William Marvel: Reinventing Lincoln

It has only been seven decades since the Abraham Lincoln Papers were finally opened for public inspection. In a midnight ceremony that attracted Carl Sandburg and the grandson of Ulysses Grant, library staff opened the vault where the collection was kept in the first few seconds of July 26, 1947. The research began then and there, and it has not abated to this day.
Robert Lincoln, the president's last surviving child, had guarded the papers jealously for six decades. When he finally deposited them in the Library of Congress he stipulated that no one should be allowed to use them until the 21st anniversary of his death, which occurred on July 26, 1926. They are still formally known as the Robert Todd Lincoln Collection of the Papers of Abraham Lincoln.
Robert had also meant to maintain firm control over the historical interpretation of his father's life, and to a great extent, he succeeded. For 60 years the only people he allowed to use the manuscripts were John Hay and John G. Nicolay, who as young men had served as President Lincoln's secretaries. The two held Lincoln in such high esteem that they were incapable of objective distance from their subject, and when Robert chose them as his father's biographers, they essentially became his ghostwriters. Sending Robert a chapter in manuscript, Hay assured him that "every line has been written in a spirit of reverence," but still offered him absolute editorial control. Robert took that offer to heart, insisting on softening or excising even Hay's mild treatment of some of the more troubling junctures in Lincoln's life or presidency.
That censorship was partly why it took Nicolay and Hay 15 years to write their biography, which appeared 25 years after the assassination in a 10-volume edition with relatively small pages and wide margins. That authorized panegyric set the tone for future study of the Great Emancipator, and it continues to exert powerful scholastic influence over the academy.
I fell under that spell early, thanks to a retired judge and Lincoln admirer who summered in the house next to ours. He died before I reached my teens and left me most of his library, which included many books on Lincoln published after the Nicolay and Hay biography but before the release of Lincoln's papers. Through high school and beyond, a steady diet of such titles transformed my interest in the 16th president into something closer to awe.
I still remember my wonderment at the first note in Lincoln's hand that I encountered in someone else's papers at the Library of Congress — and my disappointment when a catalogued Lincoln letter failed to show up, thanks probably to manuscript thief Charles Mount. My most thrilling Lincoln moment came at Yale's Beinecke Library, where I ran across his handwritten 1836 description of a deed that was not included in the nine-volume published version of his papers. Holding a sheet of paper in my fingertips that the young Lincoln had spread on a table or countertop in New Salem produced a more stirring effect than I would ever feel handling a piece of the true cross — even if there really were such a thing.
Access to Lincoln's papers nevertheless eroded my acceptance of the reverential myth, but it was an extremely slow process. For example, there was his correspondence with Charles Stone, a loyal Union general who had been imprisoned for months by Lincoln's devious secretary of war, primarily for his political views. After his release Stone had begged for some word of absolution or confidence from the president, who had dared not intervene in his case lest he offend the secretary of war and the secretary's Radical Republican cronies. Lincoln started to respond, acknowledging how dubious the evidence against Stone was, but with that he filed the unfinished reply—perhaps feeling guilty over his part in the injustice, or still fearful of angering potential political foes.
Lincoln allowed that same secretary of war and his conspiratorial judge advocate general to railroad Maj. Gen. Fitz John Porter, whom even John Hay considered "the most magnificent soldier in the Army of the Potomac." Porter, as Gen. George McClellan's closest friend, was dismissed in undeserved disgrace mainly to cripple McClellan, who was becoming Lincoln's foremost political competitor. President Lincoln was too politically savvy not to know that. These and other vignettes revealing Lincoln's cynical acquiescence in underhanded politics challenge the popular impression of his kindhearted fairness and strict honesty.
Once well established, myths tend to survive most collisions with contradictory facts, and the Lincoln story is no exception. The image of the Great Emancipator and his team of rivals first manufactured by John Hay and John Nicolay now flourishes in an academic atmosphere that subtly discourages dissent. The Lincoln scholars who thrive today are not those who question his record but those who contribute to the hagiographic canon, which in recent years has taken an overtly religious turn.
Nicolay and Hay hoped to correct earlier portrayals of Lincoln, which ranged from fantasies casting him as a sanctimonious, Bible-spouting Christian to the gritty, realistic depiction promoted by Lincoln's law partner. Like those who strive today to expunge Lost Cause and Revisionist explanations of the past with a construction of their own that might be called neo-abolitionist, Nicolay and Hay accomplished more of conquest than correction. They merely superimposed one distorted, politically motivated interpretation over another.

