Reading With and About Abraham Lincoln

Dr. Edward C. Papenfuse, State Archivist

The Janet and Roger Levin Lecture,
Boys' Latin School, Baltimore, Maryland
February 15, 2002

Good Morning.

My topic today  is Reading With and About Abraham Lincoln.

I am honored and flattered to be asked to give the Janet and Roger Levin Lecture, especially to a faculty of a school which has special meaning to us as parents of two graduates. Indeed one of our sons has come to love books so much that he not only reads them, but he has also gone into the business of buying and selling them, hopefully at a profit.

Your headmaster and I have been friends for many years, co-conspirators in an effort to get students to read and  enjoy  original archival sources. Long before he came to Boys' Latin we spent many  Saturday mornings thinking up ways we could enhance our teaching with packets of copies of original documents.  In addition to Jefferson's notes on what the committee cut out of his draft of the Declaration of Indpendence, and Lincoln's stirring address to the Young Men's Lyceum of Springfield in 1838 against lynching and mob rule, we turned to local records to enliven the discussion of  the what,  the when, the  how, and the why of history.

With the advent of the Computer Age and the Internet, much of what we once did on paper, we now do as images on the screen,  taken from the web or off of compact disks.  This morning, however, given the size of the audience, I have reverted back to earlier days of the copy machine, and provided each of you with a file of images and document facsimiles related to this morning's theme.

Beginning in the Lower School, books about Lincoln are read and discussed.  Each stresses Lincoln's love of reading. Ruth Belov Gross in True Stories about Lincoln, tells of the borrowed book on Washington's life that got soaked in the rain, forcing Lincoln to work three days for the person from whom he borrowed it, because he had no money to pay for the damage.  "Abe liked to read in bed at night.  Every night he took a book up to bed with him and read by the light of a candle."1  In another book,  ...If you grew up with Lincoln, by Ann McGovern,  she asks the question "what books did children read?" with the answer "...Abe Lincoln read everything he could. He used to say, "the things I want to know are in books. My best friend is a man who will get me a book I ain't read.""   He still needed to work on his grammar, but his intent was clear.

According to Russell Freedman's Lincoln A Photobiography,  read by 5th graders,  Lincoln

was thrilled by a biography of George Washingon, with its stirring account of the Revolutionary War.  And he came to love the rhyme and rhythm of poetry, reciting passages from Shakespeare or the Scottish poet Robert burns at the drop of a hat.  He would carry a book out to the field with him, so that he could read at the end of each plow furrow, while the horse was getting its breath.  When noon came, he would sit under a tree and read while he ate. "I never saw Abe after he was twelve that he didn't have a book in his hand or in his pocket," Dennis Hanks remembered.  "It didn't seem natural to see a feller read like that.3
Probably one of the most influential books besides the King James version of the Bible that Lincoln's generation ever read was Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin about the horrors of life as a slave in the the pre-civil war South.   In 1862, Mrs. Stowe  had a private audience with President Lincoln.  Later her daughter related that when he "heard her name he seized her hand, saying "Is this the little woman who made this great war?"5   No one knows for sure if and when Lincoln read Uncle Tom's Cabin, but before Mrs. Stowe's visit to the White House, the circulation records of the Library of Congress indicate that he borrowed and returned Mrs. Stowe's A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin; presenting the original Facts and Documents upon which the Story is Founded ... verifying the Truth of the Work.6

Even women who owned slaves found themselves compelled to read the book  In March of 1862, Mary Chestnut of South Carolina (her portrait is also in your packet) notes in her extensive diary of the Civil War period,  "Read Uncle Tom's Cabin Again."  The following June she writes "After all this--- tried to read Uncle tom. could not. too sickening.  A man send his little son to beat a human tied to a tree?  It is bad as Squeers beating Smike in the hack [in  Dickens, Nicholas Nickleby]. Flesh and blood revolts.  You must skip that -- it is too bad-- or the pulling out of eyeballs in Lear." Still later she writes "Reading Mrs. Stowe ... one feels utterly confounded at the atrocity of African slavery."7

To illustrate the desire to escape slavery, Russell Freedman supplies a poster of a runaway slave in Lincoln a Photobiography, a copy of which is in your packet,  but in fact it is an advertisment for the stage version of  "Uncle Tom's Cabin" that continued to be produced well into the middle of the 20th Century.  George was Mrs. Stowe's character who fled with his wife, Eliza, to Canada.  One of the best known scenes in Uncle Tom's Cabin is Eliza, carrying her baby in her arms,  pursued across a pack of ice by slave catchers and their dogs.  While this is not an actual runaway notice, in the Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, Mrs. Stowe points to an real  advertisement in the Chattanooga (Tenn.) Gazette of October 5, 1852 in which George O. Ragland offers a $500 reward for the return of "a VERY BRIGHT MULATTO BOY' named Wash.  It reads in part:

