Recovering History

Article excerpt

The Lincoln scholar Harry V. Jaffa tells the story of happening on a paperback volume of the Lincoln-Douglas debates in a Fourth Avenue bookstore in Manhattan over half a century ago. Other than that serendipitous discovery, he could find little scholarship on Abraham Lincoln's great contest of words and ideas with his rival, Stephen A. Douglas. And what historiographical notice the debates had garnered was almost entirely dismissive.

Today, the debates are well-remembered and their importance undoubted. One, of course, has to scour the record to discover any aspect of Lincoln's life that has not been turned into a book, and yet our enthusiasm also has its discerning side. We're more ready these days to credit the moral vision of a great individual like the sixteenth president, and this must be counted as a beneficent development in the evolution of our historical memory.

One person who exemplifies this corrective tendency is Lewis E. Lehrman, another nonprofessional doing his part to strengthen the historical record of America's great narrative. Lehrman is the copilot steering the Gilder Lehrman Collection and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of American History, whose aim has been to restore key documents and artifacts of American history to public notice. He is also the author of a book tracing the origins of Lincoln's arguments against slavery in his famous 1858 debates with Douglas to the future president's 1854 speech in Peoria, Illinois. …