A scholar’s realization that learning never stops

10 06 2008

The year was 1933. Bell Irvin Wiley was a newly-minted Ph.D. from Yale University. Like many people living in the midst of the Great Depression, Wiley had a common problem.

He couldn’t find a job.

With no prospects for employment, Wiley got along with what he termed a “subsistence fellowship” of $700 which he used not only for living expenses, but as a grubstake for the research he would need to turn his doctoral dissertation into a publishable book.

While some might have become bitter at this turn of events, Wiley thrived.

“…[I]t was the best thing that ever happened to me,” Wiley recalled, although he admitted to some consternation that with a Yale degree, doors weren’t opening up as quickly as he would have liked. He put the time he was spending out of work on what would become his first book, Southern Negroes, 1861-1865. In its own way, it was a profitable venture, both financially and, maybe more importantly, psychologically.

“Writing is something of a disease,” Wiley recalled in an oral history interview he granted to the Mississippi Oral History Program at the University of Southern Mississippi in 1976 (and which appears in The Bell Irvin Wiley Reader). “The greatest thrill I’ve had in my life, outside of marrying Mary Frances and fondling my two boys shortly after they arrived, was caressing the first book.”

Wiley argued in that first book that slaves were not as loyal to their masters during the war years as had been previously believed, especially in areas where Union troops invaded. The black man’s status in Federal hands, however, was, Wiley argued, often no better than he had faced on the plantation, arguing that “those who entered military pursuits were dealt with in a manner more becoming to slaves than to freedman. In the light of all these unhappy experiences, it must have been apparent to Southern Negroes when the triumph of the North in 1865 assured the final end of slavery that that fight for real freedom had just begun.”

While reviewers generally praised Wiley’s work as sorely needed, the book was looked upon only as an introductory effort, and nowhere near the “final word” on the subject.

One area which reviewers blasted was Wiley’s use of the terms “darkey” and other racial epithets commonly used at that time.

Carter G. Woodson, in the Journal of Negro History, pointed to Wiley’s Southern background as the culprit. “Readers may find it distasteful that the author indulged in the use of such expressions…which reflect his background. But all things considered, the book must take rank as being far in advance of historical literature from that same source intended not to present the truth but to support preconceived ideas and maintain long established traditions.”

In the American Historical Review, Charles H. Wesley also castigated Wiley’s use of racial slurs. Wesley also found it disturbing that Wiley didn’t use quotation marks around the words, while he did use them around the word “Yankee”. Finally, Wiley didn’t use terms detrimental to Southerners. “The author’s purpose was probably to make use of familiar, homely phrases which belong to the vernacular with which he is familiar,” Wesley said.

In his lifetime, Wiley acknowledged that as a young man he was much more a creature of his surroundings than he liked. In his oral history interview, Wiley admitted that when he entered the Army during World War II he held the opinion that blacks were intellectually inferior to whites, although he argued that his opinion was slowly evolving into a more liberal point of view.

After attending Yale, where “for the first time in my life I met and talked with educated blacks, then from reading I was becoming what I might call emancipated racially” Wiley realized it was possible to overcome that belief of his youth, and that it was an important step to do so. After watching the performance of black soldiers during World War II, Wiley realized that segregation in the Army was a mistake, and he equated segregation in civilian life as just as wrong.

Later in his life, Wiley was recognized as a strong supporter of civil rights although he did fight efforts to lower standards to allow black students to enter colleges and universities.

Next: Meeting Johnny Reb

Bell Irvin Wiley, 1906-1980

3 06 2008

This is the first in a series of posts on the Civil War historian Bell Irvin Wiley. Many of the quotes and biographical materials are taken from The Bell Irvin Wiley Reader (BIWR), a wonderful assemblage of everything Wiley.

One of the biggest trends in current historiography is to present history from the perspective of the everyday. Instead of taking a “top down” approach to the study of the past, those who experienced events from the “bottom up” have been featured. While very few would disagree that this presents a better-rounded picture of the past, like most trends it isn’t that new.

In 1943, a Tennessee native gave the world one of the first pictures of what life was like for the common soldier of the Civil War. Today—some 65 years after it first appeared—The Life of Johnny Reb, and its counterpart published in 1952, The Life of Billy Yank, remain in print. Their author, Bell Irvin Wiley, is a name generally known only to those to whom study of the war is an everyday passion.

