Saturday, May 5, 2012

NEH Grant to Support Research into Lincoln's Anonymous Journalism

The AP wire has a story this week about a National Endowment of the Humanities (NEH) grant to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum to fund a study to determine what articles Lincoln may have authored in the Sangamo Journal from 1834 to 1842.  According to the NEH, the project is entitled, "Is That You, Mr. Lincoln?: Applying Authorship Attribution to the Early Political Writings of Abraham Lincoln."  UPDATE (5/7): Here is an article from The State Journal Register in Springfield with more details about how this project should work.

While this overly academic subtitle may be a bit mind-numbing, it refers to one of the now few under-examined parts of Lincoln's written works, determining what anonymous newspaper articles he likely wrote in his early political career.  There are multiple references to Lincoln writing anonymous or pseudonymous articles for Illinois newspapers, especially the Sangamo Journal; and, in the fairly well-known and embarrassing story of Lincoln's almost-duel with James Shields, the start of the controversy was over a couple such articles.  Over the years, historians have speculated which newspaper articles Lincoln may have written, mostly because they were looking into insights into his political beliefs during this time period.

Now this project will use multiple computer programs to analyze all of the articles in the period from 1834 to 1842 in the Sangamo Journal to determine, in a formalized manner, what articles Lincoln likely authored.  While such analysis will not be decisive -- after all, consider the arguments over whether Lincoln personally authored the famous letter to Mrs. Bixby, which appears over his signature -- it should offer historians more context for Lincoln's years in the Illinois legislature.

More than this, at least from my perspective, is the opportunity to see how Lincoln matured as a politician from his early years to the years leading up the 1860 election and then his presidency.  There are persistent contemporary accounts of Lincoln's willingness in early years to resort to personal attacks against his legislative opponents.  And he may have used other distasteful tactics (at least to our eyes).  Over the years, I've come to imagine that legislator Lincoln was very different than his presidential incarnation, mostly because I believe that there is no more firm believer than a convert.  Given the extraordinary absence of such normal 19th century political behavior during Lincoln's presidency, and given the limited evidence, especially in the Shields' affair, that it was not always absent, I have long guessed that Lincoln "converted" himself from traditional politics to his unique approach evident in his later years, one almost devoid of malice (with perhaps one or two exceptions).  This new research may offer some insight into this evolution as well.