Finding Ever More to Say on Lincoln

Michael Burlingame

May 1, 2010

A speech given by Professor Michael Burlingame (University of Illinois-Springfield) at an Ashbrook Colloquium on February 19, 2010. Dr. Burlingame is author of Abraham Lincoln: A Life (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2008), 2 volumes, 2024 pages.

I am very glad to be here, and I am glad to see such a turn out on a beautiful Friday afternoon. This latest book of mine is sometimes referred to as the Green Monster. Where I come from in New England, sportscasters often refer to something called the Green Monster, and you baseball fans will recognize that as the left field fence at Fenway Park. When I hear them say that I like to think they are plugging my book. It weighs ten pounds. Someone told me that writing this and getting it into print is the closest thing I will get to childbirth. I responded, “Well, eleven years is a pretty long gestation period.” But as the end product is about ten pounds, there are some similarities.

It was originally supposed to come out as four volumes spread out over eight years. That was manageable: you could read them in bed without jeopardizing your internal organs. But, as I kept turning in manuscripts, my publisher kept delaying. So it came out in this awkward form. It’s just appeared on Kindle. One of the great advantages of reading this on a Kindle is that if you drop a Kindle on your foot, you don’t have to go to the hospital.

Before I begin my formal remarks I thought I might share with you an explanation of how I became a Lincoln scholar in the first place. It is partly because I was born and raised in Washington, DC. This was slightly after the unfortunate event at Ford’s Theatre, of course; still, the White House, Ford’s Theatre, the Lincoln Memorial, and picnics at Manassas were all part of my childhood landscape and that predisposed me to be a Lincoln scholar. Another reason why I became a Lincoln scholar is that my great grandfather’s cousin was Anson Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln’s ambassador to China. But the most important reason why I became a Lincoln scholar is that in college I had a mesmerizing teacher.

When I was a freshman in college, I was able to enroll in an upper level course. I had done fairly well in high school European history, so I was allowed to take upper level courses without having to take the freshman survey. Instead, I took a course with David Herbert Donald, a Civil War scholar. He was an amazing lecturer and a brilliant small class discussion group leader. I got to know him because I was one of ten students in that discussion group. Every week we would read a different book and talk about it. Since I would usually be one of the few who had done the reading, the discussions were more like tutorials. He took me under his wing, had me over to his house, and made me his research assistant when I was a sophomore. He had just won the Pulitzer Prize for his first volume of a biography of Charles Sumner—an eminent Civil War figure. I helped him on the second volume, a very heady experience for a sophomore in college, needless to say. He left Princeton after my sophomore year to go to Johns Hopkins. I finished at Princeton and then followed him to Johns Hopkins. If he had been a medievalist, I would probably be writing on the Middle Ages today.

Another significant event that I think predisposed me to be a Lincoln scholar was something that happened in the summer between my junior and senior years. That summer I had a job at the Library of Congress in the manuscript division. I handled original documents, mostly letters. Some of these had never been seen before except by the recipients, and some of the letters spoke about Lincoln. The fellow that got me the job was the chairman of the history department at Princeton. He spent his summers at the Library of Congress conducting research for his magisterial history of European economic development. Regularly at noontime he would swing by the manuscript department where I was employed and invite me to join him and his friends for lunch. It was a very exciting thing, dining with preeminent historians of Europe and America. One day about a dozen of us were sitting around a table at the Library of Congress cafeteria and someone began to tell a story about Douglas Southall Freeman. As some of you may know, he had written a four-volume biography of Robert E. Lee and a three-volume study of Lee’s lieutenants and at the end of his life, he was writing a multivolume biography of George Washington. A fellow said, “An interesting thing about Freeman: as he finished writing each volume you could detect new changes in him, for he would adopt the gestures and mannerisms of Washington and begin to use more 18th century locutions in conversation. Eventually he even began to look like George Washington!” I began to straighten out my bowtie and slick back my hair—which was a lot longer then than it is now. I said, “When I graduate I am going on to pursue a Ph.D. in American History in the Civil War and Reconstruction period, and some people have told me that I look like Abraham Lincoln.” At this point the chairman banged his fist on the table and all the knives and forks and spoons leaped into the air and then came clattering back down to the green formica table top, which caused all the heads in the Library of Congress cafeteria to turn and see what the ruckus was about. My chairman had announced in a voice that could have been heard in Baltimore, if the door had been open, “Holy mackerel, Mike. You’re ugly! But you’re not that ugly!” Ever since that I day, I knew I was fated to be a Lincoln scholar.

