford Courant has run the story, and evidently no one else.  (So evidently Forbes was racing to beat The Courant's Sunday edition.  Given the nature of the story, which includes a legal dispute going back several years, the one-upsmanship is a bit farcical, but whatever.)

This would be an obscure, and slightly odd, probate case except that among the described artifacts is a trunk alleged to contain 713 notes sent from Lincoln to Welles.  This has several implications.  Such a trove of materials, even if it were routine administrative correspondence, would be a major addition to the extant Lincoln papers.  Such a trove of materials would also be worth millions of dollars, especially if any had Lincoln's signature or were hand-written in full by Lincoln.  Finally, such a trove of materials would also probably belong to the National Archives (and yes, the federal government has assigned an official to investigate this case).

The basic facts are these.  Ruth Welles, married to Gideon Welles grandson, died in 1955 without a will.  Her house remained in the family, and one daughter (from three children) and then that daughter's son (one of four children) has lived in the house.  There are stories of artifacts in the family, not only papers, but a Spencer rifle, a glass decanter, and a cane made from wood from Fort Sumter.  Some Welles descendants claim that some of these artifacts have been sold without their knowledge -- and judging from court documents, without paying taxes.  They have sued to make their cousins produce a list of artifacts still in hand and an account of those that have been sold.  One case was dismissed, however, because none of Ruth Welles' children is alive, and the court ruled that the other descendants didn't have standing to reopen her probate case.

Confused yet?  I happily direct you to the stories, but they are not quite in agreement.  The Forbes article is here.  The Hartford Courant article is here -- it includes a brief video interview with the reporter, which has some additional information.  And here is a related item (on page 14 of a .pdf document) of a previous story in the Summer 2004 edition of ASA Professional, the quarterly journal of the American Society of Appraisers.

There seem to be a couple of problems with the notion that there is the wealth of Lincoln correspondence floating around out there, at least in my mind.  First, the testimony about the Lincoln letters (as opposed to the other heirlooms) is contradictory.  It comes from a single appraiser, Robert J. Connelly.  In the 2004 article, he reportedly had several days to catalogue 713 Lincoln letters in the trunk.  In the recent Forbes article, which draws from either a new interview or some court documents (the source is unstated), Connelly claims he saw them for 2o minutes when an unknown man arrived at his house and pulled the purported trunk out of his car.  Maybe the assessor saw the documents more than one time, but there's still a problem: if I had to speculate, I would guess that Connelly doesn't have a copy of the cataloguing (or maybe he doesn't want to produce it).  Either way, it's pretty difficult to substantiate this story.

Despite this, there seems to be a bigger problem with the story.  I find it very difficult to imagine that no one would have had access to these papers in the last century.  A cursory Internet search does suggest that less attention has been paid to Gideon Welles than others in Lincoln's cabinet -- except, of course, for frequently citing his well-known diary from Lincoln's presidential years.  Only a couple of books deal significantly with him.  Still, especially with the hoopla over the opening of the Lincoln papers in 1947, and the publication of the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln in the 1950s, it seems that anyone with access to these papers would have allowed access to them.

In the Courant article, the lead specialist on the American Civil War and Abraham Lincoln collections at the Library of Congress, John Sellers -- mis(?)-identified in the article as Jonathan Sellers -- evidently admits that there is a four-year gap in the currently existing Welles correspondence with Lincoln.  So, like the missing 18 pages from Booth's "diary," documents from these years may yet be found.  But it seems to me an unusually large collection to have been overlooked for 150 years.

In the past week, I have hoped for some scholars to weigh in on the controversy, especially if they have knowledge of folklore about the existence of such documents.  But I'm unaware of any comments.  In particular, I hoped that recent Lincoln Prize winner Craig Symonds, author of Lincoln and His Admirals which examines Lincoln's relationship with the Navy, would comment, but apparently not.  In the meantime, there may be more Lincoln papers out there, waiting to come to historian's attention.  Personally, I imagine this is so -- there likely are some Lincoln documents currently unnoticed or uncatalogued.  But 713 of them in one place?