While it would have been easy to stereotype Wiley (a native of Tennessee writing about the quotidian experiences of an everyday Rebel soldier), he transcended attempts to pigeon-hole him. Wiley was a liberal southerner who was a strong supporter of civil rights. He never was more comfortable as he was while talking to the everyday people outside the academy. He once said “I do not stay in my ivory tower at Emory. I go about the country making talks to civic clubs, to historical societies, to Civil War Round Tables, and to college assemblies.”

The Civil War was never far from Wiley’s mind. His maternal grandfather served with the Army of Tennessee, fighting against William Tecumseh Sherman’s forces. While he barely knew the man, he did grow up with his widow, who often enthralled the boy with tales from her experiences. Often, during Sunday dinner, Wiley’s family would play host to both an ex-Rebel and ex-Yankee, who after eating would give the young man a first-hand account as to what they faced when each had tried to kill the other.

Bell Irvin Wiley was born January 5, 1906 in the western Tennessee town of Halls. While exposed to first-hand accounts of Civil War history, Wiley was also exposed at an early age to the twin virtues of hard work and education. One of 13 children (11 of whom lived to maturity), Wiley picked cotton on the family farm.

“My father believed that work was good for one,” Wiley recalled in an interview with the Mississippi Oral History Program at the University of Southern Mississippi in 1976, “and we rose early and worked until dark or thereabouts. We went to school regularly, but he always insisted that we be home immediately after dismissal of school, and if we didn’t arrive promptly, he wanted to know why.” (BIWR, pg. 196).

Wiley accepted that he would get a college education, and was helped along by his siblings, several of whom had already attended college before he did. However, he knew he would have to work for it. He recalled in the oral history having to plow with two mules and wryly observed “There is no less inspiring sight in the world that I know of than the north end of southbound mules.” (BIWR, pg. 199).

He graduated from Kentucky’s Asbury College in 1928 and in 1929 was awarded a master’s degree in English from the University of Kentucky. Wiley headed east to study for his doctorate at Yale University where his advisor was Ulrich B. Phillips, then the best known historian studying slavery. Wiley met Phillips at a meeting of the American Historical Society, and both men found much in common, mostly that they were both Southerners. After sending Phillips a copy of his master’s thesis, Wiley soon realized he would be going to Yale.

“For the first time in my life, I came into competition with people who seemed to know everything,” Wiley recalled. He later added that these experiences caused a crisis in confidence. “I had been a pretty big fish in a little pond at Asbury, so making the adjustments…caused me literally to walk the streets at night in anguish. There were many times when I thought I could not make it in the academic mill, because of the intenseness of the competition and because there were so many gaps in my education.” (BIWR, ppgs. 212-13).

After receiving his doctorate in 1933, Wiley began teaching at the University of Southern Mississippi. During the summers of 1935 through 1939, Wiley taught at Peabody College, where he met his soon-to-be wife, Mary. Like many historians, not only was Mary the love of Wiley’s life, she served as his main research assistant and confidant. He wrote in the preface to The Life of Johnny Reb that she had “contributed so vitally to the research and writing as to deserve a co-author’s rating, and it is only her firm refusal that prevents this recognition.”

From the beginning, it was clear that Wiley would focus his scholarship on the common soldier, and later, on the common civilian during the war years. Coming from the hardscrabble fields of Tennessee, Wiley knew what it was like to be hungry and to be tired and to get up the next day and do it again, just like both the Union and Confederate soldiers he wrote about. Wiley summed up much of his feelings toward those men in a commencement address he delivered around 1960 in North Carolina.

“The greatest people I know in American history are the plain soldiers who wore the blue and the gray during the Civil War. These lowly people and their folk at home suffered more than any other class. They endured their hardship with less complaint. They supported their leaders with more loyalty, and, in general, they acquitted themselves more admirably than their more privileged fellows.”

