Defining the Study of Lincoln: The Contributions of The Abraham Lincoln Association
By Thomas F. Schwartz
For nearly a century, the Abraham Lincoln Association has worked to realize, as fully as possible, it charter mission: “To observe each anniversary of the birth of Abraham Lincoln; to preserve and make more readily accessible the landmarks associated with his life; and to actively encourage, promote and aid the collection and dissemination of authentic information regarding all phases of his life and career.” These are ambitious goals for any group. They are even more challenging for an organization that has been staffed largely by volunteers, that has never exceeded 900 members, that has never had financial reserves in excess of $100,000, and whose base of operations consists of a mailbox located in the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library. And yet, the Abraham Lincoln Association is considered the leading organization advancing Lincoln studies. What explains this dichotomy?
A terrible irony exists that in the year when the Lincoln Centennial Association met to begin planning the one hundredth anniversary of the Great Emancipator’s birth, Springfield witnessed a bloody race riot, leaving seven blacks dead. Among the victims was William Donegan, a retired cobbler who made boots for Abraham Lincoln before he was elected president. The men who organized what is now the Abraham Lincoln Association ignored this fact. The founders of the Association reads like a “Who’s Who”: Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court Melville W. Fuller, United States Federal Judge J. Otis Humphrey, Speaker of the House, Joseph G. Cannon, Illinois Governor Charles S. Deneen, Former Vice-President Adlai E. Stevenson, and Illinois Senator Shelby Cullom. Their task seemed simple and straightforward: to hold the largest and most memorable birthday celebration to honor the 100th anniversary of Illinois’ favorite son, and Springfield’s most notable citizen, Abraham Lincoln. It was a task they took to heart. The largest hall in Springfield, the Illinois State Armory, was reserved and notably decorated in the appropriate patriotic bunting. Senator Cullom drew upon his position as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee to secure the services of James Bryce, the British Ambassador to the United States, as the keynote speaker with J.J. Jusserand, the French Ambassador to the United States as an invited guest. Robert Todd Lincoln, the only surviving son of the Sixteenth President was also invited. He agreed to come only if he did not have to speak. And finally, William Jennings Bryan, the silver-tongued orator best known for his “Cross of Gold” speech and former presidential candidate was also among the dignitaries at the head table.
Over 1,200 persons attended the patriachical gala. Men wore formal attire and were seated on the main floor of the auditorium. Women were consigned to the balcony. After a sumptuous meal and formal remarks, individuals on the main floor indulged in cigars, cigarettes and brandy. Perhaps the most bizarre event of the evening was Vachel Lindsay’s reading of the performance poem “The Congo.” The audience was held speechless by such lines as: “Fat black bucks in a wine-barrel room, Barrel-house kings, with feet unstable, Sagged and reeled and pounded on the table, Pounded on the table, Beat an empty barrel with the handle of a broom, Hard as they were able, Boom, boom, Boom, With a silk umbrella and the handle of a broom, Boomlay, boomlay, boomlay, Boom.” Clearly, the structure of the event and the banquets that followed, were intended to entertain guests. Speakers were selected with an eye toward publishing their remarks in a keepsake booklet that was a fixture at each banquet place setting. These published remarks were also distributed to various libraries and associations believing that “many of them contain contributions of permanence and value in the way of sound thinking and clear utterance.”
A systemic problem was inherent in the organization of the Lincoln Centennial Association that soon became apparent and threatened the existence of the group. Most of the founders and officers were elderly gentlemen. Without active recruitment and its original goal of celebrating the centennial birth behind it, the Association remained active only as long as the founding fathers lived. President J. Otis Humphrey died in 1918. Vice President John J. Bunn succeed Humphrey. But Bunn was no young man. Born in 1831, Bunn as a young man had known Lincoln. In fact, Lincoln appointed him as a United States Pension Agent for Illinois. Bunn died in 1920 creating a crisis in leadership for the Association. No banquet was held in 1920 or 1922. Logan Hay, a notable Springfield attorney whose father Milton Hay and grandfather Stephen Trigg Logan firmly connected him to the Lincoln legacy, became President of the Association following Bunn’s death. As one writer claimed, Hay’s first two years of service “was the empty honor of heading an organization that seemed to want only a quiet burial.”
