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From the Noteworthy column in the November 1999 Perspectives

Remarks on Being Awarded the Lincoln Prize

Douglas L. Wilson, November 1999

Editor's Note: Continuing our tradition of publishing personal reminiscences of eminent practitioners of the historian's craft, we print below an abridged version of the acceptance speech delivered by the author on being awarded the 1999 Lincoln Prize for his book, Honor's Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln (Alfred A. Knopf).

Authoring yet another book about the most written about of all Americans is widely considered an exercise in audacity, something akin to a deliberate act of effrontery. The first review of my book to appear began: "Another Lincoln book?" a remark repeated as the opening gambit of a nationally televised interview. Another reviewer began by recounting James Thurber's story about a fictional librarian of Congress who subjected anyone caught writing a book about Lincoln to a heavy fine. These experiences helped me learn very quickly that this preemptory and accusatory question—"Another Lincoln book?"—constitutes the gauntlet that all who write on Lincoln must run. I like to think that the prize that is celebrated here tonight was established, at least in part, to help counterbalance this persistent reservation in the minds of American readers and writers alike, and as such, it serves to encourage new approaches and to reward new ventures in research that the reading public is predisposed to suspect are probably unnecessary.

Without wanting for a moment to argue that we need or deserve all the books about Lincoln that have been inflicted on us, I propose to use this opportunity to offer a word of explanation of how I came to write yet "another Lincoln book" and to attempt very briefly, by recurring to some of Lincoln's own ideas, to suggest the usefulness of revisiting even the most familiar historical subjects, such as Abraham Lincoln. Readers of Honor's Voice and some of my other writings about Lincoln will recognize these themes and perhaps see them as shameless self-justification. Insofar as this is true, I must plead guilty, but I believe that most of the lessons arising from my experience with Lincoln biography apply to the study of historical subjects generally.

I began Honor's Voice as a relative neophyte in Lincoln studies, though I had long been an admirer of our most admired president, especially of his conspicuous talents as a writer. Making a career of teaching English and American literature at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, had put me squarely on the site of the fifth Lincoln-Douglas debate, but my interest in the historical context of American literature first led me to that other presidential master of the English language, Thomas Jefferson. After spending a number of years studying Jefferson's literary interests and his library, I conceived the idea of making a comparative study of Jefferson and Lincoln as readers. What I knew in starting out was that different as their backgrounds and educations had been—and it was obviously a vast difference—their experience as readers had been a crucial and perhaps defining experience for both.

Jefferson kept commonplace books to record his formative reading, and having edited the one he kept for literature and studied the formation of his enormous library, I was already well informed about his early and lifelong career as an assiduous reader. Jefferson's letters and memoranda are replete with references to his reading, and he kept detailed records on his library, which, after his residence, Monticello, seems to have been his most prized possession. To get at the basic sources of information about Lincoln's reading, I had to confront a very different body of evidence, namely, the recollections of people who had known him during his formative years, and this led me inexorably to the letters and interviews collected by his law partner and biographer, William H. Herndon.

Exploring this fascinating body of unpublished material ultimately laid the basis for my book, for I soon discovered that in it and the surrounding lore numerous themes and episodes were recounted or suggested or sometimes merely hinted at that did not figure prominently or at all in standard Lincoln biography. I found very little to suggest that the familiar outlines of Lincoln's remarkable life story were untrue, but there were persistent indications that the story was more complex than is generally believed and that Lincoln's legendary transformation from uneducated backwoodsman to successful lawyer and politician was more trying, more of a struggle, more fraught with difficulty and even despondency than had been realized.

But, not surprisingly, there were problems. The most notable was the dubious standing of the materials themselves, which were almost all reminiscences, and as such, subject to the notorious quirks and foibles of human memory. How reliable were these recollections, which were often in conflict, and what kind of historical reality could be reconstructed from them? Herndon himself was a problem, for while he had generally been found to be truthful, he was widely judged to be quixotic and given to theorizing, with strong personal biases and enthusiasms. How reliable was material that had been solicited, selectively reported, and filtered through the imagination of such a biographer? To avoid just such difficulties, Lincoln scholars had for years been giving Herndon's materials a wide berth, and Herndon himself was regarded with deep suspicion.

