Shooting for the stars
In “Stellar! Stellar!”—a column lumbered with my lamest title ever—I explored the new fund drive to help build the University of Illinois’ Springfield campus. For space reasons I was unable to explore one of the hoped-for outcomes of that campaign, UIS’s plans to posthumously turn Lincoln into an adjunct faculty member by means of a UIS Center for Lincoln Studies.
Just another blatant attempt to exploit Lincoln’s name and reputation for marketing purposes? I hope not. Certainly it needn’t be. A clever faulty could contrive a nice public issues curriculum around Lincoln’s life and politics that would take up matters economic, technological, sociological and psychological. (The issues raised by the Civil War, after all, are not only not yet settled but still intrude onto the front pages of every paper.)
The university talks vaguely about doing policy development within the new Lincoln studies focus. I have no idea what this means, although if it means turning out good little Whigs to carry on the fight against the New Jacksonians in Springfield and Washington I won’t complain.
The emphasis on “public history” is welcome too. This too might be merely marketing. The field is where the history-related jobs are, including as it does everything from museum displays to archivism. For years I mounted this wobbly soap box to call for government agencies to have their own historians; was it Santayana (he had a patronage job in the Horner administration) who said that those who forget past policies are doomed to repeat them?
I’ve pointed out in previous columns how Springfield was a national center for Lincoln scholarship from the 1930s into early ‘50s, thanks to the Abraham Lincoln Association. Beginning in 1925, the ALA undertook its own research and collection projects consistent with its charter mission to “promote and aid the collection and dissemination of authentic information regarding all phases of his life and career.” A succession of ALA executive secretaries—Paul M. Angle, the aforementioned Benjamin Thomas, Harry Pratt—drew upon these troves and added immensely to the world’s collection of guide books, monographs, and bibliographies of the man. Under Hay’s successor, George W. Bunn, the ALA oversaw the publication of the scholarly Abraham Lincoln Quarterly. The ALA’s crowning achievement was what became a ten-volume Collected Works of Abraham Lincoln, which under the direction of Roy P. Basler put all of Lincoln’s writings then known between covers. Springfield became a national center for Lincoln scholarship again in 1985 when SSU and the Abraham Lincoln Association got the Lincoln Legal Papers project underway.
The Springfield area remains a center for potential Lincoln scholarship. Since 1951, the main library of UIS’ adoptive parent in Urbana has housed the collection of Lincoln scholars Harlan Hoyt Horner and Henrietta Calhoun Horner and added to it since. The Illinois State Archives and the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library have Lincoln collections, there is a Lincoln Studies Center at Knox College up in Galesburg, plus other centers in Chicago and Indiana. What is needed is money, in the form of fellowships and assistantships, to prise new wisdom from these documents. If UIS can endow its new center to do again what the old ALA was able to do, it will earn . . . well, what will it earn? Is more Lincoln books what we need? Or more works addressing the many neglected topics in Illinois history?
My fondest dream is the least likely to be realized. I am among the many—none of us, sadly, a governor—who believe that scholarship is best left to scholars, not tourism promoters. Responsibility for managing the old Illinois State Historical Library, which is now subsumed administratively into the newly independent (meaning, “orphaned”) Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum, ought to be handed to a university committed to running it, and for practical reasons the University of Illinois seems best placed to be that university.