Next: Early scholarship

O.E. and EJC: A Match Not Made in Heaven

8 04 2008

Searching for truth in history is a thankless task, make no mistake about it. If your findings run contrary to tradition and public belief, you are a heretic and are treated accordingly. Few people, even intelligent ones, are interested in the truth, although none will admit it. If you, for example, were to disprove the story of Washington and the cherry tree, they would throw bricks at you, not roses. They will call you a debunker, an iconoclast, or something worse. Calling names, you see, is easier than arguing. I know whereof I speak.
–Otto Eisenschiml
From O.E. Historian Without An Armchair

When it came to history, he disliked being called a chemist. Yet, he claimed, in studying Lincoln’s death, he was asking the questions that any scientist would ask in determining just what had happened.

It is doubtful that in the entire Lincoln assassination oeuvre there is a more complex and interesting, yet highly maddening, figure than Otto Eisenschiml. Complex and interesting because from the date of publication of his Why Was Lincoln Murdered? in 1937 to his death at age 83 in 1963, Eisenschiml was the source of information the majority of general readers turned to concerning Lincoln’s murder. Not only that, but Eisenschiml enjoyed a good reputation with some of the field’s more prominent personages, notably Ralph Newman, founder of the Abraham Lincoln Book Shop. He also was a regular contributor and reviewer for the Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society.

Maddening, because what Eisenschiml produced was based mainly on innuendo and open-ended questions that, in the end, proved nothing.

Eisenschiml’s thesis was that powerful Northern interests, spearheaded by Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton, were behind Lincoln’s assassination. Problematically, Eisenschiml never came out and said that. Instead, he asked a series of questions he claimed were only to stimulate discussion and further research. Yet, much of what Eisenschiml wrote about the way he was treated resonates today in the never-ending question of just who is and who isn’t a historian.

His books were taken seriously enough that they were reviewed in all the leading historical journals of the day. While it is true they were mostly disparaged, had book review editors believed them to be completely worthless, one wonders why they would have granted precious page space to such an endeavor?

Eisenschiml developed his theory, according to his account in O.E. Historian Without An Armchair, after wrestling with the idea of why General Ulysses S. Grant decided to forgo going to Ford’s Theater with Lincoln on the night of April 14. Eisenschiml was bothered as to why Grant would have “left town unceremoniously an hour and a half before the curtain rose.” One day, while driving down a street in Chicago, Eisenschiml suddenly had an idea—one so revolutionary (to him) that it caused him to slam the brakes on his car, causing the driver behind him to bump into Eisenschiml.

“Out of it stepped a six-footer with the meanest face in six states,” Eisenschiml recalled. “He lumbered up to my open window. ‘Say, fellow,’ he bellowed, ‘what you been thinking about?’ ‘I’ll tell you, my friend,’ I replied. ‘I’ve been thinking that for the first time I have an inkling why General Grant did not accompany Lincoln to the theater on the night of April 14, 1865.’”

A humorous story, to be sure, but what Eisenschiml thought even staggered his own imagination. If Grant had been with Lincoln at the theater, he reasoned, Booth would have been unable to enter the presidential box because of the number of soldiers Grant would have brought with him to the play. Since Grant begged off, had anyone induced him to do so?

The only person that Eisenschiml knew who outranked Grant would have been Stanton. In a torturous and convoluted path, Eisenschiml decided that the only reason Grant would have for not showing up was due to Stanton’s orders, forgetting (or ignoring) that Julia Grant couldn’t stand Mary Todd Lincoln. I’m not going to go into great detail in this post, simply because it deserves more space than I am willing to give it now. But suffice it to say, this path eventually led directly to Everton J. Conger.

Conger came to the War Department after his second wounding during the attempt to seize the Staunton River Bridge during the Wilson-Kautz Raid in 1864. As the actual commander of the regiment, Lafayette Baker (known as Lafe), was on detached service with the War Department (under whose umbrella the First D.C. had been attached), Lieutenant Colonel Conger served as de facto commander. After Conger was declared unfit for military service, he was suddenly a man without an occupation and a family to feed.

Realizing that the success of the First D.C. was in large part thanks to Conger’s leadership, Baker most likely offered him a post with the National Detective Police so his subordinate wouldn’t become destitute. Once Lincoln was murdered, and the NDP was brought into the investigation, Conger also became part of the chase.

