Writer as critic; Donald Riddle on Abraham Lincoln
As you are all so anxious for me to distinguish myself I have concluded to do so before long so wrote Congressman Abraham Lincoln to William Herndon his law partner. Not quite two weeks after reaching Washington as a member of the 30th Congress. The writer as critic University of Illinois Chicago undergraduate division under a grant and aid from the National Association of educational broadcasters presents this series of interviews with outstanding writers. Our guest today is Donald Riddell author of Congressman Abraham Lincoln. Host for this series of broadcasts is Eugene bee vest head of the department of humanities at the Chicago undergraduate division of the University of Illinois. Here now is Dr. Vest. Rydell I think that dire audience ought to know that you're head of the Social Sciences Division here at Navy Pier University don't-I in Chicago and also I think you should know that you've written not one but two books about Lincoln.
But what is the name of the first book that you wrote that was Lincoln runs for Congress. I did two books on Lincoln rather than one for the simple reason that there is much criticism to make of Lincoln as a congressman and whatever to make of his achievements in getting himself nominated and elected so those seemed viable to me to separate the two subjects. And I produced two books instead of one. I see what sounds like an interesting double headed project but how did you have the nerve to take up the writing about Lincoln isn't there an avalanche of books about Lincoln of all sorts from every angle. There is indeed I don't know how many there are but some years ago when Jay Monahan got out his two volume bibliography there were already more than 2500 titles of books and articles on Lincoln. Yet some 20 years ago Professor James E. Randall of the history department of the University of Illinois wrote an article has the
Lincoln theme been exhausted. He pointed out that in spite of this large bibliography already in existence several aspects of the study of Lincoln had not been adequately covered. One of them was Lincoln's career in Congress. That gave me my impulse. That was my start for the work which I did since no one else had done it. I thought I would do it myself. I see. But of course that wasn't the beginning of your interest and like and I suppose what is that date from. Oh I begin to read done Lincoln from the time that I was in high school and have collected books and information. But it was when I got out of the Army and spent a year in Harvard and Professor Merck seminar that this focal point of interest came up. Now let's see where's the Civil War it was the personality of Lincoln the politics of Lincoln or all three of these which created your interest.
Actually it was the aspect of the westward movement the settlement of Illinois and the emergence of Lincoln as a political leader in the frontier state. And you're a native of Illinois. Yeah so I begin to explain some of it then. Yes. And the history of Illinois has interested me also for a long time. Well Professor riddle how did you start gathering material together for this project what do you do first. That's an interesting point in itself. I got my start as I said when I was at Harvard so I used the Wiener library at Harvard. I visited 13 other libraries. I spent a considerable amount of time at the State Historical Library Illinois and the Congressional Library in Washington. In these various places I read on a conservative estimate at least 10000 manuscript letters. I went through the files for the relevant three years of Lincoln's term in Congress
in at least 50 newspapers. Of course there is the voluminous grouping of materials in the Robert Todd Lincoln collection. These I had to read the exhaustive list for the period. The published writings of Lincoln the official documents such as the journals of the House of Representatives of the term in Congress the Congressional Globe which is a very voluminous collection of speeches and minutes of the meetings of Congress. There is a plethora of material. It seemed to be inexhaustible. And yet I made it my hope I made it my go to read everything and exhaust source materials for this limited period. Sounds to me like a monumental undertaking but I'd be writing guessing that. Let's say the Illinois State Historical Library and the Library of Congress are perhaps the two biggest collections of Lincoln
documents or valuable Lincoln documents whether the biggest or not. Yes they are. They are the largest in magnitude and the most significant value of the materials. There are of course materials of the Herndon collection in the Huntington Library of California but these are all available and microfilm also at the Library of Congress. I see you travel around to a number of these libraries and also went to some others which had items I suppose just went to the public library in Rockford Illinois for example to read the Rockford forum which was one of the few Illinois newspapers which consistently supported Lincoln in his unpopular course in Congress. A small library and yet one which has an essential item. You go where the materials are. I also had access to some private manuscript materials. The granddaughter of one of Lincoln's colleagues in the 30th Congress Richard W. Thompson
in the Eno has a number of items which her grandfather her grandfather Congressman Thompson left behind she kindly place these at my disposal. So there was a private collection as well. All kinds of people have helped you get the material together. Yes. You go where the material is and you work it wherever you find it. I'm surprised however that this rock art form isn't down in the State Historical Library why not I thought they had you know newspaper files of everything and I want I have importance. There is a phrase they have most and yet they cannot in the nature of things have all that's true also the Library of Congress it's a very full collection. But there are fugitive items which they don't have which can be found in the local places of origin. They make no attempt to fill up their gaps with microfilm. That I don't know. Dr. Vest you mentioned using microfilm yourself. Just how did that work in and why was it necessary in certain cases.
