Dr. Ronald Hoffman, an eminent scholar of the American Revolution, passed away earlier this month. He was the longest-serving Director of the Omohundro Institute for Early American History and Culture, editor of the papers of Charles Carroll of Carrollton, and a prolific author.
He looms especially large in all the research I’ve done and am doing, because he co-edited An Uncivil War: The Southern Backcountry During the American Revolution, one of fifteen volumes based on a series of conferences he convened under the aegis of the U.S. Capitol Historical Society. An Uncivil War is indispensable to any study of the Revolutionary backcountry, and is perhaps the most valuable secondary source on that subject I’ve ever encountered.
On a personal note, I had the honor of eating lunch with Dr. Hoffman years ago as an M.A. student. He patiently listened to me talk about my (then very nebulous) research and was generous with his advice. He was a giant in the field, but he treated me like a colleague. The reminiscences I’ve read from other students and junior scholars over the past few days indicate that such kindness was typical of him.
The Omohundro Institute sponsors a postdoctoral fellowship in his name. For information on how to donate, along with details about a celebration of his life scheduled for next month at William and Mary, click here.
We ended up having a little extra wall space in our new exhibit, so we’ve decided to get with our designer to create a new panel on Lincoln’s family life. I’ve spent the past few days working on the text.
Writing exhibit copy is always hard—much more difficult, in my experience, than any other type of writing. Your audience is necessarily broad and you don’t have much space. The pressure to be clear and concise can be downright crushing. And since museums speak with an authoritative voice, you have to be as even-handed as possible. Covering the Lincolns’ marriage within these guidelines has been especially difficult, mostly because of Mary Todd Lincoln.
She was undeniably volatile. She shouted. She screamed. She chased Lincoln out of the house with a broom, clocked him on the nose with a chunk of firewood, and chewed him out in front of friends and neighbors. She pestered him over his informal manners and his unfashionable, ill-fitting clothes. She bullied the maids and haggled unbecomingly with salesmen.
Lincoln’s friends and neighbors described her as “a hellion — a she devil — vexed — & harrowed the soul out of that good man — wouldn’t Cook for him — drove him from home &c — often & Often.” His law partner William Herndon, one of her more strident detractors, claimed that she made Lincoln’s life “a domestic hell.”
But the stories of Mary’s theatrics (plentiful though they are) don’t tell the whole story of the Lincolns’ marriage. Her niece remembered, “Mr. Lincoln enjoyed his home and he and Mary idolized their children. So far as I could see there was complete and loving kindness between Mary and her husband, consideration for each other’s wishes and a taste for the same books. They seemed congenial in all things.” Another neighbor reported, “Mary was a little high strung. She came of blue blood, blue grass Kentucky stock; and her tastes were somewhat different from Abe’s, but, law, they got along well together.”
And it must be said in all fairness that her husband was a difficult man to be married to. He was gone for weeks or months at a time, traveling the Eighth Judicial Circuit or conducting political business, leaving Mary to raise the children alone. (In 1850, Lincoln was away from Springfield more days than he was home.)
Even when he was home, some of Lincoln’s eccentricities must have compounded her stress. He answered the door in his shirtsleeves, sat down to dinner without his coat, and stretched out on the floor to read. He became so absorbed in thought that he didn’t notice her speaking to him, or failed to see that one of the boys had fallen out of the wagon in which he was pulling them. When she launched into one of her tirades, one neighbor recalled, he would ignore her—or worse, laugh at her.
If we’re going to give our visitors a sense of what Lincoln’s domestic life was like, Mary’s tantrums have to be a part of the story. They’re too prominent in the record to dismiss (although I suspect Herndon pressed the issue in his interviews with Lincoln’s acquaintances, given his evident dislike for the woman).
At the same time, though, our handling of the Lincolns’ marriage needs to be well-rounded. As tempting as it is to devote all our space to colorful anecdotes about Mary’s histrionics, those incidents don’t tell the whole story. We don’t want to reduce her to a crude caricature. Some depictions have stooped to this level. In D.W. Griffith’s 1930 film Abraham Lincoln, Mary is an unbearable shrew, played almost strictly for laughs.
What our exhibit needs, in other words, is detail and nuance. That’s not easy to pull off in the tightly confined space of a single panel. A biographer could take an entire chapter to develop a balanced appraisal of Mary. We have to do it in a few sentences. And those sentences have to be accessible and engaging to everybody from elementary school students to members of our institution’s faculty.
Sometimes people think public history is easier than academic history. The truth is, public history only looks easy because part of the job is making it look easy. And that’s usually the hardest part of the gig.
One of the big highlights of the academic year for the University of Tennessee’s Department of History is the annual Charles O. Jackson Memorial Lecture. This year’s talk should be especially notable. Dr. Edward Ayers, a bona fide academic superstar and a stellar historian, will present “Southern Journey: The Story of the South in Movement.”
