Telling Lincoln’s Story

Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis, eds. Herndon’s Informants: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1998. 827 pp.
Douglas L. Wilson. Lincoln before Washington: New Perspectives on the Illinois Years. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1997. 190 pp.
Douglas L. Wilson. Honor’s Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1998. 383 pp.
Nowhere does academic history intersect with the public imagination in more complex and revealing ways than at historic sites, especially sites devoted to Abraham Lincoln’s memory. At that busy intersection is where I work as a historian employed by the state agency that operates several of the most important Lincoln sites in Illinois.[1] A tenured academic friend seeking to establish my pedigree once called me a “Ph.D. historian,” and I would be an ingrate not to admit that the degree has served me well, adding at the very least some apparent credibility to my work and word in the years that I’ve spent with the state.

On occasion, however, my academic training has not served me well. One such instance occurred in 1982 when my credibility and I got sent to New Salem for an “upgrade” of the public interpretive program at the site, at the center of which famously stands a reconstruction of the village where Lincoln lived from 1831 until 1837. My idea of program improvement at the time began with convening a kind of on-site reading seminar wherein the staff and I plowed our way through the literature on Lincoln’s early life. All went exceptionally well, that is until we got to the tragic story of young Lincoln’s love affair with Ann Rutledge, daughter of the village innkeeper. At that point, I proudly trotted out Professor [End Page 44] James G. Randall’s famous article, “Sifting the Ann Rutledge Evidence,” in which he dismantles the tale with great professional gusto.[2] We examined Randall’s argument in some detail as an example of how historians with academic training evaluate evidence, in this instance recollections of the alleged love affair gathered by William H. Herndon, Lincoln’s last law partner.

Then things turned a little sour. Randall, as is well known, assailed the reminiscent testimony upon which the Rutledge story is based by charging that Herndon had recorded the recollections of old settlers decades after the fact and that their accounts were “uncertain and conflicting.”[3] He also accused Herndon of leading his witnesses, whom he characterized as anxious to slant their Lincoln memories so as to associate themselves more intimately with the martyred hero. We finished reviewing Randall’s work. An uncomfortable silence settled over our little meeting. And then it became quite clear that at least a few of those present were not buying what the professor had to sell. [End Page 45]

Looking back, it seems significant that what aroused the most ire was not Randall’s skepticism about the story. It was his authoritative posturing. One angry dissenter denounced the professor for appropriating an intellectual authority not rightly his and for arrogantly impugning the integrity of ordinary people, hard-working and unpretentious individuals who seemed far less self-serving than Randall himself. Several around the table nodded in agreement, silently reaffirming their conviction that Abe loved Ann. Someone pointed out that local historians in Menard County still embraced the story. What made the word of professor-historians so special? Why were their truth claims to be believed above all others? Thankfully, I thought at the time, there were those who graciously followed my credentialed lead in embracing Randall’s debunkery. An agnostic middle ground also emerged: perhaps the truth was beyond recall. Rather over-stimulated and feeling somewhat embattled, I mustered what credibility was left to me and pronounced a hasty benediction. Whatever our personal feelings, I intoned in exiting, we were obliged as public servants to see that our interpretive programs conformed to the received opinions of those in a position to know—professionally trained historians. No more Abe-loved-Ann at New Salem, at least as far as I was concerned.

Hubris has few rewards. In February 1988 John Y. Simon deftly picked apart Randall’s case against the Ann Rutledge story at the Abraham Lincoln Association Symposium, concluding that “the reality of the story appears certain.”[4] Then an invitation arrived for me to chair a session at that December’s Illinois History Symposium. There Douglas L. Wilson delivered the paper that appears in its latest incarnation as “Abraham Lincoln, Ann Rutledge, and the Evidence of Herndon’s Informants,” an essay in Lincoln before Washington: New Perspectives on the Illinois Years, a collection of Wilson’s mostly previously published pieces.[5] Characterizing Randall as “condescending,” Wilson contended that contrary to Randall’s claims there had been “remarkably little disagreement” among Herndon’s witnesses about “the basic elements of the story” and urged that Lincoln’s lost love be restored to his biography.[6] A final blow fell when John Evangelist Walsh embellished and expanded [End Page 46] upon the Simon-Wilson thesis in a vividly written book-length telling rather appropriately entitled, The Shadows Rise.[7]

Perhaps I was simply naive. Graduate school surely taught me, if anything, that those whom Wilson calls “academically trained historians” constantly rewrite history, and reasonable explanations do exist for that phenomenon.[8] Wilson and Simon pose one possibility when they argue that Randall’s generation of Lincoln scholars was, as Simon puts it, “provoked” into error by the sentimental “misuse” of Ann and Abe in “film and fiction.”[9] Writers like Sandburg, explains Wilson, managed to reduce “Lincoln’s deep inner life” to “a romantic cliché.”[10] But then a “brilliant corps” of “academically trained” Lincoln historians led by Randall emerged to insist that “historical inquiry must be based upon evidence, and that evidence must be genuine.” They became, in Wilson’s not altogether unappreciative words, a “scholarly juggernaut” determined to right the wrongs inflicted by popular-culture characterizations of Lincoln. They took “few prisoners” and inflicted “heavy casualties,” especially on the likes of William H. Herndon and his old-settler reminiscences.[11] Yes, they overdid it, Simon and Wilson agree, but that old devil—popular culture—made them do it.

That seems a little like blaming the victim. After all, popular culture’s judgment regarding Lincoln’s lost love now appears rather closer to the mark than the judgment of the professors, yesterday’s professors anyhow. Today’s professors are busily resurrecting not only the Ann Rutledge story but also dusting off Herndon’s reputation and recollective evidence in general. Memory is making a comeback among students of Lincoln’s life as the professionally trained embrace reminiscence with a new-found zeal. Charles B. Strozier showed the way by tellingly employing Herndon’s evidence a few years back in his psychological study of Lincoln; Merrill D. Peterson then surveyed the evolving image of Lincoln in the American mind in Lincoln and American Memory; more recently, Don E. Fehrenbacher and Virginia Fehrenbacher compiled and edited a carefully annotated collection of Lincoln’s “recollected words”; and Michael Burlingame is currently at work ferreting out obscure nuggets of Lincoln memories from the files of neglected manuscript [End Page 47] collections and overlooked volumes once dismissed as flawed and antiquarian.[12] Now come Wilson and Rodney O. Davis to assemble, transcribe, and publish the mother-lode of Lincoln recollections in Herndon’s Informants.