Being a Lincoln scholar has great advantages. One of them is that Lincoln had a great sense of humor. Whenever you do research on Lincoln, you come across funny stories that were told by or about him. One day I was at the New York Public Library in the main reading room, which as usual was mobbed with people everywhere. I was sitting among others at a long table, poring through some reminiscences of Lincoln written by people who’d known him. A half-hour into my work I encounter a funny story. Without stopping to think where I was, I burst out laughing. Everyone around me said, “shh, shhhh.” So I said, “Excuse me.” After another half hour I encountered another funny story and once again burst out laughing. Everyone around me, a little more emphatically this time, went, “shh, shh!” Well, it happened a third time, at which point the woman sitting directly across from me at the wide table—a very earnest woman of about my age, her hair back in a tight bun, wearing wire rim glasses and no makeup, who was taking notes from a big sociology tome—leaned across the table and asked, “What is your field, anyhow? I think I am going to switch to it.”

If you have not read my book, you may well be wondering what in the world justifies a two-volume biography of Lincoln in the year 2009? There have been hundreds, nay thousands, of books about Lincoln. Has not everything important about Lincoln been long ago unearthed, published, and made available?

When I began my first book on Lincoln twenty-five years ago, I, too, assumed that everything important ever said or written by him, or ever said or written about him or his administration, had long since been unearthed. I was teaching then in New London, Connecticut, and I saw no need to go schlepping all over the country inspecting manuscript collections and repositories. I just drafted the book, which was eventually published under the title of The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln. It’s a series of psychological essays about his relations with his parents and his wife and his children, his anger, his mid-life crisis, and that sort of thing. (I wanted to call it Shrinkin’ Lincoln, but my publisher wouldn’t let me.) Later I really wanted to do some original research in unpublished sources. So I went up to Brown University, about an hour away from where I lived. Brown University has a very fine Lincoln collection, because John Hay, who was Lincoln’s assistant and personal secretary in the White House, left his papers there, including research notes for his ten volume biography of Lincoln. In the very first hour of the very first day that I was at Brown, I discovered a tremendous cache of new, fresh information. I had a very sophisticated research design: I went to the card catalog (some of you are old enough to remember what a card catalog is), pulled out the drawer marked “L”, and just started looking through Lincoln references, and all of the sudden I found card after card describing one of a series of interviews that Lincoln’s principal White House secretary, John Nicolay, conducted about ten years after the assassination with people who knew Lincoln well. I knew the published literature pretty well by that time, and I thought “Here are all kinds of new, fresh sources!” I couldn’t believe it! So I went to the librarians at Brown and said, “You have done a magnificent job of indexing, describing and preserving these documents and making them available to the public, but I never see anybody use them! What gives?” And the people at Brown said, “Well Abraham Lincoln is, after all, a dead white male. It’s not very fashionable to write about dead white males anymore, at least if you want to get ahead in American history departments in American colleges and universities. If you’re really eager to advance your career, you write on subjects like ’homosexuality among nineteenth century Chinese pirates’ or ’cultural hegemony and the corset panic of 1921.’” (These are real titles!) And I said, “Well, I’m interested in Lincoln, and I’m going to pursue it.”

And I published those interviews as my second book, called An Oral History of Abraham Lincoln. Nicolay had conducted these interviews for use in the ten-volume biography that he and Hay were researching at that time. But they decided not to use the interviews after they were granted exclusive access to Lincoln’s own papers, that is, his incoming mail, drafts of his speeches, and the like. Historians understandably prefer to use contemporary documents when they write about historical figures rather than relying on reminiscences of what those figures wrote or said, memories transcribed ten, twenty, or thirty years after the events. People’s memories play tricks on them; as Mark Twain once said, “the older I get, the more vividly I remember things that never happened.” Still, I decided to use these reminiscences. They were, after all, firsthand accounts from those who had met Lincoln, a kind of source that current biographers can no longer collect.