In the face of these vexing considerations, two things lent encouragement. The first was the realization that Herndon's evidence is simply indispensable to any picture of Lincoln's prepresidential life; without his own reminiscent testimony and that of his informants, there would be very little to work with, which is why everyone who writes about this period, in fact, ends up making use of them to some extent. The other encouraging circumstance was the discovery that Herndon's evidence, precisely because of scholars' wariness about its reliability, was known only superficially. With very few exceptions, Lincoln scholars of the past fifty years have not felt the necessity of combing Herndon's materials in their entirety and have confined their attention to excerpts appearing in earlier works.

Honor's Voice proceeds on an entirely different tack. It represents an attempt to take Herndon's evidence and similar materials seriously, to look for ways to make responsible use of admittedly imperfect materials, to routinely inquire into the evidence on which accepted stories are based, and to follow leads that have heretofore been neglected or totally ignored. The degree to which I succeeded or failed is for others to judge, but I am more than willing to defend its working assumptions about history and historical research. As a way of highlighting some of these issues, I would like to call attention to some of Lincoln's own ideas on the subject.

Abraham Lincoln had, it turns out, distinctive views on history and biography, and Herndon's familiar story about Lincoln's opinion of nineteenth-century biography is an obvious point of departure. As Herndon remembered it, he had recommended a biography of Edmund Burke, which Lincoln perused only cursorily and then returned with a complaint to the effect that such biographies were written to make heroes out of their subjects, to magnify their perfections and suppress their imperfections. As such, Lincoln is reported as saying, they "cheat posterity out of the truth," and that "history is not history unless it is the truth." This provocative remark about history and the truth must not be taken too literally, as it was only intended to convey the gist of what Lincoln said. But that he was mistrustful of partisan history and biography and a bulldog about the truth is reported by others and is consistent with his decidedly skeptical and keenly analytical cast of mind.

That Lincoln was wary of the kind of laudatory books of which he himself would subsequently be the subject should give us pause. In this perspective, one of the things that hampers and inhibits Lincoln biography is that his biographers find it hard to be thoroughly objective about him. Depending on their own point of view, they tend to magnify his perfections and suppress his imperfections, or vice versa. Doubtless this is no more than human, but following Lincoln's implied admonition means paying due attention to those disparate aspects of one's subject, the troubling details that fit least well into the general framework that one has fashioned. In setting a rigorous standard, Lincoln's dictum amounts to a challenge to his own biographers to be accurate and balanced. If this sounds like a harmless cliché, one has only to read some of the abuse heaped on Herndon's head for allowing that Lincoln was not a conventional Christian or for contending that Lincoln, while more honest than most, "was not always—to all persons & at all times—absolutely Honest." Being careful to admit even minor imperfections in Lincoln earned Herndon nothing but grief.

I want next to take a brief look at some remarks from Lincoln's only public lecture, whose topic was "Discoveries and Inventions." When read from the standpoint of the foregoing discussion, Lincoln's lecture proves to be studded with remarks that are relevant to the work of historians, which he implies is an interlocking chain of collaboration. Noting that countless people had observed the power of steam before the invention of the steam engine, he asks: "But was this first inventor of the application of steam, wiser or more ingenious than those who had gone before him? Not at all. Had he not learned much of them, he never would have succeeded—probably, never would have thought of making the attempt." And noting the role that the invention of speech has played in human progress, he again calls attention to the collaborative element: "What one observes, and would himself infer nothing from, he tells to another, and that other at once sees a valuable hint in it. A result is thus reached which neither alone would have arrived at."

As the means of preserving speech and thus facts and ideas, writing, Lincoln concludes, was "the great invention of the world." "When writing was invented," he wrote, "any important observation, likely to lead to a discovery, had at least a chance of being written down, and consequently, a better chance of never being forgotten. . . . By this means the observation of a single individual might lead to an important invention, years, and even centuries after he was dead. In one word, by means of writing, the seeds of invention were more widely sown."

