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.  

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The Anniversary of Lincoln's Assassination: Random Things

Today is the 144th anniversary of Lincoln's ill-fated trip to Ford's Theatre.  C-SPAN will broadcast a live event tonight with James Swanson, author of the best-selling Manhunt: The 12-Day Chase for Lincoln's Killer, speaking at Washington DC's Newseum about assassination.

The anniversary has brought out one person seeking to share the morbid spotlight.  John Sotos, author of the well-received The Physical Lincoln, is trying to gain access to the pillowcase on which Lincoln's head rested when he died.  He wants to run tests on Lincoln's blood to see if he was affected with a rare genetic cancer.  The priceless quotation from a professor suggesting that the pillowcase is "the Shroud of Turin of Civil War history" makes the story pop (and has gotten it much wider coverage, no doubt).  Read the original story here.

One would think that it would be impossible to find humor in Lincoln's assassination, but this fake news story about a would-be PBS documentary is pretty funny.  "The Man Who Shot Lincoln," starring Burt Ward, should bring a smile.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Slide, Lincoln, Slide!

Baseball season has begun, at least in places where games haven't been snowed out (gotta love Chicago).  It is a little known fact that Abraham Lincoln loved baseball, and was a pretty deft pitcher.  In fact, if he had just been given a pitching tryout for the New York Yankees, his political career likely never would have happened, which would have resulted in a vastly different world.

Actually, it's not clear if Lincoln ever encountered baseball during his lifetime, though one imagines that if he could have swung a baseball bat as well as he swung an axe, he would have been a fierce hitter.  And has a pretty compelling refutation of the "Castro as frustrated would-be baseball professional."

But Lincoln has a larger than life presence, literally, at the home games of the Washington Nationals.  He is prominently featured in the mid-fourth inning "President's Race" between the four presidents carved on Mt. Rushmore.  Last season, Lincoln was evidently the class of the field, winning almost 60% of the races.  Like many baseball clubs, he was also very streaky, and many of his race wins came in clusters.  (I know this because a blog has game-by-game results of the President's Race.)

Let's go to the video:

All anyone would care to know about the "President's Race" -- and a lot more -- is here on a blog dedicated to the event, "Let Teddy Win!" (because of a running gag where TR loses every race).  (Yes, the pun was intended.)

A special tip of the stovepipe hat to The Abraham Lincoln Observer, who wrote about the race on his blog earlier this week.