It occurred to me that a number of other early biographers of Lincoln had probably also gone out and interviewed people who had known him, taking notes that didn’t get into their books because publishers are always telling you “condense your book, compact that snowball, boil it down!” (My publishers were merciless. They got me to pare down the biography to two thousand pages.) Suspecting that in some of those early biographers’ field notes there would be a lot more valuable information, I went to Allegheny College in Meadville, Pennsylvania, a small rural town. I got a month’s worth of new information in one week of reading through the Ida Tarbell papers. Most famous as a muckraking journalist in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, Ida Tarbell also wrote a two-volume biography of Lincoln, for which she interviewed people who knew Lincoln or whose parents knew him. Some of that interview material shows up in her book, but much which doesn’t is stashed in file cabinets at Allegheny College. Again I queried the librarian: “This is fabulous stuff, but I never see it cited.” She responded, “You’re the first person who’s spent more than a day here looking through it, and I’ve been here for thirty years.”

I did similar work with other early biographers’ papers in New York and Chicago and elsewhere and found a great deal of good, new information.

Let me give you an example of the sort of thing I found in these unpublished interviews. According to Lincoln’s close friend Orville H. Browning, who gave Nicolay an interview in 1875, Lincoln “undoubtedly felt that he had made [a mistake] in having engaged himself to Miss Todd. But having done so, he felt himself in honor bound to act in perfect good faith towards her—and that good faith compelled him to fulfill his engagement with her, if she persisted in claiming the fulfillment of his word.” Browning “always doubted whether, had circumstances left him entirely free to act upon his own impulses, he would have voluntarily made proposals of marriage to Miss Todd.”

Encouraged by the new information I found while looking at the manuscript notes of biographers, I decided to look at manuscripts of his contemporaries—people who served in Congress or in the army or lawyers of the time who would have had contact with him both in the pre-presidential period (which led me to spend a great deal of time in Springfield) and then in the presidential period (which led me to travel around the country). It’s easy to find letters that Lincoln wrote; those are the most valuable; but those have long since been collected and published and indexed. And it’s easy to find letters that Lincoln received; they are all collected in the Lincoln papers in the Library of Congress. The trick is to find letters about Lincoln: someone writing home to his wife or his law partner or his neighbor, saying, “Today I went to the White House to speak with the President, and this is what he looked like, this is what he said”—those are very valuable letters. But finding them is laborious: you have to wade through an awful lot of other letters that don’t have anything to do with Lincoln. It’s like panning for gold: a lot of gravel will pass through your sieve before you find the nuggets, but if you do this kind of work, you’ll find a lot of good nuggets.

Here is an example of such a letter: In August 1863, Frederick Douglass—whom you all know was the Martin Luther King of his era—called at the White House. Two days later he reported that he was “received cordially” by Lincoln, who rose and extended his hand. “I have never seen a more transparent countenance,” Douglass wrote. “There was not the slightest shadow of embarrassment.” When he began to explain who he was, Lincoln put him at ease, saying: “I know you; I have read about you, and Mr. Seward has told me about you.” Douglass said that he felt “quite at home in his presence.”

Another major source of new information is newspapers. Almost everybody who writes about Lincoln and his administration cites New York newspapers. They go to the Herald or the Tribune or the Times or the Evening Post on the very reasonable assumption that those newspapers had the biggest budgets, the largest staffs, and therefore, the most comprehensive coverage of events in Washington. And this is true, but suppose you are interested in what an Ohio General or an Ohio Congressman or an Ohio Senator said about his conversations with the President. Would these people have talked to the New York Herald or the Times or the Tribune? No! They talked to their buddies on the Cleveland Plain Dealer or the Columbus, Ohio State Journal or the Cincinnati Commercial or Gazette. In those days, the press was very partisan. Those in politics usually had friends who would write favorable commentary on them, and they reciprocated by sharing fresh, important information with these journalists. In order to find that kind of material, you need to sit in front of a microfilm reader and just turn the crank. Day by day, go through the Washington correspondence, and you will find much really good, new information. Here is an example of such an item, taken from the Springfield, Massachusetts, Republican:

To critics of Edwin Stanton, Lincoln cited Democratic newspapers which had been denouncing the Secretary of War: “See how these anti-war journals hound him on—they are my bitter enemies also, and shall I take advice of them about the reconstruction of my cabinet?”

