This is the second of a series of posts on James G. Randall
When I was an undergraduate history major at Eastern Illinois University in the mid 1980s, I had then what I realize now to be a missed opportunity. Two professors who had known James G. Randall were still on staff. One, Lavern M. Hamand, was actually one of the many students whose dissertation Randall directed. The other, Donald F. Tingley, while not a student of Randall’s, knew him.
The stories both men could have shared if only I had asked. Now both men have since died.
Of course, at the time I wasn’t as interested in Randall as I am now. Still, as one who was training to become a historian, and who knew who Randall was, to not take advantage of such knowledge ranks up there for me as one of the great missed opportunities of my life. The only thing I can remember was when Tingley told me that Randall often would throw his classroom lecture notes into a filing cabinet in such a manner that, often, he would be unable to begin the next lecture where he had left off.
That the University of Illinois was able to land the scholar that Randall would become might have also ranked as a missed opportunity if Randall’s wife, Ruth, had had her way. In her book I Ruth she lamented the move to Urbana because she would be away from her parents and from the cosmopolitan lifestyle she had enjoyed being near the nation’s capitol.
Randall, on the other hand, knew that this would be his best opportunity to begin teaching at a major university where he would not only have the greatest chance of advancement, but that would provide him with the necessary research material only available at a major university (today, the University of Illinois Library ranks as the largest public university library, and third largest university library overall, in the country behind only Harvard and Yale).
“I have never ceased to be thankful that Jim had the wisdom to take the long-range view and establish us where we belonged, in a large university,” Ruth would later write.
Life in Urbana was pleasant for the couple. Not only did they quickly make friends, but soon Randall’s graduate students found their way to the couple’s apartment at 1101 West Oregon Street. According to Ruth, that address was only two blocks from the campus and close to the University Club where the couple took many of their meals.
“Urbana was a little town then whose Main Street was not very different from the sleepy Main Street in Salem (Virginia),” Ruth writes. “When we first knew them, the twin towns of Champaign and Urbana together had a population of approximately thirty thousand and the university about seventy-five hundred students…” Today the student enrollment is over 30,000.
Randall began at the U of I in 1920 as an assistant professor. He was promoted in 1924 to associate professor and in 1930 became a full professor.
The year 1926 marked Randall’s first major entry into the publishing world when Constitutional Problems Under Lincoln was released. That the book even was published testified to Randall’s determination. According to Mark Neely, several major publishing houses rejected the book because they felt it lacked any commercial appeal. When Appleton finally contracted to publish the book, Neely writes, Randall had to foot the costs to get the 1,500 copies published. An interesting side note to this is that copies of the book, which was out of print until 1951 when a second edition was published by the University of Illinois Press, are very expensive. I have seen copies of the 1926 edition, when available, command as much as $200 (I paid $75 for my copy of the second edition, buying it coincidentally in Urbana at the Jane Addams Bookshop).
Randall’s work was original. In the 1951 edition, Randall pointed out that while “Treatises and secondary accounts have been examined so far as they exist…the method of the book has been that of breaking new ground in an extensive searching of first-hand material for the Civil War period.” Randall had actually started research on the book 15 years prior. Based in part on his dissertation on confiscation in Virginia during the war, Randall’s treatise reached full maturity only after his tenure began at the U of I.
Randall considered several different questions relating to topics such as Lincoln’s suspension of Habeas Corpus, the declaration of martial law, the question of arbitrary arrests and, not surprisingly, the role of confiscation of property, among others. While today many Libertarian and others on the right point to Randall’s terming Lincoln a “benevolent dictator” they conveniently ignore what Randall wrote in the preface to his second edition:
That Lincoln was a strong executive does not, of course, signify that he was a dictator. Elections went forward during war, in striking contrast to European practice. Under Lincoln the Constitution was not set aside. He submitted in 1864 to the free choice of the people and stood ready to relinquish his position without protest to a rival if the people so voted.
Randall argued that while Lincoln abhorred war, once it was thrust upon him he determined to use whatever means at his disposal to prosecute it, and hence, to save the Union. While some actions might have been “irregular”, Randall argued that Lincoln’s use of them were “aberrations” and were confined to the “necessities” of war. Randall doesn’t give Lincoln a pass in the book, but, as others who have since followed, namely Neely and Daniel Farber, have generally agreed, while Lincoln was not without faults, his actions during the war were in most instances necessary and proper.
While Randall received generally good reviews for Constitutional Problems Under Lincoln, one can’t help but wonder if an incident recalled by Ruth meant as much, if not more, to the budding Lincoln scholar. “Only he and I knew the infinite pains and the endless labor which had gone into its making,” she wrote. “ That evening we walked over to the (Avery) Cravens’ and found them ready to celebrate the event with a gay ceremony. They put on a coronation scene for Jim…with a throne, a paper crown, an impressive salute, and such other ‘foolishment’ as the occasion demanded.”
He was on his way.
Next: Living with Lincoln