Although he is like a white man in appearance, he has the disposition of a negro, and delights in comic songs and witty expressions.  He is an excellent house servant, very handy abouta hotel,  -- tall, slender, and has rather a down look, especially when spoken to, and is sometimes inclined to be sulky.8
It could be dangerous helping slaves runaway, and the consequences of a black man  being caught with a copy of Uncle Tom's Cabin could be severe.  In Maryland the book was considered seditious literature, the possession of which under  Maryland law could lead to a lengthy jail term.  Take the case of  Samuel Green who in 1857 was sentenced to ten years in prison in Baltimore  for merely owning a copy of Uncle Tom's Cabin.  Green, whose picture is in your packet,  was a free black laborer and lay preacher from Dorchester County Maryland.  He probably was taught to read by his master who freed Samuel in his will in 1842, to be effective in five years, by which time Samuel was 45.   Samuel was married to a slave by the name of Catherine or "Kitty"  for whom he managed to save enough to eventually purchase from her owner. Their children  remained slaves, however,  and, as soon as they were able, joined the  thousands like Mrs. Stowe's characters George and Eliza, who fled to Canada on the Underground Railroad.9

In July of 1862,  Samuel Green was freed after five years of confinement in the Maryland State Penitentiary, on condition that he leave the state.  On his way to Canada to join his children,  he met with Harriet Beecher Stowe at her home in Hartford Connecticut.  She relates his true story in the first of the newspaper clippings in your packets:

There came a black man to our house a few days ago who had spent five years at hard labor in a Maryland penitentiary for the crime of having a copy of Uncle Tom's Cabin in his house.  He had been sentenced for ten years, but on his promise to leave the state and go to Canada, was magnanimously pardoned out.  Everybody cheated him of the little property he had.  A man for whom he had cut sixty cords of wood, paid him two dollars for the whole job -- another found a pretext to seize on his little house; and so he left Maryland without any acquisition except an infirmity of the limbs which he had caught from prison labor. All this was his portion of the cross; and he took it meekly, without comment, only asking that as they did not allow him to finish reading the book, we would give him a copy of Uncle Tom's Cabin -- which we did.10
For teachers who would like to explore more fully the story of Samuel Green with their students and read the actual documents pertaining to his case,  there is a packet of documents available on the web at the Maryland State Archives web sit, entitled the "The Perils of Reading."

The next nine newspaper clippings that are found in your packet this morning pose an interesting puzzle.11  Imagine for a moment that you found them in an envelope in your grandmother's attic.  What significance do they have?  What can we and our students learn from reading them?  Clearly they are all from the last year of the Civil War.

The first and the fourth describe Emancipation of the Slaves in the new State Constitution of Missouri which called for giving slaves their Freedom on July 4, 1870.  They are critical of the Radical Republicans in Congress who argued for more immediate release.

... the radicals are not satisfied with the death of slavery.  Like the boy who pounded the dead snake, they want to "make it deader." and we have no bjections to any blows inflicted upon the institution.  But because the President did not yield to demands of the radicals that seemed intolerant and obstrusive, he is charged by hundreds of furious journalists with deserting "the cause of freedom.."  The charge is unfounded and absurd. doubtles  he would rejoice as heartily as any radical, at the speedy abolitoin of slavery in Missouri, but he is not disposed to encourage excess that might damage the good cause itself.

The second and third clippings relate the two platforms of the contending political parties in the election of 1864 without comment.

The fifth and sixth purport to be actual letters from disaffected Southern soldiers found on the battlefield.  "The Conscript's Epistle to Jeff Davis" is especially colorful in its language, calling the chief executive of the rebelling states a "bastard President of a political abortion."

The seventh clipping contains the famous marching orders of General William Tecumseh Sherman issued on November 9, 1864, which dispatched his troops to fight their way across the South to the Atlantic Ocean.  There were to be no supply trains.  The soldiers were to live off the land, but were specifically ordered to discriminate "between the rich, who are usually hostile, and the poor or industrious" who were "usually neutral or friendly."