Hay decided that the Association needed to make a decision on what it wanted: either the board would cease as an organization or recommit themselves to the mission statement from the original charter. In his 1923 banquet address, Former Governor Frank O. Lowden underscored the need for the Association to gather “authentic” information on Lincoln and preserve the traditions and places in and around Springfield. After several meetings, the Association devised a listing of goals that it hoped to accomplish. As its main objective, the Association pledged to make the annual observance of Lincoln’s birth a public meeting “at which the speaker shall be selected with reference to their especial fitness to make distinct contributions to the Lincoln idea, and the publication of the addresses in permanent form.” A series of prizes ranging from the best monograph on Abraham Lincoln to funding scholarships at Illinois colleges and universities to high school essay contests on Lincoln were contemplated. Two similar goals were to assist in the purchase and donation of Lincoln materials for the collection at the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library (formerly the Illinois State Historical Library), what is now called the Henry Horner Lincoln Collection. The Association also wanted to build a collection of “reminiscences of all individuals who have personally known Mr. Lincoln.” The final four objectives dealt with aspects of promoting visitation and Lincoln programs at Lincoln sites in the Springfield area. They wanted to publish a booklet containing information on Lincoln sites and associate sites as well as promote a marker program to clearly identify places of significance. The Association would underwrite a pageant at New Salem featuring the descendants of Lincoln’s friends in this frontier community. In a growing era of automobile travel, the Association would work to pave the road between Springfield and New Salem with the roadside shade trees named after “Lincoln, his friends, and contemporaries.”
In 1923, Logan Hay reactivated Association publications with the issuance of an annual Bulletin. This was followed in 1924 with the appearance of The Lincoln Centennial Association Papers, containing the text of the speaker presentations before the Association in that year. While Hay could oversee the copyediting and production of the annual Bulletin and Papers, the new research agenda required the establishment of full-time personnel to oversee research and writing implicit in their research agenda. Income from membership was insufficient for sustaining salaried staff. The solution required the establishment of an endowment fund. In 1925, Hay persuaded a number of civic-minded Springfield families that went back to the Lincoln era—Bunn, Hatch, Pasfield, and Humphrey—to donate the initial funding for the Association endowment. With this financial wherewithal, Hay began interviewing potential executive secretaries. He gave the job to Paul M. Angle, a young man from Mansfield, Ohio who had a history degree from Miami University. Hiring Angle was based upon his potential rather than a record of accomplishment. Angle later admitted that his only knowledge of Lincoln was obtained by reading Lord Charnwood’s Lincoln biography on the train in route from Chicago to Springfield before his interview.
Angle, however, was a quick study. He began to collect photocopies of original Lincoln documents with an eye toward those that escaped publication by previous Lincoln biographers Nicolay, Hay, and Tarbell. Angle also began to build reference files on every important topic regarding Lincoln, his family, and Lincoln’s Springfield. Within the six-year period of 1925 through 1930, Angle wrote an incredible corpus of reference materials. Among these were two editions of guide books to the Lincoln sites in Springfield, seven pamphlets of Lincoln’s day-by-day activities for the years 1854 through 1861, twenty-one regular bulletins and a monograph, New Letters and Papers of Lincoln (1930). Angle also clarified the new direction of the Association by changing the name from the Lincoln Centennial Association, an event that had occurred in 1909 but of little relevance in 1929, to the Abraham Lincoln Association, a timeless moniker.
The Association was the center of national attention in 1929 when Paul Angle exposed as forgeries The Atlantic Monthly’s published love letters between Abraham Lincoln and Ann Rutledge. According to Wilma Minor, the owner of the letters and author of the articles in the Atlantic Monthly, the materials had been handed down through her family. Initially, the poet Carl Sandburg, and the muckraking journalist Ida Tarbell were both attracted to the dramatic power of the romance that was revealed in the correspondence. But Angle knew Lincoln’s handwriting, having just finished transcribing letters for the new edition of Lincoln’s letters. Moreover, Angle also had an ear for Lincoln’s literary voice and knew that the writings were a poor imitation. In the end, the letters proved to be the result of spirit writings channeled through the hand of a medium who happened to be Wilma Minor’s mother.
