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Sunday, November 13, 2011

Assassinating Lincoln--again

Banned at Ford's Theater
The Ford Theater National Historic Site, the place where Abraham Lincoln was shot, has banned  a recent book on Abraham Lincoln co-written by Bill O'Reilly because of the number of factual errors it contains. The book is titled Killing Lincoln.  To qualify to be carried in the site's bookstore, the book must  be  historically accurate,  have relevant citations and use primary resources with documentation, according to the site's standards for selecting books on Lincoln to further knowledge about him.  The book by Bill O'Reilly and Martin Dugard meets none of those qualifications. 

Columbia University historian Edward Steers, Jr., who has written an acclaimed book on Lincoln says,  "The authors have chosen to write a story based . . . [on] a few dozen secondary books that range from excellent to positively dreadful . . . [with] no vetting . . . treating them as equal," reported the Washington Post.  

Rather than offering lessons in leadership or solutions for a politically divided nation, the book unwittingly exemplifies some of the greatest failings of our current mass mediated political discourse. There is the oversimplification of complex realities, the appeal of crass sensationalism, the stereotypical pigeon-holing of public figures, the innuendo based on hearsay and scant evidence. Throughout the book, in fact, O'Reilly strongly implies that Lincoln's Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton, was a party to the assassination, a conspiracy that he hints may have included members of Congress, Army and Navy officers, bankers, industrialists, journalists, and a sitting governor. Of course, he is careful to cloak these allegations in the kind of accusatory rhetorical questions that are now so commonly employed by the punditocracy.
Lincoln was a figure who was so revered in Illinois, where I grew up, that my mother had a bust of him on a living room table.  In the laboring community where we lived, Lincoln was revered for an aspect that is not often emphasized.  He resented that his father put him to work cutting fence rails and other arduous tasks and then collected the money Abe earned.  Many biographers of Lincoln have noted that this resentment formed a part of Lincoln's attitude toward slavery based on the conviction that every person should have the rewards of their labor.  Lincoln biographies were required reading in Illinois schools and his philosophy about work and fair earnings was one of the inspirations behind the labor movement.  

I developed a fascination for Lincoln from home and school which increased as I became older. After reading Carl Sandburg's Abraham Lincoln: The Prairie Years, I wanted to read every good book about Lincoln that I could.   Because of the heavy reading involved in my work as a professor, I had to postpone that endeavor until my retirement.  There are more than 16,000 books and articles on Lincoln, and many, many aren't so good.   I limited my reading to those which had received critical acclaim and were regarded as worthy by scholars, but that still leaves a lot of good material that will remain unread.  

The great interest in Lincoln is that he faced such tremendous adversity and faced it with an intellect and a character that has been possessed by very few men or women throughout history.  One reads not just for inspiration, but to find that source of mind and spirit that made Lincoln such a transforming leader.  There are enough excellent books that conduct that search so that one does not have to bother with pot-boiling trash like O'Reilly's book.  Bad history is the basis for desperate futures. 

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States