“Was it Colonel Conger who killed the cripple visitor of the Garrett household?” Eisenschiml wrote in Why Was Lincoln Murdered? He quoted Lafe’s cousin, Byron Baker, who was part of the Garrett Farm Patrol and who also was with the NDP. During the impeachment investigation of President Andrew Johnson in 1867, Baker testified before Congress that “I supposed, at the time, that Conger shot him, and I said, “What on earth did you shoot him for?” Said he, “I did not shoot him.” Then the idea flashed on my mind that if he did, it had better not be known.”

By the time Byron Baker said this, he was angered that Conger received $15,000 of the $75,000 reward money offered by Stanton’s War Department, while he only got $3,000. His statement that “it had better not be known” was made in an attempt to show that the posse had orders to bring Booth in alive. Conger, however, squelched that in his initial statement after Booth’s death when he said neither Lafe nor Stanton had issued orders that Booth was to be taken alive, although that certainly would have been preferable to bringing just his lifeless body back.

Throughout his life, Byron did what he could to disparage Conger’s role and to puff up his supposed leadership. He even accused investigators of mysteriously losing his statement which he immediately made aboard the monitor Montauk after Booth’s death in order to cheat him out of what he felt to be his rightful share of the money. As William Hanchett has noted in his book The Lincoln Murder Conspiracies, Baker’s statement hadn’t been lost. It was near Conger’s in the records of the War Department.

Eisenschiml notes that Conger got the lion’s share of the reward, but if this was to be seen as an attempt to show that the money Conger received was literally blood money if he had indeed been ordered to keep Booth from talking, Eisenschiml failed to ask another important question. If Stanton ordered Lafe Baker to kill Booth, and Conger carried out the contract, then wouldn’t it have made more sense for Lafe to get the bulk of the money? After all, given Baker’s salacious reputation (Senator Benjamin Butler said it was doubtful that Lafe had ever told the truth in his entire life “even by accident”), Stanton would have had more to fear from the NDP head than he would have had from Conger.

Isn’t it meaningful to note that Lafe got only $3,750—exactly four times less money than Conger received?

Eisenschiml never makes his case that Conger stood quietly near Richard Garrett’s tobacco barn and fired his pistol into Booth’s neck. Indeed, he rarely made his case on any of his accusations. Yet, the serious student of Lincoln’s assassination ignores his work at his own peril. Highly suspect? Yes. Safe to discount and toss aside? Never.

The historian and the poet

6 03 2008

Carl Sandburg, left, with James G. Randall, center and Alan Lomax going over the script for a radio program marking the opening of Abraham Lincoln’s papers.

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

I was in an office just off the circulation desk of the main library at the University of Illinois in Champaign-Urbana. A library staff member had just brought a stack of books I had requested. Included was a small brown volume called The Beleaguered City, Richmond, 1861-1865. In this volume I wanted to see if I could find evidence of a theater which Everton Conger said existed when, in 1865, Abraham Lincoln was assassinated.
The book itself was nondescript. It had the familiar markings of a library book which had been well-thumbed over the years. After finding no evidence of what I was looking for, I started to put it down. Suddenly, looking at the bookplate, my eyes widened at what was written there.

“From the library of Carl Sandburg”.

It was as if a lightening bolt had struck me. I was holding a book that, at one point, was held by Carl Sandburg. Whether you like Sandburg or not (and many don’t) no fair mind can say that Sandburg wasn’t a player in the field of Lincoln studies. Indeed, given all those who have dedicated their lives to studying the 16th president, Sandburg stands out as the most famous.
The irony of finding a book that had belonged to Sandburg at a university which had been home to the man who had a hearty dislike for amateur historians wasn’t lost on me. It was later that I found out many of Sandburg’s papers are located in the university archives, in the same spot, as it were, with James G. Randall’s.
But a stranger situation would soon demand my attention and would question just what Randall actually thought of the poet from Galesburg, Ill.

While perusing the shelf of Prairie Archives, my favorite bookstore in Springfield, I came across a volume of Lincoln the Liberal Statesman, a collection of essays written by Randall published in 1947. While it was priced at $45, it also bore Randall’s autograph. “For Myron Fox with great respect and cordial regards. J.G. Randall, April 27, 1950”.
When I got home and looked at what I bought, I saw on the dedication page three words that greatly confused me.

