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Everybody's History

Indiana's Lincoln Inquiry and the Quest to Reclaim a President's Past

Keith A. Erekson

Publication Year: 2012

Revered by the public, respected by scholars, and imitated by politicians, Abraham Lincoln remains influential more than two hundred years after his birth. His memory has inspired books, monuments, and museums and also sparked controversies, rivalries, and forgeries. That so many people have been interested in Lincoln for so long makes him an ideal subject for exploring why history matters to ordinary Americans as well as to academic specialists. In Everybody’s History, Keith A. Erekson focuses on the Southwestern Indiana Historical Society—an organization composed of lawyers, historians, collectors, genealogists, teachers, college presidents, and newspaper editors—who joined together during the 1920s and 1930s to recover a part of Lincoln’s life his biographers had long ignored: the years from age seven to twenty-one when he lived on the Indiana frontier. Participants in the “Lincoln Inquiry,” as it was commonly known, researched old records, interviewed aging witnesses, hosted pageants, built a historical village, and presented their findings in public and in print. Along the way they defended their methods and findings against competitors in the fields of public history and civic commemoration, and rescued some of Indiana’s own history by correcting a forgotten chapter of Lincoln’s. Everybody’s History traces the development of popular interest in Lincoln to uncover the story of an extensive network of nonprofessional historians who contested old authorities and advanced new interpretations. In so doing, the book invites all who are interested in the past to see history as both vital to public life and meaningful to everybody.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press

Series: Public History in Historical Perspective


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Title Page

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Copyright Page

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Table of Contents

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pp. ix-ix

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pp. xi-xiv

I knew I had found something important when the attendant in the reading room took the aging letter from me, lifted it in the air, and shined a fl ashlight through it. Ordinarily, procedures at Indiana University’s Lilly Library were far more austere: books must rest in cradles, fi ngers must not touch pages, loose sheets of paper must remain fl at on tables, voices must not speak above a whisper. Compliance was strictly enforced by the human attendant and monitored by closed circuit cameras. But this was clearly no ordinary letter. A lawyer from Evansville, Indiana, wrote of a “coming death, which was undoubtedly anticipated,” then mentioned a “leak,” followed by reference to a “person of whom I have spoken...

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Introduction: “Lincoln is Everybody’s Subject”

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pp. 1-8

This book tackles the modern historical paradox in which Americans regularly report hating history in classrooms while they increasingly pursue the past in everyday life. Test after standardized test seems to suggest that younger people don’t know the basic facts of history while a recent nationwide survey found that older people most commonly recall their history classes as “boring” and “irrelevant.” Yet Americans purchase historical books and movie tickets, visit historic sites and museums, commemorate anniversaries and historic places, save old buildings and family heirlooms, and research genealogy and local history. History likewise permeates public life as presidents draw comparisons to their pre de ces sors, war planners and pundits contrast current wars to previous confl icts, sports commentators cite statistics for every possible feat, community members debate...

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Chapter 1: The Lincoln Inquiry

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pp. 9-36

John Iglehart typically spent his evenings reading history. By day he worked as the general counsel for a large railroad corporation— the Evansville & Terre Haute beginning in the 1870s and then its parent company, Chicago & Eastern Illinois, after 1912. He spent his off- work hours raising a family, tending a garden, and riding in his automobile, but by nightfall he preferred reading. After dinner he would, as he once described it, settle down in a “comfortable corner” and, by the light of “two good electric bulbs,” immerse himself in old diaries and newspapers, collections of letters, narratives of travelers on the Midwestern frontier, and the annual agricultural reports for the state of Indiana. These sources from the past opened up to him the world of his ancestors who had emigrated from England in 1817 to settle in the Hoosier State only a few months after Abraham Lincoln’s family had arrived. Iglehart liked to say...

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Chapter 2: A Crowded Field

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pp. 37-54

On Lincoln’s birthday in February 1924, half a dozen of the Lincoln Inquiry’s able workers met for a “smoker” in Evansville. For two hours the assembled lawyers, insurance agent, former state senator, artist, and journalist examined their “historical and society work and the outlook in southwestern Indiana.” The outlook was not good. An eight page memo documenting the evening’s exchange reveals that the men agreed unanimously that the Indiana State Historical Commission had “deliberately snubbed” the society’s workers and introduced a new “policy of restrictions” in an effort to censor the society’s work and control its agenda. Redirecting Eggleston’s imagery onto state bureaucratic officers, the memo lambasted “the provincialism of Indiana schoolmasters, from the eastern, central and northern part of the state” who...

