“A very solid book on Lincoln” Birth of a Masterwork

29 02 2008

This is the fourth in a series of posts on James G. Randall

In Washington, D.C., three days after Christmas in 1934, 53-year-old James G. Randall spoke at a joint meeting of the American Historical Association and what was then called the Mississippi Valley Historical Association (now referred to as the Society of American Historians). Living in what we must now admit to be an overly-saturated market of works on every aspect of Abraham Lincoln’s life, the question Randall asked to those present then seems quaint and even nonsensical. Randall wondered if all that needed to be written on Lincoln had already appeared. In his “Has the Lincoln Theme Been Exhausted” Randall answered a resounding “no”.

Randall pointed out that “If the investigator further discovers that there are obscure points to be searched, disputed points to be pondered, lacunae to be filled, revisionist interpretations to be applied or tested, excellent studies yet to be published, others in progress, valuable projects yet to be undertaken, and finally, that an adequate, full-length biography (comparable, let us say, to Freeman’s new life of Lee) is still in the future, then he realizes that, far from being exhausted, the field is rich in opportunity.”

Over 2,500 cards on Lincoln existed at the time in the Library of Congress, yet Randall pointed out that most were not worth the time of the serious student. Much of the problem, Randall asserted, was that Lincoln’s life had been left to the amateur historian. “The hand of the amateur has rested heavily upon Lincoln studies,” Randall said. It was time for that to change.

In his diary four years later, Randall wrote “For myself the yr. 1938 has meant travel, Sabbatical, Lincoln research & the launching of a very solid book on Lincoln.” According to wife Ruth, the beginning had actually started on October 9, 1937, when Randall wrote the first 1,200 words. “A years-long, monumental work had begun,” she wrote. By the time it was finished, there would be four volumes, although the author would die before the third volume was published. With only part of the fourth volume written, another author would have to be brought in to complete the work.

Originally, Randall was to collaborate with Paul Angle, secretary of the Abraham Lincoln Association. However, Angle’s schedule was too full, so Randall went to work on his own.

Randall asked for, and received, a sabbatical for one semester from the University of Illinois in 1938 to attend to research duties. Following trips to the library at Harvard and New York (where the Randalls were entertained by Allan Nevins, who had commissioned Randall to write the biography of Lincoln for his American Political Leaders series), the couple settled in Washington where they began to work in the Library of Congress.

As Randall was beginning to enjoy something of a national reputation, excitement began to build over the upcoming work. According to an article in the Nov. 25, 1945 edition of the Chicago Daily Tribune, before the first two volumes of Lincoln the President even appeared, publishers Dodd, Mead & Company had orders for 8,000 sets, which the paper said was “no mean beginning for a high priced work that appeals more to the student of Lincoln’s Presidency than to the public that wants to read about a picturesque character.”

For those who might have missed Randall’s address in 1934, 11 years later he would once again attempt to lift “the hand of the amateur” from Lincoln’s shoulders in the preface to the first volume. “The vastness of Lincoln literature is a bit misleading,” he wrote. “It requires a very small space to enumerate the authors who have produced significant biographies of Lincoln—i.e., works above the level of campaign lives or superficial treatments. Lincoln is an easy subject for one who merely writes “another book” about him.”

While billed as a biography, Lincoln the President is really the combination of a biography along with a history of the period in which he lived. As reviewers would point out, only a small portion of the book was devoted to Lincoln’s early life. As he attempted to do with all his other works Randall devoted himself to archival research and exacting standards for the evidence he sifted through. “If history is attempted, the standards of historical craftsmanship must not be neglected. Statements must be tied to reality, and this not merely by way of something to quote or cite, but in terms of tested and competent evidence,” he wrote.

While Randall accepted that some would call his work revisionist, he preferred the term “historical restoration”. “Where a building belonging to a past age has disappeared or fallen into ruin, there is the process of studying available traces and records, examining the period, and gradually building up a ‘restoration’ to show the structure as it originally stood,” he said. “With a like motive the historian seeks out original records, excavates, so to speak, clears away unhistorical debris, and endeavors, if he can, to restore events and essential situations of the past.”

Pointing out that popular ideas of Lincoln came from “that picturesque but provocative individual, William H. Herndon” Randall said it was now impossible to take Herndon’s work at face value. This is especially important to Randall’s claim that there was no romance between Lincoln and Anne Rutledge, a story brought out by Herndon in a series of lectures after Lincoln’s death. Admitting that “some of Herndon’s statements have greater validity than others,” Randall still cautioned that one must keep “a wholesome distrust for his excesses of rhetoric and his psychoanalytical conjecture.”

As in past cases, reviewers generally praised Randall’s work. An English author, writing in the English Historical Review, said the first two volumes showed that Randall’s work would “become the standard work on the presidency.” However, the reviewer noted that the Lincoln Papers deposited in the Library of Congress were not available to Randall until 1947, so more study was needed. Praising Randall’s mastery of the available source material, the reviewer noted “it has the firmness and clarity of mature thought” although he felt that Randall had painted “too innocent a picture of [Stephen A.] Douglas.”

That charge was also made in what was probably the harshest review which appeared over the name of Carter G. Woodson in the Journal of Negro History who said “Lincoln, according to Dr. Randall, was wrong and Stephen A. Douglas was right on the question of squatter sovereignty. In other words, the author finds praise for the temporizing and the compromising element in history rather than for those who face public evils courageously and deal with them promptly.” Woodson also chastised Randall for sinking “to the level of Avery O. Craven” when he “takes the position that the calling of names and the inflamed emotions of fanatics caused the Civil War [.]” Taking a moral tone, Woodson argued that “Every historian should know that there is no possibility for success by compromise between right and wrong.”

Finally, Woodson writes in an exasperated tone “To brand the Abolitionists and their opponents as fanatics does not do Dr. Randall any more credit than it does Avery O. Craven. The reformers stood for liberty and freedom, and without their efforts slavery and serfdom would afflict much more of the world than it does today.”

That Randall mishandles the questions surrounding the immorality of slavery was a point made by other reviewers as well. Harry J. Carman in the American Historical Review called Randall’s “unwarranted acceptance of the thesis that the slavery question was a social rather than a moral one and that the Civil War was the result of emotional sectional unbalance brought about by irreconcilable agitators and politicians, North and South” as wrong, pointing out that “Those who attacked the institution of slavery and its champions did so because they believed it to be contrary to the principles of freedom and equality enunciated in the Declaration of Independence.”

Next: Volumes 3 and 4

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25 06 2008
Happy Trails One Man’s Rebellion Record | Lincoln Studies

[…] produced a series of highly detailed portraits of historians from James G. Randall (Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, ) and Bell Irwin Wiley (Part 2 ), to Otto […]

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