“To Carl Sandburg”.

Randall had devoted this book to the one man I had believed he held responsible for much of the misinformation and bad history written about Lincoln. After all, as Richard Nelson Current wrote in the fourth volume of Lincoln the President, when asked about Sandburg, Randall reportedly said that as a historian he made a good poet.

What was going on here?

In this age of shout television when gracious and vigorous debate has been replaced by verbal garbage, it’s hard for us to realize that two people who are so diametrically opposed could actually put that aside at the end of the day and develop a close friendship. I had forgotten that even Ronald Reagan and Thomas P. “Tip” O’Neill were able to put political differences aside and enjoy a drink or two together.
In her book I Ruth, Ruth Randall recalled several times when Sandburg and Randall would get together to talk about politics, the world and, of course, their favorite topic—Lincoln. One time, when both men were in Chicago, Sandburg invited Randall to his home in Michigan. “One memorable evening the two took a long moonlight walk along the shore of Lake Michigan,” Ruth writes, “a thing Carl said he liked to do at the end of the day to rest his eyes and relax. Jim recorded what they talked about in considerable detail. They exchanged opinions on many subjects: Lincoln, literary matters, politics, philosophy. They compared notes on the prolonged drudgery of writing a nonfiction biography.”
She reported that Sandburg told Randall he wanted to write a book on Lincoln that he wished was available when he was driving a milk wagon in Galesburg. He profusely praised Randall’s Civil War and Reconstruction and told Randall the biography Randall was writing would be much better because he had allowed his thoughts to mature over time.
When it came time to review Sandburg’s four-volume Abraham Lincoln: The War Years, the American Historical Review assigned the task to Randall. While he praised Sandburg’s “rare feeling for Lincoln, a life absorption in the subject, a burning desire to produce the saga, a Marathon-like endurance over decades of prodigious labor, a poet’s sense of language, a flair for pithy phrasing, a robust personality spiced with the tang of the prairies, and an ability to combine realistic detail with emotional appreciation” Randall sighed that “historianship in the full sense is lacking.”
Pointing out that Sandburg failed to include footnotes and many times only half-mentioned a source, Randall added that sometimes Sandburg was guilty of “an undiscriminating use of material” which he said “relieves the author of the necessity of checking, rechecking, and testing.” He added that “one would hardly turn to Sandburg’s pages for historical analysis, for sifting and evaluation, for conclusions distilled from masses of evidence, or for the settlement of disputed or doubtful points.”
What one takes from the review, however, is not that Randall felt Sandburg’s work was without worth, but that it could have benefited from what Randall preached throughout his professional life. Sandburg needed to visit the archives and sift through primary manuscript material rather than rely on already published reminisce.
But in the end Randall accepted that “Sandburg did not write for historians but for the general reader” and that “there will be thousands who, in thinking of Lincoln, will inevitably think of Sandburg.”
Randall’s review is in most instances a fair evaluation of Sandburg’s material. I think that my own belief that Randall held Sandburg responsible for amateurish attempts to study Lincoln’s life came from the “good poet” quote but also from Edmund Wilson’s characterization of Sandburg’s work as the worst thing to happen to Lincoln since his assassination. In this sense, I put two and two together and came up with 12.
During Randall’s illness, Sandburg was one of the last people to see Randall. Indeed, the last entry in Randall’s diary was “He [Carl] looks well….Kissed Ruth on leaving and took both my hands.” Three days later, James Randall was dead.

So, how to assess Randall? He, more than anyone of his day and age, brought Lincoln into sharper focus from the perspective of an academic historian, yet he never made Lincoln into a cardboard cutout or sucked the life out of his life as many academics do today. While Randall insisted on prodigious scholarship he also was able to turn a phrase that made his work valuable not only to the serious student of Lincoln but to the general reader.

He stumbled on many occasions, failing to realize the moral necessity of a war on slavery. While much of the criticism leveled against him, especially by black historians, may seem harsh, in most instances it was justified. The Civil War was not just a failure of cooler heads prevailing. While someone who lived during not one but two bloody wars might be forgiven for seeing the ultimate folly in the adventure, there are times when for the betterment of society bloodshed is necessary. To refuse to fight a war where human freedom and liberty are at stake is not only short-sighted, but in the long run is far crueler than the admittedly high human cost it brought.

