Abraham Lincoln Institute Symposiums

“The Latest in Lincoln Scholarship”

Third Annual Symposium

Abraham Lincoln Institute, Inc. (ALI), provides free, ongoing education on the life, career, and legacy of President Abraham Lincoln. Headquartered in Washington, D.C., ALI offers resources for educators, governmental and community leaders, and the general public through symposia, seminars, lectures, and special events.

Library of Congress
Washington, D.C.

March 25, 2000

Co-sponsored by the Abraham Lincoln Institute of the Mid-Atlantic, Inc., and the Library of Congress’s Rare Book and Special Collections Division

Introduction › By General Secretary Paul H. Verduin

Abraham Lincoln, it seems, is still a compelling enigma to ordinary Americans and to his latter-day biographers.

How did Abraham Lincoln develop his fabled forbearance?

How did Lincoln manage to rise from such humble origins?

How vast and varied was his prairie practice, and how did it serve his political ambitions?

Did Lincoln indulge his brilliant mind in the weighty works of nineteenth-century philosophical writers like Mill, Carey, and Wayland?

Was Lincoln’s tragic assassination a Confederate plot?

Did And did his last law partner despise his troubled widow as he turned to writing his controversial biography of Lincoln’s last law partner despise his troubled widow as he turned to writing his controversial biography of Lincoln?

These and other provocative questions about Abraham Lincoln, our Sixteenth President, were addressed and debated at the Third Annual Symposium of the Abraham Lincoln Institute. Two hundred and ten people attended.

William Lee Miller › A Very Poor Hater: Instances of Lincoln’s Magnanimity

University of Virginia

William Lee Miller is the author of Arguing About Slavery, a much-praised book dealing with an earlier nineteenth-century anti-slavery figure, John Quincy Adams. Turning his thoughts to Lincoln with a twinkle in his eye, Dr. Miller engaged his audience with a close-up view of the Sixteenth President’s evolution from a vitriolic Illinois political attack-man of the 1830’s and early ‘40’s, to the paragon of civility, magnanimity, and forbearance that characterized Lincoln as President. Professor Miller’s new book, Lincoln’s Virtues, will be published later this year by Alfred A. Knopf.

“Lincoln got more magnanimous in time,” explained Miller, who pointed to the Prairie Lawyer’s “graciousness” in his 1855 contest for the United States Senate with Lyman Trumbull. Though on the first ballot in the Illinois General Assembly’s canvassing for the office, Trumbull got only five votes to Lincoln’s forty-five, Lincoln without complaint backed Trumbull when it appeared he (Lincoln) would not be likely to tally a majority.

But the biggest test of Lincoln’s willingness to overlook his own interests and feelings, according to Professor Miller, came in the McCormick Reaper Case in which Lincoln was employed as one of a team of prominent lawyers for J.H. Manny & Company, which was being sued by Cyrus H. McCormick for alleged patent infringement.

The venue was changed from Chicago to Cincinnati, and the University of Virginia professor recounted how Lincoln was “roughly handled” by the defense team’s prominent Eastern lawyers, who snubbed him and denied him an active roll in the defense proceedings. One of them, the blustery Edwin M. Stanton, Lincoln’s future Secretary of War, was remembered to have savagely ridiculed the unusually tall Illinoisan by asking his colleagues, “Where did that long-armed baboon come from?”

Lincoln, though humiliated, took it all without complaint, and never bore malice toward Stanton. Instead, in the time of the nation’s greatest need he appointed him to the sensitive post of Secretary of War, and was able to work closely and harmoniously with him during the Civil War’s duration.

Kenneth J. Winkle › Self-Made-Man Ideal

University of Nebraska

Kenneth J. Winkle called Lincoln “a self-described self-made man.” “The self-made-man myth of the nineteenth century deserves another look,” Professor Winkle ventured. There is “surprising complexity” in this myth, he declared in “An American Journey: The Rise of Abraham Lincoln.” Dr. Winkle’s book, In the Heart of the People: The Rise of Abraham Lincoln, will be published this October by Taylor Publishers.

According to Professor Winkle, this key nineteenth-century concept, which he said was invented by the renowned Whig political leader Henry Clay in 1832, carried important social and cultural functions. Dr. Winkle defined the self-made-man, as he was understood in Lincoln’s day, as “one who has rendered himself great by his own efforts.”

The concept, the dark-haired professor articulated, facilitated the quest for success on the part of young men of that era. Lincoln, Winkle contended, was “adept at identifying and seizing opportunities for self-advancement,” particularly during the “tremendous” economic expansion in Illinois and other western parts of the country between 1832 and 1836. The economic downturn known as the Panic of 1837, which occurred just when neophyte lawyer Lincoln was admitted to the Illinois Bar, “could not have been more fortunate” in its timing, maintained Winkle, hinting that the recession precipitated an upturn in debt litigation, resulting in a brisk demand for attorneys.