Let me conclude by commenting on one of my most startling discoveries about Lincoln. This comes from the Frederick Douglass papers at the Library of Congress. Everybody who writes about Lincoln and race cites a speech that Frederick Douglass gave about Lincoln in 1876, eleven years after Lincoln’s death. In this speech, made to fellow black freedmen who were dedicating a monument to their emancipator, Douglass asserted that Lincoln “was not, in the fullest sense of the word, either our man or our model. In his interests, in his associations, in his habits of thought, and in his prejudices, he was a white man. He was preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men. He was ready and willing at any time during the first years of his administration to deny, postpone, and sacrifice the rights of humanity in the colored people to promote the welfare of the white people of this country.”

Imagine my surprise when I stumbled across a speech in Douglass’s handwriting, dated June 1, 1865, which contained the following language: “No people or class of people in the country, have a better reason for lamenting the death of Abraham Lincoln, and for desiring to honor and perpetuate his memory, than have the colored people.” Compared “with the long line of his predecessors, many of whom were merely the facile and servile instruments of the slave power,” Lincoln made an impressive record which entitled him to be considered “in a sense hitherto without example, emphatically the black man’s president: the first to show any respect for their rights as men” [emphasis added].

That sentence jumped off of the page at me! And I thought, “How could I have missed this?” I had recently read the big, five-volume edition of Frederick Douglass’s speeches newly published by Yale University Press. I thought I had consulted those volumes quite carefully. I went back to volume three, which had the Civil War speeches, looked for June 1, and it wasn’t there! I couldn’t believe it! So I wrote to the people at Yale and said, “Why did you omit this really important speech from your published edition?” After receiving no response, I called them and left a message. Again, no response.

Frederick Douglass goes on to recall his meetings at the White House with Lincoln, which, as I mentioned earlier, he commented on in an 1863 letter, just after the first occasion. Douglass saw his invitation to the White House as a gesture through which Lincoln spoke to the nation as a whole: “Some men there are who face death and dangers, but have not the moral courage to contradict a prejudice or face ridicule. In daring to admit, nay in daring to invite a Negro to an audience at the White House, Mr. Lincoln did that which he knew would be offensive to the crowd and excite their ribaldry. It was saying to the country, I am the President of the black people as well as the white, and I mean to respect their rights and feelings as men and as citizens.”

I thought that this was a startling speech, one that deserves to be better known, so I included it in the biography I wrote.

We need to read Douglass’s 1865 speeches on Lincoln to understand his assessment of the President in 1876. Then we can see his apparent cynicism about Lincoln’s racial priorities primarily as a reflection on the disheartening civil rights outlook as the Reconstruction period drew to a close. Then we can appreciate more fully Douglass’s quotation in that speech of the martyred president’s Second Inaugural Address, in particular of the passage which dealt with God’s reason for allowing the war to go on so long and to be so bloody. By this time, Douglass would have known about a private memorandum Lincoln wrote in 1862, while struggling with the difficult and costly progress of the Civil War. This note became known as the Meditation on the Divine Will. And in that document, which was first revealed to the public a few years after the President’s death, Lincoln first posits that the “will of God prevails.” He then questions why God allowed the War to start in the first place and then to go on and on, taking the lives of so many soldiers, creating so many widows and orphans. What can be God’s intention? Indeed, the Civil War is the bloodiest war by far in American history. It cost as many lives as all other American wars from the Revolution to Korea combined: 620,000 casualties. This is equivalent to one tenth of the national population at that time. It is in the Second Inaugural that Lincoln proposes an answer to his question about God’s intentions. Douglass recalls the President’s words on that occasion, commenting:

The man who could say, “Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war shall soon pass away, yet if God wills it continue till all the wealth piled by two hundred years of bondage shall have been wasted, and each drop of blood drawn by the lash shall have been paid for by one drawn by the sword, the judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether,” gives all needed proof of his feeling on the subject of slavery.

Douglass is right; Lincoln’s statement in the Second Inaugural is remarkable. Coming from a white statesman of the time—indeed, coming from any politician of any era—this willingness to accept the sufferings of war as a deserved punishment for wrongs the nation has committed is truly astounding.