Friday, April 24, 2009

Book Review: Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe's America

Land of Lincoln: Adventures in Abe's America
by Andrew Ferguson
(Atlantic Monthly Press, 2007), hardcover, 288 pages

Andrew Ferguson, a senior editor of The Weekly Standard, details the still visible and tangible legacy of Abraham Lincoln in this rousing book. Writing with humor and insight, Ferguson visits the museums and monuments, interviews several Lincoln students, and considers the shaping of Lincoln's meaning in American memory over the decades.

Land of Lincoln begins with the 2004 controversy over the installation of a statue of Lincoln in Richmond, Virginia, the former capitol of the Confederacy. The outrage clearly intrigued Ferguson, who wondered, as he writes, "Who could object to Lincoln?" (2) As Ferguson discovered, there's a strong contingent of people who dislike the sixteenth president. Attending a conference organized by opponents of the Richmond Lincoln statue, Ferguson was surprised to discover a room full of normal middle-class Americans, rather than rednecks or ignorant oafs, who seemed to know quite a bit about Lincoln. Listening to them, he was intrigued by a pattern that arose, exemplified by the writings of Thomas DiLorenzo, author of The Real Lincoln. He writes:
The pattern of DiLorenzo's awakening is common among the Lincoln haters. They all tell a similar story. Having inherited a vague but intensely admiring account of Lincoln in their youth, they were startled when they learned taht some of it -- at least -- wasn't entirely accurate, and before long the whole edifice came tumbling down. (23)
From this beginning, Ferguson sets out to trace the shape of Lincoln's legacy, learning more about the president than the 'vague but intensely admiring account' from his own youth. Ferguson himself is very much a central figure in this narrative -- for all of his solid objective comments -- and this story is in some ways a modern-day odyssey for the writer. Along the way, he frequently comments on the Lincoln he learned about as a child, visiting the Chicago Historical Society year ago or taking a family vacation along the Lincoln Heritage Trail.

Writing deftly with humor and care, Ferguson fleshes out his text, which at first seems to be just an entertaining travelogue: the author is always going somewhere to look for Lincoln, seeing the sights and talking to interesting people. Woven within this, though, is a wealth of historical facts about Lincoln and the development of his legacy, mixed with details about the changing contexts for Lincoln's legacy -- including the changing context of what is history -- and held together with Ferguson's own emotional response about what he's observing and learning.

The most entertaining chapter may be the brutal onslaught Ferguson launches at the Chicago Historical Society (now called the Chicago History Museum) in a chapter entitled "The Past Isn't What It Used to Be." Ferguson remembers visiting the museum as a child, especially the graphic representations of history, like a reconstructed fort and Indian village or twenty dioramas showing scenes from Lincoln's life. When he revisited the museum years later, all of these displays had been removed in favor of social history. Ferguson is clearly an ideological conservative, which gives his comments about museums an edge, but fundamentally he is almost certainly right: narrative history is more comprehensible for the general public -- with more interesting display pieces -- than social history.

This hugely entertaining diatribe aside, Ferguson is more amusedly balanced in the rest of his journey, whether considering the behemoth $145 million museum in Springfield, Illinois, talking to countless Lincoln impersonators at an annual Association of Lincoln Presenters conference, or dragging his own kids along a modified version of the Lincoln Heritage Trail (which turns out to have been a creation of the American Petroleum Institute to encourage lengthy automobile vacations). He considers the use of Lincoln over the last 80 years to teach leadership secrets to business people. He writes about the breathtaking and expansive industry of Lincolniana that has developed over the years, including a visit with collector de jour Louise Taper, irrepressible and enthusiastic as always.

It is difficult to describe the superb tightrope act Ferguson performs in Land of Lincoln. The text is unassuming, almost journalistic, yet brimming with intelligence. It is unfailingly enjoyable to read and consistently interesting. Moreover, it is often downright touching, never more so than the beautiful and ironic story about Ferguson's visit with his kids to Lincoln's birthplace cabin. It has insights and research for the Linocln buff, but will delight any reader.

This review is also available at LibraryThing.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

New Lincoln Books This Week

There are a couple of Lincoln books being released this week, though neither of them should be classified  as new.  The first is the 50th anniversary edition of a classic book about the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, and the second is yet another collection of Lincoln quotations.

Releasing April 15

Crisis of the House Divided: An Interpretation of the Issues in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, 50th Anniversary Edition by Harry V. Jaffa (University of Chicago Press, 2009, paperback, 472 pages)

As the bicentennial celebration of Abraham Lincoln's birth continues, it can be difficult to imagine that the Abraham Lincoln currently being described had a different reputation even fifty years ago.  Where Lincoln is now seen as the master politician, who mastered both  issues and people and expressed his ideas eloquently, in the 1940s and 1950s he was seen as the unlikely frontier lawyer turned president.  He might be recognized for his common sense, but he was seen as a careful orator who conformed to the expectations of his audience, rather than as a shaper of ideas.

In this light, the Lincoln-Douglas debates took on a far different meaning in Lincoln's life story.  Rather than an example of Lincoln arguing significant ideas with the incumbent senator Stephen Douglas, the debates were often seen as an example of Lincoln the wily politician seeking to trap Douglas.  Such thinking led many writers of the time, including some famous Lincoln scholars, to suggest that the Civil War could have been avoided if Lincoln (and others) had just toned down their rhetoric, allowing cooler heads to prevail.

Jaffa's study of the debates confronted this attitude, suggesting that there were very real philosophical issues at the core of the debates.  As Merrill Peterson writes in his 1994 survey of the shifting interpretation of Lincoln through the years Lincoln in American Memory:
In 1959 a young student of classical political theory, Harry V. Jaffa,  not only assailed revisionism but restored the central importance of the natural rights doctrine of the Declaration of Independence -- "this grand pertinacity," as Charles Sumner had called it -- in Lincoln's politics.  His book Crisis of the House Divided focused on the issues in the Lincoln-Douglas debates.  Beveridge and Randall, it may be recalled, had dismissed the debates as little more than curious folklore and narrowed the differences between the candidates to the vanishing point.  Jaffa pronounced this treatment "shocking."  The issue between free soil and popular sovereignty in Kansas was crucial because the free states could not abandon their position "without losing the root of the conviction which was the foundation of their freedom."  That root was the Declaration of Independence, which Lincoln transformed from a charter of individual liberty into something "organic and sacramental -- a kind of political religion."  It was prophetic and progressive, looking to the realization of freedom and equality for all.  Jaffa came to this interpretation not through American history but through the study of Plato's Republic under the natural law theorist and scholar Leo Strauss, at the University of Chicago.

As might be guess from Peterson's description, Jaffa's book was highly controversial, both in its conclusions and in its philosophy, particularly in the 1960s.  However, it was also extremely influential, and in the years since most scholars have accepted Jaffa's underlying argument -- the Lincoln-Douglas debates were not just a show, but were quite substantive.

Jaffa's influence can be quite clearly traced to a more recent scholar like Allen Guelzo, whose writings focus on the development -- and especially the consistency -- of Lincoln's political philosophy.  This idea also informs the work of Harold Holzer, though Holzer also includes aspects of Lincoln's careful cultivation of his audience -- both are key parts to Holzer's argument in Lincoln at Cooper Union, for example.

For this 50th anniversary edition, Jaffa has written a new introduction.  I would imagine, though I have not seen the text, that it will comment on the controversies of the 1960s and also the recent controversies that arose from Thomas DiLorenzo and his ilk after Jaffa published a sequel, A New Birth of Freedom, in 2000.  While I have never read the book, I certainly know its reputation; it belongs in any serious Lincoln library.

The Words of Abraham Lincoln edited by Larry Shapiro (Newmarket Press, 2009, paperback, 128 pages)

On the other end of the spectrum is a book that will appeal to a much larger audience, a collection of Lincoln quotations, selected by History Book Club editorial director Larry Shapiro, who also penned an introduction.  According to the publisher information, all of the quotes are drawn from Lincoln's speeches and writings (probably The Collected Works), which at least should minimize the likelihood of doubtful Lincoln "quotations" being included.

Unlike other similar books, this one is actually part of an ongoing -- and small -- series of quotation books Newmarket has published over the last 20+ years, featuring such people as Martin Luther King, Albert Schweitzer, Desmond Tutu, and Ghandi.  As such, it probably is not a bad volume.