All of this Robert Todd Lincoln papers which consist of the original writings of Lincoln himself and all of the letters written to him certain documents which he collected such as newspapers or journals which contain some item which interested him were retained by Lincoln and kept by his son Robert Todd Lincoln and made available to the public in 1948 at the very time my book Lincoln runs for Congress came out. All of these were microfilmed and it is of course a time saver and saving in travel if you can use them locally. I brought the films for the period of Lincoln in Congress. What about the high savings. I tell him hardly I see the use of microfilm is somewhat difficult on the eyes but nowhere nearly so difficult as the newspapers of the period. Why. Well in those days the paper was of poor quality and
the type was small. They crowded their pages to get as much in as possible so that it is a difficult matter in searching a newspaper to find the small paragraph here and there which is relevant for your subject. It's exceedingly trying on the eyes to use those newspapers of a hundred years ago. I see. Plus a riddle. How did you man make a plan for your book. Did you do it early in the game did you sketch out a complete outline what you were going to follow or did that accumulate as you went along. That is a very relevant question and I am delighted to answer it. Today we historians try to be scientific and one of the principles which we follow which was not followed by the classical historical writers is to apply the inductive method. Actually I did my best to approach this whole problem with an open
mind. I read what you turned up. I took notes. I formed no conclusions until I had read everything. Then I constructed my plan for the book then and then only did I arrive at any value judgments or conclusions. And the book shaped up after the work of the research was completed. I see a lot of science in the mechanical question for our audience at Placerville. You take notes on cards. Yes. What how do you do it. Just give us a little idea. I use the ordinary sized library card writing with a small hand as possible to contain as much as I can and one small card. And using more cards in one if I have to go on a single tap on a single topic then these will be filed by subject matter. I know in some cases you have a document which
does not lend itself to that. There I would have a photograph made for example of an entire letter and keep a file of photographs as well as a file of library cards. What do you do then when you come to write a chapter or sort out the card shuffle amend or some art or other. Exactly so that when a document work in the given chapter the card is before me with the full bibliographical reference. That too is a great time saver when it comes to writing the book. I see you mentioned they were dramatic history a minute ago and I believe the early 19th century particularly Asia is noted for its romantic approach to history I'm thinking for the moment of Carlyle who isn't much of a historian I suppose from the scientific point of view. But there is a French Revolution as is Frederick the Great and so forth. He apparently had this idea of exaggerating the individual and bearing down on the great man idea of history. What do you think of that since you are talking about a particular man Abraham Lincoln. I am talking about a particular man and I am talking about a great man. But here is the interesting
paradox. If Lincoln had not been elected president he would not have been known as a great man at all. If his career had been completed. By the time that he failed for the second time of election of the Senate he would have been remembered as a man who made some excellent speeches. But he would not have fallen into the category of the great man in any sense of the word. I see no human to want to follow that far there and ask how then was he elected. And here's the answer to that is very clear. He was elected because he was the most available candidate for his party at that time. If you would compare him with rival candidates two of them at least were far greater men than he was that time I referred to Senator Seward in New York and Senator chace of Ohio. Each of them both of them had a far higher standing
as political leaders than Lincoln did. Lincoln was nominated because Seward had made a mistake in making a speech in the Senate in referring to a law which was higher than the constitution that made him unavailable. Lincoln was very careful in his speaking to avoid any such implication. He was therefore eminently available and that is why he was nominated. I see. A few minutes ago I thought. I heard you say something about the scientific historical writing. Are you taking it approaching your historical writing from that point of view and am I not right in saying that it's in somewhat in disrepute in the last few years that the life the heart the spirit gone out of that sort of approach to history. You are quite right about that. And I follow the method only to a certain point. Namely as I suggested by basing my whole approach on the inductive method.
No I have not named in my book at the production of a piece of literature or I aimed in my book to make a contribution not to link in a biography but a contribution to Lincoln biographers. The simple point is that the sources for the Study of Abraham Lincoln are so voluminous that no man even if you started his work at the age of 20 and lived to be as old as 80 could possibly read all of those source documents. I conceived my work as the use of all of the materials for this limited period. Making the attempt as I indicated to exhaust resources so that when the writer of the definitive biography of Lincoln goes to his work he will not have to read all of those sources for the period which I have covered. To be sure he will want to sample them to make sure that I was accurate. But
if he finds as I hope that I was accurate he will not need to read them himself. No I did not conceive of this as literature or I conceive this as history. You make a distinction and I do make a distinction. Biography is a work of art history perhaps ought to be art. But whether or not it is art or biography it clearly is. And I do not consider myself a biography. Well what are you going to say about perhaps the most read history in modern times ever given its decline and fall of the Roman empire with its magnificent sweep and style. What about Macaulay and his fireworks. What about Clarence history of the rebellion. All noted for their style and rightly so. And people read them like mad still today. Rightly so they should. These are examples of literature and the difference between history writing of that period and this period is under the influence of German historical method. To make a
fresh approach to the sources never to select from your sources but to read them all. Find what conclusions they compel you to reach and present these materials for their own sake not for the sake of any point of view not for the sake of writing a book which will be read and appreciated because of his literary quality. Who are writer to these great Germans 19th century I suppose all rank as the one that everyone thinks of first. Yes I say I'd like to ask another thing then what about the. You said that Lincoln had I believe a lot of myths and legends connected with him books which accomplishes some idea of occasion. What's your attitude toward that material that creates the most serious problem in all of work. Lincoln as it seems to me and this is a very deep conviction in me what we need to do is to understand Lincoln.