Another little-known project of the Association was research on the proposed Lincoln Memorial Highway. The project sought to find the exact route that Abraham Lincoln and his parents traveled from Kentucky, to Indiana, to Illinois. Confusion abounded with hundreds of notarized affidavits being sent by individuals stating that the Lincolns stopped at their farm, watered their oxen team from their well and other variations on a theme. Typically, the statements were based upon second or third hand information transmitted by family members or friends. Governor Emmerson referred the matter to a five-member panel—all consisting of Abraham Lincoln Association members—for investigation. Paul Angle side-stepped the issue stating “At the present time it appears likely that the investigating committee will be unable, by reason of the absence of conclusive evidence, to establish the exact location of the route the Lincolns followed, but in any event a positive gain of some importance in historical knowledge seems assured.”
The “historical knowledge” that Angle sought was of a certain kind. Like his mentor, Logan Hay, Angle probed for written primary source materials in the form of letters, court records, newspapers, pamphlets, the Illinois and Congressional Journal of Debates, tax records, census data, and election returns. Sources avoided or viewed with suspicion were artifacts and material culture such as Lincoln’s personal effects and a careful examination of the surviving structures from the Lincoln era. Archeology conducted by the State of Illinois at New Salem was completely ignored by Benjamin Thomas in his study of this frontier community. Recollections, especially those recorded decades after the fact, were given a hoary eye unless they could be independently verified with contemporary written records. This approach to research methodology comported with James Garfield Randall’s call for professionalism in Lincoln studies. In his seminal 1936 article, “Has the Lincoln Theme Been Exhausted?” Randall noted the professional standards used by the Abraham Lincoln Association in its contributions to Lincoln studies.
Despite Paul Angle’s departure in 1932 to head the Illinois State Historical Library, he was replaced by a succession of capable scholars such as Benjamin Thomas and Harry E. Pratt, both having Ph.D’s in history. These scholars produced some significant monographic works during the decade from 1930 through 1940 based upon the previous fact collection efforts of the Association. Two particular themes emerged: environmental studies, or the studies of the communities in which Lincoln lived at New Salem and Springfield, and the Lincoln day-by-day studies. Benjamin P. Thomas’s Lincoln’s New Salem, remains a classic study of the frontier community that was the setting for Lincoln’s formative years. In spite of its age, first published in 1934, no author has attempted to eclipse it as the primary study of New Salem. The same can be said for Paul M. Angle’s monograph of Lincoln’s Springfield, “Here I Have Lived”: A History of Lincoln’s Springfield, 1821-1865. Whereas Thomas was forced to examine county commissioner records, census data, and probate court records because extensive correspondence from New Salem did not exist, Angle relied heavily upon newspaper accounts to carry his narrative of Lincoln’s Springfield. The four Lincoln day-by-day volumes began with Lincoln’s birth in 1809 and took him up to his presidential inauguration on March 4, 1861. This base reference works served as the basic factual building blocks for any Lincoln study. But they also provided a quick short hand to foil forgers, especially the sly Joseph Cosey who was particularly adept at creating legal documents with a passable facsimile of Lincoln’s hand. Cosey and other forgers failed to do their homework and typically placed Lincoln in the wrong court at the wrong time of year. A quick check of these day-by-day works made easy work of detecting a questioned document.
With its reputation firmly established and an aggressive research and publications program in place, the Association suffered a blow with the death of Logan Hay in 1940. George W. Bunn, president of the Marine Bank, Mr. Lincoln’s bank in Springfield, ably succeeded Hay. It was Bunn who inspired and often financed the Association on to greatness. Known to his friends as “Gib,” Bunn oversaw the creation of the Abraham Lincoln Quarterly, a scholarly publication that would replace the Bulletin and annual Papers. But the Association’s greatest achievement under Bunn would be collecting and transcribing all of Abraham Lincoln’s known writings.
The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln would take twelve years to produce at a cost of over $100,000 or approximately $1,000,000 in 2005 dollars. It took meetings with the Library of Congress to convince that institution not to duplicate efforts with a planned Lincoln papers project of their own. Once the Abraham Lincoln Association cleared the way for the project, they hired a new executive secretary who brought to the project a Ph.D. in English and who had already published a volume on Lincoln’s writings and speeches. Roy Prentiss Basler was well suited to undertake the work. He had two capable assistants in Marion Bonzi, who would later marry the great Lincoln scholar Harry Pratt, and Lloyd Dunlap. Also on loan to the project was Helen Bullock, a dynamo of a researcher on staff at the Library of Congress. Bullock scoured the manuscript collections in the Library of Congress and National Archives for the Association.
