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.