Their introduction recounts William H. Herndon’s adventures gathering materials for a Lincoln biography. He set out in 1865 proclaiming that he wanted only “solid facts & well attested truths.” Two years of frenetic labor followed by decades of more desultory collecting yielded the massive hodgepodge of a manuscript collection that Herndon called his “Lincoln Record.” Herndon combed newspaper files, pirated documents from court records, and even turned up some original Lincoln manuscripts. But the heart of his collection, around which scholarly controversy later swirled, consisted of “letters, interviews, and statements on Lincoln obtained from people who knew him,” which Wilson and Davis have sought to reassemble in Herndon’s Informants.[13]

The book is a masterpiece of academic scholarship that should occupy a spot on any short shelf of volumes deemed essential by students of Abraham Lincoln’s life, particularly his early life. It consists primarily of 634 documents, presented here chronologically in four parts. The documents contain the Lincoln memories of “more than 250 widely differing informants.”[14] Wilson and Davis clearly set forth their approach to editorial practice in a brief “Editorial Note.” And at the back of the volume appears an indispensable biographical “register” with information on each of the “informants,” along with a helpful Hanks family genealogy by Paul H. Verduin and a fine index, a real boon for readers trying to thread their way through the sometimes confusing documentary maze.

Herndon’s Informants is more than an adept job of documentary editing. It is a heroic attempt at reconstructive surgery. The bulk of Herndon’s papers wound up in the Herndon-Weik Collection, owned since 1941 by the Library of Congress, and scholars who have squinted for years at the nearly illegible writing on the scratchy images of that collection’s microfilm edition will be grate- [End Page 48] ful to Wilson and Davis. Not all, however, of Herndon’s originals ended up at the Library of Congress. Some found their way into the papers of Herndon’s writing partner, Jesse Weik, now owned by the Illinois State Historical Library, where they were identified and transcribed by Wilson and Davis. The editors also note, however, that a “substantial number of originals are no longer to be found” at all.[15] Herndon evidently returned some items to their owners, while others were destroyed by fire, pilfered, eaten by mice at his farm, and otherwise scattered to the winds. Still, Wilson and Davis went to great lengths to reconstruct the texts of those lost originals, insofar as that remains at all possible. Copies of some missing originals were identified in the transcription of Herndon’s “Lincoln Record” made by John G. Springer for Ward Hill Lamon in 1869, now at the Huntington Library. And fragments of recollections for which no original manuscripts could be located were culled from Herndon’s correspondence with Weik as well as two books, Herndon’s Lincoln (1889) by Herndon and Weik and The Real Lincoln (1922) by Weik.

Wilson and Davis claim that their fine work “is not offered as a brief for a particular assessment of Herndon and his informants but rather is concerned with solving the problem of access.”[16] By their very nature, however, books cannot simply provide value-neutral “access” to documents. A book exists as a three-dimensional object that conveys meaning through its physical appearance, and the appearance of Herndon’s Informants marks it as a finely wrought artifact of late-twentieth-century academic culture. Its staid dust jacket, black binding with gold lettering, tasteful type, fine paper, and scholarly footnotes give it an annotated elegance. There is a substantial and academically authoritative air about the volume that argues visually for Herndon’s collection as worthy of reconsideration by the “interpretive community” of professional historians. One function of an interpretive community, says literary theorist Stanley Fish, is to determine “what counts as the facts to be observed,” and the weighty professional elegance of Herndon’s Informants signals the hope of its editors that Herndon’s “solid facts” will now count within the interpretive community of professional historians.[17] [End Page 50]

No less reflective of the professional historian’s culture is the way in which Wilson and Davis set forth the truth claims that they make for their painstaking reconstruction of Herndon’s collection. Again, they claim primarily to have solved “the problem of access.” Herndon’s Informants, they assert, simply “makes available for the first time all the known letters, interviews, and statements about Abraham Lincoln collected by his law partner, William H. Herndon.”[18] Their claim is that readers will now have better access to Herndon’s original texts, which have been made available or rendered more visible by the editors through their textual reconstruction. It is inferred that Herndon’s Informants functions ideally as a transparent medium between the reader’s mind and Herndon’s original texts in which are embedded the facts or the evidence that purportedly deserves reconsideration by academic scholars. Interventions by the editors in Herndon’s collection allegedly have been limited to solving technical problems, such as transcription, that are necessarily involved in rendering the original texts more visible. Only in such conventionally appropriate places as the preface, introduction, and footnotes do the editors acknowledge that they are present in the text, but those seemingly marginal appearances only serve to bolster their minimal intervention claims regarding Herndon’s texts themselves.

Given the claim that “all known texts” have been included, readers may be surprised by a footnote on page six. There the editors note that they have decided not to publish the letters of “Capt. Joseph Artus” recounting his “alleged contact with Lincoln on the Mississippi River in 1832” because they “consider this a clear case of mistaken identity.”[19] Now I know nothing of Joseph Artus. Nor do I care to know anything more or to argue for his inclusion among Herndon’s originals, and I am quite willing to accept the judgment that his testimony is utterly spurious. But the Artus footnote does subvert the full-access claim and disclose that the editors have intervened in Herndon’s “Lincoln Record” far more than they are willing to admit. They have constructed what is by no means a transparent medium providing access to an “original” collection. Herndon’s Informants is instead a representation of that collection and only one possible representation among many.

The constructed nature of the Wilson-Davis representation is also clear from the chronological order that has been imposed on the [End Page 51] documents, especially since there seems to have been no provenance dictating such an arrangement. Herndon’s biographer, David Donald, writes that at one time Herndon kept his papers “jumbled together in paper cartons” and notes elsewhere that the Springer copies were “arranged roughly by geographical subject-headings.”[20] A non-chronological alternative arrangement might have been to group documents by informant so that, for example, all reminiscences by John Hanks would have appeared together. That strategy was employed by the Fehrenbachers in their Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln. Another alternative might have been to sort the texts into topical categories, an arrangement that most certainly would have proven impossibly unwieldy, as Herndon no doubt discovered for himself. Still, it seems evident that the chronological arrangement structuring Herndon’s Informants is dictated neither by the documents themselves nor by their provenance but is a constructed sequence imposed by the editors. In fact, the chronological sequencing tends to turn the collected documents into a representation of Herndon’s collecting adventures, not Lincoln’s life.