Now owing to the circumstances of his death the fact that as president of the United States he was assassinated. Made him a hero from that very fact immediately. The regard of Lincoln led to the production of books whose purpose was not to understand him but to praise him. Books on special subjects or on general subjects which resulted in the development of this point of view in which Lincoln is far more than a president far more than a man. He is sort of a demi god. And the reverence for Lincoln makes it very difficult for the historical scholar to produce works which have the objective
of making him understood. But this has been true of a number of American heroes hasn't hasn't it. What about George Washington for example. I think would be true there too. It is true there. But the difference in the fact of Lincoln's assassination is decisive so that the regard for Washington does not reach that point of reverence as a religious being. Yes but can't we have spread this a little broader and say that most 19th century English an American biographical writing was Angela Tory. So these great big pompous monumental biographies turned out about Victorian periods in American and Victorian figures and American people of the same period are agile Atari but do not give us a realistic picture. And it seems to me and I remember reading that Along Came straight about 1900 as eminent Victorians and about one thousand twenty one with his Queen Victoria. And he stuck a needle into the bloomin pomposity of this Victorian writing. Along came Americans imitating St..
He would read perhaps writing meet General Grant and some other people of that sort. In fact Was there a man named Henry Ford who said history is bunk during the same decade and they turned the idea toward a attitude toward history and biographical writing upside down was not a good or bad idea and how has it affected your writing if at all in present day historical writing a letter as a double barreled question I suppose. Yes you know I limit it to the study of Lincoln and of my own approach. This debunking Ventura does not apply to Lincoln at all. Lincoln does not have to be debunked. The book can be written which shows him as a human being. And there is no sense debunking involved the attempt to understand it. Lincoln is something entirely different. You spoke of this Angela Tory literature of the 19th century. And what you said was of course true. And my
rejoinder is this is the twentieth century and that is completely out of place. I repeat our great need is to understand. Abraham Lincoln. Yes. And if I might pick up a thread which I threw down a few moments ago would you agree that this debunking tendency is now has run its course and there's a pendulum swinging back somewhere in the other direction. Yes it seems to have run its course the pendulum is swinging back. Yes I believe I've read that even looking straight who is the God of biographical writers 1920s 30s or early 40s perhaps is now slipping out of favor so that perhaps a more proportion view historical and biographical writing is coming back again. Well let's get back to the book itself. Lincoln would you say was in a stew politician out to make every make the most of every chance which came along an opportunist. Or was he a man with high ideals from the beginning of his political career. He certainly was an astute politician. He is
one of the best example of the astute politician in American life. Now be it understood. I use that word not as a bad word but as a good word. Lincoln as a politician has to be classified with Thomas Jefferson and or Jackson Woodrow Wilson Franklin D Roosevelt the great the strong presidents. After all a politician if he is going to accomplish anything must get himself elected and to get himself elected he must be a politician so that if he accomplishes anything of significance he must be a successful politician. Which Lincoln was and that is one of the keys perhaps the first key to the understanding of Lincoln. I see. Say then that he had no ulterior motives that pejorative flavor of that phrase means nothing here no ulterior motive except to get elected which of course in his case
was a praiseworthy motive. Aha let's see the genius who appears for the crisis. There's I've read some such theory of you know history when they crisis occurs. Up pops the man to say the situation. That would apply much more than the great men in their explanation. And it certainly is relevant with reference to Lincoln. Take for example the period of his greatest achievement as president. Here he was faced by a situation more serious than any which had been faced by a president of the United States since Washington. The Union appeared to be dissolved. So how did Lincoln meet that case. As he himself said it was his policy to have no policy. He meant it by dealing with each exigency as it came. He dealt with the people concerned. He was able by adroit management which was one of his greatest characteristics
to handle the difficult men like Thad Stevens and Zack Chandler. And the result is of course what proves the point. He did save the Union. Now he saved it by being an astute politician which is what I mean when I say that is not a bad word but a good word. I see a lot of the strains of Lincoln which might have account for his great popularity this backwoods origin his standing for democracy savior of the nation or what the activists need to qualify that. The whole point of view Lincoln has great popularity No he did not always have popularity while he was alive. To illustrate and to give an example which may seem strange when he issued the Emancipation Proclamation. He suffered political reverses and was regarded as one of the most
unpopular men in the United States at that time. It was not a matter of popularity. It was a matter of the president of the United States doing what he deemed needed to be done to save the Union. Lincoln did not worry about his popularity. As a matter of fact when the election of 1864 came he did not expect to be re-elected. The popularity exists today to be sure there. The answer to your question is I think the association of Lincoln as the great emancipator. Yes. Would you call him a genius then. In short what was a quality of his brain. Or is it on a moral level how do you know. You ask a very difficult question. I would take it from what I know of Lincoln that he had an intelligence a very high order. You use the word genius.
