The trouble with writing about Abraham Lincoln is that everybody thinks they’re an expert. “What else is there to say?” people always ask, as if they just can’t fit any more Lincoln volumes into their Kindle. Yet, as we celebrate Abe’s 205th birthday this week (and President’s Day soon after), it’s time the real experts divulge the dirty, little secret of Lincoln studies: We keep finding new evidence about the life of the 16th president, and some of it can be kind of shocking.
It’s worth noting that we didn’t have access to much of the evidence, or at least most of the good stuff, until just about 70 years ago. The Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress opened in 1947, more than eighty years after his death. It then took another six years, until 1953, before there was a reasonably complete edition of his writings. Sure, there were plenty of Lincoln biographies before those dates, but with only one exception (an authorized multi-volume door-stopper by his former White House aides), there were no studies of the Great Emancipator based upon the “private & confidential” material that he wrote and received –the raw political intelligence that makes any statesman’s actions understandable.
Everything written about Lincoln since has benefited from this access (or should have). But as scholars have worked through these materials, it has become clear that a great deal is missing. Famously “shut-mouthed,” Lincoln wrote “burn this” on more than a few of his documents, and apparently many people listened to him. Lincoln himself burned some of his personal correspondence when he left for Washington in 1861. His only surviving son Robert then destroyed other valuable family materials after his father’s assassination. Some political documents, however, just got scattered, misplaced, or held back, and have only been slowly, occasionally, appearing in the light of day.
Nonetheless, this trickle of new stuff has produced some especially titillating political discoveries over the last decade — significant material that changes the way we see our greatest president.
Consider a recently discovered letter (only made public in 2008) that Lincoln fired off to the editor of the Chicago Tribune on an otherwise quiet Sunday afternoon, June 27, 1858. This was no typical “letter-to-the-editor,” but stands out as the angriest, nastiest written statement Lincoln ever produced (at least as far as we know). The whole thing contains just seven sentences, the first of which begins, “How in God’s name do you let such paragraphs into the Tribune?” Lincoln, at the time a Republican candidate for U.S. senate writing to a leading Republican newspaper, followed this haymaker with a second, even more openly sarcastic question. “Does Sheahan write them?” he asked, referring to James Sheahan, editor of the rival Democratic newspaper in Chicago. Remember, the media was not “fair and balanced” as it is today. Lincoln was not writing Tribune editor Charles H. Ray expecting to see his comments in print, nor was he communicating with an independent agent. This was an old-fashioned dressing-down of an incompetent subordinate, and included snide references to other Republicans, such as one “Sister Burlingame.” Anson Burlingame was not a Catholic nun, but rather a Republican congressman from Massachusetts who had also offended Lincoln’s tough sensibilities.
Nobody pretends anymore that Lincoln was a saint, but it’s still rare to see him quoted making such rough comments. Another recent letter (made public in 2005) shows him using the word “idiotic” for the only time in his known canon of writings. Once again taking some time from his perpetually busy schedule, Lincoln used a Sunday afternoon on October 9, 1859, to attempt to explain the facts of political life to a fellow Republican Party leader from Ohio. His colleague, a conservative congressman named Tom Corwin, worried that their movement was becoming too closely identified with anti-slavery extremism. Lincoln coolly informed him that it was the “Slavery issue” which was the only “living issue of the day,” and the one which was winning them elections by attracting Northern Democrats to the cause. “It would be idiotic to think otherwise,” the future president told him, specifically mocking the argument that other issues — such as tariff policy — even mattered anymore. Lincoln eventually found more elegant ways to express such views, (see Second Inaugural Address), but this was a good example where a little malice helped provide clarity.
There is even a newly discovered Lincoln speech. On July 6, 1847, Lincoln delivered his very first national address, at a major political gathering known as the River and Harbor Convention in Chicago. Lincoln spoke before a crowd of more than 10,000 distracted people, calling for more federal money on behalf of transportation investments or what they called back then “internal improvements.” Until quite recently, scholars thought the only notice of this speech came from Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune which simply identified the speaker as “a tall specimen of Illinoian.” However, a St. Louis newspaper transcribed Lincoln’s remarks, and they are now available on the Internet. The transcript reveals Lincoln to have been a surprisingly commanding figure for a 38-year-old first-time congressman. He argued points of constitutional law, quoted Shakespeare, advocated for bipartisan compromise and even quieted hecklers. There was no hayseed about him.
The new documents — and there are dozens more — all tend to show Lincoln in this pragmatic, hard-edged light. The most recent discovery, from just earlier this year, illustrates these qualities in a nutshell. Writing in 1849 about a local patronage dispute involving the appointment of a postmaster, Congressman Lincoln knocked heads among feuding party activists, ordering them to hold a “public” meeting to resolve their differences, specifically in his words, with “No cliqueism or cheatery about it.” That’s right. The future author of the Gettysburg Address was worried about “cheatery.”
Before you shrug off this information as stuff you have already seen depicted in Spielberg’s “Lincoln” movie, just remember those scenes were invented — pure historical fiction. Sure, the Union won the war and Congress passed the Thirteen Amendment, but almost every bit of Daniel Day-Lewis’s dialogue in that film came from the imagination of scriptwriter Tony Kushner, not the actual pen of Abraham Lincoln. By contrast, the quotations in the above paragraphs — they’re real. What’s even more amazing is that you are now one of thousands (not millions) of people who have ever encountered these phrases in print. That actually makes you something of an expert on the “new” Lincoln, the one who is just now emerging before the always-prying eyes of history.
Matthew Pinsker is the Pohanka Chair of Civil War History at Dickinson College, Fellow at New America and author of a forthcoming Lincoln biography from W.W. Norton tentatively entitled, Boss Lincoln: Understanding Lincoln’s Partisan Leadership. This article first appeared in the Weekly Wonk.