Creating a book without making organizational choices obviously is not possible, and there is nothing especially wrong with chronological sequencing. What does seem open to question is the Wilson-Davis claim that they have, through their chronological arrangement, merely provided access or increased the availability of documents. Every arrangement of texts conveys implicit meanings. Chronological sequencing, for instance, tends to mask the discrepancies and contradictions between competing testimonies, such as those that Randall found so incriminating. “In normal practice chronology and even narrative reduce the multiple and conflicting voices, events, and viewpoints to the single measure of chronology or story plot,” writes Robert F. Berkhofer, Jr.[21] Two hundred and forty-one pages of text, to take one small example, separate Robert B. Rutledge’s touching description of Lincoln speaking to the New Salem debating society from the assertion by another informant that “there never was a debating Society in New Salem during Lincoln[‘s] time nor at any other time.”[22]

No alternative arrangement of documents by informant, topic, [End Page 52] or other scheme would have proven more value neutral, and the index and register of informants certainly help by making it possible to skip around in the chronology. The point remains, however, that there is simply no way to order texts without conveying meaning. So what seems at issue here is not particular choices the editors have made but rather their posture as value-neutral providers of access who have followed the truth-yielding logic of some objective professional standard. That claim by Randall, I think, was what most provoked my long-ago colleagues at New Salem, not his debunking of the Ann Rutledge story. Academic historians spend most of their time talking to one another about issues of little interest to the general public, which is perhaps just as well. Sometimes, however, when people care very much about something—as they do about Lincoln—challenges quickly arise to the truth claims made by the academically trained.

Somewhat revealing is the explanation put forth by Wilson and Davis for the publication of their revisionist volume in particular and for memory’s general comeback among historians. They trace those developments to the rise of oral history as a “respected subdiscipline of the historical profession, with a canon of its own.” It is oral history, they contend, that has demonstrated “the value of reminiscence as an important historical source.”[23] This is yet another way of accounting for changing scholarly interpretations. It is an “internalist” explanation whereby the practice of history by the academically trained evolves within an autonomous professional community devoted to truth-telling. Change takes place when, within that community, new information becomes available or the rules of evidence are applied in more objective, refined, or rigorous ways.[24] Hence, say Wilson and Davis, it was oral history’s appearance as a “respected subdiscipline” that produced a new respect for reminiscent testimony among scholars, preparing the way for their volume.

An “externalist” perspective on interpretive change might point to factors outside the interpretive community, alterations in the larger material or cultural environment within which scholars work.[25] As Gore Vidal put it some years ago in bearding those [End Page 53] whom he called “scholar-squirrels”: “All we have is a mass of more or less agreed-upon facts about the illustrious dead and each generation tends to rearrange those facts according to what the times require.”[26] Accordingly, the growing interest in memory exemplified by Herndon’s Informants would be traceable to trends far more culturally pervasive and profound than oral history’s emergence as a “respected subdiscipline” within some tiny professional community. Perhaps it is the culture-wide erosion of respect for experts proffering authoritative or official representations that has made personal and unofficial memories seem more attractive.[27] Or possibly memory is more congenial to those challenging professionally produced history’s universalist claims from a wide range of perspectives colored by religion, ethnicity, gender, and ideology.[28] And most likely Patrick H. Hutton has a point when he speculates that the rise of a “media culture” has relativized written history in general by making it appear to be “no more than an official memory, one among many possible ways to imagine the past.”[29] In any case, oral recollections and unofficial memories now enjoy an enhanced standing in the culture at large, which makes oral history’s professional emergence seem more like a by-product of cultural change than an underlying cause.

Whatever the origin of reminiscent testimony’s cultural resurgence, Wilson and Davis are somewhat inclined to misrepresent memory’s new standing. A renewed interest in reminiscence does not necessarily mean, as they suggest, that psychologists now believe memory to be more reliable in recovering the past than they once did. Daniel L. Schacter, for example, concludes in his popular summary of recent memory research, Searching for Memory: The Brain, the Mind, and the Past, that recollections are not “literal recordings” or “activated pictures” stored in the mind. Memories are “complex constructions.” They are pieced together from “snippets of what actually happened, thoughts about what might have happened, and beliefs that guide us as we attempt to remember.” He characterizes memories as “fragile but powerful products of what [End Page 54] we recall from the past, believe about the present, and imagine about the future.”[30] Nowhere is memory’s nature as a constructed blend of past events and present needs more clearly illustrated than in Lincoln’s own changing recollections of his 1841 encounter with twelve chained slaves aboard a Kentucky steamboat while he was returning to Springfield from a visit to Joshua Speed’s home near Louisville. What stood out in Lincoln’s memory as he wrote to Speed’s sister just weeks after reaching Illinois was that the slaves “were the most cheerful and apparantly [sic] happy creatures on board” even though headed south “where the lash of the master is proverbially more ruthless and unrelenting than any other where.” Fourteen years later, after slavery had taken on a new importance in his political life, those images of cheerful and happy slaves had apparently receded in his mind. Recalling that same event in an 1855 letter to Speed, Lincoln wrote that the sight of the slaves had been “a continual torment” to him.[31] The two accounts certainly are not irreconcilable, but they leave very different impressions, showing how memories tend to be, in Schacter’s words, “constructed or invented at the time of attempted recall.”[32]

Collective memories—the stories that we share with one another—appear no more reliable than individual recollections in creating accurate pictures of the past. Sociologist Barry Schwartz makes a point in his insightful work on the nation’s collective Lincoln memories of warning against exaggerating “the malleability of the past.” Lincoln’s changing image in the national memory, he asserts, is “constrained by the historical record” and reflects “real, not imaginary (constructed), accomplishments and traits.” Still, even Schwartz is forced to admit that memory is constructed and reconstructed and that it becomes “a social fact as it is made and remade to serve changing societal interests and needs.”[33] Wilson wants to [End Page 55] argue otherwise in “Herndon’s Legacy,” which appears in Lincoln before Washington.[34] There he points as proof of collective memory’s reliability to the memory claims made by Aunt Louisa Clary, a Menard County old settler. Aunt Louisa purportedly recalled the layout of the village of New Salem. She further claimed that talking about those memories with other old settlers had kept them bright in her mind. Her mental “picture” of New Salem as it once existed, which included the “precise locations of buildings” and “where the road was,” was so vivid that her memories were relied upon for the village reconstruction of the 1930s.[35] Aunt Louisa’s “experience,” says Wilson, seems to have been like that of “most.” Well, if that is true, “most” old settlers may have gotten it wrong, since it is now believed that she mislocated several buildings and part of the road.[36]