No serious student of Lincoln’s life can be considered knowledgeable without a deep understanding of Randall. While some of his work is obviously outdated (a hazard which afflicts any historian who wrote several years ago) it still gives us a better understanding not only of Lincoln, but of the war which was fought in his name.

“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 

“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

Randall and the “blundering generation”

19 02 2008


This is the third post in a series on James G. Randall

My first real encounter with James G. Randall came when I was an undergraduate history major at Eastern Illinois University. It came, as I imagine it did to thousands of other undergraduates, in the form of a textbook called The Civil War and Reconstruction. Written at the request of Allan Nevins, it served as the sine qua non for generations of students beginning to study the war.

To be honest, I didn’t read it. One of the bad habits I picked up in college was that it was easier to skim something than read it outright, because professors rarely referred to the book in their lectures. But that reprehensible habit was like eating a peanut butter and jelly sandwich without the bread. You got something to eat, but it ended up messy and unsatisfying. Twenty-three years later, I still haven’t read it. However, that will one day change.

After Randall’s Constitutional Problems Under Lincoln was published in 1926, the budding scholar turned his sights on his next book, although as his wife, Ruth (shown in the photo above next to her husband) recalled it caused Randall some consternation. Quoting from his diary, she writes “I have been somewhat perplexed as to what my ‘next book’ should be…have been somewhat reluctant to turn out another bk. in const. hist. but this seems to be what is expected of me.”

Randall toyed with the idea of writing a book on the Emancipation Proclamation or even a biography of Horace Greeley. Meanwhile, Randall had written an entry in the Dictionary of American Biography on Salmon Chase, Lincoln’s secretary of the treasury. After finishing the Chase piece, Randall confided to his diary that “I now find that I like biographical writing. Would like to write a biographical book.”

That Randall would eventually write a biography of Lincoln wasn’t a foregone conclusion, although in his research trips he realized something more substantial was sorely needed. According to Ruth, a trip in November 1928 to the Library of Congress revealed to her husband that while there was a great deal written on Lincoln “little of it met the standards of a historian and a part of it was made up of myth and legend.” However, it would take a few more years before Randall began what would become his greatest work.

That decision was pushed forward when Allen Johnson, editor of the Dictionary of American Biography, commissioned Randall to write a 10,000 word entry for the book. Johnson told Randall that while several better-known historians had lobbied for the plum, he and co-editor J. Franklin Jameson had agreed that Randall would be the best choice.

Ruth recalled that this lit a fire under her husband, and through him, to the graduate students he directed. “He made his seminar a Lincoln seminar and apparently had fired his graduate students with his own enthusiasm,” she writes. “His desire to write a book on Lincoln was growing stronger all the time. Then fate saw fit to interpose a detour.”

That detour was the invitation by Nevins to write The Civil War and Reconstruction. When Johnson accepted Randall’s biographical sketch, and even allowed him an extra 5,000 words, Randall was overjoyed, and it gave him a push on his next book. “In my study I wrote about 2300 words on my book, i.e., on the 1st chap, dealing with the South,” Randall wrote in his diary, three days after discovering that his Lincoln sketch had been accepted.

As anyone who has tried to write a book on such a broad topic as the Civil War could well understand, Randall at times wondered if he had bitten off more than he could chew. Ruth quotes from her husband’s diary twice to show the pressure he was under. “In the midst of a heat wave he recorded on July 30 that he had written 750 words ‘on my beastly Civil War book.’ The next day. With the thermometer at 97 degrees, he referred to his writing as ‘the fiendish task’.”

After months of research, writing, revising, more writing and then more revising, on March 20, 1937 Randall received six copies of the book from the publisher. “Great stir and excitement” he wrote in his diary. The next day the University of Illinois Illini quoted Nevins, who said the book was “a piece of literary history.” It added that it would “at once become standard for the period.”

In his preface, Randall complained that “Up to recent times the bulk of writing in the field has been superficial, traditionally narrow, and partisan. In the South there has been a familiar body of clichés for whose preservation local pride and patriotic organizations have been ever watchful; in the North there have been limitations of sectionalism, provincialism, Yankee tradition, and party prejudice which have marred the pages of some of the most respected writers.”