Later I found another 1865 speech in Douglass’s handwriting, this one made in December, that is not included in the Yale five-volume edition. In that document, Douglass comments on Abraham Lincoln’s final address, delivered on April 11, 1865—just two days after Robert E. Lee surrendered. Everyone was expecting a message of public self-congratulation: “Thanks to the Army. Thanks to the Navy. Aren’t we great? We won; they lost.” Instead Lincoln gave a very sober, detailed analysis of Reconstruction, particularly dealing with Louisiana. But the question that was before the nation at that point was: What would be asked of the eleven Confederate states before they were readmitted to the Union and regained full representation in Congress? Lincoln called in that speech for a revision of state constitutions in the former Confederate states to allow black men to vote, but suggests that the franchise might be limited to those blacks who had served in the army or the armed forces and those who were very intelligent (by which we assume he meant “literate”). Douglass said of Lincoln’s final speech:

Already he had expressed himself in favor of extending the right of suffrage to two classes of colored men; first to the brave colored soldiers who had fought under our flag, and second to the very intelligent part of the colored population [of the] South. This declaration on his part, though it seemed to mean but little meant a great deal. It was like Abraham Lincoln. He never shocked prejudices unnecessarily. Having learned statesmanship while splitting rails, he always used the edge of the wedge first—and the fact that he used this at all meant that he would, if need be, use the thick as well as the thin. He saw the absurdity of asking men to fight for a Government which should degrade them, and the meanness of enfranchising enemies and disenfranchising friends. He was a progressive man, a humane man, an honorable man, and at heart an antislavery man. He had exhausted the resources of conciliation upon the rebels and the slaveholders and now looked to the principles of Liberty and justice, for the peace, security, happiness, and prosperity of his country. I assume therefore, had Abraham Lincoln been spared to see this day, the negro of the South would have more than a hope of enfranchisement and no rebels would hold the reins of government in any one of the late rebellious states. Whosoever else have cause to mourn the loss of Abraham Lincoln, to the colored people of the country his death is an unspeakable calamity.

That image of the wedge, which cuts first with its thin edge, but pushes through with the thick, is apt. It applies not only to Lincoln’s vision for Reconstruction, but also to the way he brought an end to slavery. In 1861, Lincoln inserted the thin edge of the wedge, starting in Delaware; then in 1862 he proposed to abolish slavery in the border states of Missouri, Kentucky, and Maryland; then in 1863 he emancipated slaves throughout the whole Confederacy; and then in 1864 he emancipated slaves throughout the whole nation. Between 1861 and 1864 the wedge goes in deeper and deeper.

Although Douglass, as he himself acknowledges, did not at first appreciate the full import of Lincoln’s call for limited black suffrage, there was one member of Lincoln’s audience on April 11, 1865, who did fully appreciate the significance of the President’s remarks—a young actor named John Wilkes Booth. When Booth heard Lincoln endorse black voting rights, he turned to his companions and snarled: “That means nigger citizenship. Now, by God, I’ll put him through. That is the last speech he will ever make.” Three days later, he carried out his threat. Lincoln was assassinated not because he issued the Emancipation Proclamation, not because he endorsed the Thirteenth Amendment, but because he called for black voting rights. Therefore it seems to me appropriate that we consider Lincoln as much a martyr to black civil rights as Martin Luther King, Medgar Evers, James Reeb, Viola Liuzo, Micky Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, James Chaney, or any of the other champions of the civil rights movement who were killed in the 1960s.

I would like to close my formal remarks by reading to you the final paragraph of my book:

Lincoln speaks to us not only as a champion of freedom, democracy, and national unity, but also as a source of inspiration. Few will achieve his historical importance, but many can profit from his personal example. Encouraged by the knowledge that despite a childhood of emotional malnutrition and grinding poverty, despite a lack of formal education, despite a series of career failures, despite a miserable marriage, despite a tendency to depression, despite a painful midlife crisis, despite the early death of his mother and of his siblings as well as of his sweetheart and two of his four children, Lincoln became a model of psychological maturity, moral clarity, and unimpeachable integrity. His presence and his leadership inspired his contemporaries. His life story can do the same for generations to come.