This is the first of a two-part piece on the perils of single-source history in the Lincoln field. Part 2, on Frederick Douglass, will appear in January 2011.
Such is the hunger for facts and stories about Lincoln that we may occasionally fail to double-check the sources. A good many stories rely on exactly one person’s report or opinion. Don and Virginia Fehrenbacher’s book Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln (1994) contains thousands of contemporary and post-1865 statements about things Lincoln said. Most rely on one person’s report. Who are those persons?
William H. Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner for 17 years and his acquaintance for about 24 years, is the largest source. Nearly everything he said or wrote about Lincoln emerged years, even a quarter-century, after 1865. “All that I am or ever hope to be I get from my angel mother,” quoth Lincoln via Herndon. Or was it merely “from my mother”? Both versions come from Herndon. Neither can be cross-checked against any other source. The tone, though, is plausibly Lincoln’s.
Other than Herndon, the biggest source, and problem, in Lincoln history is journalists. They get most of their facts right, and we are hugely indebted to them. Yet many of them have a desire to seem influential for years after their key association. And, they age.
Noah Brooks was among the most diligent reporters in Washington during Lincoln’s presidency. For the Sacramento Daily Union he followed and recorded the great man’s movements for the final two and a half years, as well as filing good war reports. It is he who tells us, e.g., of Lord Colchester the séance-maker, and Mary and Abraham’s encounter with him, and how one night at a séance across town Brooks suspected fraud and seized someone’s wrist in the dark, and found it was Colchester’s. He then warned the fraudster to leave town. This has believability to it; but can anyone corroborate it? Mary Lincoln biographers Jean Baker and Catherine Clinton both recount the episode, in startlingly different ways, adding new information or misstating the old. Whom are we to believe? The Fehrenbachers trace one reported Lincolnism as quoted 4 different ways from Brooks’s multifarious memory.
Brooks wrote articles for Scribner’s Monthly and Century Magazine in the 1870s and ’80s, then a biography of Lincoln in 1888 that went through many variations and editions. All this was supposedly based on his 258 wartime dispatches. But his 1895 book Washington in Lincoln’s Time has other material and is where anyone beyond the small number of 1863 Sacramento-area subscribers could read that the Lincolns, while visiting General Hooker in Stafford County, Va., in April 1863, drove past a bedraggled camp of freed slaves. How many of those “little piccaninnies,” Mary asked her husband, do you suppose are named for you? “Let’s see. This is April, 1863,” answers the president. “I should say that of all those babies under two years of age, perhaps two thirds have been named for me.”
Is this a president we recognize? Herbert Mitgang includes the dialogue in a 1958 edition of Brooks’s book. P.J. Staudenraus omitted it from his 1967 edition. So, too, Michael Burlingame in his 1998 edition, who does, though, catch Brooks attributing his own views to Lincoln on at least two other occasions. And Brooks wrote, soon after this unlikely episode, that “No colored persons are employed about the Executive Mansion,” an error that casts into doubt just how close Brooks was to Lincoln. William Johnson was Lincoln’s regular valet, attending him sporadically but personally for almost three years, till his death by smallpox after traveling to Gettysburg with Lincoln. William Slade was a doorman, sometimes confused with the other William as a man with access to the president. Elizabeth Keckly was Mary’s most constant companion, and is in fact the person who encouraged her to seek out spiritualist mollification after Willie Lincoln’s death. Was Noah Brooks watchful for mediums but blind to blacks? His 1895 reports about Lincoln may show a hardening of his arteries, or of the nation’s.