Generally recognized as the greatest scholarly achievement of the Association, the eight volume The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln literally bankrupted the organization. Originally planned to be five or six volumes and plagued by constant delays, the publication ended up costing the Association much more than anticipated. Rather than publish a volume at a time as finances allowed, the Association made the bold move of liquidating all of their assets to publish all eight volumes at once. The Association maintained its incorporation status and set up an account to receive royalties from Rutgers University Press. The volumes were met with critical acclaim but financial indifference. In part, university presses in general and Rutgers in particular were suffering from financial woes. Creative bookkeeping similar to that practiced in Hollywood for residuals on early television shows allowed Rutgers to avoid paying any royalties to the Association.
From the period of 1953 until 1964, the Association was in a state of suspended animation. It took a request by Illinois Governor Otto Kerner to reactivate the Lincoln-hearted men and women of Springfield. The State proposed to restore the Old State Capitol, site of Lincoln’s House Divided Speech, to its original luster. Since 1876, Sangamon County had used it as the county court house. The courts, having outgrown the facility, moved to a new facility, allowing the State to turn it back into a Lincoln site. The Association accepted the challenge of raising money for period furnishings to decorate the rooms and resumed the practice of holding annual banquets, hosting as the first speaker Adlai E. Stevenson, then United States Ambassador to the United Nations. A group of less than three hundred members, the Abraham Lincoln Association raised over a quarter of a million dollars for the restoration of the Old State Capitol. The building was ready by December 3, 1968, the 175th anniversary of Illinois statehood.
Reinvigorated, the Association looked to other projects to undertake. For a brief time, they contemplated assisting the State with the renovation of the Lincoln Home neighborhood. But the transfer of the property to the Federal government in 1971 ended any further discussion. In 1970, publications were resumed, beginning modestly with the annual banquet address and expanding in 1973 to include papers presented at the scholarly symposium.
The bicentennial celebrations of the nation in 1976 prompted the formation of another planning committee to plot out a long-range agenda for the Association. Obvious suggestions such as an update of the Collected Works, Lincoln Day By Day, and other significant Association writings were advanced. Little was accomplished, however, due to lack of funds. The State of Illinois’s undertaking of the Lincoln Legal Papers filled a research lacuna identified by the Association fifty years ago. The Association quickly endorsed the project and became one of its main private supporters.
Much of the Association’s current influence is reflected in its symposia and publications. New voices in Lincoln studies received their first hearing at the annual Abraham Lincoln symposia. Scholars such as Allen Guelzo, Daniel Walker Howe, Drew McCoy, Richard Carwardine, William Lee Miller, Stewart Winger, and Silvana Siddali were all introduced to the Lincoln community through their talks at the symposium. Seminal articles such as William Gienapp’s “Lincoln and the Border States,” James McPherson’s “The Hedgehog and the Foxes,” John Y. Simon’s “Abraham Lincoln and Ann Rutledge,” Daniel Howe’s “Why Lincoln was a Whig,” and Allen Guelzo’s “Lincoln and the Doctrine of Necessity,” are frequently cited in the literature.
The Association is no longer the holder of an archive of materials nor does it have a staff to produce original research monographs. It functions more to provide a forum for scholars to present their research findings and new interpretations based upon familiar materials. The Association also provides a vital function in offering financial support to important Lincoln research and projects. The Association’s unfailing annual contributions to the Lincoln Legal Papers have paid off with the DVD ROM edition appearing in 2000. And the Association was the first organization to support the proposed Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library with a check for $5,000.
The Association made its two most important works, The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln and Lincoln Day By Day, available on the Internet.
All of the back issues of The Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association are available online through the University of Illinois Press web-site. This provides scholars around the world with access to significant Lincoln scholarship. All totaled, these accomplishments are remarkable for any organization.
The Abraham Lincoln Association was organized in 1908 as the Lincoln Centennial Association. It led the national celebration of Lincoln's one-hundredth birthday. In 1925, under the leadership of Association President Logan Hay, Paul M. Angle became the Association's first executive secretary. This appointment was the beginning of the Association's Golden years. Paul Angle, Benjamin Thomas, Harry Pratt---names now revered by all Lincoln scholars--were remarkably productive in establishing the Association's distinguished programs of research and publication
The Abraham Lincoln Association continues to uphold its tradition in the Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, the only journal devoted exclusively to the rich history and complex legacies of Abraham Lincoln. The Association also hosts an annual Symposium and Banquet through which scores of famous speakers and scholars have presented new and exciting work concerning our Sixteenth President.