By BERNICE TELL
Considering the number of scholars and hobbyists with an interest in Abraham Lincoln, it is hard to believe that, a dozen years ago, thousands of documents relating to the Civil War president were undiscovered.
Tens of thousands of previously unknown documents concerning Lincoln's enormous law practice have been unearthed in the last 12 years. In just the past 18 months, 570 previously unknown notations in Lincoln's hand were discovered at the National Archives. And, just six months ago, more than 600 firsthand reminiscences of Lincoln, painstakingly gathered by his law partner, William H. Herndon, lay unpublished.
These and other fascinating details were discussed at the first Symposium of the Abraham Lincoln Institute of the Mid-Atlantic. Clark Evans, senior reference librarian in the Library's Rare Book and Special Collections Division, said that the institute was founded in 1997 by seven Lincoln scholars to provide "the latest academic-quality scholarship concerning the life, career and legacy of President Abraham Lincoln." The March 28 symposium, titled "The Latest in Lincoln Scholarship," reflected an effort to illuminate the 16th president's career and dispel myths surrounding the Lincoln legend. The meeting was organized by the Abraham Lincoln Institute and hosted and co-sponsored by the Rare Book and Special Collections Division of the Library in the Mumford Room of the Madison Building.
After seven formal presentations, the institute gave its First Annual Abraham Lincoln Institute Book Award to Herndon's Informants, a volume edited by featured speakers Douglas L. Wilson and Rodney O. Davis. Herndon's Informants contains firsthand reminiscences of more than 600 people gathered by Herndon.
"Beyond 'Herndon's Informants': Prospects for Discovering More About Lincoln's Early Life" was the title of the keynote address presented by Professor Wilson of the International Center for Jefferson Studies at Monticello. After mentioning the book he recently compiled with Mr. Davis as a source of new Lincoln information, Mr. Wilson noted particularly the vast Tarbell Collection housed in the Allegheny College Archives. Ida M. Tarbell (1857-1944) was a leading muckraking journalist who also researched and wrote books about Abraham Lincoln.
Elaborating on the topic of sources, Mr. Wilson noted that because Lincoln's family moved several times in his early life, the young Abraham came into contact with many people from Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois. It is known that at least a few of these acquaintances wrote letters -- occasionally gossipy in tone -- about Lincoln and his family to their friends and relatives. Mr. Wilson hoped that their descendants, exploring their attics, might come across a few of these letters.
Professor Michael Burlingame from Connecticut College, the next presenter, spoke on "Lincoln's Hidden Journalism: His Anonymous and Pseudonymous Writings for Illinois Newspapers, 1834-1861." These newly identified early writings reveal a less generous, less compassionate side of Lincoln.
According to Mr. Burlingame, as a young man Lincoln was an active member of the Whig Party, and as such he became a close friend and political ally of the editors of the Springfield Journal, the Illinois State Journal and other Illinois Whig newspapers. These relationships gave Lincoln an outlet to write covert opinion columns and editorials. Many times, Lincoln used this opportunity to attack and ridicule members of the Democratic Party, Mr. Burlingame said. Lincoln's attacks sometimes descended to the level of personal insults, and one column led to the young "political hack" being challenged to a duel.
Much of these writings were either unsigned or signed with a pseudonym, such as "A Conservative." Mr. Burlingame researched the newspapers of that era to identify which articles or letters to the editor were written by Lincoln. He discovered that many anonymous letters to the Springfield, Ill., Sangamo Journal ridiculing Stephen Douglas contained the same words and phrases used by Lincoln in his speeches. Once, intent on making mischief, Lincoln wrote a letter supporting black suffrage and signed it "A Democrat."
During the 1830s and '40s, according to Mr. Burlingame, Lincoln urged voters not to support Democrat Martin Van Buren for the presidency because Van Buren "supported voting rights for blacks." However, even in these early years, Lincoln did not support slavery. In his words, "Slavery is based in injustice and is bad policy," but he also did not support universal black suffrage.
In 1849, after he failed to receive a promised political appointment, Lincoln dropped out of politics to concentrate on his law practice. Between age 40 and 45, he underwent a "midlife crisis"; when he reentered politics, he toned down his rhetoric, said Mr. Burlingame.
The third speaker of the symposium, Professor-Emeritus Cullom Davis of the University of Illinois at Springfield, is the editor of The Lincoln Legal Papers, a monumental 15-year project to transfer and publish 100,000 primary documents on Lincoln's legal career on CD-ROM. Mr. Davis discussed "Steppingstone to Stature: Lincoln's Practice in the Federal Courts."
He began by asserting that, contrary to popular opinion, Lincoln was not a struggling country lawyer, scratching a modest living from a mediocre law practice consisting of petty civil cases. He was, in fact, a very successful, "fully engaged lawyer" who handled upward of 5,000 cases. His practice encompassed common law, criminal law, debt, divorce, slavery, murder, theft and contract and corporate law. His clients included not only friends and neighbors but also manufacturing and transportation companies as well as the city of Chicago.
