Thursday, June 30, 2005

# Posted 11:01 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

ABE LINCOLN MATTERS! Well, duh. If you needed me to tell you that, then you are either just a little bit slow or are one of OxBlog's first readers from North Korea. But wait -- there is a third a possibility: you are a professional historian.

OK, so that's a slight exaggeration. Historians know Lincoln is still pretty important even though he has been dead for almost 150 years. But the fact remains that it is terribly unfashionable for professional historians to study Lincoln or any of the other great presidents and statesmen who made America what it is today.

Nonetheless, the intelligent layperson seems to maintain an avid interest in our 16th president and his cohort. For example, the current issue of Time has Lincoln on the cover and then provides no less than 27 full pages of information about the 16th president's life and legacy. Putting Lincoln on the cover means that the editors think Honest Abe can sell magazines.

Fortunately, there are plenty of first-class authors willing to research and write about Lincoln in order to satisfy the popular thirst for knowledge about the 16th president. Like my eminent colleague Bill Miller, the scribe responsible for Lincoln's Virtues, many of these authors have real world experience as journalists and commercial writers. They are most certainly not Ph.D.-bearing tenured professors -- which is exactly why they understand that Lincoln is so important.

So why don't professional scholars study Lincoln with similar passion and intensity? Here's one answer: In the preface to his Pulitzer Prize-winning book Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation, Joseph Ellis writes that
A kind of electromagnetic field...surrounds this entire subject [of the founding fathers], manifesting itself as a golden haze or halo for the vast majority of contemporary Americans , or as a contaminated radioactive cloud for a small but quite vocal group of critics unhappy with what America has become or how we have gotten here.

Within the scholarly community in recent years, the main tendency has been to take the latter side, or to sidestep the controversy by ignoring politics altogether. Much of the best work has taken the form of a concernted effort to recover the lost voices of the revolutionary generation -- the daily life of Martha Ballard as she raised a family and practiced midwifery on the Maine frontier; the experience of Venture Smith, a former slave who sustained his memories of Africa and a published a memoir based on them in 1798.

This trend is so pronounced that any budding historian who announces that he or she wishes to focus on the political history of the early republic and its most prominent practitioners is generally regarded as having inadvertently confessed a form of intellectual bankruptcy.
Although Lincoln was not one of the founding brothers, studying his politics is no more popular among the academic crowd. All of this leaves us with a strange irony: Scholars often lament that there are so few Americans willing to take an interest in sophisticated ideas and detailed arguments. Yet there is a voracious appetite among the reading public for painstakingly researched, fact-laden tomes about Lincoln, Jefferson, Washington and other long-dead politicians.

Although one ought not to measure the importance of a subject by its popularity, I think that this time the majority has the merits on its side.
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