The State of Lincoln Scholarship
Lincoln belongs to Illinois, not the ages
In which essay I make a case that (to quote one of my sources, Knox College’s admirable Douglas Wilson) that when it comes to Lincoln scholarship, “Illinois is still where it's at.” Possibly also of interest is "Someone from outside," which appeared in the Illinois Times of Feb. 4, 2010, in which I addressed Springfield’s tradition of Lincoln scholarship.
There is no point in building a library if there is nothing to put in it. That's the problem with most presidential libraries, filled as they are with what must be considered, in terms of historical significance, millions of pages of nothing.
The $115 million Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library, to be built in Springfield, should be different, for two reasons. First and obvious, the library will be devoted to Lincoln. Few other U.S. presidents are as important as, and none more interesting than, Springfield's gift to the convention marketing trade. Second, other presidential libraries offer mainly papers accumulated during the presidency of their honorees. This is consistent with their purpose, which is historical justification; the vanity of presidents persuades them that anyone who studies how his decisions were made must conclude that they were the right ones. But while the Lincoln library calls itself a presidential library (to legitimize federal funding), its inevitable focus will be on the pre-White House years, specifically the 30 years he spent in Illinois.
Simply filling the shelves will not be hard. Books published about Lincoln now number something like 17, 000. Most are not worth reading once, and tell us much more about the phenomenon of Lincoln's fame than about Lincoln's life. Looking at that swollen corpus, any sane person would assume that every diary, letter, government document, and newspaper article ever written by, to, from or about the late president has been collected and cataloged.
And indeed, the people writer Gore Vidal once contemptuously referred to as Lincoln scholar-squirrels have stowed away quite a haul. The biographical jottings of Lincoln's law partner William Herndon that survive in archival form as the Herndon Weik Collection in the Library of Congress fill 15 reels of microfilm. A further 97 rolls' worth of space in that library is taken up by the Abraham Lincoln Papers, donated by the martyr's son. The Illinois State Historical Library in Springfield houses the Henry Horner Lincoln Collection, which is considered the most complete holding of pre-presidential Lincolniana; it includes nearly 1, 500 manuscripts written or signed by Lincoln, 10,000 books and pamphlets, 1,000 broadsides, and as many prints and photographs.
And these are only the major collections. Amazing as it seems, however, the nation's closets have not yet been swept clean. In 1995, what may be an authentic and hitherto unknown photograph of Lincoln on a visit to Philadelphia in 1858 was spotted in a California flea market. Less exotic archives still hide things worth finding. The official collection of his White House years—the Robert Todd Lincoln Collection—consists essentially of Lincoln's in-box at the White House.
Many other documents from the Washington years remain buried in other federal repositories. In papers stored at the National Archives, for example, two amateur historians in 1998 found 600 court-martial records autographed by the 16th president; one of the papers clarified disputed facts regarding Lincoln's much-written-about commutation of a Vermont infantryman's death sentence.
Illinois archives contain similar treasures. Historian Wayne Temple recently found confirmation in the records of the Illinois and Michigan Canal, housed in the Illinois State Archives, that Lincoln sometimes acted as a paid lobbyist. The finding must have caused smiles in much of political Springfield. Ever since the legend arose of Lincoln's role in the logrolling "Long Nine" Sangamon County delegation to the Statehouse, Illinois pols have bid to claim Lincoln as one of their own and rescue him—and them—from the sanctifiers.
Finds such as these are trivial compared to the gleanings of the Lincoln Legal Papers project. The fact is sometimes slighted to protect his reputation, but Lincoln was, of course, a lawyer. He spent his adult life at the trade. Yet most of what we know about those 25 years was based on stories extracted from a briefcase of fugitive documents—fugitive, that is, from the archives from which they were lifted in the 1800s by collectors.
