Introduction to Illinois History Teacher
Volume 16: 1 Lincoln Bicentennial Issue of Illinois History Teacher
Jimmy Carter reminded us that "life's unfair." Many people also think that history is unfairthat many important topics are understudied or lack widespread public interest while others topics are studied to the point of exhaustion and still seem to garner unlimited public attention, Abraham Lincoln is frequently cited as being one of the latter. He remains the most studied of our nation's presidents. World history also holds Lincoln in high regard, placing him among a handful of historical figures such as Jesus Christ, William Shakespeare, and Napoleon. The American humorist James Thurber suggested that a moratorium be placed on books about Lincoln and even argued that a tax should be levied on writers and publishers who disregarded it. A popular myth in the publishing industry is that any book about Lincoln, medicine, and animals will turn a profit. Two books have been published using the title "Lincoln's Doctor's Dog" only to prove the myth false: neither sold well. But even the myth suggests that Abraham Lincoln rises above the usual biography or historical narrative. And perhaps it is because the general public still reserves a special place for Lincoln that so many books continue to be written and published about him.
Presidential historians continue to rank Lincoln as our nation's greatest president. David Herbert Donald and Doris Kearns Goodwin have demonstrated the Sixteenth President's continued popularity with their books making the New York Times bestseller list, and even Steven Spielberg is considering Lincoln as a topic for a forthcoming film. In Springfield, Illinois, the new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum is fast approaching a total visitation of 1.5 million after three years of operation, eclipsing the number of visitors at any other presidential library, including the popular William Jefferson Clinton library in Little Rock, Arkansas.
On the flip side, many African-Americans no longer consider Lincoln as the leading force in bringing about emancipation. Libertarians have questioned Lincoln's suspension of civil liberties in wartime, his issuing of the income tax to finance the war, and his general centralization of government functions that laid the foundations for "big government." In spite of Lincoln's success in maintaining national unity and helping to bring an end to slavery, he has not been honored with a national holiday nor was there any federally sponsored commemoration on the centennial anniversary of his birth in 1909. The current federal commission to plan for the Lincoln bicentennial in 2009 got off to a rocky start without a suitable budget for events or an adequate mechanism for raising private and corporate money. Although a preliminary report for observing Lincoln's bicentennial was sent to Congress with recommendations, the general public has shown little interest in planning celebrations. Neo-Confederate groups still blame Lincoln for starting the Civil War, and certain former Confederate states have refused to establish a state commission to plan events for the Lincoln bicentennial, although many have created such commissions for the upcoming sesquicen-tennial of the Civil War.
Commemoration deals with two central questions: 1) Why is someone or something worthy of remembrance? and 2) What constitutes appropriate acts of commemoration? While Lincoln's legacy is contested, historians and the general public are eager to keep his memory alive. How to do this is becoming increasingly difficult. In part, technology had fractured the national audience into niches, providing people with almost unlimited choices in what to download from the Internet. With viewers and readers no longer hostage to three major networks or a handful of opinion-making newspapers or radio programs, it is harder to attract the nation's attention except in cases of national emergency. Asking a nation to take time out of its hectic 24/7 schedule to remember someone born two hundred years ago is bound to raise a spectrum of reaction from "who cares" to "that's nice, but I'm too busy." The five authors in this issue offer examples of why someone as well known as Abraham Lincoln can continue to offer insight and inspiration for understanding our own condition, here and now.
Barry Schwartz illustrates the problem of interpreting Lincoln by focusing on his most famous public speech, the Gettysburg Address. The speech has been interpreted in different ways depending on the concerns of the time. That the speech has no single meaning and continues to be reinterpreted demonstrates both the difficulty with historical interpretation and the timeless power of Lincoln's words.
Jennifer Weber uses Lincoln's two secretaries as eyewitnesses to history. Both kept diaries and corresponded with friends and family about their White House experiences. Weber argues that 1862 was a pivotal year in the war and in Lincoln's presidency. Lincoln became convinced that emancipation was necessary to win the war, and John Nicolay and John Hay offer explanations on how that process unfolded.Kenneth Winkle provides an example of how a fresh approach can provide new insight into a well-worn topic. After years of toiling in county commissioner records, Springfield court cases, newspapers, and county poll books, Winkle crafted a model social history of Lincoln's New Salem and Springfield. Lincoln learned many valuable lessons at New Salem, and Winkle ably shows why Lincoln's years there were so important.
Lincoln is often remembered for his folksy stories and wit. Paul Zall reminds us that Lincoln used humor in a variety of ways to subtly make a point, disarm a political opponent, or win over a crowd. Lincoln knew that sometimes the laugh rather than logic won the debate.
It is difficult for us today to image an era when people embraced lengthy political debates and were unconcerned that their neighbors knew how they voted. Moreover, it is even harder to imagine typical election turnouts of 80 to 90 percent of the eligible voters. But that was Lincoln's political environment, and Matthew Pinsker provides a compelling description of how Lincoln worked to become the leader of his party in Illinois. The realignment of political parties in the 1850s was a crisis decade for political insiders such as Lincoln. It required all his skills to forge a new party that reflected his own political sensibilities and was broad enough to gain the support of a wide range of views.
As we remember the 200th anniversary of Abraham Lincoln's birth, these essays remind us why Lincoln continues to be a modern-day touchstone for inspiration and edification.
Thomas F. Schwartz