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Chapter 3: The Best Witnesses

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pp. 55-84

As the Lincoln Inquiry secured its place on the landscape of public history in Indiana, competitors in the field of Lincoln studies stepped up their pressure on its work. Two different encounters serve to encapsulate the developing tensions, illustrating the weight Inquiry members would place on direct experience and face- to- face encounter at a time when historians in general and those in the field of Lincoln studies in particular would argue for the primacy of written sources preserved in archives. As some historians urged distance and “scientific” objectivity, the Lincoln Inquiry emphasized proximity and personal encounter. On the same trip to Indianapolis on which John Iglehart hashed out...

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Chapter 4: Lincoln’s Indiana Environment

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pp. 85-105

The “Best Witnesses” meeting at Prince ton marked the first attempt by the Lincoln Inquiry to synthesize its information into a single presentation. For half a decade, Inquiry workers had not only been interviewing witnesses but also scouring court house records, searching out documents and artifacts, plumbing old newspapers, reading written histories, and thinking critically about what had been uncovered and about where missing information might still be found. By encouraging and assigning hundreds of people to pursue questions about local and family history, the Lincoln Inquiry sought to produce— eventually and collectively— a rich history of southern Indiana that would provide the proper context and perspective for understanding Lincoln’s Indiana youth.
Knowledge about Lincoln would come from hundreds of...

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Chapter 5: The Klan and a Conspiracy

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pp. 106-133

On the rounded crest of a small, tree- covered hill in southern Indiana’s Spencer County lie the buried remains of Nancy Hanks Lincoln, the mother of the sixteenth president. After succumbing to milk- sickness, a chemical toxin transmitted to humans who drink the milk of cows that have grazed on the white snakeroot plant, Nancy was buried in a wooden box built by her husband with the likely assistance of her nine- year- old son. Her grave rests with others of her generation who were likewise buried in the rough, pioneer- era cemetery. A succession of markers has identified the site, but the trees and terrain have remained largely the same. And yet, somewhat surprisingly, visits to the site have prompted a range of reactions. The variations and the constancies in the reports of three visits illuminate the powerfully personal impact of..

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Chapter 6: In the Lincoln Atmosphere

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pp. 134-160

Throughout the decade of the 1920s, the Lincoln Inquiry took its message to the American public in a variety of ways. When the society was organized, its members expressed the vague belief that if they researched southern Indiana’s frontier environment then their correct findings would be cited by future writers. However, through their clashes with Indiana’s public history establishment, the state’s civic promoters, and Albert Beveridge and other Lincoln biographers, they slowly learned that it was not enough just to research about the past and publish in obscure journals— they needed to put their findings into a format that was both accessible and engaging to the widest range of persons possibly interested. In time, participants in the Lincoln Inquiry synthesized their findings for the public by designing a photograph exhibit, hosting pageants, experimenting with film, building a historical village, taking students

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Conclusion: “A Thousand Minds”

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pp. 161-169

Eight months after John Iglehart’s death, James Randall called for the banishment of “amateurs” from the field of Lincoln studies. Born in Indianapolis, the young boy who liked to draw Lincoln’s face grew into a constitutional historian trained at the University of Chicago. In the 1920s, he turned his attention to the field of Lincoln studies and was not impressed. The Greek temple at Lincoln’s birthplace enshrined errors in granite carving, a host of publications trivialized Lincoln and his legacy, Carl Sandburg’s poetic and popular biography of Lincoln was defective. As a solution to the host of historical errors that had arisen around the memory of Abraham Lincoln, Randall proposed simply to clear the field of all past and present work by reminiscers, biographers, journalists, preachers, politicians, poets, local historians, state history institutions, civic organizers, pageant directors, filmmakers, sculptors, and tourism promoters. In their absence, historians who had received...

Appendix A: Members of the Southwestern Indiana Historical Society, 1920–1939

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pp. 171-183

Appendix B: Papers, Publications, and Works of the Lincoln Inquiry

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pp. 185-203


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pp. 205-205


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pp. 207-242


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pp. 243-250

About the Author, Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9781613761946
E-ISBN-10: 1613761945
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558499140
Print-ISBN-10: 1558499148

Page Count: 256
Illustrations: 12 illus.
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: Public History in Historical Perspective
Series Editor Byline: Marla Miller See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 794700818
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Everybody's History

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Subject Headings

  • Lincoln, Abraham, 1809-1865 -- Homes and haunts -- Indiana -- Spencer County.
  • Spencer County (Ind.) -- Historiography -- History -- 20th century.
  • Lincoln, Abraham, 1809-1865 -- Childhood and youth.
  • Southwestern Indiana Historical Society (Evansville, Ind.) -- History.
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