Lincoln 1860

Lincoln 1860

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.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Abraham Lincoln Recalls The Troops

On March 10, 1863, 150 years ago today, President Abraham Lincoln issued a proclamation which ordered soldiers who were absent without leave (AWOL) back to their units.  The "Proclamation Recalling Soldiers To Their Regiments" offered a mixture of amnesty and a threat of punishment to such troops.

The Civil War was not going well for the Union at this point in 1863.  Lincoln still had not found even a competent general for the Army Of The Potomac, having recently relieved the hapless Ambrose Burnside of command and replacing him with Joseph Hooker, who had openly schemed against Burnside.  Thanks to the demoralizing defeat for the North at Fredericksburg and in other battles, numerous soldiers had begun deserting from the armies.  The number of volunteers had also been on a downward trend, so on March 3, 1863 Lincoln signed into law the Enrollment Act, which required the conscription (or draft) of all male U.S. citizens from the age of 20 through age 45.  This "Recalling Soldiers To Their Regiments" was the follow up.

The proclamation stated that if any troops then AWOL from their regiments would report back to designated points on or before April 1, 1863, they would be readmitted without threat of punishment.  They would only forfeit pay missed while AWOL.  However, it stated that anyone not reporting on or prior to the deadline would be arrested as deserters and fully punished as the law provided at that time.  Such punishment could (and sometimes did) include execution.

Finally, this proclamation also called on civilians to avoid tempting troops to desert and to stop aiding them in the effort as well.  It didn't specifically threaten civilians with arrest and punishment if found guilty, but military authorities could do so.

Much has been written about Lincoln's compassion toward soldiers and it's true that he often pardoned those he felt deserved a second chance.  But as this proclamation reveals, there were limits to his patience as the war dragged on.

You may read the entire text of the Proclamation Recalling Soldiers To Their Regiments here.

Monday, March 4, 2013

Abraham Lincoln and Idaho Territory

Today is a huge day for celebration in the state of Idaho! 150 years ago today on March 4, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln signed the Congressional Act which created the Territory of Idaho. There are celebrations going on throughout that state today and throughout this year as it celebrates its sesquicentennial.

"Territories" were formed by the United States government beginning as early as 1787 with the Northwest Territory (now Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, parts of Wisconsin) in order to organize, settle, and govern huge sections of land controlled by the government.  Territories had a governor and other officials, including legislatures, judiciary, marshals and so on.  Once a territory had enough population, it could petition the U.S. government to officially become a state and enter the Union.  Idaho was admitted as an official state on July 3, 1890.

The original Idaho Territory consisted of remnants from the old Oregon Territory and comprised most of the present day states of Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming.  Over the decades of its existence, parts of the Idaho Territory were taken by the Wyoming Territory.  By the time of its admittance to the Union in 1890, the modern day boundaries of the state of Idaho had been determined.

As I mentioned earlier, today is a big day in Idaho.  To help honor the memory of Abraham Lincoln and his signing of the Act which formed Idaho Territory, the state legislature there has named an auditorium in the state house for him.  A handsome plaque dedicates the auditorium in his memory.  Here's a photo of the plaque unveiled just today:

I owe special thanks for this information to my friend Tara who happens to live in the Idaho capital of Boise. I would have completely missed this anniversary were it not for her letting me know of this special day for all Idahoans.

Idaho. One of the many parts of the legacy of Abraham Lincoln, which continues to resonate throughout our nation nearly 150 years after his death.

Happy Birthday, Idaho!   If you'd like to read more about the events going on in that beautiful state this year, please click here.

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