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.
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