Monthly Archives: October 2011

Burrus Carnahan to deliver McMurtry Lecture

Burrus Carnahan, Professorial Lecturer in Law at George Washington University and foreign affairs officer in the Bureau of International Security and Nonproliferation at the U.S. Department of State, will deliver the R. Gerald McMurtry Memorial Lecture at LMU’s Duncan School of Law in Knoxville, TN on November 4, 2011. 

Carnahan is an authority on international law and arms control, having served as a lawyer for the U.S. Air Force and participated in numerous arms control negotiations.  He is the author of Act of Justice: Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation and the Law of War and Lincoln on Trial: Southern Civilians and the Law of War.

The Lincoln Institute for the Study of Leadership and Public Policy hosts this lecture series in honor of R. Gerald McMurtry, a noted scholar who laid the foundation for LMU’s superb collection of Lincoln and Civil War material.  The Duncan School of Law is at 601 W. Summit Hill Drive, Knoxville, TN 37902.

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Lincoln-Douglas debates are back in the news

Newt Gingrich thinks modern voters could benefit from an old-fashioned campaign staple:

Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said Saturday that, if he wins the Republican nomination, he’ll challenge President Barack Obama to seven forums akin to the historic Lincoln-Douglas debates.

Gingrich announced this intention while speaking at a presidential forum in Iowa sponsored by the conservative Faith and Freedom Coalition.

The former Georgia congressman described the 2012 election as the nation’s most pivotal since 1860, when Abraham Lincoln – a Republican – defeated three opponents, including Stephen Douglas, to capture the presidency.

Historian H.W. Brands, meanwhile, has written an op-ed piece questioning the value of such debates, arguing that success in these verbal contests doesn’t equal administrative ability.  Brands also believes that debates exacerbate political divisions by bringing extremism to the fore.

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“The imperatives of his moment”

E. J. Dionne, Jr. argues that President Obama is facing the same challenge and opportunity that the agitation against slavery presented to Lincoln.  Claiming that the Occupy Wall Street movement is expressing widely held sentiments, he writes:

In their time, the abolitionists were radicals, too. Lincoln, a shrewd politician, understood that public opinion in the North did not fully embrace their cause but was moving in their direction. Lincoln remained a moderate at heart, but he abandoned moderation on slavery when this proved to be morally and politically unsuited to the imperatives of his moment. By following Lincoln’s example and acting against the injustices of our time, Obama could also come to occupy the high ground.

Lincoln’s receptiveness to shifting circumstances and the currents of public opinion—what Dionne calls “the imperatives of his moment”—is one of the central concerns of David Herbert Donald’s acclaimed biography.  Donald noted that Lincoln “preferred to respond to the actions of others.”

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Lincoln and the values vote

By Michael Lynch

I’ve often heard people claim that Lincoln wouldn’t be a viable candidate in this age of televised elections, with his homely face and backwoods speech.  Maybe that’s true, although I think it reflects as badly on our superficial, image-driven culture as it does on Lincoln’s unpleasant appearance.

Even if Lincoln were around today, and even if he had the sort of bland good looks that seem to be standard issue for modern politicians, I suspect religion would be almost as likely to keep him out of the White House.  Values voters in the Republican Party are wrestling with the importance of a candidate’s religious affiliation as they mull over the prospect of voting for Mitt Romney, a man who shares many of their concerns but not their beliefs.  Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, put the matter in explicit terms by asking, “Do we want a candidate who is a good, moral person, or one who is a born-again follower of the Lord Jesus Christ?”  Some values voters insist on the latter.

How would Lincoln have fared in today’s contest to win the evangelical vote?  It’s hard to say.  The insistence of Jeffress and others who argue that born-again Christians should vote for fellow believers would put Lincoln in an awkward position.  He never spoke of undergoing a conversion experience, never referred to any personal relationship with Jesus, and never formally made a profession of faith or joined a church.  As far as Mary Todd Lincoln herself knew, “Mr. Lincoln was not a technical Christian.”  (One caveat here:  There are a few anecdotal accounts of Lincoln undergoing a secret baptism in 1860, but this notion is highly unlikely.  Details in these stories don’t square with verifiable dates, times, and distances.  Besides, in Baptist churches immersion is a form of public testimony as well as a rite of initiation.  A secret baptism seems a little pointless.)

In fact, Lincoln’s non-adherence to any specific church was a political issue during his lifetime.  After a disappointing attempt to run for Congress in 1842, he complained that “it was every where contended that no ch[r]istian ought to go for me, because I belonged to no church, was suspected of being a deist, and had talked about fighting a duel.”  When he ran again in 1846—this time successfully—against the evangelist Peter Cartwright, rumors that Lincoln was “an open scoffer at Christianity” became so troubling that he wrote and distributed a handbill defending himself:

That I am not a member of any Christian Church, is true; but I have never denied the truth of the Scriptures; and I have never spoken with intentional disrespect of religion in general, or of any denomination of Christians in particular. It is true that in early life I was inclined to believe in what I understand is called the “Doctrine of Necessity”‘—that is, that the human mind is impelled to action, or held in rest by some power, over which the mind itself has no control; and I have sometimes (with one, two or three, but never publicly) tried to maintain this opinion in argument. The habit of arguing thus however, I have, entirely left off for more than five years. And I add here, I have always understood this same opinion to be held by several of the Christian denominations. The foregoing, is the whole truth, briefly stated, in relation to myself, upon this subject.