If Gore Vidal’s externalist approach to interpretive change betrays more than a little cynicism about what scholars do, the internalist explanation employed by Wilson and Davis seems colored by a kind of professional triumphalism. They willingly grant that the whole truth is probably beyond reach but suggest that successive interpretations (by the professionally certified) come progressively closer. Randall and his colleagues may have erred, but the current generation has rectified those mistakes, at least with regard to reminiscent testimony, thanks to advances in the application of the rules of evidence made by (professionally trained) oral historians. Wilson and Davis even imply that Herndon was a kind of proto-professional oral historian, an impression reinforced by their label of “informants” for those from whom he got his “facts.”[37] One [End Page 56] wonders whether either Herndon or his old settlers would be flattered by their honorary inclusion in the charmed circle of twentieth-century professional historians. Wilson paints a somewhat similar portrait of Herndon in his sympathetic and insightful article, “William H. Herndon and the ‘Necessary Truth,'” in Lincoln before Washington.[38] There Herndon appears as an unappreciated “precocious” practitioner of modern intimate biographical method. The overall message is clear. History as practiced by the academically trained has now advanced in sophistication to the point where scholars are in a position to appreciate Herndon, an appreciation that legitimates his work by retrospectively bestowing upon him an aura of modern professional authority. Everybody wins—Herndon, his informants, yesterday’s provoked professionals, and today’s historians.

Everybody, that is, except the still suspect popular culture. Wilson blames Victorian culture for hamstringing Herndon’s precociousness, and he joins Simon in charging early-twentieth-century popularizers with diminishing by sentimentalizing what he presumes to have been “Lincoln’s deep inner life.” Randall and his colleagues might have gotten it right, Wilson and Simon seem to suggest, if only they had not been provoked by popular renditions of the Abe-and-Ann story into applying impossibly high standards of evidence “not unlike those in a criminal trial,” wherein facts must be proven “beyond a reasonable doubt.”[39] Wilson and Simon propose to substitute instead a “preponderance of the evidence” test for fact-finding that would allow for more latitude in admitting reminiscent testimony.[40] The courtroom analogy remains firmly [End Page 57] in place, only now historians appear as civil litigators concerned with “preponderance of the evidence” rather than criminal lawyers looking for “reasonable doubt.”

Despite its seemingly more temperate tone, the civil litigation analogy still misrepresents the practice of history. Framing historiographic questions as disputes over standards of evidence turns historians, by definition, into fact-finders, which they are not. Here the courtroom analogy employed by Simon and Wilson may be unintentionally revealing since lawyers themselves are not fact-finders at all. They are advocates for stories. It is the litigator’s job to construct a theory of the case, a believable narrative or story that will convince the jury to endorse it as the truth. The truth is what the jury says it is. Similarly, professional historians construct stories and then submit those stories to a jury of their peers (other academically trained historians). The peer group purportedly applies objective standards in evaluating competing stories and renders a verdict. Once again, the truth is what the peer-group jury decides that it is. There is, however, one important difference. No judge presides over the courtroom of scholarship, only a peer group or interpretive community impaneled to serve as both judge and jury.

Wilson compellingly assumes the role of historian as fact-finder in Honor’s Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln, which dwells on particular episodes and themes in young Lincoln’s life that occurred between his 1831 arrival at New Salem and his marriage in 1842. First, he makes a case in his introduction and opening chapter for the admission of reminiscent testimony into evidence. Then he incorporates that evidence into an elegant and nuanced analysis aimed at breathing life into what he calls the “Lincoln of legend”—the self-made man who rose on his own from obscurity to fame.[41] Ambition, conventionally enough, drives Wilson’s Lincoln [End Page 58] to escape from his father’s world of manual labor and subsistence farming. Equally in accord with usual renditions of the Lincoln legend is Wilson’s account of the young man finding a vocation in the law “largely on the strength of his appetite for reading and intellectual effort.”[42] “Studying an esoteric subject like the law alone, with no one to assist him,” explains Wilson, “was clearly for the young Lincoln an act of self-definition.”[43]

Lincoln’s inner “quest for identity and self-definition” is what Wilson wants, above all else, to uncover and describe in Honor’s Voice.[44] He tries to peer inside the Lincoln of legend so as to understand what it must have been like for the young man as he struggled to fashion an identity that would enable him to rise in the world. What did he think? How did he feel? The struggle turns out to be more painful and conflicted than has been previously recognized, for the Lincoln of Honor’s Voice is an emotionally distracted youth tormented by inner demons. He suffers through “doubts and fears” about who he is and “what he could become.” A “nameless sense of apprehension and even doom” plagues him, plunging him into “periods of deep depression and moments of suicidal desperation.”[45] And he finds himself painfully lacking many of those “self-presentation” skills necessary to realize his aspirations outside of a frontier environment.[46] Wilson believes that Lincoln’s great suffering and his human frailties ought only to enhance our respect for both the man and the legend: “When we take into account his mental anguish and misgivings, his rise appears even more remarkable than the legend allows.”[47]

All of this would be rather unexceptional were it not for the ways in which Wilson radically reinterprets familiar episodes in young Lincoln’s life as he places them into the context of his subject’s tormented struggle for identity. Wilson speculates, for example, that Lincoln’s nearly suicidal depression following Ann Rutledge’s death did not spring entirely from her loss but that the intensity of his reaction owed as much to the event’s “symbolic significance” for him. Notoriously ill at ease in the company of young women, Lincoln had managed with great difficulty to win the bright and attractive Ann, who would have been well-suited to accompany his rise in the world, only to have her suddenly fall ill and die. “Her [End Page 59] sudden and unexpected death may have presented itself as symbolic of the collapse of his aspirations generally and of the ultimate futility of his efforts,” surmises Wilson. Perhaps Lincoln the “confirmed fatalist” even saw in her death the “foolish vanity” of “his scheme to raise himself.”[48]

Stunning revisions of received opinions appear throughout Honor’s Voice. Wilson resuscitates the tale of Lincoln’s Beardstown dalliance with a prostitute from whom he feared that he had contracted syphilis, which might account for Lincoln’s strangely vacillating behavior in courting Mary Owens.[49] Lincoln the young politician comes off in Honor’s Voice as a mean and slick operator, an anonymous and pseudonymous practitioner of “attack journalism” with a “penchant for stinging invective of a cruelly personal sort” and an “impulse toward violence.”[50] So capable was the early political Lincoln of sharp dealing and dissembling, says Wilson, that Illinois legislators regarded him as “not merely a logroller but, in the eyes of his peers, the chief logroller, the coordinating manager in charge of all logrolling” during the campaign to make Springfield the state capital.[51] Finally, Wilson portrays Lincoln’s religious skepticism as far more deep-dyed, permanently etched on his soul, and intertwined with his personal essence than previously has been recognized. He writes that Lincoln’s rejection of “the divinity of Christ, the infallibility of the Scriptures, and an afterlife” left him with a “nihilistic vision” and “a palpable sense of dread and staring into the abyss.”[52] Lincoln’s skepticism is depicted as so ingrained in his nature that it becomes very difficult to credit the usual story of a maturing Lincoln becoming more spiritually conventional and Christian.[53]

What redeems this insincere, occasionally mean-spirited, and fatalistic lost soul for Wilson turns out to be his capacity for self-discovery and transformation. Lincoln learns in Honor’s Voice that [End Page 60] to succeed he must exercise discipline and emotional self-control.[54] He commits himself to the cause of reason, “casting his lot with the rationalism of the Enlightenment and the skeptical spirit of the eighteenth century.”[55] He becomes “more guarded and reserved,” learns discretion with regard to “his unorthodox and unpopular religious beliefs,” and masters the art of neutralizing “negative political effects by means of a highly manipulative form of self-presentation.”[56] But, above all, he learns “who and what” he is by discovering “a deep, nonnegotiable part of his nature.”[57] Lincoln, says Wilson, was naturally “tenderhearted in the presence of suffering and helplessness” and possessed of “a compulsion to respond and be helpful to those in desperate situations.”[58] Lincoln similarly discovers in himself an “irresistible” inner need to maintain his honor by keeping his commitments and sticking “unflinchingly to his own resolutions.”[59] Here Wilson projects his storyline into the future, foreshadowing the compassionate emancipator and resolute war president. Lincoln’s “rock-solid ability to keep his resolves once they were made would undergird his performance as president,” he concludes. “And that would make all the difference.”[60]

The climax of Lincoln’s personal transformation and of Honor’s Voice comes with his troubled decision to wed Mary Todd. Wilson argues that Ruth Painter Randall, Paul Angle, and others painted a “Romeo and Juliet” portrait of the courtship: Lincoln loves Mary but her family’s opposition to the match shakes his confidence, so he breaks their engagement on what he later alludes to as the “fatal first of Jany. ’41.”[61] A painful separation follows, but the two reconnect while meeting secretly with Mary’s friend Julia Jayne at the home of newspaperman Simeon Francis to compose pseudonymous letters attacking Democratic state auditor, James Shields. Love eventually conquers all in their marriage on November 4, 1842. [End Page 61]

The “Romeo and Juliet” version first came under Wilson’s scrutiny in “Abraham Lincoln and ‘That Fatal First of January,'” an essay reprinted in Lincoln before Washington.[62] There he aligned reminiscent testimony with contemporary evidence to produce a careful chronology of events. Lincoln, believes Wilson, broke it off with Mary not on the “fatal first” but in December 1840, and not because he doubted himself but because he loved another, Matilda Edwards, also the apple of his friend Joshua Speed’s eye. Neither suitor won the fair Matilda’s hand, leaving Wilson to speculate that Lincoln’s “fatal first” allusion, which appeared in a letter to Speed, probably referred to some “event in the life of Speed.”[63]

Honor’s Voice further elaborates Wilson’s theory of the courtship by linking it in telling ways to Lincoln’s abortive duel with James Shields in the summer of 1842. The two episodes work together in Wilson’s account to resolve Lincoln’s prolonged struggle for self-definition. The “Romeo and Juliet” version of the courtship has Shields demanding to know who wrote the letters, Lincoln gallantly assuming full responsibility, and Shields challenging him to a duel. Modern accounts of the near duel often portray it in comic-opera terms, which Wilson regards as a serious misrepresentation. He regards it as a deadly earnest affair of honor legitimately provoked by the personally vitriolic and wholly unwarranted attacks actually written by Lincoln, who had been composing such scurrilous pieces for years.[64]

What Lincoln learned about himself in the Shields affair, argues Wilson, convinced him to wed Mary Todd. He had broken his word to her by ending their engagement, which caused her great suffering. The thought of her suffering on his account tapped into his tenderhearted nature, producing “uncontrollable feelings of guilt” that nearly overwhelmed him.[65] Equally important was his realization that he had gone back on his word. He feared that he had given up “the ‘gem’ of his character, his ability to keep his mind made up,” and it nearly unhinged him. His “inner self-image” and “public persona” were in shambles. Lincoln was struggling desperately to restore the “mental peace and stability” that his aborted engagement to Mary Todd had disrupted when Shields issued his challenge, which proved to be a blessing in disguise.[66] It was his [End Page 62] success in seeing that “affair through to an ‘honorable’ conclusion” that showed him how to regain his emotional balance and achieve the self-definition for which he had struggled. Lincoln succeeded in the Shields affair, says Wilson, not so much by doing “the right thing,” because “his participation embarrassed him all his life,” but by doing “the gritty thing, the determined thing. He never wavered or waffled, and by this method he emerged with his honor intact.”[67] That outcome, Wilson believes, showed Lincoln a way to restore the self-esteem that he had lost by jilting Mary. He reopened their courtship and saw it through by marrying her for honor, not love. Whatever else the marriage might have been, says Wilson, “it was the culmination of a long and severe inner struggle” for self-definition.[68]

Wilson tells a good story. But is it true? Truth is very important for Wilson. He reminds readers again and again that he means to determine what “really” or “actually happened,” and he approvingly quotes Herndon’s recollection of Lincoln saying: “History is not history unless it is the truth.”[69] Wilson is a professional on a mission, a mission that he embraces with an earnest zeal verging on the evangelical. Truth matters greatly, he explains, because different versions of events “have markedly different implications for the emerging character of Abraham Lincoln,” and the emergence of Lincoln’s character is what Wilson seeks.[70] His caveats, cautions, and qualifications suggest that he is a meticulous truth-teller and can be trusted. Truth is “elusive,” he writes, judgments are “necessarily conditional,” and his own aims are “modest.” He confesses frankly that he has been compelled to “forgo historical certainty” for “the riskier realm of likelihood and possibility.” He wants only to “shed light” on Lincoln’s “rise from obscurity and his emergence as a man to be reckoned with.”[71]

And yet, equating the writing of history with shedding light is another professionally aggrandizing metaphor that, like the lawyer analogy, smuggles in truth claims by portraying historians as [End Page 63] objective finders of fact.[72] The metaphor implies that the historian employing objective investigatory techniques functions as a source of light illuminating all or part of what “actually happened,” some real past presumably lurking in the shadows of the evidence. It also implies that written texts produced by historians can be true to the extent that they correspond, at least in some qualified way, to the actual past illumined by the light of the historian’s investigatory skill.[73] The metaphor makes the claim (even if Wilson does not do so explicitly) that Wilson has neither invented nor constructed in any sense whatsoever his account of the past but has simply recorded what the light of his investigatory technique has revealed: Lincoln’s transformation.

The real past that Wilson claims to have discovered turns out, interestingly enough, to be a story. That is, the actions and events described in Honor’s Voice do not occur randomly but unfold through causal connections in a plotlike fashion. Lincoln’s transformation is not a chaotic miscellany but a coherent and dramatic tale with a beginning, middle, and end. One finds conflicts and turning points in Honor’s Voice, which climaxes in a stunning resolution that not surprisingly foreshadows the future story of Lincoln’s life within a context of a larger national narrative.

Now if historians like Wilson who write stories want to claim that those stories correspond to what “actually happened” in some past reality, then that past reality must necessarily in some way or another have been structured like a story. That, however, is an unproven and perhaps unprovable ontological assumption, a presupposition about the very nature of reality itself. It is nonetheless a presupposition upon which rest the claims of Wilson and other historians to be telling what actually happened as they construct stories about the past. Reality may indeed be a story. But would not such a story postulate a cosmic Storyteller whose existence cannot be presumed by secular historians? Or perhaps there is a story-telling imperative built by the evolutionary process into human nature, some functional need to understand reality as a narrative.[74] [End Page 64] Wilson’s story about Lincoln then may well be “true,” not because it corresponds to an actual past but because it accounts for the evidence through a narrative that satisfies our inborn need for coherence in some convincing and useful way.[75]

Different narratives seem more convincing and useful in some cultural contexts than others. Historian Joyce Appleby writes that successful male entrepreneurs of Lincoln’s generation found it useful and convincing in their autobiographical reminiscences to tell their own stories as tales of self-making. Their autobiographies commonly described how they broke away from home, struggled to acquire an education, learned important moral lessons, and by the force of their wills defined their own characters and determined their destinies. Lincoln’s political hero Henry Clay has been credited with coining the term “self-made man,” which of course owes something to Franklin’s autobiography. It was, however, Lincoln’s generation that turned the self-made man into a “new culture hero,” according to Appleby.[76]

The self-made man was thus one of the “narrative models” for self-understanding made available by the culture in which Lincoln grew up. Psychologist Jerome Bruner argues that individuals invent and re-invent themselves through the construction of their own life stories. Life stories “structure perceptual experience” and “organize memory” so that individuals actually “become the autobiographical narratives” that they use to recount their lives. Self narratives, says Bruner, draw upon “narrative models” of “possible lives” made available by the culture, so that individuals actually “become variants of the culture’s canonical forms.”[77] And nowhere was the story of the self-made man more canonical than in the Whig economic and political philosophy embraced by Lincoln.

Lincoln presented himself as self-made and may indeed have understood himself according to that narrative. “The first author [End Page 65] of the Lincoln legend and the greatest of the Lincoln dramatists was Lincoln himself,” writes Richard Hofstadter. Lincoln’s “belief in opportunity for the self-made man” was “the key to his entire career,” he argues; it explains his “public appeal” and was “the core of his criticism of slavery.”[78] Ray Ginger, even less enamored of self-making than Hofstadter, points out that in the decades following Lincoln’s death the story of his self-making continued to have enormous social and political implications. It lived on as an ideal that fostered the illusion that America was “an open society in which all men would have an equal chance” to fashion their own destinies.[79]

Self-making, however, has proven to be an inherently ambiguous and unstable ideal with unpredictable cultural and social consequences. Is the self-made person an individual who successfully fashions a believable outward persona in order to manipulate others, possibly deceiving them through false appearances? Or does self-making consist of harnessing, shaping, and building upon virtuous qualities actually present in one’s own nature? Is the self that one makes, to put it another way, merely a pleasing illusion, or is the self a virtuous reality? Lincoln-era attempts to distinguish between illusion and reality in self-making contributed to culturally ubiquitous fears of hypocrisy, deceit, and even political conspiracy. Subsequent generations of Americans learned to worry less about the theatrics of self-presentation and revel more in the creation of useful, pleasing, and marketable illusions.[80] Now it is even possible for Jerome Bruner to declare: “There is no such thing psychologically as ‘life itself,'” only culturally derived stories that individuals appropriate as their own.[81]

Not so, says Wilson. He wants us to know that there was a real Lincoln who possessed certain “nonnegotiable” or innate character traits that he discovered within himself and around which he learned to organize his identity. But that hardly seems like something Wilson could have discovered through a value-neutral examination of the evidence. It appears more like a working assumption, a declaration of faith in a particular view of human nature [End Page 66] somewhat akin to the unspoken conviction that reality can be represented as a story. How can historians, or anybody else for that matter, single out, as Wilson claims to do, certain elements of Lincoln’s inner nature as essential or “nonnegotiable”? Why can his tenderheartedness and “rock-solid ability to keep his resolves” be deemed somehow “real” or innate and impervious to manipulation? Here the process of turning evidence into fact seems story-driven. Wilson knows how Lincoln’s story turned out. Moreover, he regards Lincoln as a hero for emancipating the slaves and saving the nation. That makes him very likely to “discover” in the record of Lincoln’s early life facts that can be plotted as a story foreshadowing such a future. It is, therefore, the process of constructing a coherent story confirming the legend of Lincoln as a self-made, nation-saving hero that drives Wilson’s evaluation of the evidence.

Wilson’s ringing confirmation of that legend is, when all is said and done, a powerful political and ethical statement of faith somewhat akin to the recent work of Daniel Walker Howe.[82] Both authors insist, Jerome Bruner notwithstanding, that beyond the reach of those ever-manipulable appearances in which postmodern culture seems so awash there exists a tangible realm of inner virtue and personal worth that can have important public consequences. Wilson’s tale of a fallible and tormented young Lincoln resonates with our currently anti-heroic and privatized sensibilities while it offers the hope that a rational and self-reliant individualism can foster personal virtue and cultural redemption.

Wilson has so exhaustively and cleverly immersed himself in the record of Lincoln’s early life that he has earned the right to speculate.[83] He deserves to recount his stories and garner respect as the teller of tales that reveal to Americans who they believe themselves to be as a people. But he has not earned the right to claim that through the rigorous application of professional expertise he has determined facts about Lincoln’s inner life that can be objectively verified. He has overreached, and in so doing, he and Rodney [End Page 67] Davis have, like Randall, further undermined the crumbling cultural authority of their elite interpretive community. Their truth claims, as my New Salem colleagues taught me, deserve to be challenged.

History, even when written by the academically trained, still looks to me very much like a branch of moral philosophy. Honor’s Voice makes important moral discoveries, judgments, and assertions that deserve to be openly acknowledged and directly addressed. In Lincoln’s day, academic moral philosophy wielded a good deal of cultural authority from its honored position at the center of the college curriculum. Its then-practitioners, however, advanced overweening truth claims that left them vulnerable on a variety of fronts, which contributed to their post–Civil War fall from cultural grace and moral philosophy’s current status as a tiny, somewhat arcane, and nearly invisible academic discipline. [84]It is a fate worth pondering. [End Page 68]


1. Historic Sites Division, Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.

2. James G. Randall, “Sifting the Ann Rutledge Evidence,” in Lincoln the President: Springfield to Gettysburg, 2 vols. (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1945), 2:321–42.

3. Ibid., 321.

4. John Y. Simon, “Abraham Lincoln and Ann Rutledge,” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association 11 (1990):13–33. The quote appears on page 33.

5. Wilson, “Abraham Lincoln, Ann Rutledge, and the Evidence of Herndon’s Informants,” in Lincoln before Washington, 74–98.

6. Ibid., 78, 81.

7. John Evangelist Walsh, The Shadows Rise: Abraham Lincoln and the Ann Rutledge Legend (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993).

8. Wilson, “Herndon’s Legacy,” in Lincoln before Washington, 22.

9. Simon, “Abraham Lincoln,” 19, 28.

10. Wilson, “Abraham Lincoln, Ann Rutledge,” 74.

11. Wilson, “Herndon’s Legacy,” 22.

12. Charles B. Strozier, Lincoln’s Quest for Union: Public and Private Meanings (New York: Basic Books, 1982); Merrill D. Peterson, Lincoln in American Memory (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994); Don E. Fehrenbacher and Virginia Fehrenbacher, eds., Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1996); and Michael Burlingame, The Inner World of Abraham Lincoln (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994). Burlingame sets forth his approach to reminiscent testimony in “A Note on the Sources” (Inner World, xxiii–xviii).

13.Herndon’s Informants, xiii–xxiv.

14. Ibid., xvii.

15. Ibid., xix.

16. Ibid., vii.

17. Stanley Fish, Is There a Text in This Class?: The Authority of Interpretive Communities (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1980), 8.

18.Herndon’s Informants, vii.

19. Ibid., 6 n. 2.

20. David Donald, Lincoln’s Herndon: A Biography (New York: Knopf, 1948), 192, 298.

21. Robert F. Berkhofer, Jr., Beyond the Great Story: History as Text and Discourse (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995), 230.

22.Herndon’s Informants, 143, 384–85.

23. Ibid., xxii.

24. The distinction between “internalist” and “externalist” explanations for the evolution of knowledge within a profession is most clearly drawn in the history of science. See Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The ‘Objectivity Question’ and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 295–96.

25. Ibid., 535–37.

26. “Gore Vidal’s ‘Lincoln’?: An Exchange,” New York Review of Books, April 28, 1988, 56.

27. Novick, That Noble Dream, 518. Criticisms of professional and managerial elites span the political spectrum, as Christopher Lasch notes in The True and Only Heaven: Progress and Its Critics (New York: Norton, 1991), 509–29.

28. See Novick, “Every Group Its Own Historian,” in That Noble Dream, 469–521.

29. Patrick H. Hutton, History as an Art of Memory (Hanover: University Press of New England, 1993), 21.

30. Daniel L. Schacter, Searching for Memory: The Brain, the Mind, and the Past (New York: Basic Books, 1997), 308.

31. Lincoln to Mary Speed (Sept. 27, 1841), in Roy P. Basler, ed., Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 9 vols. (New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1953–55), 1:260; and Lincoln to Joshua Speed, Collected Works, 2:260.

32. Schacter, Searching for Memory, 21–22.

33. Barry Schwartz, “Collective Memory and History: How Abraham Lincoln Became a Symbol of Racial Equality,” Sociological Quarterly 38 (1997): 469–96; Schwartz, “The Reconstruction of Abraham Lincoln,” in Collective Remembering, ed. David Middleton and Dereck Edwards (London: Sage Publications, 1990):81–107; and Schwartz, “Memory as a Cultural System: Abraham Lincoln in World War II,” American Sociological Review 61 (1996):908–27. The quotations are in “Memory as a Cultural System,” 909 and 923, and “Collective Memory and History,” 191.

34. Wilson, “Herndon’s Legacy,” in Lincoln before Washington, 21–36.

35. Ibid., 32–33.

36. Archaeologists conducting excavations at restored New Salem have concluded that the west half of the road and hence some of the log buildings were incorrectly located during the 1930s reconstruction. See the discussion in Robert Mazrim, “Abandoned Cellars and Community Memory: An Examination of the Archaeology and Interpretations of the New Salem Site, 1918–1948” (report prepared for the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency, 1995), 9–24, 70. The old settlers did not, as Aunt Louisa implied, agree among themselves about the location of buildings and roads at New Salem.

37. The characterization of Herndon as an oral historian implicit in Herndon’s Informants (xii) is made explicit in Rodney O. Davis, “William Herndon’s Oral History Project, 1865,” Indiana Magazine of History 89 (1993):136–46. Davis credits Charles B. Strozier with originating that characterization (“Herndon’s Oral History Project,” 136). Strozier evidently also originated the proto-professional defense of Herndon’s work, which first appeared in Lincoln’s Quest for Union, xvii. It seems like a stretch to call Herndon an oral historian, since the collection of documents in Herndon’s Informants does not include anything remotely resembling verbatim transcriptions of oral statements. Herndon’s Informants includes letters to Herndon from individuals who knew Lincoln, letters from agents reporting on interviews that they had conducted with Lincoln acquaintances for Herndon, statements written out by Herndon in letter form and signed by “informants,” and Herndon’s “memoranda” of interviews that he conducted. The “memoranda” come the closest to transcriptions but are staccato jottings separated by dashes that necessarily represent only fragments of what was said filtered through Herndon’s sensibilities and prose. Davis qualifies his position somewhat in “William Herndon, Memory, and Lincoln Biography,” Journal of Illinois History 1 (1998):102.

38.Lincoln before Washington, 37–52.

39. The quotation is in Wilson, “The Evidence of Herndon’s Informants,” 90. See also Simon, “Abraham Lincoln and Ann Rutledge,” 26.

40. Actually, Wilson wants it both ways. He critiques Randall’s “criminal trial” standard of “beyond a reasonable doubt” by claiming that “historical scholarship” is a “different kind of enterprise and employs different methods” from “trying a case in court” but then turns around and appeals to a no-less legalistic “preponderance of evidence” standard. Wilson, “The Evidence of Herndon’s Informants,” 90–93. “The Randalls reclassified the romance as an accusation requiring proof, something of which Lincoln would be held innocent until proved guilty, rather than a biographical incident about which a preponderance of reliable evidence would prevail.” Simon, “Abraham Lincoln and Ann Rutledge,” 27.

41. Wilson’s definition of “legend” appears to presume some kind of a factual basis, which seems more than a little problematic. “Legends, by their nature, are not so much factual accounts as symbolic embodiments or expressions of what the facts represent.” [Honor’s Voice, 54] “‘Legend’ is used here … to denote the aspects of biography and reputation that are popularly emphasized, regardless of their accuracy or biographical significance.” Wilson, “The Frigate and the Frugal Chariot: Jefferson and Lincoln as Readers,” in Lincoln before Washington, 13 n. 7.

42.Honor’s Voice, 107.

43. Ibid., 105.

44. Ibid., 112.

45. Ibid., 5, 294.

46. Ibid., 318–19.

47. Ibid., 294.

48. Ibid., 125.

49. Ibid., 127–29, 140.

50. Ibid., 207, 209–10, 299. Wilson argues that a piece of “frontier political satire and invective” signed “Samuel Hill” that was published in 1834 by the Beardstown Chronicle was actually written by Lincoln, thus representing an “early example” of his “satiric and rhetorical skills” in “Abraham Lincoln versus Peter Cartwright,” in Lincoln before Washington, 55–73.

51. Ibid., 160.

52. Ibid., 187, 189.

53. Wilson argues that Lincoln’s “constitutional outlook and frame of mind” had a “fatalistic underpinning” (see ibid., 259).

54. The theme of Lincoln’s emerging self-control runs throughout Honor’s Voice. See, for example, 262.

55. Ibid., 85.

56. Ibid., 312, 322.

57. Ibid., 321.

58. Ibid., 306.

59. Ibid., 320.

60. Ibid., 323.

61. Wilson borrowed the “Romeo and Juliet” characterization from Charles B. Strozier. See Wilson, “Abraham Lincoln and ‘That Fatal First of January,'” in Lincoln before Washington, 100.

62. Wilson, “Abraham Lincoln and ‘That Fatal First of January,'” 99–132.

63. Ibid., 122.

64. See Honor’s Voice, 283, for Wilson’s “deadly earnest” conclusions about the near-duel.

65. Ibid., 320.

66. Ibid., 303, 319–20.

67. Ibid., 290.

68. Ibid., 292.

69. Ibid., 22 and 25, for examples of the “really happened” and “actually happened” usage, and 5 for the Herndon recollection of Lincoln’s statement about truth and history. The Fehrenbachers assign those “recollected words” to a category of quotations “about whose authenticity there is more than average doubt.” Recollected Words, 247.

70.Honor’s Voice, 230–31.

71. Ibid., 5, 7, 9.

72. Historians, like everyone else, employ metaphors to construct a reality within which they operate. See George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980).

73. Novick describes briefly how historians have used a correspondence theory of truth in That Noble Dream, 504–5.

74. Berkhofer explores the nature and implications of what he calls “normal historical practice” as story-telling in Beyond the Great Story, a work that has turned out, not surprisingly, to be quite controversial among normal practicing historians. See “Forum on Robert Berkhofer, Jr.’s, Beyond the Great Story,” in American Quarterly 50 (1998):340–75. I am indebted to my colleague Mark Johnson for bringing this to my attention.

75. This is, of course, a pragmatic understanding of “truth.” See Novick, That Noble Dream, 152–53.

76. Joyce Appleby, “New Cultural Heroes in the Early National Period,” in The Culture of the Market: Historical Essays, ed. Thomas L. Haskell and Richard F. Teichgraeber III (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993):163–88.

77. Jerome Bruner, “Life as Narrative,” Social Research 54 (1987):11–32 (quotations on page 15). See also Bruner, Acts of Meaning (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1990).

78. Richard Hofstadter, “Abraham Lincoln and the Self-Made Myth,” in The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (New York: Knopf, 1948), 94, 105.

79. Ray Ginger, Altgeld’s America: The Lincoln Ideal Versus Changing Realities (Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1958), 5.

80. Karen Halttunen, Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-class Culture in America, 1830–1870 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1982).

81. Bruner, “Life as Narrative,” 13.

82. Daniel Walker Howe, “Abraham Lincoln and the Transformation of Northern Whiggery,” in Howe, The Political Culture of the American Whigs (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979):263–98 and Howe, “Self-Made Men: Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass,” in Howe, Making the American Self: Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997):136–56.

83. Mark Noll makes the same point on the way to a favorable assessment of Burlingame’s Inner Lincoln in “The Struggle for Lincoln’s Soul,” Books & Culture: A Christian Review, Sept./Oct. 1995, 6.

84. The standard account of antebellum moral philosophy and its fate is D. H. Meyer, The Instructed Conscience: The Shaping of the American National Ethic (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1972), but see the perceptive Allen C. Guelzo, “‘The Science of Duty’: Moral Philosophy and the Epistemology of Science in Nineteenth-Century America,” in David Livingston et al., Evangelicals and Science in Historical Perspective (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 267–89.




Are you passionate about history?

Share that passion with the world. Join us: Contribute to History Cooperative