William Marvel lives in South Conway.

Tom McLaughlin: Picking up history


There are places along the Saco where I like go looking for Indian artifacts when conditions are right. I won’t dig for them because to do so would disturb the site. If I did, I’d have to abide by strict guidelines to document what I found, where, and at what level. Then I’d have to publish results. In other words, it’s a lot of work and I’m not inclined to make that much of a commitment. Instead, I let farmers excavate, which they do in the course of their work. Then, after a sufficient amount of rain has fallen on the plowed and harrowed field, I go looking. The strata in which the artifacts existed originally has already been disturbed and real archaeologists wouldn’t be interested in what I find unless it were something very unusual. What I find, however, is routine to them.

I don’t find very many arrowheads. Where I look has been picked over for many decades, but I do find one occasionally. Mostly, I find the small chips produced while making arrowheads and all the other sharp tools necessary for Indians to live as they did. I find a lot of scrapers — sharp pieces of stone used to remove flesh from inside animal hides or to remove fur and hair from the the outside. I find those every time I go out. Arrowhead hunters eschew picking them up, but I do and they make up most of my collection.

Nearly everything I find is made of stone because everything else has rotted away. Wood, bone, hide, turtle shells, mussel shells and so forth don’t last in New England soils. Once I found a bone amulet, but it was largely disintegrated. Archaeologists can find bone if it has been heated to the point where its chemistry changes into something called calcined bone. That will resist disintegration longer, but I haven’t found any of that. I do fine pottery sherds though.

The arrowheads I’ve picked up are only 1,000-2,000 years old and they’re dated by their size and shape to the “Woodland Period.” Indians were thought to have started using pottery around 3,000 years ago, around the time they began farming. Local Indians are believed to have begun farming only a few centuries before European contact and cultivated three main crops: corn, beans, and squash here in southwestern Maine where I live now.

I don’t know how old the scrapers are. They could be much older but I have no way to tell because I didn’t find them “in situ” — or where they were originally left by the Indians who used them. If they were found near a hearth with charcoal in an intact level they could be dated by both the charcoal and the strata. All I know is that they were in the “plow zone” turned up by farmers which goes down about two feet.

On Sunday, I spent a wonderful afternoon along the Old Course of the Saco completely by myself. It was sunny, in the seventies, and with a slight breeze to keep most mosquitoes away — perfect conditions. It was perhaps three centuries ago that the last Pequawket Indians used the site, just prior to Captain John Lovewell’s raid in 1725, after which Indians abandoned Pequawket (now called Fryeburg, Maine) and went to live with their fellow Abenaki in St. Francis, Quebec. That’s an Abenaki reservation (otherwise known as Odanak) at the confluence of the St. Francis and St. Lawrence rivers.

It occurred to me as I picked up each artifact that the last person to have touched it might have been an ancestor of my wife and children. I’d been reading my wife’s extensive pedigree going back to the 1600s in Quebec. Several of her ancestors were born, married, and died in St. Francis (also called Odanak). Joseph Forcier, her fourth great-grandfather, was married there to her fourth great-grandmother, Agathe (nee Gagne) in 1729 — just after the fight at Lovewell’s Pond. Were they Pequawkets? I don’t know. It’s possible. Their daughter, Marguerite Forcier, lived there her whole life and was herself married in 1767 to my wife’s third great-grandfather Joseph Clement. That means Marguerite was present with the legendary Molly Ockett during the infamous raid by Rogers’ Rangers in 1759. Both survived, but over 200 men, women, and children didn’t.