I do not think I could myself, be brought to support a man for office, whom I knew to be an open enemy of, and scoffer at, religion. Leaving the higher matter of eternal consequences, between him and his Maker, I still do not think any man has the right thus to insult the feelings, and injure the morals, of the community in which he may live. If, then, I was guilty of such conduct, I should blame no man who should condemn me for it; but I do blame those, whoever they may be, who falsely put such a charge in circulation against me.

For voters who think religious affiliation is a deal-breaker when it comes to picking candidates, a resurrected Lincoln would present a frustrating figure.  There is, however, a flip side to this coin.  It’s also possible that Lincoln’s frequent, explicit, and public invocations of God and the Bible would actually endear him to the Religious Right.  After all, he littered his speeches and proclamations with references to Scripture and infused them with theological themes.  In his second inaugural address, he spoke of collective sin, judgment, and the unknowable purposes of God.  Indeed, modern-day secularists who squirm at civic religion might react with horror if a president interpreted a bloody war in this manner.

Identity politics and religious affiliation both operate on the basis of categorization, and easy categorization is extremely difficult to achieve when it comes to Lincoln’s beliefs.  The subtleties and complexities inherent in his thought might confound our attempts to label him, but they also help explain why so many people of varied religious, political, and cultural persuasions have been willing to claim him as their own.

—Michael Lynch graduated from LMU with a degree in history, worked at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum as an assistant curator, and now teaches survey-level history courses on campus.  He holds an M.A. in history from the University of Tennessee and blogs about historical topics at


Filed under Lincoln and Memory

Assassination artifacts in new home

The bullet that took Lincoln’s life, as well as fragments of the President’s skull, are now safely settled in their new quarters along with other items from the National Museum of Health and Medicine’s collection:

The lead ball and several skull fragments from the 16th president are in a tall, antique case overlooking a Civil War exhibit in a museum gallery in Silver Spring, just off the Capital Beltway.

The military museum, known for its collection of morbid oddities, moved in September from the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington. At Walter Reed, visitors had to pass through a security gate and find the museum on the campus, where parking could be a problem.

You can learn more about the museum by visiting its official website.

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Leadership lessons from Civil War commanders

Paul Gilbert, executive director of the Northern Virginia Regional Parks Authority, found the leadership examples of Civil War generals so inspired that he authored a book on the subject.  You can read more about Lead Like a General by clicking here; the book itself is available through

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Letters to Lincoln

You can get a small sample of the complaints, solicitations,threats, and notices that crossed President Lincoln’s desk courtesy of an article in The Washington PostKeep in mind that Lincoln only had a handful of secretaries to assist him.

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Collections at risk

By Michael Lynch

One of the most troubling news trends lately—to me, anyway—is the flurry of stories on thefts from museums and archives.  The most notable of these is the case of Barry Landau, accused of stealing over 2,500 items from various institutions, but several smaller-scale incidents have also made headlines lately, such as the theft of weapons from a Revolutionary War museum.

Part of the problem is that historic manuscripts fetch astronomically high prices these days.  In the mid- to late 1800’s the antiquarian and historian Lyman C. Draper was able to amass a huge collection of documentary material from the early frontier simply by asking around.  Today many of the documents he solicited through the mail would bring thousands of dollars.  In the past couple of years, documents signed or handwritten by Lincoln have sold for as much as $3.8 million.

As historic materials have become more valuable, the financial resources available to the museums and archives charged with securing them are diminishing.  Public history institutions are struggling along with the rest of us, and slashed budgets result in a dearth of tools to keep tabs on collections and fewer personnel to keep a watchful eye on visitors and researchers.  Institutions are thus faced with the burden of guarding more and more valuable material with fewer and fewer resources.

But even if the dollar values of historic materials plummeted and the budgets for institutions allowed administrators to create virtually impregnable security measures, some risk to the collections would remain, simply because the items which make up those collections are so compelling in and of themselves.   The compulsion to steal documents and artifacts is perverse, but there is a sense in which it’s a warped manifestation of the same impulses which drive historians, curators, archivists, and legitimate collectors: We recognize that the past has a kind of transcendence which we can access vicariously through the raw materials of history.

That’s the reason for building museums and archives in the first place.  These objects have an intrinsic value.  My first foray into public history was the time I spent as an intern at LMU’s Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum.  One day the curator told me to dismantle our ironclad exhibit and put the artifacts in storage.  It was a surreal experience, cradling in my hands the signal lantern from the Monitor and the speaking trumpet that the vessel’s commanding officer used during the battle with the Virginia.  Once I had them safely locked away, I got out my cell phone to call my mom and tell her, “I just handled the Monitor‘s signal lantern!”

Museums and archives have dual purposes which exist in tension with each other.  They exist both to safeguard important materials and also to allow the public to access them.  Every folder carried into a reading room and every artifact placed in a gallery is an act of calculated and managed risk.  The risk must be taken if the institution is to fulfill its public obligations, but it must also be minimized to the greatest degree possible.  Given the rising prices of original material, the declining budgets of tightly strapped museums and archives, and the remarkable audacity of the thieves who target them, this is a problem that won’t be going away soon.

—Michael Lynch graduated from LMU with a degree in history, worked at the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum as an assistant curator, and now teaches survey-level history courses on campus.  He holds an M.A. in history from the University of Tennessee and blogs about historical topics at

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Lincoln’s Legacy and the War on Terror

John Yoo has an interesting editorial in the Wall Street Journal concerning the case of Anwar al-Awlaki, the American citizen killed in Yemen on September 30 by a drone-fired missile, in the light of history.  Yoo invokes the precedent of the Civil War, arguing that the government can employ lethal force against citizens who engage in acts of war against the U.S., as Lincoln did in suppressing an armed rebellion.

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