Lincoln's federal practice involved district courts, circuit courts and the U.S. Supreme Court. Although federal litigation made up only 7 percent of his entire caseload, it netted Lincoln several hundred dollars per client. Through his successful federal practice, Lincoln's name and reputation for honesty and integrity spread to such eastern cities as New York and Boston. In 1860, when Lincoln left Illinois for Washington to argue a case before the Supreme Court, he stopped to speak to audiences in New York and New England; two months later he received the Republican presidential nomination.
The fourth speaker, retired psychiatrist and amateur historian Thomas P. Lowry, discussed his National Archives discovery of 570 Civil War court-martial documents containing Lincoln's handwritten notations. Hailed for uncovering the largest Lincoln autograph find since 1947, Mr. Lowry and his wife, Beverly Lowry, are private researchers who receive no funding for their efforts.
Mr. Lowry's presentation, "The Compassionate Lincoln?: What the 500-Plus Court-Martials Reviewed by the Civil War President Suggest," revealed that Lincoln, displaying an "essential passivity," rarely disagreed with the recommendation of a commanding general or judge advocate general. But just hours before his assassination -- perhaps as his last official act -- Lincoln issued a pardon to Pvt. Patrick Murphy, a convicted deserter whom his superiors called "idiotic" or "insane."
The following speaker, Professor Rodney O. Davis of Knox College, discussed "Towards Republicanism: Lincoln and the 'Anti-Nebraska' Editors." He explained how Lincoln's opposition to the "popular sovereignty" provisions of the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854 led the future president, a moderate, to join the new Republican Party two years later.
The Kansas-Nebraska Act established the territories of Kansas and Nebraska; the difficulty arose over whether slavery would extend into these territories. Pro-slavery Southern members of Congress opposed a free territory west of Missouri (even though the earlier Missouri Compromise prohibited slavery in the remainder of the Louisiana Purchase Territory, which included Kansas and Nebraska). The Missouri Compromise was effectively repealed by the Kansas-Nebraska Act, which provided that the question of slavery would be decided by the territorial settlers themselves. This enraged antislavery forces and led to the formation of the Republican Party. In Illinois, the party's organizational meetings took place in 1856.
The Illinois anti-Kansas-Nebraska forces were composed of such disparate groups as the Temperance Party, the "Know-Nothings" (anti-immigrant, anti-Irish and anti-Catholic), and recent German immigrants. Lincoln participated in the Illinois Republican Party's formative meetings urging moderation. Specifically, he argued that "slave states" could remain so, but the federal government should recognize freedom as the rule in the new territories. Slavery was a kind of compromise with the states where it already existed and thus should be restricted to its present limits. At a meeting in Decatur, four years later, the Illinois Republican Party nominated Lincoln as its candidate for president.
The sixth speaker, Professor David E. Long of East Carolina University and author of The Jewel of Liberty, discussed the 1860 Lincoln nomination and election. Titled "Ain't You Glad You Joined the Republicans!," his talk described the disarray of the Democratic Party, and its irreparable split during its nominating convention in Charleston, S.C. The Democrats were deeply divided along North-South lines. After 57 ballots, the Democrats still did not have a candidate, but agreed to meet later in Baltimore. There, Northern Democrats nominated Illinois Sen. Stephen Douglas, while Southern Democrats supported John Breckenridge of Kentucky. This inability to reach agreement, according to Mr. Long, virtually assured a Republican victory.
In Chicago, meanwhile, William H. Seward of New York was favored for the Republican nomination. However, some delegates believed him too radically anti-slavery. Also, Seward was hostile to the "Nativists," former Know-Nothings who opposed immigration. According to Professor Long, Seward's anti-Nativism cost him the Republican nomination.
At the same time, Lincoln's candidacy was aided by the following factors: Chicago was Lincoln territory; Lincoln had received favorable national attention in press coverage of his speeches and the Lincoln-Douglas debates; he was a political moderate with a reputation for honesty; and, finally, he had the most able presidential convention manager. Even so, it took three ballots for him to gain the nomination.
The final speaker of the symposium was Professor Herman Belz of the University of Maryland, author of Abraham Lincoln, Constitutionalism, and Equal Rights in the Civil War Era. Professor Belz discussed "Lincoln and the Idea of the Federal Union," an evaluation of Lincoln's constitutional views during the Civil War.
A short panel discussion moderated by John R. Sellers, former Civil War specialist in the Library's Manuscript Division, concluded the symposium. It was noted by one panelist that thousands of volumes have been published about Abraham Lincoln, making the martyred president the most written about and popular figure in American history.
The number of attendees -- 170 -- for the eight-hour "Latest in Lincoln Scholarship" event and the fact that C-SPAN has already televised the symposium twice give fresh testimony to the enduring popularity of Lincoln among scholars and the American public alike.
Ms. Tell is a Washington free-lance writer.