Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Getting Abraham Lincoln Right


My previous post discussed the 150th anniversary of the Territory of Idaho, when on March 4, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Congressional Act which established the territory.  Last week, the Gem State of Idaho held ceremonies at the state house in the city of Boise to mark the anniversary.

Part of the ceremonies included a renaming of the auditorium inside the state house after President Lincoln, complete with the installation of a handsome plaque which I've shown in the photo above.  The relief on the plaque is based on a famous photo of Lincoln taken in 1860.  On this plaque is a quote purported to come from Lincoln: "There is both a power and a magic in public opinion. To that let us now appeal."  Powerful words, but are they Lincoln's?  

That question was asked by Ms. Melissa Davlin, a reporter from the Times-News newspaper from Twin Falls, Idaho, when she contacted me last week via email.  She had seen my post about Idaho Territory, and told me about the plaque with this quote. Ms. Davlin apparently understood that many "quotes" of Abraham Lincoln are spurious, either attributable to someone else or simply made up.  She inquired of my opinion about the quote on this plaque, because she wanted to be sure it's accurate. Davlin had searched for the quote online, but had found only one reference to it from the early 1900's.  

The best source for researching anything which Lincoln said or wrote is The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, published by the Abraham Lincoln Association in 1953.  It contains dates and locations of every known speech, letter, telegram, and quote from Lincoln which can be proven to be authentic.  Thanks to the Association, this indispensable resource is now available here with a searchable database.  I searched for the quote in The Collected Works using a variety of word combinations, but it was not found anywhere in the text, which comprises 9 thick volumes when published.  I then did an online search of this "quote" and like Ms. Davlin, I found only one reference, the one which she had earlier located.

I replied in an email to Ms. Davlin that I don't believe the quote to be factual.  If it's not in The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, that's a very strong indication that it's not legitimate.  She replied that the quote was provided by the leading Lincoln expert in Idaho, Mr. David Leroy, who is the former Lt. Governor and attorney general of that state.  He said that the quote is from the famous "Lost Speech" of Lincoln, which was given in Bloomington, Illinois in 1856.  The speech was apparently so dazzling that all newspaper reporters present gave up taking notes in order to listen.  No text of the speech in Lincoln's handwriting is known to exist.  The only "text" of that speech was printed in the early 1900's by a man who was present for it, attorney Henry Whitney.  This text is disputed by many Lincoln scholars because it's based on memories of a speech given nearly four decades previous to its publication.  Additionally, some of the words and cadences of the "Lost Speech" text don't seem to mesh with speeches given by Lincoln in the middle 1850's.  

The Times-News published an article about the quote in question on Monday March 11, 2013.  In that article, Mr. Leroy defends his use of this Lincoln quote by stating that "most Lincoln transcripts are suspect, even from his most famous speeches" because newspaper accounts of them differ, or that Lincoln sometimes  deviated from his own notes while speaking.  That statement is correct.  For example, we simply don't know the exact text of the Gettysburg Address as spoken by Lincoln on November 19, 1863.  Newspaper accounts from reporters present to hear Lincoln that day run the gamut from summaries which miss the entire point of the speech to what may be Lincoln's words verbatim.  He wrote five copies (that we know of) of the Gettysburg Address and each has slightly different variations. But even if contemporary news articles of Lincoln's time gave conflicting accounts of the same speech, those articles were published within days or weeks of the speech.  Those are far more reliable than a "text" of a speech published almost forty years after the fact.  

The article also mentions two Lincoln historians who disagree with Mr. Leroy about the authenticity of the quote.  The first is none other than the greatest living Lincoln scholar, Mr. Harold Holzer, author of more than 40 books and countless articles about Lincoln.  He also served as the chairman of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission.  The second Lincoln historian mentioned is yours truly.  Neither of us accept the authenticity of the "quote" on the Idaho plaque.

Lincoln, in fact, spoke often about public opinion in his speeches prior to becoming President.  On December 10, 1856 in Chicago, he stated at a Republican dinner that "Our government rests in public opinion. Whoever can change public opinion, can change the government, practically just so much."  In other words, shifts in public opinion can and do change the direction of government.  That factual quote could have been used on this plaque without changing the intent of what Mr. Leroy meant to convey. 

To his credit, Mr. Leroy understands the minor controversy over the "quote" he selected for this plaque in the state house in Boise.  He says that debate is healthy and he's of course correct.  I'm quoted in the article as stating that I hope the plaque remains in place and I mean it.  It's actually quite beautiful.  I only wish the quote on the plaque was absolutely authentic. 

Our job as historians is to present undeniable facts about the past so we can educate others.  It's important that we get history "right" so we don't perpetuate misunderstanding of events and the people who were involved in them.  Especially critical is getting the history of Abraham Lincoln right, for he is, perhaps, surrounded by more legends than any other figure from American history.  If we fail in that effort, we can never learn about the real Abraham Lincoln, the man behind the myths.







2 comments:

Seeker said...

Very interesting. My complaint about Lincoln quotes, besides those who quote a part of Lincoln's speech, out of context, is that Lincoln's clear and ongoing emphasis on the horrors of Dred Scott decision, is in my opinion, glossed over.

Lincoln said, at great emphasis, that the purpose of Dred Scott decision was to make property out of humans -- out of slaves -- and nothing but property. He was quite clear, quite emphatic, and quite right.

In the Dred Scott decision, 9 times the court speaks about the "inferior beings" or "inferiority" of blacks, as if they were sub human. In fact, they used the term "so inferior". On the basis of that inferiority, blacks were "not part of the people". They were property.

This was the issue, and LIncoln said it was the issue. Why do we use euphemisms when explaining this, in fact, we essentially adopted Jeff Davis Orwellian speak, and spit in Lincoln's face, to do so.

When you don't get LIncoln's basic position right -- that blacks are equal to whites under the Declaration of Independence -- I'm not much impressed if you know what he ate a certain day.

Get the basics about Lincoln right, and the fight he fought, or don't bother with him at all.

Seeker said...

One more thing, the best biographer, so to speak, of LIncoln, is likely Frederick Douglass. Not only because he knew Lincoln, but more, he knew Lincoln's enemies, and how LIncoln had to to handle them.

There is a very good reason Douglass called Lincoln "Swift, radical, zealous, and determined" - while guys like Foner claim Lincoln was 'nothing special' regarding race early on.

Douglass knew WHY Lincoln had to use the famous rhetorical device, of seeming to agree with an adversary or a prejudice, in one part of a speech, only to set it up for demolition, in a later part of the speech. Foner, despite obviously having read a lot of Lincoln's speeches, does seem a little slow on the uptake, about the device.

Douglass knew the device, which changed America.

 
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