Last Friday, the Associated Press reported on the discovery of a previously unknown Abraham Lincoln document, and with it, a puzzling mystery. Addressed only to “My dear Sir,” a portion of the letter had been carefully removed, eliminating the key to understanding its meaning. Lincoln appears to have been writing “in haste” to someone asking if he or she could “keep up a correspondence” with an unknown person. “I like to know his views occasionally,” Lincoln wrote. Researchers at the Papers of Abraham Lincoln project focused on the peculiar phrase, “keep up a correspondence,” and ran it through their database, matching it to a letter written to Lincoln by fellow Republican Leonard Swett in June 1860. In his note, Swett mentioned that he would “try to keep up a correspondence during the Campaign” with “our friend T W of Albany.” Researchers believe these initials refers to Thurlow Weed, the powerful editor of the Albany Evening Journal, a leading Republican newspaper from New York. During that period, Weed was essentially serving as a campaign manager for New York senator William Henry Seward, whom Lincoln had just defeated for the Republican presidential nomination in May 1860. Candidate Lincoln needed full backing from Seward, Weed and their various supporters in the upcoming election but worried that he might not receive it because they were so disappointed over Seward’s unexpected defeat. This would explain why Lincoln and Swett wanted to keep close tabs on Weed and his views and why Lincoln may have sent the mysterious letter featured above.
New letters and documents relating to Abraham Lincoln turn up more frequently than you might realize. Just a few weeks ago for Time magazine, House Divided Project director Matthew Pinsker highlighted some recent discoveries that give us powerful new insights into Lincoln. In 2008, scholars revealed that Lincoln had once fired off an angry letter to the editor of the Chicago Tribune which belittled another Republican politician as “Sister Burlingame” and which Pinsker calls “the angriest, nastiest written statement Lincoln ever produced.” Another newly discovered letter from 1859 reveals that Lincoln privately called slavery the only “living issue of the day” and wrote that it would be “idiotic” to think otherwise. Pinsker also points out that even something as monumental as the transcript for Lincoln’s very first national speech (1847) has only just recently been made available to scholars.
For teachers and students using our Lincoln’s Writings: The Multi-Media Edition site, we’ve added a new tool to help you examine some of the best of these recent documents for yourself. Under the “Special Topics” heading, which can be found in the right-hand sidebar of every page, there is a link to “recently discovered documents.” As you browse each of these documents, you can also use the tags at the bottom of each page to find other related materials.
In your quest for new Lincoln materials, however, always keep in mind that there are sometimes Lincoln forgeries in circulation, especially over the Internet. This problem has even fooled us before. Just remember that the most reputable sources for Lincoln documents remain the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln and the Papers of Abraham Lincoln. And, of course, we’ll do our best to help navigate the truth as well.
In the excitement over the new “Lincoln” movie and Daniel Day-Lewis’s Oscar-winning and truly mesmerizing performance as Abraham Lincoln, it is easy to overlook one of the very best sources of information on Lincoln’s life –Lincoln himself. Abraham Lincoln never kept a diary or wrote a memoir, but he did craft a few, brief autobiographical sketches. The most important of these efforts came in December 1859 at the request of a Pennsylvania newspaper (Chester County Times) that was preparing a series on potential Republican nominees for president in 1860. Joseph J. Lewis, publisher of the Chester Times asked a mutual friend, Bloomington, Illinois attorney (and Pennsylvania native) Jesse W. Fell, to approach Lincoln for information that could be used to craft a profile.
What Lincoln produced was a 600-word document that reveals a striking amount about his background and style. You can access a written transcript of the sketch (along with the equally revealing cover letter to Fell, where Honest Abe states confidentially, “Of course it must not appear to have been written by myself.”) along with a special audio version of the documents created for the House Divided Project by noted actor and Dickinson College theatre professor Todd Wronski. [NOTE: Just right-click on this audio link and select “Save Link As…” in order to download the audio file to your computer / network).
