Sunday, March 27, 2011

Abraham Lincoln's mail bag

Dear Mr. Lincoln, Harold Holzer, editor

I found this book back in January at Half-Price Books.  In any bookstore, I always check the Civil War and Lincoln sections, and this one caught my eye.  Its subtitle is "Letters to the President," and as an archivist I find collections of letters irresistible - it's what I do all day anyway, read other's people's letters and documents, so it's sort of a busman's honeymoon.  Lincoln is also a hero of mine, the greatest president the United States has had in its history, in no small part because he was president during the defining event in our history.

I had previously read Holzer's Lincoln at Cooper Union, which is a fascinating analysis of a key but little understood speech that was crucial to Lincoln's successful bid for nomination and then election to the presidency.  I also have Holzer's Lincoln President-Elect in the TBR pile.

Dear Mr. Lincoln is an earlier book.  It's an exploration of the mail Lincoln received over the course of his administration, with a focus on letters from ordinary people.  Much of the official correspondence of the administration has of course been studied, as have the military communications. But Holzer discovered that (in 1993 at least) no one had looked at the thousands of letters coming into the White House, at an unprecedented time of crisis that impelled people to reach out to their president.  Additionally, much as Lincoln's White House was crammed with visitors of all kinds, arriving without appointments and admitted with no screening or security, people who couldn't travel to Washington or gain actual access to Lincoln wrote letters.

As an introduction to the letters, Holzer looks at the men who handled Lincoln's mail, his secretaries.  I was familiar with John Nicolay, John Hay, and William Stoddard, though not with the literary career Stoddard later built on his association with Lincoln.  I didn't know about his other secretaries, nor how mail was handled on its arrival in their office, nor how Robert Lincoln prevented access to his father's papers for so many years. To maintain absolute control over them, he kept them packed in trunks that traveled with him between his summer and winter homes (an archivist's nightmare).  As with Cassandra Austen, we will never know how much was discarded by Robert Lincoln.  In fairness to him, though, Holzer points out that much of the weeding of Lincoln's correspondence was done as it arrived, by his secretaries.  Stoddard sat six days a week at a table with a paper-cutter and two wastebaskets, and much of the incoming letters went straight to the trash.

In selecting letters for his book, Holzer chose broad categories, such as "Advice and Instruction," "Gifts and Honors," and the chilling "Threats and Warnings."  He also chose to focus on letters from ordinary individuals for the most part, though he included some famous ones such as Horace Greeley's hectoring "The Prayer of Twenty Millions," and Edward Everett's complimentary letter on the Gettysburg Address.  Holzer also includes some of Lincoln's responses, ranging from humorous to wry to impatient.  One of my favorites is his best-known riposte to Gen. George McClellan: "Will you pardon me for asking what the horses of your army have done since the battle of Antietam that fatigue anything?"

The most poignant letter to my mind is from the Episcopal bishop of New Hampshire, dated March 16, 1865,  He asks Lincoln to declare Good Friday, April 14th that year, a national day of fasting and prayer.  No record of a response from Lincoln has been found, but he didn't issue that declaration.  If he had, he wouldn't have been at Ford's Theatre that night.  Maybe John Wilkes Booth would have found another occasion to attack Lincoln.  But it has to be one of the greatest "what ifs" in American history: what would our country look like now, where would our racial relations stand, if Abraham Lincoln had guided America through Reconstruction, rather than the disaster that was Andrew Johnson.  If only.

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Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!