“Looking over Lincoln’s Shoulders”

3 03 2008

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

Ruth Randall could barely contain her excitement.

She had just received a phone call from her husband, James G. Randall. The date was July 25, 1947. The couple was in a familiar place—Washington D.C.

“Come over here as quickly as you can,” Randall told his wife. “I’ll meet you at the door to get you past the guard.” “Here” was the Library of Congress.

At one minute after midnight staff members from the Library of Congress would open documents that historians had waited 82 years to see. Finally, the papers of Abraham Lincoln which had been deposited by Lincoln’s eldest son, Robert Todd Lincoln, would be made available to the world. He had decreed that the papers were not to be opened until 21 years after his death.

Randall had received permission from the University of Illinois to stay in Washington for an extended period of time in order that he might have time to look over the papers or, as Ruth put it, “looking over Lincoln’s shoulders.”

For anyone who has seen the papers, which are widely available now on microfilm, it is amazing that Lincoln’s son would want them hidden from public view for so long. Of course, there’s no telling what didn’t make it in those eight trunks that were donated—it is pretty well established that Robert Todd Lincoln burned some of his father’s papers. Of course, we don’t know what.

According to Ruth’s vivid account, the scene took on an almost religious overtone. “There was a hush and then dead silence. Midnight struck. The Librarian of Congress, Luther Evans, began to intone the deed of gift. It sounded like what it really was, a voice from the tomb: ‘I, Robert Todd Lincoln…sole surviving child of Abraham Lincoln and the absolute owner of all of the letters, manuscripts, [and] documents…left by my father…do hereby give the same in perpetuity to the United States of America.’”

Once the safe was opened, a phalanx of reporters and cameramen suddenly sprang into action. What was once silent and respectful suddenly turned into a madhouse.

It took seven years before Randall could bring out the third volume of his masterwork Lincoln the President. Part of that time was spent in studying the papers. At the end of the third volume, Midstream, Randall even wrote a 17 page appendix discussing the opening of the papers and what they meant to the country, saying “They hold a mirror to American life.”

Sadly, Randall never lived to see the publication of the fourth and final volume, Last Full Measure. In 1952 he was diagnosed with leukemia, and a few months later, died from the disease.

Reviews of Midstream continued to praise the work as the definitive biography of Lincoln. In a review in the Journal of Southern History, Kenneth Stampp praised the work and lamented what he thought was the end of the biography. “The recent death of Professor Randall is a great loss to the history profession; and it is most regrettable that his death before his notable biography of Lincoln was completed. “ H. Hale Bellot, who had written a somewhat favorable review of the first two volumes in 1945 in the English Historical Review, wrote of Randall’s series that “No one will be able to finish the book as he would have finished it himself or accept the likeness just as he has drawn it, yet there will be no occasion to tread again the ground that he has covered.” Later he wrote “Once again untimely death has robbed us of the ‘life’ of Lincoln that we need.”

Knowing that he was dying, Randall, who had completed eight chapters of the last book and compiled a set of detailed notes as to what he had planned to do, suggested to Ruth that a colleague at the University of Illinois, Richard Nelson Current, would be the man to complete the book once he had died. “Dick readily agreed and that difficult problem was solved in an unusually happy way,” Ruth wrote. “I felt sure of what later proved to be true, that Dick, using Jim’s notes, would do a beautiful job with it.”

Current, who studied under William Hesseltine at the University of Wisconsin, had been introduced to Randall by Hesseltine at the 1939 meeting the American Historical Association. “Randall, a great man in my sight, made an unforgettable impression on me by virtue of his geniality and unpretentiousness in the presence of a stranger who was a young and insignificant college instructor,” Current wrote in the 1991 introduction to a revised Last Full Measure. Current believed it was a comment he made about Arthur Schlesinger Jr.‘s “Logjam Theory” of war that endeared him to Randall. Schlesinger argued that just as a logjam has to be broken up by the force of dynamite, so to sometimes must a tyrant be stopped by war and force.

Current disagreed with that, saying it seemed to him a glorification of war. “Afterward I came to believe that this comment of mine, more than anything else, led Randall to think me worthy of completing his Lincoln biography,” Current wrote in Last Full Measure. Although not Randall’s first choice (that honor went to Allan Nevins, who declined), Current completed the manuscript despite finding that Randall had left no list of chapters yet to be written.

In reviewing the book for The Journal of Southern History, David M. Potter said of the work “By nature distrustful of dramatic effects and literary tours de force, he [Randall] habitually underwrote his material, and owed his great success to his infinite care, his strong sense of proportion, and his devotion to the truth even when it appeared drab. The fact that he did not conceal the drabness ultimately made his presentation seem more convincing and realistic to the reader, and thus a kind of unhighlighted vividness resulted from the total absence of brilliant effects.”

In what was as much a eulogy as a review, Potter wrote “…the long-range appraisal of Randall’s work will not depend upon his being invariably correct; instead it will turn upon what he contributed to the interpretation of American history. A very strong case can be made that Randall, more than anyone else, removed both the superhuman hero Lincoln of the Republican party and the brooding, romantic myth-Lincoln of the frontier legend… .”

Next: Randall and Carl Sandburg 

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26 06 2008
| LincolnStudies.com

[…] 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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