Author Interview--Allen C. Guelzo ("Lincoln and His Biographers")

Niels Eichhorn's picture

Hello H-CivWar readers,


today, we are joined by Allen C. Guelzo. He is the Henry R. Luce Professor of the Civil War Era at Gettysburg College, author of a vast array of prize-winning books on Abraham Lincoln, such as Abraham Lincoln: Redeemer President and Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation: The End of Slavery in America. He just published "Lincoln and His Biographers" (Civil War History 64 (September 2018): 239-271).

Allen, could you give our readers a brief idea what your new article is about and why you decided to write a historiographical synopsis of Lincoln biographies?


ACG: “Lincoln and His Biographers” originated in a suggestion from Earl Hess, and from a senior seminar I conducted at Gettysburg College in 2017 which was based on the vastness of the Lincoln biographical literature and which looked to trace the development of certain basic themes in Lincoln biographers over time. As Lincoln once said, "I attempt no compliment to my own sagacity." There have been many historiographical surveys of the Lincoln literature from time-to-time, as people paused to draw breath over the ceaseless outpouring of Lincoln-related books – Roy Basler and Benjamin Thomas both wrote full-length books on the Lincoln biographers in 1935 and 1947, Sean Wilentz wrote an outstanding extended 25,000-word essay in The New Republic in 2009 about the Lincoln books published for the bicentennial of Lincoln’s birth, and the late Merrill D. Peterson and the sociologist Barry Schwartz wrote marvelous books on the fluctuating reputation of Lincoln, which included substantial material on Lincoln’s biographers. But I thought it was worthwhile to write something a little more concise which would focus less on the biographers and biographies and more on the succession of themes (especially ideological ones) which have dominated that literature. An intellectual history, so to speak, of Lincoln biography.


For sure, many graduate students will greatly appreciate your succinct summary of Lincoln scholarship, its themes, and schools of thought. On a different note, I noticed that Robert Todd Lincoln played an important role in the early stages of Lincoln "scholarship," some of which obviously not very scholarly. He seemed extremely guarded about his father's legacy. Do you think we should pay more attention to how R. T. Lincoln influenced Lincoln biographies? And related to that, you beautifully point to the wordplay of Herndon's Lincoln and Lincoln's Herndon in the article, should we maybe do something similar with (Robert Todd) Lincoln's (Abraham) Lincoln?


ACG: Robert Todd Lincoln moved into the position of being guardian of his father’s legacy, first because he was the only one of the four Lincoln children to reach adulthood, but second because he became, quite literally, the guardian of the vast bulk of his father’s presidential papers. There was no statutary requirement in 1865 that a president’s papers be catalogued as public property; Robert simply inherited them as a matter of property law. He grew chary about who to admit to usage of the papers after William Herndon’s notorious lectures in 1865-66, and even more so after Lamon’s truncated biography in 1872, and treated nearly everyone who beseeched him for access as an interloper who was doubtless trying to embarrass his parents’ or his own family’s reputation. (Remember that Robert Todd Lincoln enjoyed a substantial public career as a cabinet officer and a diplomat, as well as a lawyer). Only Hay and Nicolay had his trust, so much so that Robert surrendered possession of the papers temporarily into their hands for their use in writing their multi-volume biography. Once that was finished, however, Robert retrieved the papers – seven steamer trunks-ful – and did not let them out of his sight until 1919, when he arranged for them to be deposited with the Library of Congress (and waited four more years to transfer title). Even then, he restricted public access until 1947. There has always been speculation that Robert may have culled the papers to destroy anything he regarded as untoward or salacious; there is even a famous story, retailed by Nicholas Murray Butler of Columbia University, that Robert nearly destroyed the entirety of the manuscripts (although Butler dated the incident to 1923, when the papers were already at the Library of Congress). Ultimately, however, while Robert stood astride access to the papers for decades, and would only release them to the use of the two biographers he most trusted to praise his father, it would be difficult to say that Robert influenced Lincoln biography in the way Herndon did. Robert never used the papers to write about his father, and was notoriously shy even about speaking of his father in public. And assuming that Robert did not, in fact, destroy any of the papers, he cannot be said, even in that negative way, to have fostered a “school” of Lincoln interpretation. That was the work of Hay and Nicolay, not Robert Todd Lincoln.