The fact that the self-made-man ideal emphasized individual achievement over family formation helps explain why Lincoln postponed his own marriage, Professor Winkle asserted. “Lincoln delayed his marriage eleven years not because he was homely, or awkward around women, but because it made sense,” Winkle declared. By the same token, the Nebraska professor doesn’t buy the notion that young Mary Todd left her father’s home in Kentucky and came to Illinois in 1837 looking for an older man. True, she came to find a husband, Winkle said, but the “self-made-men” of her social standing that she found there who were finally ready to marry were considerably older than she was.

Douglas L. Wilson › Law-Partner Herndon Never Hated Mary Lincoln

“Herndon and Mary Todd had never gotten along,” two-time Pulitzer Prize winner David Herbert Donald pronounced more than half-a-century ago in his benchmark biography of Lincoln’s third law partner, William Henry Herndon. “Herndon’s bias included a hatred for Mary Lincoln,” Professor Donald’s 1948 book, Lincoln’s Herndon, had presumed.

Now it is the year 2000, and Professor Donald, though retired from teaching, is still writing about Lincoln, having published Lincoln, his lengthy biography of the Civil War President, just five years ago. But though his paradigm of Herndon’s hatred of poor, bereft Mary Todd Lincoln has found universal acceptance for five decades, Douglas L. Wilson, a stellar Lincoln scholarship performer in his own right during the last ten years, is far from sure Professor Donald has William Herndon figured right.

Wilson’s profound doubt about Donald’s pejorative Herndon thesis was the subject of his lecture, “William H. Herndon and Mary Todd Lincoln.” “There is no evidence Herndon hated Mary Todd, or wanted to get back at her,” Wilson declared. Professor Wilson’s view of the long relationship between the Sixteenth President’s wife and her martyred husband’s somewhat eccentric law-partner-of-seventeen-years is clearly the antithesis of Professor Donald’s.

Though David Donald’s credentials for knowing William Herndon are daunting, Douglas Wilson has plenty Herndon credentials of his own. For six years he collaborated with fellow Knox College professor Rodney O. Davis to produce the 1998 work, Herndon’s Informants, the complete edition of the letters and interviews about Lincoln gathered by Herndon between the time of Lincoln’s assassination in 1865 until his own death in 1891.

Dr. Wilson is also author of the 1998 book, Honor’s Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln, which won him the prestigious Lincoln Prize last year. His Lincoln Before Washington is a collection of studies of critical episodes in the personal life of pre-presidential Lincoln–studies that have successfully resurrected Lincoln’s romance with Ann Rutledge and infatuation with Matilda Edwards. With Rodney O. Davis, Wilson co-directs the new Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College in Illinois. There, the pair of scholars have in their sights a plan to edit the correspondence of Herndon himself, and they have begun a monumental effort to publish on the Internet the vast collection of Lincoln’s papers housed in the Library of Congress.

In this lecture, Wilson produced peals of laughter upon vividly recounting the humorous 1837 episode when, after dancing for the first time with nineteen-year-old Springfield debutante Mary Todd, Herndon, in highly questionable taste , complimented her for dancing “with the ease of a serpent.” This “serpent” episode was the primordial event that has always been understood as the fatal faux-pas that earned Herndon, then a brash youth, an icy reply and Mary’s lasting enmity.

Dr. Wilson, however, sees the episode differently: Herndon, meaning no insult, immediately saw the unintended effect of his remark, regretted it, and became “very apologetic,” Wilson infers. What’s more, he doesn’t think Mary held the incautious remark against Herndon. Years later, in 1866, Wilson finds the widowed Mary Lincoln’s letter to Herndon accepting his interview invitation to be “very gracious” in tone. “She trusted him with sensitive information,” Wilson points out.

But the Lincoln Studies Center director makes no attempt to deny that Mary was furious when Herndon published his 1866 lecture on the Ann Rutledge romance, which pictured the tender maid of New Salem as the only woman Lincoln ever loved, and went on to declare that during their 23-year marriage, “Mr. Lincoln has known no joy.” To this, Mrs. Lincoln had exploded, “If William Herndon utters another word…his life is not worth living…he is a dirty dog.”

Despite this sharp invective, Wilson does not believe Herndon ever hated the deeply wounded Mary, or ever displayed any desire to get back at her for her attacks on him. Herndon had simply believed Lincoln’s Ann Rutledge romance “must be discussed by a friend,”–i.e., that sooner-or-later it would be publicly divulged by someone, so it would be best if a sympathetic friend of Lincoln’s were to be the one to first make it known. Herndon never asserted, Wilson maintained, that the unhappy character of the Lincoln marriage was “solely the fault of Mary.” The fortuitous result of the Lincolns’ unhappy marriage, Herndon believed, was that it was a crucial factor in Lincoln’s becoming President.