When the "Lincoln Legals" was conceived—say thank you to joint project sponsors, the University of Illinois at Springfield and the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency—it was assumed that the bulk of the work would consist of copying and cataloging documents already in the hands of libraries and historical organizations and manuscript collectors and dealers in the United States and abroad. A search would be made of courthouses and other repositories for documents that had slipped through the nets over the years, but the project's main aim was less to discover new documents than to make old ones more accessible. Thus began what Harvard Lincoln scholar David Herbert Donald in 1995 called "perhaps the most important archival investigation now underway in the United States. "
In 88 Illinois courthouses alone, circuit court docket entries and case files pointed to 35,000 to 45,000 Lincoln-related items on their shelves that were unknown to scholars. Lincoln Legals teams working in other records repositories added 59 cases to the 300 federal cases known to have been tried by Lincoln and found another 59 Lincoln-related documents in federal pension records, including one document entirely in Lincoln's hand. The Sangamon County Circuit Court in Springfield was the site of at least half of Lincoln's caseload: 1,625 cases known at the time the Lincoln Legals team undertook the first complete search of court records, other dockets and extant case files. Collectors had descended on the courthouse after Lincoln's assassination like locusts on a wheat field, looking for autographed documents; it was widely assumed that little was left but stubble. Astonishingly, records were found of another 800 or so Lincoln cases.
Such assiduous digging has swelled the archives of Lincoln's legal career to nearly a quarter-million pages. Douglas Wilson, co-director of the Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College, assesses the project's importance thus: "The most simple questions—how many cases did he try, how many times did he represent the defense, how many cases did he win, how many murder trials did he take part in?—all of those things now are simple to answer, but they were simply not addressable before."
Dictionaries on the floor of the Illinois House were opened more often than some of these records. How could these sources of such obvious relevance be overlooked for 135 years? Certainly, cost is a factor; the people who ran the Lincoln Legals project spent as much time looking for money as they did for case files. And many of the buried documents contained answers to questions that scholars deemed not worth asking. For example, Lincoln's workaday life was dismissed for decades as uneventful. It held little excitement compared to the romance and drama of his political and wartime career, or even the tragedy of his family life.
Lincoln's years in Springfield were merely a prolonged pupation during which the hack lawyer, snug in his cocoon, was miraculously transformed into a statesman. Even known documents that bore on these years were simply ignored. The Lincoln Legals examined approximately 80 volumes of various court records in the Illinois Supreme Court basement, some of which bore on Lincoln's appearances before that court; they were known to exist, but no one had bothered to examine them systematically.
For much the same reason, it took a former state representative to think that being a state representative was interesting enough to write a book about it. When freshman state legislator Paul Simon arrived in Springfield in 1954 with the mud of Madison County still on his boots, he asked the state library for any books about the four terms in the capital served by a predecessor backwoods member named Abraham Lincoln. State rep was, after all, the public office Lincoln held longer than any other, and in political terms the General Assembly was, as Simon was to write later, "Lincoln's alma mater."
Simon was astonished to learn, however, that no one had yet written a book about Lincoln the lawmaker, and eventually wrote one himself, drawing upon the public record that lay a-moldering in the archives. Lincoln's Preparation/or Greatness came out in 1965. It was praised as the best book-length interpretation of this formative period in Lincoln's life—as it was bound to be, because it was [then] the only one.
In short, Lincoln scholarship consists of answers awaiting questions, as well as questions searching for answers. And some questions do not get asked. This is especially true in the cases of historians eager to justify Lincoln's status as our national saint. Vidal—arguably a better historian than novelist—complains that the guild as a whole shrinks from plain evidence that Lincoln once countenanced colonization as a solution to the slavery problem, for example, or may have had syphilis.