Except for the women and children, they were not necessarily innocent victims of racist, white males in Rogers’ company. Abenaki warriors from St. Francis were allied to the French and often conducted raids south against British colonial settlements. While the Pequawket lived in what is now Fryeburg before 1725, they raided south too, including attacks on Andover, Dunstable, and Tyngsboro. Captain Lovewell and his men didn’t come up here just looking for scalps. They were also here for revenge. While descendants of men who fought with Lovewell settled Lovell, some of Rogers’ Rangers settled Fryeburg.

Tom McLaughlin lives in Lovell, Maine.  He can be reached on his website at tommclaughlin.blogspot.com.


David Shribman: John McCain’s vision of courage


In an era when the tasteless is transcendent and when the vulgar is venerated, there is special notoriety for Kelli Ward, a West Virginia native, a physician and a former Arizona state senator. Like so many Americans, she had a visceral reaction to the news that Sen. John McCain had brain cancer. She suggested he step down and made it clear she thinks Gov. Doug Ducey should appoint her to the position.

Ward, who challenged the senator in a primary last year, is running in yet another Republican primary, this time against Sen. Jeff Flake. But she said she believed that the “medical reality” of the McCain diagnosis was “grim” and that he ought to resign. She is a medical professional, and perhaps her cancer diagnosis is more accurate than her political diagnosis. McCain is a giant of the Senate and an enduring American hero, and no one who knows him believes he is about to be silenced.

“His body has been through a lot,” says Victoria Clarke, who went to work for McCain in 1983, in his first year in the House, “but if anyone can beat this, he can.”

Reeling from criticism, Ward later made it clear that her call for McCain’s resignation applied to “when the time comes.” But the tumult around the McCain illness — first the news that he had yet another bout of cancer, then his dramatic return to the Senate last week — served as a strong, stirring reminder of the contribution the Arizona Republican has made to his country, the Congress and his party.

McCain gained that status not for his quiet competence (like the late Howard H. Baker Jr.), nor for his deep intellectualism (like the late Daniel Patrick Moynihan), nor for his soaring rhetoric (like the late Robert Byrd), nor for his mastery of the inside game of legislation (like former Sen. Robert J. Dole).

He was, and is, a hell-bent-for-election rebel, a wild man both as a Naval aviator and a Capitol Hill lawmaker, more rebellious than reconciliatory, more outlaw than insider, more outspoken than soft-spoken.

Indeed, he has more in common with Andrew Jackson than does the incumbent president, who hung a picture of the seventh president in the White House. Like Jackson, McCain, a onetime flamboyant flyboy, lived with the consequences of his military background. Jackson was scarred by the sword of a British dragoon after he refused to clean his boots; McCain was scarred by the time he spent in prison after his plane was shot down over Hanoi in the Vietnam War, then by melanoma and finally by a glioblastoma.

The president called him a hero, but almost exactly two years earlier he said McCain was a loser, questioned whether he was in fact a hero and added, “I like people who weren’t captured.”

McCain not only was captured, he also extended his captivity after the North Vietnamese, conscious that their prisoner was the son of a much-decorated admiral who commanded American forces in the conflict, offered to set him free early.

“I was in solitary confinement when my captors offered to release me,” he said in his acceptance speech as the Republican presidential nominee in 2008. “I knew why. If I went home, they would use it as propaganda to demoralize my fellow prisoners. Our code said we could only go home in the order of our capture, and there were men who had been shot down before me.”

McCain has had lapses over the years. He was one of the Keating Five, lawmakers accused of impropriety amid the savings-and-loan crisis of the late 1980s, and was reprimanded for poor judgment, a verdict widely applied to his selection of Gov. Sarah Palin of Alaska to be his running mate nine years ago.

But, overall, the country and the Congress have been elevated by his service.

He became a leader in overhauling campaign finance, he battled pork-barrel spending and, above all, he gave a brave and generous concession speech when Sen. Barack Obama defeated him in 2008. The Arizona senator said that his rival had “achieved a great thing for himself and for his country,” adding, “in a contest as long and as difficult as this campaign has been, his success alone commands my respect for his ability and perseverance.”

