Monthly Archives: November 2011

Lincoln and his commanders

Mark Greenbaum examines the troubled relationship between Lincoln and his generals during the early period of the Civil War in a recent editorial:

The generals’ notions of what it would take to put down the rebellion ran counter to Lincoln’s, whose pragmatic strategy would ultimately form the blueprint for Union victory. He had his work cut out for him: when he took office there wasn’t just an absent system of command, but there had been no planning whatsoever by the previous administrations for war; no preparatory memos or regular briefings by the top brass awaited him.

You can read the entire piece by clicking here.

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Lincoln and the Mormons

A religion columnist for the Salt Lake Tribune recently looked at an obscure example of Lincoln’s political acumen at work—his relationship with the Mormons in Utah.

Many Latter-day Saints greeted Lincoln’s election with dismay; it threatened the Union they believed to be a divine work, and the Republican Party explicitly condemned polygamy.  Indeed, in July 1862 Lincoln signed the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act into law; the act was specifically aimed at Mormon marriage practices and the church’s extensive property holdings.

In practice, however, Lincoln was willing to ignore official policy in order to secure Mormon support for the more urgent task of preserving the Union.  He reportedly compared the issue to dealing with a fallen log “too hard to split, too wet to burn, and too heavy to move, so we ploughed around it. That’s what I intend to do with the Mormons. Tell Brigham Young that if he will let me alone, I will let him alone.”

You can read more about Lincoln’s involvement with the Mormons in Gary Vitale’s 2008 article in the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society, which is available online.

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Happy Thanksgiving

By the President of the United States of America.

A Proclamation.

The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God. In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consiousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom. No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People. I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union.

In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the Unites States the Eighty-eighth.

By the President: Abraham Lincoln

William H. Seward,
Secretary of State

From Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, Vol. VI, edited by Roy P. Basler.

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Americans like Lincoln almost as much as they like themselves

From Public Policy Polling:

A few weeks ago, PPP found that Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers was the most popular person in any realm on which the company had ever polled. 89% of Wisconsin voters had a favorable impression of him, and only 4% an unfavorable one. In an endeavor to find someone more beloved, PPP asked all American voters about several public figures and someone much more private. Of ten names, the only ones to best Rodgers are Jesus Christ, Abraham Lincoln, and poll respondents themselves.

Only 1% of Americans see themselves unfavorably, and 93% have a positive view. The second most esteemed is President Lincoln, of whom 91% are favorably disposed and 2% unfavorably. Then Jesus, with a 90-3 mark. Also very popular are the first president, George Washington (86-3), and Mother Teresa of Calcutta (83-5). Way behind but still very well-liked are Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (74-10), Mahatma Gandhi (64-9), Santa Claus (67-13), Nelson Mandela (64-10), and Steve Jobs (62-10).

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Lincoln Birthplace memorial turns 100

Kentuckians just celebrated the centennial of the memorial building at Lincoln’s birthplace in Hodgenville.  Click here for a description of the festivities.

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Bill O’Reilly’s interrupted visit to Ford’s Theatre

By Michael Lynch

Killing Lincoln, the bestseller co-authored by cable news pundit Bill O’Reilly, is in the news right now because one of the Ford’s Theatre gift shops will refrain from carrying it.  The store, located in the theater’s basement museum, is operated by Eastern National, the organization that manages National Park Service stores.  The lobby gift shop, run by the Ford’s Theatre Society, will sell the book.

A Park Service staff member made the recommendation against stocking the book because it contains a number of errors and lacks the usual documentation found in most historical works. Some of the mistakes in the text are minor discrepancies, such as the statement that Ford’s Theatre burned in 1863 instead of 1862. Others are more embarrassing.  For example, O’Reilly and his co-author Martin Dugard place Lincoln in the Oval Office, which wasn’t constructed until decades after the Civil War.  Such errors can pop up occasionally in any piece of scholarship, but the dearth of documentation in Killing Lincoln is striking even for a popularized history book put out by a commercial publisher; there are no endnotes, just a very brief description of published sources at the end of the book.

O’Reilly has framed the affair as a personal battle between himself and a pack of malicious detractors.  On his TV show, he stated (hopefully with his tongue in his cheek) that the book has come under attack by “the forces of darkness.”  He has referred to criticism of the book as “a concerted effort by people who don’t like me” and claims that “our enemies are full of rage at our success.”  That strikes me as a little disingenuous.  The store’s decision not to stock the book is essentially a routine bit of internal NPS business.

Where O’Reilly’s public stature comes into play is not with regard to Eastern National’s call not to sell his book, but the fact that the media thought that decision was a newsworthy item.  Normally a museum shop’s decision not to stock an item wouldn’t be the stuff of national news, but a controversial media personality like O’Reilly makes for an inviting target.  He’s therefore vulnerable to a kind of criticism that doesn’t plague most historical writers.  Maybe that’s unfair, but on the other hand, most historians don’t enjoy the kind of ready-made visibility that would allow them to publish a poorly documented book and see it instantly rocket to the top of the bestseller lists.

For what it’s worth, my issue with Killing Lincoln isn’t so much a complaint about its content as it is a manifestation of perplexity. I’m not sure why such a book needed to be written in the first place. In recent years we’ve seen a number of well-written and carefully researched books on the Lincoln assassination, such as Blood on the Moon by Ed Steers, American Brutus by Michael Kauffman, and Manhunt by James Swanson. These are all scholarly works, but they’re also sufficiently accessible that any non-specialist could enjoy them.  Is O’Reilly bringing anything new to the table?

