Indiana's Lincoln Inquiry and the Quest to Reclaim a President's Past
Publication Year: 2012
Published by: University of Massachusetts Press
Table of Contents
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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...
Introduction: “Lincoln is Everybody’s Subject”
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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...
Chapter 1: The Lincoln Inquiry
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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...
Chapter 2: A Crowded Field
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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...
Chapter 3: The Best Witnesses
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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...
Chapter 4: Lincoln’s Indiana Environment
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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...
Chapter 5: The Klan and a Conspiracy
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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..
Chapter 6: In the Lincoln Atmosphere
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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
Conclusion: “A Thousand Minds”
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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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Appendix B: Papers, Publications, and Works of the Lincoln Inquiry
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About the Author, Back Cover
Page Count: 256
Illustrations: 12 illus.
Publication Year: 2012
Series Title: Public History in Historical Perspective