Friday, March 27, 2009

Random Lincoln Soundbites

It's Friday ("Take out the trash day" in modern political parlance), and I'm cleaning out my Lincoln-related inbox of the random stories I've been collecting.  None of them merit a full post, but I couldn't quite overlook them either.

Lincoln scholar reviews recent Lincoln books

Up and coming Lincoln scholar Jason Emerson, author of The Madness of Mary Lincoln and Lincoln the Inventor, offers his assessment of the most important recent books about Abraham Lincoln.  His piece, from the April 2009 edition of American Heritage, is available on their website.

Piece on Mary Lincoln

Erin Carlson Mast, of the Lincoln Cottage, has a special guest post on PreservationNation about Mary Lincoln.  It is a wonderful piece that tries to explain how some of the harsh treatment of Mary is unfair, although part of it stems from her often abrasive personality.  You can read it here.  (An aside: I visited the Lincoln Cottage last month and was very impressed by the facility and by the warmth of those who worked there.)

William Lee Miller on Lincoln and Shakespeare

William Lee Miller, author of Lincoln's Virtues and President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman, is currently researching Lincoln's fascination with Shakespeare, which should be a fine book.  Last month, Miller gave a lecture about the project in Virginia, which has been posted as a podcast here.  Miller is an engaging speaker, so I'm sure the lecture is entertaining and informative.

New Lincoln Bobblehead

Everyone has a bobblehead these days.  It used to be limited to superstar athletes; now everyone on the bench has a bobblehead too.  Plus, political figures have gotten in on the act; there are several bobblehead Obamas floating around these days.  Lincoln has gotten the bobblehead treatment -- one of them sits on my desk (a gift).  Next month, a new Lincoln-related bobblehead will be released, this one of the Lincoln Memorial.  (If they can make a lifesize bobblehead Jesus, I suppose they can make a bobblehead marble statue.)

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

New Lincoln Books This Week

When it rains, it pours.  The second significant edited resource related to the Lincoln assassination is released this week.  Last week, it was a first-hand account of the incarceration and trial of the eight conspirators arrested in the days after Lincoln's death.  This week, it is a massive volume of the documentary evidence of the main investigation into the murder of Abraham Lincoln and the attempted murder of Secretary of State William Seward.

Releasing March 23

The Lincoln Assassination: The Evidence edited by William C. Edwards and Edward Steers Jr. (University of Illinois Press, 2009, hardcover, 1488 pages)

This may be the essential resource book on the assassination.  Reportedly, this collection includes all of the documentary evidence amassed during the 1865 federal investigation into the plot surrounding the Lincoln assassination, including the attempted murder of Secretary of State William Seward.  This includes all "statements, affidavits, interviews, exhibits" gathered by the military investigation, according to Steers' personal website.

An image of the Table of Contents is available online, which is unhelpful.  Aside from the typical editorial introductory sections, the 1400 pages of documents are listed as "The Documents."  A parenthetical comment explains that the documents are grouped chronologically by the addresser's last name, or by subject of the document where no addresser is listed.  There does, however, appear to be a significant (50+ page) index, which should help in locating specific documents.

According to the University of Illinois, William Edwards has spent years transcribing many of the documents in this collection, most of which would have been handwritten.  I cannot even begin to fathom how much time and effort that would take.  Paired with Ed Steers, who is the foremost expert on things associated with the Lincoln assassination, this work is in good hands.  This huge effort puts a wealth of primary information at one's fingertips (if only at a research library because of the $100+ cost of the volume), and hopefully will influence more good analysis of these turbulent months in future years.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Lincoln Exhibit and Conference at The Huntington Library

The Huntington Library, a large research library in San Marino, California, is currently hosting a special exhibit celebrating the Lincoln bicentennial.  "The Last Full Measure of Devotion: Collecting Abraham Lincoln" runs from February 7 through April 27.  It draws on Hunington's well-regarded Lincoln collection, which was begin by the namesake Henry Hunington himself in the early 1900s.  (Huntington was one of the first deep-pocketed southern California Lincolniana collectors, the beginning of a line that continues with Louise Taper today.)

The heart of Huntington's holdings lies in several turn of the century Lincolniana collections that were acquired in the 1910s and 1920s, including the personal papers of Ward Hill Lamon.  These resources were most extensively consulted by Lincoln biographers before 1947, when the Abraham Lincoln Papers became publicly accessible at the Library of Congress.  (Lincoln's son Robert stipulated when he made his bequest that the papers would not become public until 21 years after his own death.)