Cullom Davis and Daniel W. Stowell › DVD-ROM Edition of Lincoln Legal Papers

Who could have believed that tens-of-thousands of previously unknown or neglected pieces of paper, in the aggregate exhaustively documenting Abraham Lincoln’s astonishingly large law practice, could have been unearthed in courthouses and archives in Illinois, California, Missouri, Maryland and Washington, D.C. (among other places) by even the most serious and systematic research project, then carefully cataloged, annotated, and cross-referenced, and finally, published! But that is exactly, and exactingly, what the Lincoln Legal Papers, a fifteen-year scholarly effort based in Lincoln’s home town of Springfield, Illinois, has been able to accomplish.

Ninety-one thousand documents related to Lincoln’s 25-year law career have been identified, photographed, cataloged, studied, annotated, and published by the Lincoln Legal Paper’s team of trained researchers, in a project financed by the State of Illinois, the Abraham Lincoln Association, several foundations, and hundreds of private contributions. Two months ago, the results of this massive endeavor were finally published—not in a book, or even a shelf of books, but on the latest in data-intensive information storage and transmission technology, the DVD-ROM.

Grateful research libraries across the nation are already purchasing the $2,000 set of The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln: The Complete Documentary Edition for study by eager Lincoln scholars and legal historians, and the Library of Congress now has a set of the attractively boxed disks in its Law Library in the Madison Building.

Cullom Davis, the senior editor and director of the Lincoln Legal Papers project throughout most of the fifteen-year effort, and Daniel W. Stowell, who took over as director and general editor in January, were both on hand at the March 25 symposium to deftly demonstrate to the public and attending scholars how they can access and make sense of the nearly one-hundred-thousand computer-based documents.

Cullom Davis and Daniel Stowell dazzled the audience with their 35-minute on-screen presentation dubbed “A New Look at Lincoln”–surely an understatement, given their electronic publication’s vast scope. Professor Davis says the Complete Documentary Edition “offers researchers a copious new source of evidence about Lincoln’s Illinois years.”

The Sixteenth President was an Illinois lawyer from 1836 until he was inaugurated in 1861. His practice in justice-of-the-peace, county, circuit, state, and federal courts encompassed more than five thousand cases, from rural Illinois courts to the United States Supreme Court, and the Complete Documentary Edition has them all. Davis and Stowell’s rapid-fire though intelligible presentation, projecting judiciously selected DVD-ROM images onto a screen large enough for all to see, brought audible gasps from time-to-time from their rapt audience.

Clearly, those in attendance were impressed with the immense capabilities of this new high-tech Lincoln research tool. Drs. Davis and Stowell presented what they term “a series of illustrative research queries” to demonstrate “the edition’s depth, versatility, and convenience.” Cases as diverse as murder trials, domestic squabbles, and high-powered railroad litigation were demonstrated and explored.

Thomas R. Turner › ‘Confederate Plot’ Assassination Theory Lacks Convincing Evidence

Lincoln Assassination Scholar

Thomas R. Turner rebutted the popular resurgent theory that the Confederate government was behind Lincoln’s assassination after all. Professor Turner’s topic was “The Tidwell Thesis and the Status of Lincoln Assassination Scholarship.” Dr. Turner’s book, The Assassination of Abraham Lincoln, was published by Krieger Press last year.

In measured, polite statements that nonetheless brought on emotional rejoinders from the audience in remarks following his address, Dr. Turner, a historian at Bridgewater State College in Massachusetts, carefully dissected his opposition’s methodology. “[William A.] Tidwell said he could tell a secret service operation when he saw it, because he had been a secret service agent himself,” Dr. Turner reminded his audience.

Turner then countered Tidwell’s intuitive method of interpretation with the historical method, which demands positive evidence–or at minimum, circumstantial evidence that is truly overwhelming. “The intelligence method claims a mass of circumstantial evidence,” Turner proclaimed. “But is it overwhelming?” Clearly, he thinks not.

In contrast to the late General William A. Tidwell, James O. Hall, and David Winfred Gaddy (Hall, and Tidwell’s widow, were in the audience), who were convinced in their book Come Retribution: The Confederate Secret Service and the Assassination of Lincoln that John Wilkes Booth was taking orders from Jefferson Davis’s collapsing rebel administration, Professor Turner believes the available evidence—or lack thereof—conclusively supports the view that Booth and his unsavory cronies acted alone, without Confederate help.

“Booth viewed Lincoln as a tyrant who destroyed his beloved South,” Dr. Turner intoned. Turner thinks that this was motive enough for the drastic action Booth took. Attempting to move the raging assassination debate away from acrimonious direct confrontation, the Lincoln Herald editor concluded his address by proposing two “fruitful avenues” for new research. He called for a careful comparative study of American assassinations, and he suggested an examination of Lincoln’s assassination in the context of other violent episodes in mid-nineteenth-century America, such as the experience of “Bleeding Kansas” and John Brown’s Harpers Ferry raid during the 1850’s.