Dr. Ayers is Tucker-Boatwright Professor of the Humanities and President Emeritus at the University of Richmond. He is a recipient of the Bancroft Prize, the National Humanities Medal, and the Lincoln Prize, and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. He has also been named National Professor of the Year. His books include In the Presence of Mine Enemies: The Civil War in the Heart of America, 1859-1863; The Thin Light of Freedom: The Civil War and Emancipation in the Heart of America; The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction; and Southern Crossing: A History of the American South, 1877-1906. He is a co-host of the history podcast BackStory.
The 2018 Jackson Lecture will be at the East Tennessee Historical Society‘s headquarters in downtown Knoxville at 5:00 p.m. on Thursday, Sept. 20.
I couldn’t be happier to announce that the Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum‘s new permanent exhibit Log Walls to Marble Halls is now open in our renovated Kincaid Gallery. From now on, our visitors will get a more in-depth and engaging look at Lincoln’s life before the presidency than we’ve ever been able to offer before.
The emphasis is on Lincoln’s ascent from his frontier beginnings to the political and professional prominence he achieved by 1860, and how his ambition and lifelong habit of self-improvement reinforced his convictions about the American experiment, politics, and the escalating controversy over slavery.
Some of our most remarkable artifacts are back on display and looking better than ever, including a corner cupboard made by Abraham Lincoln’s father in Kentucky, a tea set used by the Lincoln family in their Springfield home (donated by Abraham Lincoln’s last direct descendant), a family portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln, and a flag and campaign banners from Lincoln’s Senate race against Stephen Douglas.
The exhibit also features other priceless pieces of our collection that haven’t been on public display in years, or are now on exhibit for the first time: scales from the Lincoln-Berry store in New Salem, rare campaign ribbons, sheet music, a first edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and more.
I think this is the most exciting thing that’s happened at the ALLM since the place opened back in 1977. It’s certainly the biggest thing we’ve done since I was an undergrad intern there many years ago, and something a lot of us have dreamed about for a long, long time. I hope you’ll come and check it out.
And we’re just getting started. If you’d like to help us finish transforming the way we tell the story of Lincoln and his era, consider a contribution to our capital campaign.
The Abraham Lincoln Library and Museum won’t be re-opening until the end of this month. But here’s a look at what’s been going in the Kincaid Gallery, where our new permanent exhibit Log Walls to Marble Halls is under construction.
Just inside the entryway is a recreated section of the Kentucky cabin where Abraham Lincoln was a child. Pretty soon, it’ll be home to an original corner cupboard built by his father, Thomas.
When this case is assembled, visitors will peer inside and get a glimpse back in time at one of our WPA dioramas.
Graphics and labels waiting to go up:
A couple of the big artifacts are already in place. One of the first things visitors will see is our magnificent Gutzon Borglum bust…
…and one of the last is this 1858 flag, a relic from Lincoln’s campaign against Stephen Douglas.
The folks from Owen Design Group and 1220 Exhibits have done amazing work in making this dream a reality. We’re delighted to see this project nearing completion.
But we’re also eager to tell the rest of Lincoln’s story, and the story of the war over which he presided. Click here to learn how you can help make it happen.
The diorama is still one of the most effective gimmicks in the museum business. You can lose yourself in these little worlds behind glass. Maybe it’s the fact that they’re three-dimensional.
In 1939, the Work Projects Administration funded the creation of twenty dioramas depicting scenes from Abraham Lincoln’s life for the Chicago Historical Society. Painstaking research and craftsmanship went into each one. Some fifty artists spent two years putting them together.
Today we have five of these masterpieces on exhibit at the ALLM. Visitors (especially kids) are invariably drawn to them, like metal shavings to magnets.
Let’s take a look at one of the scenes. It’s May 19, 1860. We’re inside the parlor of Abraham Lincoln’s Springfield home. The Republican Party has just concluded its second national convention in Chicago. A delegation has arrived by train to inform Lincoln that he’s the party’s nominee for president.
George Ashmun of Massachusetts is handing Lincoln the official letter of nomination.
The décor is historically accurate to a middle-class Victorian home. In fact, the wallpaper matches the actual design used in the Lincolns’ parlor. Check out that exquisite little flower under glass in the corner…
…and the tiny books on the shelf.
The attention to detail is nothing short of astonishing. There’s a miniature picket fence affixed to the exterior of the back wall, just in case a viewer should decide to peer through the windows. It’s hardly visible from the front; most visitors probably don’t notice it. I had no idea it was there until the first time I saw the diorama from the back.
The Lincoln figure looks pretty solemn, but there was a bit of levity to the proceedings. The nominee asked William D. Kelley of Pennsylvania—I think he’s the fellow standing between Ashmun and Lincoln—how tall he was. Kelley was 6’3″.
“I beat you,” Lincoln said, “I am six feet four without my high-heeled boots.”
Kelley had a sense of humor. “Pennsylvania bows to Illinois,” he replied. “I am glad that we have found a candidate for the Presidency whom we can look up to.”