In conjunction with this exhibit, Huntington is also holding a two-day conference, "A Lincoln for the Twenty-First Century" on April 3-4.  The conference boasts a well-known list of Lincoln scholars, including Harold Holzer (probably giving the same lecture he gave at the Library of Congress this month), Richard Carwardine, and James McPherson.  The topics look particularly interesting, ranging from Lincoln and the Mexican War (Daniel Walker Howe) to Lincoln and Ralph Waldo Emerson (Stephen Cushman) to Lincoln and the West (McPherson).  The full program is available here.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

New Lincoln Books This Week

Over the next two weeks, two resources related to the Lincoln assassination are scheduled to be released, adding to the titles in that now thriving Lincoln subindustry.  Unlike many of those books, however, these are being released by large university presses.

Releasing March 15

The Lincoln Assassination Conspirators: Their Confinement and Execution, as Recorded in the Letterbook of John Frederick Hartranft edited by Edward Steers, Jr. and Harold Holzer (Louisiana State University Press, 2009, hardcover, 200 pages)

Ed Steers is currently the foremost expert on Lincoln's assassination, and not coincidentally, he is the author of the best recent book on Lincoln's assassination, Blood on the Moon (2001).  However, he is not a big name Lincoln scholar, so he is paired with the much better known Holzer, who has edited a previous volume on the assassination among his many Lincoln books. Between them, they should capably edit this volume.

This book marks the first time the detailed notebook of Hartranft, the military commander of the jail where the eight conspirators were jailed in 1865, have been published.  By all accounts, Hartranft kept meticulous records of the weeks these eight were jailed under his oversight.  Previous writers have quoted from Hartranft, whose letterbook is in the collection of the National Archives.

Here Holzer and Steers offer context and comment around Hartranft's records. The cynical part of me wonders if Steers carries the majority of the load given his expertise in this material, but there is little reason to believe that Holzer is just a marquee name put on the project to improve sales.  Together, they have plenty of insight and knowledge to flesh out the meaning of Hartranft's notebook.

This is not a book for all Lincoln students.  Even within the particular world of the Lincoln assassination, this book will probably mostly focus on the experiences of the conspirators between their arrest and sentencing, meaning that there is less about the assassination itself.  But for people with collections on the assassination, it will be a significant addition.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Lincoln Symposium at the Library of Congress

On March 4, the Library of Congress sponsored a symposium on Abraham Lincoln, held in conjunction with their fantastic bicentennial exhibition "With Malice Toward None" (which I will overview in an upcoming entry). The symposium, held on the 148th anniversary of Lincoln's first inauguration (and, though unsaid, the 144th anniversary of Lincoln's second inauguration), featured six lectures, mostly focusing on aspects directly related to Lincoln's presidency.

I was fortunate to attend the lectures, held in the Coolidge Auditorium in the basement of the Jefferson Building. While the room was warm and there weren't long enough breaks (leading to information overload by the end of the day), the audience was large and rightfully appreciative of the speakers, who offered mostly excellent and accessible remarks.

Yesterday, the Library of Congress uploaded the lectures onto the webcast section of their website, meaning that you can listen to any or all of them -- total running time with introductions and questions is 320 minutes. The first three lectures (Holzer, McPherson, Miller) are here; the second three (Morel, Wilson, Leonard) are here. [Until I attended the symposium, I had no idea that the Library of Congress was putting such things online. Kudos to them for embracing the technology and broadening the reach of the Library's programming.]

While the six lectures were on a variety of themes, it was surprising how there were similar undercurrents throughout several, and occasionally all, of the talks. Race was a key issue in all of the talks in one way or another, owing to the persistent questions about whether Lincoln was a racist throughout his life. Another consistent theme was Lincoln's determined self-improvement: whether learning to be commander in chief, or carefully crafting his messages and speeches, Lincoln was persistent in his attempts to become more capable at his tasks. The most surprising thread through the day was the repeated focus -- and repeated quoting -- of Lincoln's 1854 speech at Peoria, debating Stephen Douglas on the rationale for the Kansas-Nebraska Act. Evidently Lewis Lehrman's recent book, Lincoln at Peoria, is much more influential than I had realized.

A synopsis of the six lectures follows, with highlights of things that piqued my interest in the various talks.

Harold Holzer, co-chair of the Lincoln Bicentennial Commission and author or editor of multiple Lincoln books, led off the symposium with the day's most polished lecture, "Lincoln Comes to Washington: The Journey of a President-Elect." Drawn from his newest monograph, Lincoln President-Elect, Holzer presented a balanced lecture of fact, analysis, and colorful anecdotes. He centered his remarks on an extended look at Lincoln's Farewell Address, given to his neighbors at the train station in Springfield on February 11 when he boarded his train to Washington DC.

