New Discoveries About Abe Lincoln

That question may not be so easy to resolve. As it stands now, we will have to choose whether Washington, D.C., or Hodgenville gets to be the focus of attention next year. Bicentennial commissions have been set up in a dozen states already—aimed at teaching and enlivening and bringing in tourist money. But those panels are all supposed to defer to Hodgenville this year, and Washington next year. Now it looks as though the next Lincoln birthday will resemble Super Tuesday: each state jockeying for position ahead of the others.

Lincoln would not have minded. Competition was normal and healthy, he thought—in wrestling matches, in commerce, in politics … until the shooting started. After taking down a turkey as a boy, he never shot another living thing. Firing upon federal properties or persons always stirred his wrath.

Sourpusses say there is already too much Lincoln worship afoot in the land. They are wrong. In the midst of the Great Depression the world heard a timely question from the first of the scholar-historians to study Abraham Lincoln, James G. Randall of the University of Illinois. "Has the Lincoln theme been exhausted?" he asked a meeting of teachers and researchers. Hadn't, as many felt even then, the fan-historians, like Lincoln's law partner William Herndon, and journalist-historians, like Ida Tarbell, and poet-historians, like Carl Sandburg, milked that cow dry? No, said Randall, who then went on to write a half-dozen key books about Lincoln's life, especially the presidency, asking unpleasant questions about civil rights in wartime and the role of an opposition party. His wife, Ruth Painter Randall, wrote the first serious books about Mary Lincoln and their family life. Exhausted? The Lincolnologists had only just begun.

And many are at it still. Jean Harvey Baker, a pioneer of women's and political-cultural history, made us see Mary Lincoln more clearly. David Herbert Donald shifted his sharp pen from novelist Thomas Wolfe to Lincoln and won two Pulitzer Prizes. Doris Kearns Goodwin has made us see anew the workings of a "team of rivals" known as a cabinet. Allen Guelzo places Lincoln into an intellectual and religious context better than anybody in the old days of slow-ball and Bible-thump.

Books are hardly the only "new thing" about Lincoln. Here are some things that have bobbed to the surface over the last five years:

1. Archaeology at New Salem, Ill., where Lincoln lived from 1831 to 1837, reveals a ground plan of the town that differs from the recollections of old timers, as told to rebuilders in 1920. The archaeologists are still digging. Did Lincoln live in the store he kept or elsewhere? And was he really making some money at it? Was he actually a successful prairie capitalist, rather than the failed entrepreneur of legend?

2. A letter Mary Lincoln wrote to a neighborhood friend, Mary Brayman, inviting the Braymans over for a Saturday-night social. Did it precede, overlap with, or follow Mr. Brayman's decision to hire Lincoln for the biggest legal case he ever handled, involving the Illinois Central Railroad and a $5,000 fee? What role did Mary Lincoln play in her husband's biggest payday? The letter is undated, but there are internal clues that will occupy scholars for some time to come.

3. Just in the last couple of weeks, a previously unnoticed speech by an African-American attorney in Chicago, delivered on the occasion of Lincoln's 1909 centennial, was discovered. Newspaper clipping, you think? No. A nicely printed pamphlet, tied with a red cord, praising Lincoln as the savior of the Negro and the Nation. There is evidence that several of these were printed and sold. Who has them all? What does it add to the changing view of Lincoln by African-Americans?

4. Lincoln's legal career in Illinois has been fully documented after 20 years of courthouse searching. Turns out he handled three times the number of cases that had previously been thought. A four-volume greatest hits will go on sale in March; the whole caboodle will be published online eventually. So now we can examine such questions as: how common was divorce on the prairie frontier? How many people cheated when selling a horse? How influential was Lincoln's courtroom legacy in shaping the laws governing railroads—the biggest industry of the 19th century?

5. New photos. About one a month lately. Some of them can be dismissed in a wink; others are a closer call. But apparently a lot of people are spending a lot of time going to a lot of garage sales in search of you know who. A previously unknown one—Lincoln, seated, his image manipulated by a newspaper owner in 1858 to promote his own paper—came to light in 2006.

And, of course, there are more books on the way. There are now upward of 15,000 books about Lincoln, more than about any other person except Jesus (though there are more about Lincoln than about God, reckons Baker). In our lifetime Lincoln has supplanted Washington as the most revered president. Might this change in the future?

For those who want to dig deeper still, the first full list of What Lincoln Read was published last year. Or what Lincoln might have read, I should say; this highly labor-intensive project by a literature and local history professor gives a grade to the likelihood of Lincoln having consumed each title. So pick up a good book about Lincoln. Or one he read. Learn more about what to hope for from the next president by reading about this one. And get ready for a really big birthday celebration next year—whenever and wherever the party may be.

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