Welcome to the sixth issue of HISTORY NOW. I am pleased to announce that HISTORY NOW was recently selected by the National Endowment for the Humanities for inclusion on EDSITEment (http://edsitement.neh.gov) as one of the best online resources for education in the humanities.
This issue focuses on Abraham Lincoln. If George Washington played the major role in creating the United States, Abraham Lincoln played the critical role in preserving it. Hundreds of books have been written about the Illinois rail splitter, lawyer and politician who rose to become president in the midst of the great sectional crisis which threatened to destroy what Washington and his revolutionary generation had established. The memory of Lincoln permeates our daily life: his face is on our coins, his monument dominates the Washington landscape, maps are dotted with towns named in his honor, and each February we celebrate his birthday with a national holiday. His words echo powerfully in our consciousness and few Americans fail to be moved by the beauty and simplicity of the Gettysburg Address or the history-changing decision of the Emancipation Proclamation. Yet, Lincoln had critics in his lifetime, and scholars too have found much to debate about his career and his character. For over a century, historians have debated Lincoln's views on slavery and on religion, taken the measure of his political ambition, analyzed the continuity between his words and his deeds, questioned his use or abuse of wartime powers, and pondered the shape of Reconstruction and the future of race relations in America had an assassin's bullet not ended his life. No matter what conclusions these scholars reach, none deny the centrality of Abraham Lincoln in preserving our nation and ending its most shameful practice, slavery.
The complex portrait that emerges offers us, as teachers, rich opportunities to remind our students that flawed men and women may nevertheless be great men and women; that chance and accident share a role in shaping history as much as intention and planning; that leadership in a time of crisis is a burden as much as it is a privilege; and that myths become interwoven with reality when historic figures are the chosen subjects. This issue of HISTORY NOW is devoted to exploring these apparent contradictions. In his essay, “Whitman and Lincoln,” the prize-winning author David Reynolds shows us the intense admiration that the radical poet felt for Lincoln. Whitman immortalized Lincoln and Lincoln’s cause in poems familiar to us all, including the popular and moving “O Captain! My Captain.” Next, four Lincoln Prize Winners explore key aspects of Lincoln’s political career. In his essay on “Lincoln and Abolition,” historian Douglas Wilson helps us consider slavery as a political as well as a moral dilemma for the president. Allen Guelzo’s “The Emancipation Proclamation: Bill of Lading or Ticket to Freedom?” offers us a clearer understanding of the goals that prompted and the strategy that shaped one of the most important documents in our history. In “ Lincoln’s Civil Religion” George Rable examines the controversies surrounding the president’s religious views and reminds us that even if those views remain a mystery, his second inaugural address makes clear that Lincoln embraced mercy and forgiveness rather than vengeance. Finally, Harold Holzer unravels the myth surrounding Lincoln’s Cooper Union speech, a speech that catapulted the Illinois lawyer into the Republican party nominee for the presidency.
As always, HISTORY NOW accompanies these scholarly essays, which provide both new interpretations and richer context, with imaginative and accessible supporting material. You will find lesson plans that demonstrate effective ways to bring this material into the classroom. And our Archivist offers both online and print sources for teachers and students who wish to learn more. Our special feature for this issue focuses on interpreting political cartoons of the Civil War era. It serves a dual purpose, not only providing vivid images of the controversies of the day, but also demonstrating how to use visual primary sources effectively in the history classroom.
It is our hope that this in-depth exploration of such a complex man during such a critical era in our nation’s history will spark discussion and debate in your classrooms and deepen your students’ appreciation of President Abraham Lincoln.
Editor, History Now
Carol Berkin is Professor of History at Baruch College and The Graduate Center, City University of New York. She is the author of several books including Jonathan Sewall: Odyssey of an American Conservative, First Generations: Women in Colonial America, A Brilliant Solution: Inventing the American Constitution, and Revolutionary Mothers: Women in the Struggle for America's Independence.