In perhaps his most interesting point, Holzer paid particular attention to how Lincoln compares himself to Washington: "Today I leave you; I go to assume a task more difficult than that which devolved upon General Washington." Such a blatant equal comparison to Washington was highly unusual, if not almost impolitic at the time. Holzer carefully showed that it's inclusion in these unplanned remarks was not accidental, given that Lincoln uses variations of the comparison in later speeches along his journey from Springfield to Washington. The larger implications of this dramatic comparison, where Lincoln suggests he might be Washington's equal rather than merely his successor, were left unexplored, owing to time constraints and the otherwise general nature of the enjoyable lecture.

Pulitzer-Prize winning historian James McPherson followed with a talk on "Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief," no doubt drawn from McPherson's recent Lincoln Prize-winner, Tried by War: Abraham Lincoln as Commander in Chief. McPherson, a noted military historian, explained that Lincoln had four roles as Commander in Chief: 1) to raise and equip the military, 2) to oversee political strategy related to the war, 3) to oversee military strategy, and 4) to oversee operational strategy. Of these, McPherson was most interested in the fourth, which involved Lincoln planning how to implement his general military strategy through battle campaigns (something modern presidents generally leave to the military leaders). Noting that Lincoln was inexperienced and uneducated about the military before becoming president, McPherson noted how his study of military affairs and tactics led to his evolving skills as a military leader.

Given McPherson's obvious interest in Lincoln's unexpected involvement in military operations, it is curious that he spent little energy comparing Lincoln to his Confederate counterpart Jefferson Davis, who was educated at West Point and had served as Secretary of War. At the war's outset, it was thought Davis might actively lead the Confederate Army as a general in the field; still, he was an active commander in chief too, but of a very different model than Lincoln.

William Lee Miller, author of Lincoln's Virtues and President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman offered a reflection of the comparison between Presidents Lincoln and Obama in his lecture "A New Birth of Freedom." Unlike the preceding talks, Miller's was obviously written specifically for the symposium, and included observations from Obama's inauguration and the bicentennial celebration just three weeks before. The talk was filled with examples of Miller's quick wit and sense of irony, as well as his intellectual curiosity. As many others have, he reflected on how Obama's election fulfills the promise of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation and his subsequent support for plans to allow black soldiers to vote. He tied this observation to an argument from his latest book about how the Emancipation Proclamation was more significant morally than legally.

After lunch, Lucas Morel, author of Lincoln's Sacred Effort: Defining Religion's Role in American Self-Government, spoke on "Lincoln on Race, Equality, and the Spirit of '76." The talk served as an exploration of Lincoln's views on race, which recently have received a great deal of scrutiny. Unlike some scholars, Morel defended Lincoln's views on race, arguing that they were progressive. In fact, contrary to those who see some of Lincoln's statements on race as proof of racism, Morel argued that "even his most extreme comments" were meant to nudge his racist audience toward accepting a form of natural equality, like the one implied by the Declaration of Independence. To defend this argument, Morel pointed to Lincoln's "hesitancy" when speaking about race throughout his career, which is certainly an interesting approach to Lincoln.

Douglas Wilson, who spent years co-editing the definitive collection of Herndon's interviews, has recently turned his attention to Lincoln the writer. In his talk, "Words Fitly Spoken: Lincoln and Language," Wilson focused on Lincoln the careful re-writer and editor in preparing his speeches, an extension of his recent study, Lincoln's Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words. Unlike that book, which focuses on the presidential years (and Lincoln's Farewell Address in Springfield), Wilson turned his attention to pre-presidential speeches, but saw the same careful editing from draft to finished product.

Finishing out the day was Elizabeth Leonard, author of Lincoln's Avengers: Justice, Revenge, and Reunion After the Civil War, who spoke on "Ally on the Team of Rivals: Lincoln and His Point Man for Military Justice." Leonard spoke about Joseph Holt, the Kentucky Democrat who became Lincoln's Judge Advocate General in late 1862 and who worked beside Lincoln on issues of pardons in military cases. This was the afternoon's least polished talk, an exploration of Holt's biography, that suggests Leonard is still assimilating her research. While I was unconvinced by her argument -- she twice asked why Holt allied with Lincoln and never gave a satisfying answer -- I was convinced that she could develop a new biography of Holt or a book about the Lincoln/Holt professional relationship.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Scratching Lincoln's Watch and Other Things

Two separate Lincoln-related artifacts have made news in the past couple of days. One pertains to a "secret message" inside of Lincoln's pocket watch; the other about a possible photograph of Lincoln standing in front of the White House shortly before his death. As much as I like Abraham Lincoln, and as excited as I am when the sixteenth president makes newspaper headlines (and even the front page of the Grey Lady), I'm pretty underwhelmed by these stories.