Randall sought to take advantage of sources long forgotten as well as approach the study from a fresh perspective, taking into account the various social and economic forces at work. “Military and political factors have neither been neglected nor emphasized for their own sake,” he said. “They have been projected against a cultural background; and while the doings and utterings of statesmen have been given their share of space, social and economic factors have received special emphasis.”

Randall was being somewhat disingenuous when he wrote that as a historian he had “no doctrines to disseminate.” Indeed, Randall’s work is one of the pioneers of the “blundering generation” school of historians who argued that the war was not inevitable and was the result of so-called statesmen who let extremists on both sides guide policy and drown out the more rationalist sides.

“The present writer is yet unconvinced that the tragic conflict has been proved to be inevitable,” Randall argued. “It is a common fallacy to ‘explain’ a war by noting a dispute. War histories we have in abundance, but the causation of peace, with its equally valid social and economic aspects, has received insufficient emphasis.” Later he added “Differences as great as those between ante-bellum North and South have existed on many a front without breaking down the processes of statesmanship and producing the debacle of war.”

Reviews of The Civil War and Reconstruction were generally favorable, although most felt that Randall gave reconstruction short shrift. One reviewer complained that only “Two hundred pages are devoted to the twelve years of Reconstruction, a rather more scanty treatment proportionally than is given to the rest of the subject” while another said “Dr. Randall’s last eight chapters on Reconstruction constitute a sort of epilogue to the other twenty-nine. In them there is very little that is new in fact or interpretation. They detract from the unity of the book.” Later the same reviewer says “it might be said with justice that here we have a definitive one-volume account of the Civil War. It cannot fairly be said that it is a definitive account of Reconstruction.”

Black historians also found fault with some of Randall’s conclusions. Carter G. Woodson, writing in the Journal of Negro History, said “the undersigned must take exception to some things which [Randall] has said about the South and part there played by the Negro. In the first place, we note that the author does not seem to think that the slaves were as cruelly treated as it has been said they were.” Woodson accused Randall of being a supporter of Ulrich B. Phillips, whose theories on the paternalism of white masters had since been questioned extensively.

Woodson also questioned Randall’s claims concerning the treatment of slave children as well as his claim that “chastity was a rare virtue among the blacks.” Randall also exaggerated by saying that slave owners often would buy the mate of a slave so as not to break up families. Woodson pointed to his own family as proof that wasn’t always true. “The author ought to know…that…the large majority of the blacks lived up to a much higher standard than his book would lead us to believe.”

One of the harshest reviews came from Randall’s friend, Avery Craven, who along with Charles Ramsdell and Randall are credited with the “blundering generation” school of historical thought in Civil War studies. In the Mississippi Valley Historical Review, Craven writes “Professor Randall’s book is hard to classify. Its form and style are those of a textbook. Yet its 959 pages of plodding detail will prevent any wide use in college classes (author’s note: wrong!). On the other hand, it is lacking inmost of the qualities usually supposed to attract the general reader. It was probably intended as a reference book for advanced students. But again it lacks something for this use because of its scope.”

Craven found fault not only with Randall’s handling of the Reconstruction period, but in his handling of the events leading up to the war. “The handling of neither of these complex periods is satisfactory in itself. As a study of the sectional struggle which culminated in civil war the work is quite inadequate…The real value of the work lies, therefore, in the war period itself, an adequate treatment of which draws the book out to quite unnecessary length for any of the uses suggested.”

Craven does praise the quality of scholarship in the book. “While the critical scholar will find little fresh or particularly penetrating, he will note a good balance maintained between the old and the revisionist points of view,” Craven wrote.

It’s interesting to note that 15 years later, when the MVHR published an article on what 103 polled historians felt were the “preferred works in American History” for the years 1936-1950, 35 voted for Randall’s book while only 22 voted for Craven’s book The Coming of the Civil War. In the category of preferred biographies, Randall’s Lincoln the President took third place with 74 votes while Craven’s Edmund Ruffin was near last with 25 votes.

Next: Randall begins his masterwork