You certainly had a genius for the effective use of the English language. His writing is a very high quality especially from the time of the Peoria Speech and reaching its zenith with the Cooper Union address given New York in eighteen sixty. Well thank you doctor I don't have that particularly appeals to me as an English professor because I am interested in the style and I of what I've read of Lincoln's speeches certainly impresses me. Tressa really talked about your book. I think the audience now would like to hear a short excerpt from it. It was the opinion of 80 blood so once a friend and political associate that Lincoln after his one term in Congress was in such low repute among his neighbors and with his former political friends that he could not have been elected a constable or a justice of the peace. Lincoln himself put it differently in the fell autobiography he said merely in 1846.
I was once elected to the lower house of Congress I was not a candidate for re-election from 1849 to 1850 for both inclusive practiced law more assiduously than ever before. Always a Whig in politics and generally on the quake erector all tickets making active canvass. I was losing interest in politics when the repeal of the Missouri Compromise aroused me again. Lincoln did not retire from politics at the close of his congressional career. He was in voluntarily retired by reason of the widespread and lasting unpopularity of his record with reference to the war. Naturally he gave more time and effort to the practice of law between eight hundred forty nine and eight hundred fifty four. He devoted himself the more to the law because during that period he was in forced retirement from politics. Throughout that period he was as ambitious for political office as ever he had been. His ambition was
to be elected to the United States Senate and he awaited only the opportunity to become a candidate. He was sufficiently acute to sense that he was politically unavailable until he had lived down the unpopularity caused by his Mexican War stance. As soon as the opportune time brought an issue he was again in politics. How then was an aspiring and ambitious week to achieve election to the Senate in a western state whose weak strength never a formidable and decisive only where it was locally concentrated was steadily and now rapidly diminishing. It was not difficult for Lincoln to find the answer. If one had no hope of getting elected on the internal improvements issue. One other issue offered opportunity I reckon you are right Senator. We have got to deal with the slavery question and got to give it more attention here after than we have been doing.
Well Professor readily we have enjoyed this little interview and talking about your book about Lincoln and them seems to me to be a good idea before we go off the air if you would tell us who the publisher of the congressman Abraham Abraham Lincoln is that was published by the University of Illinois press and the other book whose title was Congress and the Lincoln runs for Congress was published by the record by the ruckus press I see. Thank you again Professor Riddell for a most illuminating a disquisition on Congressman Abraham Lincoln. You have been listening to the writer as critic today's guest was Donald riddle author of congressmen Abraham Lincoln and head of the Department of Social Sciences University of Illinois Chicago undergraduate division. The host for the series is Dr. Eugene bee vest head of the department of humanities also the Chicago undergraduate division. This recorded program was produced by Alfred Partridge from the University of Illinois under a grant in aid from the National
Association of educational broadcasters. Writer and critic today's guest was Donald Riddell author Congressman Abraham Lincoln the host for the series is Dr. Eugene be vast head of the department of humanities also from the University of Illinois Chicago undergraduate division this week regarded program was produced by Alfred park Reed or the University of Illinois under a grant in aid from the National Association of educational broadcasters.
- Writer as critic
- Donald Riddle on Abraham Lincoln
- Producing Organization
- University of Illinois at Chicago
- Contributing Organization
- University of Maryland (College Park, Maryland)
- AAPB ID
- Episode Description
- Eugene B. Vest interviews Donald Riddle about his writings on Abraham Lincoln.
- Series Description
- Discussions with authors about their subjects and methods.
- Media type
Host: Vest, Eugene B.
Interviewee: Riddle, Donald
Producer: Partridge, Alfred
Producing Organization: University of Illinois at Chicago
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University of Maryland
Identifier: 4946 (University of Maryland)
Format: 1/4 inch audio tape
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- APA: Writer as critic; Donald Riddle on Abraham Lincoln. Boston, MA: University of Maryland, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (GBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip-500-p843w884