Perhaps most striking here, for our purposes, is the issue of timeliness, something Lincoln understood supremely well. Facts can be apprehended and ideas can be conceived but, regardless of their potential, their import will remain elusive until the right conditions are present. By implication this means that history, our understanding of the past, is an evolving collaboration. Thanks to "the great invention of the world," facts and ideas gathered by someone like Herndon can be preserved so as to be available to later generations who will perhaps see them in a different light or make disclosures that conditions in Herndon's day would not permit. Thus, we are reminded, it is not the superior wisdom or the ingenuity of the present that accounts for the successful implementation of facts or ideas, but the collaboration of the present and the past. The time must be ripe, and ripeness is all.

We turn finally to an incident that Lincoln was involved in and described in a memorable letter to his friend Joshua Speed. This is the Trailor case, which concerned a visitor to Springfield named Fisher, who turned up missing, and three brothers named Trailor, who were suspected of being involved in Fisher's murder. For several days of June of 1841, this case captivated the citizenry of Springfield, whose aroused suspicion turned to ardent conviction when one of the brothers accused the other two of involvement in Fisher's death and of disposing of the body in nearby Spring Creek. "Away the People swept like a herd of buffaloes," Lincoln wrote to Speed, "and cut down Hickoxes mill dam nolens volens, to draw the water out of the pond; and then went up and down, and down and up the creek, fishing and raking, and ducking and diving for two days, and after all, no dead body found." The frustration caused by the failure to find the corpus delicti was palpable, according to Lincoln, and it was compounded by an astonishing development soon afterward at a formal hearing. A doctor arrived from Warren county and testified that Fisher was not dead at all, but had returned home a few days earlier in a dazed condition. Lincoln wrote Speed: "When the doctor's story was first made public, it was amusing to scan and contemplate the countenances, and hear the remarks of those who had been actively engaged in the search for the dead body. Some looked quizzical, some melancholly, and some furiously angry. Porter, who had been very active, swore he always knew the man was not dead, and that he had not stirred an inch to hunt for him; Langford, who had taken the lead in cutting down Hickoxes mill dam, and wanted to hang Hickox for objecting, looked most awfully woebegone; . . . and Hart, the little drayman . . . said it was too damned bad, to have so much trouble, and no hanging after all."

Lincoln was so struck by this incident that he wrote it up for publication a few years later. Although he doesn't speak of it explicitly in these terms, it surely presented itself as a kind of parable, not only about pride and human limitations, but about the elusive character of evidence and the manifest dangers of inference. From the satiric account he wrote for Speed, we surmise that one of the things the incident revealed for Lincoln was the dramatic posturing that characterized what was supposed to be a quest for the truth. So long as the aroused citizens think they know the solution they are seeking, they are zealous and diligent, leaving no stone or mill dam unturned. But when their fixed belief suddenly explodes, even though it means that the supposed murder victim is actually alive, they can't conceal their disappointment, and deeper motives are unmasked. In this light, it wasn't truth many of them were after, but an excuse for a hanging.

All of this seems very much of a piece with Lincoln's skepticism about partisan history and biography. The search for truth, on which history depends for its authenticity, requires a measure of detachment and objectivity. Concern for the truth, Lincoln seems to be saying, demands a commitment that transcends partisan preconceptions. Truth is equivocal and much stranger than we expect or are prepared for it to be. The implications of this line of thought for writers on historical subjects seems clear. To write history worthy of the name we must be willing to reexamine what we think we know and to be open to signals and clues that point in other directions. We must cultivate patience and beware of any rush to judgment. Regardless of a prevailing consensus, it is better to be stubborn in our insistence on basic facts before reaching a verdict. What happened with Fisher and the Trailor brothers is far from clear; there may have been an accident, or foul play, or a combination of the two; but whatever happened, it wasn't murder.

I want to close by observing that in spite of suspicions about the need for more books about Abraham Lincoln, this seems to be an auspicious time for enhancing our knowledge of him. Because of the sustaining interest of the great American public, because of the support that continues to come from publishers and libraries and educational institutions, because of the steady encouragement of groups like this that offer prizes and recognition, and perhaps most of all because of the past efforts of so many dedicated students and scholars of Lincoln and the rich legacy they have bequeathed to us, their collaborators, we live in an extraordinary time for Lincoln studies.

—Douglas Wilson is the director of the International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello.