The trouble with writing about Abraham Lincoln is that everybody thinks they’re an expert. “What else is there to say?” people always ask, as if they just can’t fit any more Lincoln volumes into their Kindle. Yet, as we celebrate Abe’s 205th birthday this week (and President’s Day soon after), it’s time the real experts divulge the dirty, little secret of Lincoln studies: We keep finding new evidence about the life of the 16th president, and some of it can be kind of shocking.
It’s worth noting that we didn’t have access to much of the evidence, or at least most of the good stuff, until just about 70 years ago. The Abraham Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress opened in 1947, more than eighty years after his death. It then took another six years, until 1953, before there was a reasonably complete edition of his writings. Sure, there were plenty of Lincoln biographies before those dates, but with only one exception (an authorized multi-volume door-stopper by his former White House aides), there were no studies of the Great Emancipator based upon the “private & confidential” material that he wrote and received –the raw political intelligence that makes any statesman’s actions understandable.
Everything written about Lincoln since has benefited from this access (or should have). But as scholars have worked through these materials, it has become clear that a great deal is missing. Famously “shut-mouthed,” Lincoln wrote “burn this” on more than a few of his documents, and apparently many people listened to him. Lincoln himself burned some of his personal correspondence when he left for Washington in 1861. His only surviving son Robert then destroyed other valuable family materials after his father’s assassination. Some political documents, however, just got scattered, misplaced, or held back, and have only been slowly, occasionally, appearing in the light of day.
Nonetheless, this trickle of new stuff has produced some especially titillating political discoveries over the last decade -- significant material that changes the way we see our greatest president....