Commentary at 10th Annual Lincoln SymposiumSkip other details (including permanent urls, DOI, citation information)
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After listening to Professor Current's paper, one almost deplores the very existence of Lincoln's address to the Young Men's Lyceum because of its effect on recent scholarly endeavor. Contemplating that speech sagging under the weight of the theorizing piled upon it, especially with Mr. Current serving as building inspector, should call us back to fundamentals. The text so exhaustively and ingeniously analyzed by psychohistorians is taken, after all, from the Sangamo Journal, not from a Lincoln manuscript. Printed with it was a resolution of the Lyceum asking Lincoln to furnish a copy for publication, but this call did not guarantee that Lincoln furnished the manuscript used for delivery of the original speech. Indeed, given the importance of the exposure of this speech, he may have solicited comments from men he respected or even have incorporated unsolicited comments from members of the original audience. He may also have allowed friends and mentors to improve his prose. We have no guarantee against further changes in the newspaper office or even by compositors. Under such circumstances, we have added reason to doubt the level of significance of particular words or phrases.
One might conclude then, that altogether too much importance has been assigned a non-autographic document reflecting young Lincoln in search of political identity, an aspiring politician eager to say something about recent episodes of mob violence, especially the murder of Elijah Lovejoy, yet not to speak directly to the issue but instead to place what was really on his mind in some broader and more statesmanlike setting.
Much analysis of Lincoln's speeches and letters assumes that he always stated with clarity and wisdom exactly what he hoped to convey. Yet even as late as July, 1863, speaking to a crowd assembled to celebrate the victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, Lincoln appears to have cast about in a preliminary way for Page [End Page 25] thoughts he later perfected. "How long ago is it? — eighty odd years — since on the Fourth of July for the first time in the history of the world a nation by its representatives, assembled and declared as a self-evident truth that 'all men are created equal.' That was the birthday of the United States of America.... and now, on this last Fourth of July just passed, when we have a gigantic Rebellion, at the bottom of which is an effort to overthrow the principle that all men were created equal, we have the surrender of a most powerful position and army on that very day, and not only so, but in a succession of battles in Pennsylvania, near to us, through three days, so rapidly fought that they might be called one great battle on the 1st, 2d and 3d of the month of July; that all men are created equal, 'turned tail' and run. Gentlemen, this is a glorious theme, and the occasion for a speech, but I am not prepared to make one worthy of the occasion." Thank goodness Lincoln was able to rework his thoughts for Gettysburg; who knows what he might have done with an opportunity to revise and clarify the concepts of the Lyceum Address.
Can we really expect that any modern psychohistorian will get Lincoln right the first time out? In considering the three books discussed by Mr. Current, we can only admire how much Strozier has added to our understanding of the man, whatever the points of disagreement, while deploring the wilder flights of fancy in Anderson and Forgie. One edifice is built on the body of Lincoln scholarship, and the other two on the Lyceum Address.
Whether we welcome it or not, we have reason to believe that the psychology of Abraham Lincoln will continue to attract scholarship. If the wedding of Edmund Wilson and Erik Erikson has not produced healthy offspring, I doubt that we will be benefited by proclaiming psychological theory off limits in the Lincoln field.
John Maynard Keynes once wrote that "Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist...." From Herndon onward all Lincoln biographers have had to assume that they knew something about human psychology; without such knowledge there could be no biography. William E. Barton, writing on The Women Lincoln Loved observed: "The most erotic devotee of a perverted Freudian psychology, seeking to reduce all human motivation to a single desire and that a nasty Page [End Page 26] one, will find no material in support of his grosser theories in the adolescent imagination of Abraham Lincoln."  Like many others, Barton assumed that Freudian psychology involved an investigation of the thought and behavior of ordinary human beings, not Abraham Lincoln. Barton was not the last to believe that immersion in the factual record of Lincoln's life entitled a biographer to discuss his unrecorded thoughts and feelings; indeed, the temptation is irresistible. In the process, do biographers use hidden assumptions and unrecognized models? Perhaps we will have a fairer game when the psychological cards are turned face up. Page [End Page 27]
- Roy P. Basler, et al., eds., The Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, 9 vols. (New Brunswick, New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 1953–1955), 6:319–320.
- John Maynard Keynes, The General Theory of Employment Interest and Money (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1936), p. 383.
- William E. Barton, The Women Lincoln Loved (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1927), p. 121.