It is interesting to see how protective Robert was of his father's legacy.

You already mentioned with Herndon and Hay-Nicolay, two important directions in Lincoln scholarship. There seems to be a reoccurring theme toward the end of the essay that biographers have often rehashed what was already known and that they shied away from bold arguments. Are there too many Lincoln biographies? And in your opinion as a preeminent Lincoln scholar what makes for a good Lincoln biography?


The last biographer to have access to living recollections of Lincoln was Ida Tarbell, at the turn of the 20thcentury. After that, it was widely assumed that no new information about Lincoln was open to researchers beyond what might be quarried from the public record. The literature about Lincoln then turned intensively toward interpreting and re-interpreting what was already in hand or what had already been written, the premier examples being Lord Charnwood (who did nothing in the way of original research, yet offered an eloquent interpretation of Lincoln as an exponent of liberal democracy) and James Garfield Randall, who used the public record to peer into Lincoln’s record on constitutional issues. Beyond Randall and Charnwood, a great deal of Lincoln biography simply descended into cleverer and cleverer ways of re-tooling the work of earlier biographers. The release of the Lincoln presidential papers to public view in 1947 was actually something of a disappointment, since the bulk of the material was ordinary and routine (assuming, of course, that Robert Todd Lincoln had not already destroyed any particularly salacious or revealing items during his long possession of the papers). This is why there was such a slump between Benjamin Thomas’s 1953 biography and the beginning of the 1990s’ “Golden Age.” Apart from Stephen Oates’ With Malice Toward Nonein 1977, there really was little new to say. Yet, anyone who could think one jump ahead should surely have realized that vast amounts of new Lincoln material were lying easily at hand, if only biographers would take them up. Lincoln spent 25 years as a trial lawyer; yet the only references to Lincoln’s legal career in the biographies involved a handful of high-profile criminal cases which were (as it turned out) quite unrepresentative of Lincoln’s practice.


Then, four developments overthrew this scholarly hibernation. One was the Lincoln Legal Papers in the 1990s under Cullom Davis and Daniel Stowell, which ransacked county courthouse basements in Illinois and unearthed a cornucopia of legal documents which allowed us to form a much more detailed and living picture of Lincoln as a lawyer. Another was Michael Burlingame, whose instincts as a researcher led him to revisit the archives of the early Lincoln biographers on the surprisingly reasonable assumption that that they would have used only a small percentage of their research materials in their actual biographies, and that the balance would be available in collections of their papers. Which it was: Burlingame, for instance, scored a major find in the papers of Ida Tarbell, discovering multitudes of interviews she had conducted but never had space to use. A third development was the rejuvenation of the Abraham Lincoln Association under Thomas Schwartz and its program of scholarly publications, which hit a major high point with the publication of Douglas Wilson’s and Rodney Davis’s edition of William Herndon’s interviews and correspondence on Lincoln. But do not underestimate either the stimulus provided by the creation by Lewis Lehrman and Richard Gilder of the Lincoln Prize in the 1990s, which offered an even more material incentive for scholars to turn their interest toward discovering and producing new Lincoln material.


For all this, however, there yet remain unexplored shafts into the Lincoln lode. One, certainly, is Lincoln’s political life as a Whig in Illinois before the collapse of the Whigs in the mid-1850s. Another concerns Lincoln’s relationship to Congress during the Civil War, where the newspapers and the papers of members of the 37thand 38thCongresses will be vital. I have often compared the Lincoln “field” to a meadow which has been crossed and re-crossed by wagon tracks in the same places, leaving deep and interesting ruts, but also leaving vast stretches of the meadow untouched. I think that comparison still stands, and will stand for some time to come, so the idea that there are too many Lincoln biographies is much too hasty a judgment. The man himself provides unusual depths of interest; his circle of life in Illinois and Washington provides still more. Perhaps the best word to give on how to write a good Lincoln biography today can be summed up in Leonard Swett’s warning not to underestimate Lincoln. Anyone “who took Abe Lincoln for a simple-minded man,” Swett said, “would soon wake up with his back in a ditch.” That’s as true today as it was then.


Allen, thank you for this enlightening conversation and for taking the time to share some aspects of your article with us here on H-CivWar.