Lincoln's Pocket Watch

On Tuesday morning, the Smithsonian Institute, which owns Lincoln's gold pocket watch, invited the media and descendants of Jonathan Dillon to witness a master jeweler dismantle the piece to see if a "secret message" had been inscribed inside of the watch. Dillon gave an interview to The New York Times in 1906 -- recently discovered by his great-great-grandson -- in which he claimed that he was repairing Lincoln's watch when he learned that Fort Sumter had been attacked. Further, he remembered that he engraved his personal feelings about the attack inside the watch.

The descendant contacted the National Museum of American History and asked them if they would be willing to investigate whether there was an internal inscription in the watch. Here is the Smithsonian's report on what happened. (And here is The New York Times front-page article from Wednesday morning.)

When the watch was opened, it was discovered that Dillon did etch something on the watch -- maybe even two somethings. "Jonathan Dillon April 13_ 1861 Fort Sumpter was attacked by the rebels on the above date" is etched onto the watch, followed by what appears to be an unfinished attempt (perhaps Dillon's first) to sign his name as J. Dillon. Thus it appears that the larger full name/signature above the message may have been an attempt to clarify the rather illegible partial signature. Here are pictures of the pocket watch's innards: full and close-up.

To the left, there is another inscription, also signed by Dillon: "Aprl 13 1861 Washington thank God we have a government Jonth Dillon" The news media has highlighted these messages in the watch to a great extent, probably following the Smithsonian's lead. However, there are other etchings along with those signed by Dillon. "L E Grofs Sept 1864 Wash DC" [or possibly "Sep 1-1864 Wash DC" -- it's difficult to tell if that's an attempt to cross the t or a number 1 followed by a dash] is squeezed in between the two Dillon etchings. In addition "Jeff Davis" [or I suppose "Jeff Daris" though that raises other questions] is engraved in large letters below.

I am no expert in engraving, but it appears that there are easily three different people responsible for the various etchings. There are dates for three of the etchings, but not for the fourth ("Jeff Davis").

What does this tell us? Lincoln evidently sent his pocket watch out to be repaired at least twice during his presidency, once in April 1861 and in September 1864. On both occasions, the repairers added graffiti. Also, an individual who either preferred Confederate President Jefferson Davis (or who was named Jeff Daris) had access to the watch at some time, though that access could have occurred either during Lincoln's lifetime or in the nearly 150 years since.

"Lincoln's Pocket Watch Reveals Long-Hidden Message" trumpets Smithsonian online. "Timeless Lincoln Memento is Revealed" says The New York Times. "Museum finds 'secret' message in Lincoln's watch" reports Reuters. All of that is hype. The true headline should be "Lincoln's Watch Etched with Graffiti on Inside Casing." In the future, when the National Museum displays the pocket watch, they'll put a photograph of the innards next to it.

New Photograph of Lincoln Reportedly Found

If I believe that there was too much hoopla over the messages in Lincoln's pocket watch (and I do), at least I know that the story is mostly about curiosity and family history. The other big Lincoln story, about a possible new photograph of Lincoln, is not really about curiosity or family history (though there is some of that); it's about cold, hard cash. Finding Lincoln in a photograph -- even in an obviously doctored photo, like this famous one -- raises the value exponentially.

Keya Morgan, a collector of Lincoln photographs and artifacts (who values his collection at roughly $25 million), was interviewed by the Associated Press a few days ago. He showed a small, 2 1/2 by 3 1/2 inch photo of the White House. The photo, purchased last month from the great-great-grandson of Ulysses S Grant, can be dated to 1864-1865 and seems to have a tall man standing by a pillar. In a computer enlargement, this tall man seems to have a beard. It also has a hand-written inscription on the back that says "Lincoln in front of the White House."

The AP article interviews White House curator William Allman and founding curator of the National Portrait Gallery Will Stapp. Both experts say that the evidence supports the inscription on the photograph that Lincoln is indeed pictured.

Assuming that all these people are correct, it seems rather unimpressive for Lincoln studies. Lincoln is unrecognizable in the photograph, even compared to photographs of Lincoln at his Second Inaugural or Lincoln at the dedication of the cemetery at Gettysburg. Historically speaking, the photograph is probably more important as a wartime photograph of the White House than of Lincoln.

