DL Fowler's Blog

Lincoln Scholarship – an evolution

Writing about Lincoln is tricky, in part because today’s author must reconcile three distinct periods of Lincoln scholarship that take different slants on who he was and what he believed.

During the first period (the demi-God era, including biographies written from the time of his death until the early 20th century), Lincoln’s wife, Mary Todd, and son, Robert, wielded a great deal of influence (some say censorship) over what biographers should say in molding his legacy. The image Mary championed seems to have differed from how she treated him while he was alive. Robert, who was often embarrassed by his father’s backwardness (his unkempt appearance, frontier style of language, and lack of formal education), likely wanted to recreate his father in the image of the man he wanted to remember. After his father’s death, Robert committed his mother to an insane asylum for a brief time and destroyed many of her private papers and letters. Biographers of this period were also sensitive to the nation’s need for a narrative that would facilitate healing after the assassination and Civil War.

The result of these influences was a scholarship that looked for excuses to discredit perspectives which were not in sync with the needs of the era. Casualties of such scholarship included two people who knew Lincoln intimately; Billy Herndon, his law partner, and Hill Lamon, his friend and bodyguard. It was Herndon who first exposed the Ann Rutledge story based on extensive interviews with members of her family and people who lived in the small village of New Salem. Objections to the Ann Rutledge stories by Mary Todd and Robert contributed greatly to the efforts by biographers to discredit Herndon. Ironically, in the current era of Lincoln scholarship, that discrediting has been discredited, and today’s leading Lincoln scholars such as Michael Burlingame and Joshua Schenk suggest that sufficient evidence exists to support the hypothesis that a close bond between Lincoln and Rutledge existed. They also argue that proving whether the relationship rose to the level of an engagement is trivial compared to understanding the role her premature death, combined with the deaths of his sister and mother, played on Lincoln’s psychology.

The second era of Lincoln scholarship (the Romantic period) was dominated by efforts to convert the demi-god into a folk hero. Carl Sandburg made an indelible contribution to Lincoln’s legacy by spotlighting his meager beginning (though he soft-pedaled it to a degree) and his meteoric rise to power.

The third era, beginning about the middle twentieth century, has focused on Lincoln’s psychology and asks the question, what made this man?

This leads me to the most interesting question about any of history’s pivotal personalities – how did early life experiences tint the lenses though which they viewed the world  and created the foundation of their core values?

So what do you think led Lincoln to make the choices that brought on the bloodiest war ever fought on American soil? How you reconcile his opposition to slavery with his complicity, during the same month, in the execution of 39 Dakota Sioux who stood up against corruption that deprived them of food they needed to keep their wives and children alive?

I love to hear what you have to say. Just leave a comment.

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  1. Lincoln’s Shame | DL Fowler's Blog said, on February 18, 2015 at 6:34 PM

    […] years later, Lincoln enjoyed a close friendship with an attractive young lady named Ann Rutledge. Biographers argue over how close the relationship might have been. No one can deny that he grieved over her […]

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