Magazine article History Today

Abraham Lincoln's Library. (Frontline)

Magazine article History Today

Abraham Lincoln's Library. (Frontline)

Article excerpt

IN NOVEMBER LAST YEAR a stark neglect was righted, with the opening of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield, state capital of Illinois. Much less brilliant stars in the American political firmament, including most of the twentieth-century occupants of the White House since Franklin Roosevelt, are memorialised in presidential libraries funded by the federal government. Yet the president who exerts an unequalled hold on the nation's imagination--a figure exceeded as the subject of historical study by Christ alone--has had to wait until now for such a tribute. After Richard Nixon's resignation in 1974 his successor remarked in self-deprecation that he was `a Ford and not a Lincoln'. But students of Gerald Ford's presidency have been blessed with a Rolls-Royce library compared with the archival arrangements previously available for the study of the 16th president.

A stunning new $25 million library, sited in the community where Lincoln lived between 1837 and 1861, changes all that. A three-storey building, with spacious reading and conference rooms, six miles of shelving, and space for a quarter of a million reels of microfilm, provides a shrine to the Saviour of the Union, the Great Emancipator and--sainted as he was by virtue of assassination--the Nation's First Martyr. The Library, an initiative of Lincoln's adopted state of Illinois, but also sustained by federal funding, opens to the public in February. (Visit www.alincoln-library.com)

Historians of Lincoln's life and presidency have mainly relied on two depositories. The huge collection of Lincoln papers in Washington, D.C., at the Library of Congress, chiefly comprises letters written to the President when he occupied the wartime White House. Robert Todd Lincoln, his eldest son, took charge of them after his father's death, since the rule (established with George Washington) was to treat presidential papers as private property. Robert allowed Lincoln's White House secretaries, John G. Nicolay and John Hay, to use the materials as the basis of a ten-volume biography and of a compilation of Lincoln's own letters, published in the 1890s. Thereafter he kept them under strict control, depositing them as a sealed collection at the Library of Congress, and stipulating that they remain unopened for twenty-one years after his death. Not until 1947, with scholars clustering around anticipating evidence of scandal (was Lincoln a bastard? had there been high-level complicity in Lincoln's murder?), were the papers opened. The secrets of the collection--more political than personal--proved largely innocuous but the materials soon generated a wave of fine scholarship, including Benjamin Thomas's superb biography (Abraham Lincoln, 1952) and Roy Basler's nine-volume edition of Lincoln's works. Initially transposed onto nearly one hundred reels of unwieldy microfilm, the entire collection at the Library of Congress has recently entered the digital age, and a magnificent electronic archive is now available on-line. (www.presidentialpapersofabraham lincolnonline.org)

It is the second repository, however, the Illinois State Historical Library, whose unrivalled accumulations of Lincolniana form the basis of the new Presidential Library. At the heart of the nearly 50,000 artefacts which make up the Lincoln Collection are the thousands of books and pamphlets that Henry Homer, the state's governor in the 1930s, amassed over a period of forty years. They include books owned by Lincoln and his family, rare polemical pamphlets and broadsides, and election campaign biographies, many of them published in the language of the nation's immigrant groups (including German, Welsh, Dutch and French). …

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