But I think it is hasty to conclude that Lincoln is one of the five people in the photograph. After all, Lincoln was hardly the only tall bearded person in Washington DC. I am reminded of the conspiracy buffs who have found all of Booth's associates in the Second Inaugural photo, based on John Wilkes Booth's presence (as a guest of Lucy Hale, daughter of a senator). Often, one finds what one is looking for. (Or, to quote a Lincoln misquote from the 1960 movie Pollyanna, "If you look for the bad in mankind expecting to find it, you surely will.") If you look at a picture of the White House from the Civil War era expecting to see Lincoln, and you see a tall figure, you conclude that it's Lincoln.

It may be Lincoln. If it is, I wonder two things. Was the photograph posed? It certainly appears that it was as the figures are very clear, meaning that they held still while the film was exposed. And if the persons in the photograph are posed, who are they? Especially, who is the person standing over the shoulder of the purported Lincoln? Determining those identities might make the photograph more significant historically.

Without such information, it seems to me that the determination of whether Lincoln is in the photo or not matters mostly to Morgan, who paid $50,000 for the picture betting that it is indeed Lincoln.

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Lincoln-Douglas Debate before the Lincoln-Douglas Debates

The Chicago Tribune broke the news this week that a history professor at St. Xavier University (in Chicago) has uncovered a lengthy account of the famous exchange between Abraham Lincoln and Steven Douglas over the Kansas-Nebraska Act in 1854.

Click here to read the newspaper report.

In 1854, Douglas, the democratic senator from Illinois, returned to the Illinois State Fair where he justified his promotion of popular sovereignty in the Kansas-Nebraska territory. Lincoln, who was rumored to be active in the nascent Republican Party, offered a lengthy rebuttal of Douglas' speech that same day.

This was four years before the famous Lincoln-Douglas debates, which occurred in 1858. In 1854, Lincoln was a former one-term congressman who was about to emerge as one of the leaders of the new Republican Party in Illinois. During the fall of that year, Lincoln shadowed Douglas' speaking tour in Illinois, offering rebuttals in virtually every location where Douglas spoke.

The newly uncovered newspaper report from the Missouri Republican will offer more coverage of the first lengthy exchange between Lincoln and Douglas. While it is likely one-sided, favoring either Lincoln or Douglas given the partisan affiliations of most newspapers in the mid-19th Century, the article will still be influential. This explains why the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association will reprint the 1854 Missouri Republican article in full, along with a lengthy introduction by the historian who uncovered it, Graham Peck, in its July issue.

The fall of 1854, in the weeks after the passage of the Kansas-Nebraska Act, Lincoln became, by his own account, an awakened politician who found his voice attacking the political philosophy behind popular sovereignty. Historians have also recognized this as a period of Lincoln's awakening, shaping his thought and actions in ways that would lead to his unlikely election as president in 1860. A recent book, Lincoln at Peoria by Lewis Lehrman, recounts this time period.

I am just back from a visit to Washington DC, where I attended a symposium on Lincoln hosted by the Library of Congress (which I will comment on in a future post). One of the curious things about the six lectures on various different aspects of Lincoln each mentioned Lincoln's 1854 speech at Peoria, which was very similar to Lincoln's speech at the Illinois State Fair a few days earlier. So the discovered contemporary account of this exchange is not only significant for Lincoln students, it is also evidently timely.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

Falling in Love with Lincoln

Artist Maira Kalman posted an lengthy illustrated piece about Abraham Lincoln on her blog at The New York Times. Entitled "In Love with Lincoln," the piece is a personal reflection of her relationship with the memory of Lincoln. Intercutting parts of Lincoln's biography and Lincoln artifacts with mundane things like going out to breakfast before visiting a museum.

The piece is lots of fun, well-researched and thoughtful. The invitation to Sunday social from Mrs. Maira Lincoln is particularly amusing. And it is another reminder of how palpably Lincoln's legacy surrounds us.

Although Kalman does not say, it seems that this visual essay is inspired by a new online project supported by the Rosenbach Museum and Library, called 21st Century Abe. This site is an effort to document six months of "the popular Abe" that we encounter in advertising, movies, and other things, and consider how this incarnation relates to the historical Lincoln.

Click here to read -- and see -- "In Love with Lincoln."

(A tip of the cap to other blogs where I discovered this visual essay: President Lincoln's Cottage, The Abraham Lincoln Observer, and Civil War Memory.)