For a Common Core-aligned assignment, students should read and listen to Lincoln’s autobiographical sketch and prepare a short informational essay that summarizes Lincoln’s life story using Lincoln’s own words. After they have completed their essays and discussed them in class, teachers should show clips from Matthew Pinsker’s college-level discussion of Lincoln’s autobiographical sketch, which was filmed by C-SPAN’s American History TV
continue reading "Teaching Lincoln’s Autobiography in the Common Core"
It was bound to happen sooner or later. Last week, sadly, we discovered that there was a forged document in the House Divided research engine. David Gerleman from the Papers of Abraham Lincoln contacted us to point out that a letter supposedly written by Abraham Lincoln to Georgia politician (and future Confederate Vice President) Alexander Stephens, dated January 19, 1860, was a known Lincoln forgery. The letter (since removed) was full of memorable and sometimes unLincolnian statements about the sectional crisis and ended with the line: “This is the longest letter I ever dictated or wrote.” Since Lincoln was not in the habit of dictating anything at all (especially in those pre-presidential days), this was a document that should have set off warning bells. But it was published as part of a pamphlet that had been produced during the centennial of Lincoln’s birth in 1909 and even now remains in wide circulation on the Internet and elsewhere. A recent scholarly article in the Tulane Law Review by John Inazu (“The Forgotten Freedom of Assembly” 2010) even began by quoting from it. Yet there was no such exchange with Stephens. For a full discussion of the problems with the alleged January 19, 1860 document, see the article, “Four Spurious Lincoln Letters” in the Bulletin of the Abraham Lincoln Association 21 (Dec. 1930): 5-9, available online here). You can view the text of the forged document at the Internet Archive (where we apparently found it) inside a pamphlet edited by noted Lincoln collector Judd Stewart and entitled, Some Lincoln Correspondence with Southern Leaders Before the Outbreak of the Civil War (1909). Stewart was one of the so-called “Big Five” of early Lincoln collectors and was careless enough to fall victim to these types of scams (his collection, stripped of several other faked items, is now housed at the Huntington Library in California). During the decades after Lincoln’s assassination, there was practically a land office business in Lincoln forgeries, and their ripple effects are still being felt today. I exposed one of these problems in 1999 when actor Warren Beatty and journalist Jonathan Alter used a phony Lincoln quotation about the evils of big corporations that had originally been ginned up during the Populist era and continues to be quoted and re-quoted today despite numerous debunkings. History News Network reprinted the piece in 2005 when author Kevin Phillips and historian Paul Kennedy both made the same mistake of admiring a Lincoln who sounded suspiciously like William Jennings Bryan. What’s the lesson in all this for teachers and students? Check your sources. We never should have used a 1909 pamphlet for a Lincoln document when the Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln (8 vols., 1953; 1974, 1990) is the current gold standard in Lincoln’s writings (though the online Papers of Abraham Lincoln, where Gerleman works, will soon become the new AAA-rated repository for all things Lincolniana). And always remember, when a story or document seems too “good” to be true … it just very well might be.
One hundred fifty years ago today James Buchanan was at his home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania and wrote a letter to New York Herald editor James Gordon Bennett in which he reflected on his administration. The Herald, as Buchanan explained, had provided “able & powerful support…almost universally throughout my stormy and turbulent administration.” Yet overall Buchanan saw his administration as a success. “Under Heaven’s blessing the administration has been eminently successful in its foreign & domestic policy,” Buchanan noted. As for “the sad events which have recently occurred” during the secession crisis, Buchanan argued that “no human wisdom could have prevented” them. While “I feel conscious that I have done my duty,” Buchanan acknowledged that it “will be for the public & posterity to judge” if he had provided “wise & peaceful direction towards the preservation or reconstruction of the union.” After the Civil War, Buchanan continued to defend his administration’s policies in Mr. Buchanan’s Administration on the Eve of the Rebellion (1866).