He has said that Lincoln was an exemplary leader, and that his desire for Americans to draw on his wisdom helped prompt him to write the book. Fair enough, but if you want to unpack Lincoln’s greatness, writing about the assassination seems like an odd way to go about it. Taking a bullet to the back of the head while watching a play wasn’t exactly the most statesmanlike act of Lincoln’s career.

Perhaps O’Reilly decided to tackle Lincoln’s assassination for no other reason than the same pull of the past that’s reeled in countless other history buffs, including myself. If that’s the case, I can admire his enthusiasm, even if I’d be hesitant to recommend his book to anybody else who’s caught the same bug.  In any case, the book’s absence from the shelves of the NPS gift shop doesn’t seem to be affecting its popularity. As of this writing, it holds the number two spot on the New York Times list of hardcover non-fiction bestsellers.

—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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LMU doctoral graduates to discuss Lincoln and leadership

Cindy Bowman and Kelli Welborn, both of whom wrote dissertations on Lincoln and leadership theory under the direction of Dr. Charles Hubbard, will present some of their research this weekend at Lincoln Memorial University in Harrogate, TN.  This program, “Abraham Lincoln’s Leadership: A Framework for Today’s Leaders,” will take place in the Business-Education Building on Saturday, November 12 at 10:00 A.M.

The presentation is co-sponsored by the Abraham Lincoln Institute for the Study of Leadership and Public Policy and the Carter and Moyers School of Education.  Click here for directions to the campus.

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New Lincoln documents come to light

An assistant editor for the Papers of Abraham Lincoln project has uncovered previously unknown documents relating to Lincoln’s service in the Black Hawk War.  The Associated Press has a bit more detail on the discovery.

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Preparation for the presidency

By Michael Lynch

The New York Times reports on a new study which attempts to determine whether prior experience can help determine whether or not a president will be successful.  (The paper itself is available online.)  The authors of the study did not include any presidents who served before McKinley, so Lincoln wasn’t one of the test cases.  Since I had Lincoln on the brain when I read the summary in the Times, though, what struck me was how poorly this revered leader fit many of the indicators of presidential greatness.

Prior service in the military was one trait that stood out among exceptional presidents:

Perhaps the most consistent predictor of presidential greatness, Messrs. Uscinski and Simon found, is military service. Serving on active duty during both wartime and peacetime, as well as the number of years of service, is associated with higher scores in many domains, including crisis leadership, international relations, and economic management.

Lincoln’s military service was, of course, quite unexceptional, just a stint of less than three months in the militia during the Black Hawk War.  This period of his life wasn’t insignificant as far as his own career prospects were concerned, since he forged associations that would prove significant later in life, but his brief military career pales beside that of other nineteenth-century presidents such as Andrew Jackson and William Henry Harrison.  Yet today Lincoln’s administration of a gigantic military effort is considered one of his greatest accomplishments.  I noted that crisis management was an area where military men particularly excelled in office, but Lincoln’s meager military record didn’t seem to hinder his ability to handle a crisis.

Service in the federal government, either the executive or legislature branch, has few apparent effects. It typically matters only in narrower domains. So previous service as a federal administrator is associated, unsurprisingly, with perceived skill as an administrator. And previous service in Congress is associated with higher ratings in terms of relations with Congress.

That said, being an “outsider” is also not typically helpful. Years in public office at various levels (federal, state, local) is not significantly associated with most dimensions of greatness, but when it is, the relationships are almost always positive: experience helps. Moreover, outsiders — those with no federal experience — earn lower ratings on three dimensions.

This is interesting, because Lincoln’s only real experience with federal office before his election to the presidency was a term in the House of Representatives, but his relationship with Congress was often rocky, even when dealing with members of his own party.  Furthermore, although Lincoln was an experienced public servant by 1860, he gained that experience at the state level, and serving in a legislative rather than executive capacity.

And while the study’s authors found a positive correlation between holding a governorship of a large state and such indicators of presidential success as “public persuasion” and “moral authority,” Lincoln excelled in precisely those areas despite his lack of executive experience.  Lincoln’s administrative experience was mostly limited to running a small law office—and by all indications he was not a terribly conscientious office manager.

Perhaps the fact that the researchers restricted themselves to twentieth-century leaders has something to do with these discrepancies.  Perhaps these days the presidency is too intricate and complicated a task for a man of Lincoln’s limited managerial and executive experience.  Perhaps a man who preferred to camp out at the telegraph office in order to read dispatches as they came through would be unable to handle the modern American military, an international peacekeeping force with its assets scattered all over the globe.  Perhaps the ex-lawyer whose White House staff consisted of a handful of secretaries would find himself in over his head when faced with the bloated, labyrinthine bureaucracy of modern Washington.

Or perhaps Lincoln was that rare exception, a man whose leadership qualities were innate rather than acquired, whose remarkable gifts became apparent only when he was placed in a position where they proved necessary.  Identifying the ingredients of great leadership is probably always going to be a somewhat inexact science, because there will always be those leaders like Lincoln whose resumes give little indication of their capabilities.  To most contemporary observers, there was probably nothing noteworthy about the awkward man who took the oath in 1861, other than the fact that he didn’t look the part.

—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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