Allen C. Guelzo › An Intellectual Lincoln Read, Digested Philosophical Works of His Day

Dean of the Templeton Honors College at Eastern College in Pennsylvania

“If we haven’t heard about Lincoln as a man of ideas, it is because we have been listening with tin ears.” With this provocative indictment, Allen C. Guelzo challenged his audience to examine the proverbial Prairie Jokester’s remarkable intellect afresh. Dr. Guelzo’s book, Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President, published last fall by Eerdmans and praised as the first intellectual biography of Lincoln, won the Eastern College professor first place in this year’s Lincoln Prize at Gettysburg College as well as the Abraham Lincoln Institute of the Mid-Atlantic’s 2000 Book Award.

The physically imposing 2000 Lincoln Prize laureate launched into his lecture by quoting an 1863 entry in the diary of President Lincoln’s bright young assistant personal secretary, John Hay. “Had a talk [with Lincoln] on philology, a subject for which [he] has a little indulged inclination.” “Philosophy? The President of the United States?”, Professor Guelzo asked his audience rhetorically.

In an assertion that heralds a paradigm-shift in our understanding of the Civil War President’s intellectual faculties, Dr. Guelzo provided evidence suggesting that philology–the comparative study of the origins of language–was “a hobby for the spare moments of Abraham Lincoln.”

“In the pre-war days, Lincoln had actually gone out on the lyceum circuit with two lectures on discoveries and inventions whose chief accomplishment was to trace out the origins of human language–of philology,” Guelzo stated. Fifty-year-old Lincoln delivered these lectures before at least one college audience in early 1859, the tall Pennsylvania history professor said, but “had to turn down invitations to deliver them again because of his need to stick to the courts awhile and earn his living.”

Countering a misconception as popular today as it was in the nineteenth century, Guelzo quoted Lincoln’s law partner Herndon’s estimation that “Lincoln was far from the country innocent that many people imagined him to be.” “Lincoln was a persistent thinker, and a profound analyzer…entirely logical…shrewd…cunning…[he was] the superior of all, and governed all by his intellectual superiority,” Herndon wrote.

Citing intellectual works read and digested by Lincoln, Professor Guelzo began with those of Charles Lyell and Robert Chambers. The latter, Guelzo said, turned Lincoln into what Herndon called “a firm believer in the theory of development [evolution].” Continuing his list, Guelzo cited the works of nineteenth-century political economy read by Lincoln: John Stuart Mill, Henry Carey, and Francis Wayland. The result, Professor Guelzo asserted, was that “Lincoln had no trouble holding his own, with ease” in discussions centering on “the great intellectual controversies of the nineteenth century.”

Not relying exclusively on Herndon, the Eastern College professor cited several other Lincoln contemporaries who had a high regard for Lincoln’s intellectual accomplishments. Senator Shelby Cullom said that “on financial [economic] questions, Lincoln was unsurpassed. Theoretically, on political economy, he was great.” In the opinion of Lincoln’s first law partner, John Todd Stuart, “Lincoln was an educated man in 1860, more than is generally known.”

The Sixteenth President’s best friend, Joshua Speed, stated knowingly, “Lincoln’s mind was of a metaphysical and philosophical order. He read law, history, Thomas Brown’s philosophy, or William Paley, Burns, Byron, Milton, or Shakespeare.”

Journalist-friend Noah Brooks remembered that in the weeks just prior to his assassination, Lincoln liked Butler’s Analogy of Religion and John Stuart Mill on liberty. “Today, we prefer to avoid the strife of ideas,” Professor Guelzo concluded, “But,” he reflected, “It was the strife of such ideas which brought us Abraham Lincoln.”

Doris Kearns Goodwin › Panel Discussion

PBS Television Commentator

In her impromptu remarks during the speakers’ panel discussion, prizewinning author and PBS television commentator Doris Kearns Goodwin, who is in the midst of writing her biography of the Lincoln presidency, declared, “Lincoln was more married to his Cabinet than to Mary during the Civil War.”

“The Cabinet members came to grow under Lincoln, and respect him and accept his leadership,” Ms. Goodwin added. “I’m fascinated with the circle that included not only these men, but their wives and daughters as well. There is a thing about fathers and daughters here that I want to explore,” she remarked enthusiastically.

“The pleasure these men had in the company of other men” in the Cabinet is seen by the distinguished, ebullient television commentator as an important dynamic, which she contrasts with the iciness apparent in Jefferson Davis’s Confederate Cabinet. With these hints from Doris Goodwin as to what are likely to be important dimensions of her Lincoln biography.