One hundred fifty years ago today Abraham Lincoln became the sixteenth President of the United States. After he delivered his Inaugural Address from the central portico of the U.S. Capitol, Chief Justice Roger Taney administered the oath of office. Newspapers throughout the country published Lincoln’s speech and debated what it meant for the future of the country. The New York Times, which supported the Republican party, argued that Lincoln had been “highly conciliatory towards all who have been led to entertain unjust and unfounded apprehensions” about the new administration. Other Republican papers such as the Cleveland (OH) Herald also praised the speech. “The Inaugural of President Lincoln will take its place in history as one of the most remarkable state papers of the present age,” as the Herald explained. In addition, the Herald believed that “the Union men of the South cannot fail to be pleased” since Lincoln had indicated that “the constitutional rights of each section of the Union shall be respected and protected. ” One southern unionist newspaper, the Fayetteville (NC) Observer, noted that “there is much in Mr. Lincoln’s words to assure the South that it need anticipate no violation of its rights from his administration.” The Observer argued that President Lincoln would not “resort to ‘coercion’” because “it would be the maddest of follies.” Some southern editors, however, were accused of distorting the text of the speech in an attempt to support secessionists. While the Republican editor of the Chicago (IL) Tribune knew from experience that “a long document [rarely] is transmitted over the wires without undergoing more or less transformation,” Joseph Medill believed in this case that some editors had deliberately included errors. “Evidently the conductors of the secession press are unwilling that the people whom they have hurried into rebellion without a cause, shall have the opportunity of learning the truth,” as Medill concluded. You can read more about Lincoln’s Inaugural Address in chapter 3 of Douglas L. Wilson’s Lincoln’s Sword: The Presidency and the Power of Words (2006) and chapter 20 of Michael Burlingame’s Abraham Lincoln: A Life (2008).
The 150th anniversary of President-Elect Lincoln‘s tense arrival in Washington has provoked several evocative blog posts.
Ted Widmer, director of the John Carter Brown Library at Brown University, provides a comprehensive decscription about Lincoln’s travels for the “Disunion” blog at the New York Times. Through several posts (see especially 2/10, 2/21 and 2/22) Widmer traces the route from Springfield to Washington and illustrates the ups and downs of the emotional journey. Though Lincoln never wrote about this trip, his secretary John Nicolay conveyed the following:
“It is hard for anyone who had not had the chance of personal observation to realize the mingled excitement and apprehension, elation and fatigue which Mr. Lincoln… underwent… during this memorable trip from Springfield to Washington.”
Historian Harold Holzer also authored a vivid post for “Disunion” on the anniversary of the President-Elect’s arrival in Washington. Holzer gathers inspiration from the close parallels between Lincoln’s trip and President Obama’s recent pre-inaugural journey. However, he says, “Most Americans overlooked a critical historical irony.” President-elect Obama enjoyed record-breaking crowds on the way to his inauguration while president-elect Lincoln was met by a single friend. “Lincoln made the final leg of his journey in total secrecy,” Holzer writes, “in the dead of night, disguised to avoid detection and at one point sleeping near a woman who was not his wife.”
In a news feature by Brady Dennis re-posted within their own Civil War blog series, The Washington Post compares the nation’s capital from 1860 to city it is today. See “President-elect Lincoln arrived to a less-than-monumental Washington.”
One hundred fifty years ago today the Charleston (SC) Mercury published part of New York City Mayor Fernando Wood’s speech that he gave during President-Elect Abraham Lincoln’s visit in late February 1861. Lincoln had left his home in Springfield, Illinois on February 11 for Washington DC. On the way he stopped at a number of cities, including Albany, Cleveland, Columbus, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia. While Lincoln arrived in New York City with his wife on February 19, he did not meet with Mayor Wood until the afternoon of February 20. The Charleston (SC) Mercury described “Mayor Wood’s address of welcome to the Abolition President” as “too good to be lost.” As Lincoln entered “office with… a disconnected and hostile people to reconcile,” Wood told the President-Elect that “it will require a high patriotism and an elevated comprehension of the whole country and its varied interests, opinions and prejudices to so conduct public affairs as to bring it back again to its former harmonious, consolidated and prosperous condition.” In addition, Wood warned that “[New York’s] material interests are paralyzed” and “her commercial greatness is endangered.” Yet Wood also supported southern Democrats and he wanted the crisis to be resolved through compromise. Wood noted that he expected Lincoln to use “peaceful and conciliatory means” to ensure the “restoration of fraternal relations between the States.” Lincoln responded the same day to Wood’s remarks, noting that “there is nothing that can ever bring me willingly to consent to the destruction of this Union.” The following day Lincoln left for Trenton, New Jersey. You can read more about President-Elect Lincoln’s journey from Springfield to Washington, DC in Harold Holzer’s Lincoln: President-Elect (2008).