The relevance of a record is decided by the questions historian ask of it. As those questions shift with the times, whole classes of historiographic evidence are "created" or "destroyed." A generation of historians skeptical of the "great man" approach to history writing—and, not incidentally, desperate for new topics with which to impress doctoral committees—has been asking new kinds of questions, and thus have made relevant new kinds of sources that once were dismissed as irrelevant or untrustworthy. (Or unflattering, in the cases of those eager to preserve the mythic Lincoln.) One such source is old newspapers; hundreds of people who knew the dead president were interviewed over the years and their recollections are still buried on microfilm. "There are mountains that are worth prospecting," insists Wilson, "although the ore is of dubious quality."
Traditional history has been biased in favor of words written on paper and against the spoken, the remembered, the inferred. Academic historians distrust remembered versions of events for the same reasons that cops and reporters learn to distrust eyewitness accounts. In the absence of hard facts, many a biographer just made up his own, as Herndon did famously with his tale about Lincoln's love for Ann Rutledge.
This bias worked against anyone with an interest in Lincoln's pre-Springfield years, because memory, not paper, was the storage medium of whatever facts survived about the man's early days. Says Wilson, "Little serious work was undertaken about the early life in the second half of the 20th century because the great scholars of midcentury— Paul Angle, J. G, Randall, Roy Easier, Benjamin Thomas—all stood shoulder to shoulder against [that kind of] romanticization. They argued that the problem was the nature of the evidence; it was not contemporary, not documentary, and thus not reliable."
Rodney O. Davis, professor emeritus of history at Knox College and co-director of the Lincoln Studies Center, says about oral history, "Obviously that's evidence that needs an asterisk. But oral history has become respectable [as a research technique]. That's what Herndon was doing." About the latter Wilson adds, "Yes, it's true that this material was based on memory and is full of errors, so you have to be careful using it. But Herndon also knew that. He was discriminating. In fact, he probably turned a deaf ear to more [testimony] than he should have."
One of the tenets of the new history holds that studying a great man (or woman) out of his social context distorts one's view of the subject. Indeed a great person is a product of that context, and thus social history is the true subject of any historical endeavor worthy of serious attention in its own right. A generation of historians has attempted, therefore, to tell the story of the nation's ungreat, or at least the uncelebrated. Instead of a great man or woman they give us the group; instead of personality they limn social process.
Demography, psychohistory, family history—not the same thing, please, as genealogy—and economics are among the core disciplines of the new history; commodity flows, technology of production and voting patterns are among the topics to which they are applied. A good example is the work done by Kenneth J. Winkle of the University of Nebraska in Lincoln, who traced the impact of migration on political participation in 1850s Springfield by comparing the names in census reports against poll books and office-holding records for 8,000 participants in ten elections.
Instead of understanding the times in terms of the person, the new techniques offer ways to understand the person in terms of his times. Springfield attorney Richard Hart sought to shed light on the evolution of Lincoln's mature views on such race issues as colonization by recounting his likely exposure to anti-slavery African-American personalities and organizations in his home town of Springfield. Knox's Davis is at work on a more comprehensive study of Lincoln's legislative years—not just Lincoln in the General Assembly but the Illinois General Assembly with Lincoln in it.
What Harvard's Donald called "a model study" of the type is the history of pioneer life in south Sangamon County that author John Mack Faragher called Sugar Creek. Faragher drew in part on kinship studies to recreate the frontier milieu. "That's the kind of volume that we need," says Davis. Among the standard works that probably need to be rewritten using such new methods are Thomas' account of New Salem and Louis Warren's report on Lincoln's youth in Indiana.
Of course, the best modern histories have always taken social context into account, as do the better biographies. Faragher has noted that inside Herndon the traditional biographer was a newfangled social historian crying to get out. "As his carefully preserved, voluminous notes demonstrate," Faragher writes, "Herndon was as interested in the character of 'pioneer society' as in that of his illustrious law partner."
New methods able to exploit new classes of historical evidence, plus continued diligence in the search for previously unknown traditional sources, should fill up the new Lincoln library with enough goods to attract curious intellectual tourists. "Illinois," exults Wilson, "is still where it's at. " ●