But his greatest speech may have come last week. Not since Republican Sen. Pete Wilson of California left his hospital bed after an emergency appendectomy to cast a decisive vote from a gurney for Ronald Reagan’s budget in 1986 has a lawmaker entered the ancient chamber in such dramatic, moving fashion. McCain met the moment with remarks urging his colleagues to put party aside and work for the country.

“See if we can pass something that will be imperfect, full of compromises and not very pleasing to implacable partisans on either side, but that might provide workable solutions to problems Americans are struggling with today,” he pleaded. “What have we to lose by trying to work together to find those solutions? We’re not getting much done apart. I don’t think any of us feels very proud of our incapacity. Merely preventing your political opponents from doing what they want isn’t the most inspiring work.”

It was a perfect coda to an imperfect life dedicated to easing the imperfections in the American experiment.

“Though it sounds mushy to say this, he has always been in public service for all the right reasons,” said Clarke, a former assistant secretary of defense. “He just wanted to do a good job, and it was a terrific atmosphere to be in. He’d be the first one to say there may have been times he did or said things he wasn’t proud of, but overall America has gotten a lot out of John McCain.”

Here’s the most important: that courage and convictions should not — cannot — exist separately.

“John McCain learned firsthand that the courage of your convictions is far more important than the demands of political expediency,” says Roger B. Porter, who worked in the Gerald Ford, Reagan and George H.W. Bush White Houses before teaching at Harvard. “He learned, and showed, what courage looks like, and it was a special type of courage.”

Then he got cancer, for the second time, and sought to share another lesson. We should listen.

David M. Shribman is executive editor of the Post-Gazette (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it., 412 263-1890). Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.


Michael York: Libraries a local source for downloadable books

You know that you can borrow hardcover and paperback books from libraries. But did you know that most public libraries in New Hampshire also offer downloadable books that you can borrow and read or listen to on your tablet, eReader or smartphone, free of charge?

Through the New Hampshire Downloadable Books program, public libraries of all sizes offer their patrons a wide assortment of eBooks and digital audiobooks. These digital materials can be borrowed for two weeks and are available 24 hours a day, every day.

The NHDB collection includes more than 10,000 eBook titles and there’s something to appeal to readers of all interests, from popular fiction to mysteries to romance to just about any category you can imagine. And they’re not just for adult readers, either. Students will find New Hampshire’s “Great Stone Face” award nominees, Young Adult best-sellers and titles that may be on their school reading lists. Parents of pre-readers can even download read-along story books to their smartphones that narrate the story and highlight words as children follow along.

Some of the most popular downloadables aren’t the books that you read, but ones that you listen to, and there’s something for everyone here, too: in addition to best-sellers, you’ll find indie reads, thrillers, historical fiction, science fiction, current events and more among the 8,000+ titles in the downloadable audio collection.

Twenty public libraries joined the New Hampshire Downloadable Books program when the New Hampshire State Library began administering it in 2006; today, more than 200 libraries are part of the service. In the past year, New Hampshire library patrons downloaded an average of 2,523 items each week, up from 1,075 each week just five years ago.

People love downloadable eBooks for lots of reasons: some readers enjoy browsing for and then checking out books using their electronic devices; travelers on the go appreciate that eBooks mean they can have something to read but not something additional to carry with them; and others simply prefer holding an electronic device instead of a print book. EBooks are also adaptable, so if you have vision issues, you can easily change the size of the print and have a better reading experience. And downloadable audiobooks are extremely versatile: they can be enjoyed when reading a book isn’t possible, for example, while commuting to work, gardening, knitting or doing chores. Some audiobook fans simply like to hear a story come alive.

Buying an eBook can be almost as expensive as purchasing the print version, but downloading titles from a NHDB member library is always free for patrons, just like borrowing a print book is. And belonging to NHDB saves New Hampshire public libraries money, too, because they are joining forces make what is essentially a group purchase.

Want to learn more? Visit nh.overdrive.com to see what’s available, and be sure to visit your own public library to learn more about downloadable eBooks and audiobooks.

Michael York is the New Hampshire State Librarian. This is part of a series of articles being released monthly throughout 2017 as part of the celebration of the N.H. State Library’s 300th anniversary. The State Library was founded in Jan. 25, 1717 and is the first state library in America.