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Thursday, Jan. 2, 2014 12:01 am

Photos and documents make Lincoln come alive

A 1919 painting of Lincoln and Stephen A. Douglas during a debate at Charleston, on Sept. 18, 1858.


Abraham Lincoln: An Illustrated Life and Legacy, by Thomas F. Schwartz and Thomas Cussans. Thunder Bay Press, San Diego, Calif. 96 pp., $29.99.

’Tis the new year, and a good time for settling in with a good book. Ready for your winter enjoyment is Abraham Lincoln: An Illustrated Life and Legacy by Thomas Schwartz and Thomas Cussans. The cover is padded, the illustrations and photographs are superb, and there are packets of facsimile documents to toy with – replicas of the Gettysburg Address, a “Wanted” poster, a Charleston Mercury newspaper section, a political ticket and other items. The book package is impressive, and it’s designed to sell – the publisher, Thunder Bay Press of San Diego, is owned by book distributor Baker & Taylor.

Schwartz and Cussans do a great job of telling the story of Lincoln’s life and the history of the Civil War. In a brief 96 pages, the authors provide a serious accounting of Lincoln’s whole life and political era, and then present the important issues connected to the Civil War. The writing tone is clear and clean – not fussily academic – and this makes the book an excellent choice for the general reader.

Sparking the book along is a fine selection of period photographs and illustrations. We see black and white portraits of Lincoln’s cohorts, Brady photos, period maps, cartoons and prints. This is the real prize here.

The replica ephemera collected in the book show us the engaging stuff of history. I’ll never forget the moment at the Chicago Historical Society that I saw the actual presidential order to resupply Fort Sumter – just a few squiggles of penciling on a paper scrap, but the ignitum of the fierce and terrible Civil War. The facsimiles here help to viscerally tell the tale.

We can see the distance of time between then and now, and how our lives have changed. For instance, the facsimile of the Ford’s Theater handbill shows us that local printers set type, piece by piece, by hand – making us appreciate that things just took longer to do – and also suggests that people had more time in their day to read lengthy advertising set in agate type. Perhaps life in 1865 was less hectic than today. Perhaps this explains why people could spend a few hours in 1858 listening to Lincoln and Douglas debate.

Of course, old portrait photos in black and white quickly remind us that social formality and a sense of gentility were prized at one time. The handwritten letters, prints and posters tell us that social communications were not instantaneous and all-encompassing.

The author, Tom Schwartz, is historian at the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library. Schwartz was in Springfield as Illinois state historian from 1993 to 2011, and served as director of research and Lincoln collections at the Lincoln presidential library. His knowledge of Lincolniana is enormous – he deserves credit for helping to fuel much of the 1990-2000’s Lincoln boom through his professional assistance and writing. His Abraham Lincoln: an Illustrated Life and Legacy shows us his curatorial excellence.  

Todd Volker is a Certified Lincoln Buff (CLB) in Ottawa, Illinois. He is co-director of a September 2014 Discover Lincoln bicycle tour from Lincoln birthplace in Kentucky to Springfield.

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