The eighth and ninth clippings are articles favorable to President Lincoln,  One recounts a speech by Reverend Henry Ward Beecher in Philadelphia at the Academy of Music.  The other reports a letter from the English Reformer John Bright to the American newspaper editor Horace Greely which is full of praise for Lincoln's leadership and his re-election as President in the fall of 1864.  We see his presidency, Bright wrote, as "an honest endeavor faithfully to do the work of his great office, and in the doing of it, a brightness of personal honor on which no adversary has yet been able to fix a stain."

But where did these particular clippings actually come from?  Do they have any significance beyond the interest they evoke in the issues of the day?  What if I told you that instead of finding them in an attic, they were found in Lincoln's pocket the night he was assassinated?  That is in fact the case.  In 1937 his granddaughter gave them to the Library of Congress where they were locked away until 1976 when they were exhibited for the first time, along with the rest of the contents of his pockets from that fateful night.  Two of the clippings are now on exhibit in the Library of Congress, American Treasures: Memory, Reason, Administration , while the remainder are being conserved.  The other contents and the wallet, including  a confederate $5 bill, two pairs of glasses, two pocket knives, watch fob, and a handkerchief monagrammed in red with "A. Lincoln" , are shared between this exhibit and one at the Smithsonian on the Presidency.

In 1985, a Sun reporter, Chris Kaltenbach, wrote of a temporary exhibit of the items at Ford's Theater where Lincoln was fatally wounded by John Wilkes Booth on the night of April 14, 1865. She called her piece "A pocketful of memories of Lincoln."  These are her words:

Six score and 10 years ago, as the great man lay dying, an anonymous mourner carefully emptied his pockets --- perhaps suspecting their contents might offer some insight into the long, lean figure who had just led his country through a civil war. ...

Robert White of Baltimore, a collector whose holdings include another wallet owned by Lincoln (the one on exhibit at Ford's is in such good shape, he said, becuase Lincoln had received it as a birthday present just two months before his death), said people feel more impassioned about history when they can actually see it. ...  "I got all A's in history in high school," he said, "thanks to a teacher who taught us about President Grant by bringing in his hat to show us."


The newspaper clippings  ... probably speak most eloquently of the man.  Predicatably, some include news of the war, including details of Sherman's march on Atlanta.  And several suggest that Lincoln, who often had been vilified for his handling of the war, liked to keep good news close at hand:  There's an acocunt of the declining morale among Confederate soldiers, a letter in which a disgruntled Confederate soldiers asks that he be 'banished' to the north, and an article by British reformer John Bright reporting that only southern sympathizers among the British support Gen. George McClellan, the man Lincoln beat when he was re-eelected in 1864.

Another suggests that Lincoln may have been a bit insecure and liked to be reminded that some people thought he was doing a good job:  an account of a Philadelphia speech by famed minister Henry Ward Beecher [brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe] has him saying "Abraham Lincoln may be a great deal less testy and willful than Andrew Jackson, but in a long race, I do not know but that he will be equal to him."

Rev. Beecher's comparison of Lincoln to the revered Old Hickory, the paper reported, was met by " a storm of appaluse that  ...seemed as if it would never cease."

Over a century later, the passion Americans feel for Abraham Lincoln lingers.  Witness Kevin Walsh, an excited 8-year-old from San Francisco who visited Ford's theatre yesterday with his father Dan.

"He was the president of the United States, I think," Kevin said when asked about Abraham Lincoln.  "He got shot while sitting down.  His wife was sitting on a couch I saw.  He died in a house across the street. although he was only there about 10 seconds."

"That's 10 hours," his father corrected him with a smile. Kevin he said, "is  overwhelmed by all this, he can't stand still."12

The last item in your packet is the front page from the Baltimore Sun for Monday April 17, 1865.  The previous Saturday, the paper had published a short bulletin announcing the assassination attempt and a 'telegraphic report' that the President was not expected to live.  There was no paper published on Sunday, so the first extensive reporting on the "National Calamity" had to wait to Monday morning, a far cry from the instant reporting of today, yet the pain of the nation literally jumps of the  black bordered page.

To read and critically analyze the original accounts of the day, to inspire a class to ask pointed questions about the past, and to provide answers in the words of those who lived it, is the ultimate goal of archivists and teachers alike.  This morning we have taken a moment to explore reading with and about Abraham Lincoln.

I hope I have done so briefly enough to keep your interest, and with examples enough that may suggest ways in which some of you can bring the reality of history and the fun of reading into the classroom with facsimiles of original documents from the Archives.  It is not a new idea, but it can be an exciting one. After all, as Lincoln is purported to have said: "Books serve to show a man that those original thoughts of his aren't very new at all."4  Our job is to create the enthusasim of re-discovery as well as new adventure, perhaps to the point where we all can no longer "stand still."

Thank you