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Everybody's History

Everybody's History: Indiana's Lincoln Inquiry and the Quest to Reclaim a President's Past

Keith A. Erekson
Copyright Date: 2012
Pages: 272
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  • Book Info
    Everybody's History
    Book Description:

    Revered by the public, respected by scholars, and imitated by politicians, Abraham Lincoln remains influential more than two hundred years after his birth. His memory has inspired books, monuments, and museums and also sparked controversies, rivalries, and forgeries. That so many people have been interested in Lincoln for so long makes him an ideal subject for exploring why history matters to ordinary Americans as well as to academic specialists. In Everybody’s History, Keith A. Erekson focuses on the Southwestern Indiana Historical Society—an organization composed of lawyers, historians, collectors, genealogists, teachers, college presidents, and newspaper editors—who joined together during the 1920s and 1930s to recover a part of Lincoln’s life his biographers had long ignored: the years from age seven to twentyone when he lived on the Indiana frontier. Participants in the “Lincoln Inquiry,” as it was commonly known, researched old records, interviewed aging witnesses, hosted pageants, built a historical village, and presented their findings in public and in print. Along the way they defended their methods and findings against competitors in the fields of public history and civic commemoration, and rescued some of Indiana’s own history by correcting a forgotten chapter of Lincoln’s. Everybody’s History traces the development of popular interest in Lincoln to uncover the story of an extensive network of nonprofessional historians who contested old authorities and advanced new interpretations. In so doing, the book invites all who are interested in the past to see history as both vital to public life and meaningful to everybody.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-194-6
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  5. Introduction: “Lincoln Is Everybody’s Subject”
    (pp. 1-8)

    This book tackles the modern historical paradox in which Americans regularly report hating history in classrooms while they increasingly pursue the past in everyday life. Test after standardized test seems to suggest that younger people don’t know the basic facts of history while a recent nationwide survey found that older people most commonly recall their history classes as “boring” and “irrelevant.” Yet Americans purchase historical books and movie tickets, visit historic sites and museums, commemorate anniversaries and historic places, save old buildings and family heirlooms, and research genealogy and local history. History likewise permeates public life as presidents draw comparisons...

  6. 1 The Lincoln Inquiry
    (pp. 9-36)

    John Iglehart typically spent his evenings reading history. By day he worked as the general counsel for a large railroad corporation—the Evansville & Terre Haute beginning in the 1870s and then its parent company, Chicago & Eastern Illinois, after 1912. He spent his off-work hours raising a family, tending a garden, and riding in his automobile, but by nightfall he preferred reading. After dinner he would, as he once described it, settle down in a “comfortable corner” and, by the light of “two good electric bulbs,” immerse himself in old diaries and newspapers, collections of letters, narratives of travelers on the...

  7. 2 A Crowded Field
    (pp. 37-54)

    On Lincoln’s birthday in February 1924, half a dozen of the Lincoln Inquiry’s able workers met for a “smoker” in Evansville. For two hours the assembled lawyers, insurance agent, former state senator, artist, and journalist examined their “historical and society work and the outlook in southwestern Indiana.” The outlook was not good. An eight-page memo documenting the evening’s exchange reveals that the men agreed unanimously that the Indiana State Historical Commission had “deliberately snubbed” the society’s workers and introduced a new “policy of restrictions” in an effort to censor the society’s work and control its agenda. Redirecting Eggleston’s imagery onto...

  8. 3 The Best Witnesses
    (pp. 55-84)

    As the Lincoln Inquiry secured its place on the landscape of public history in Indiana, competitors in the field of Lincoln studies stepped up their pressure on its work. Two different encounters serve to encapsulate the developing tensions, illustrating the weight Inquiry members would place on direct experience and face-to-face encounter at a time when historians in general and those in the field of Lincoln studies in par tic u lar would argue for the primacy of written sources preserved in archives. As some historians urged distance and “scientific” objectivity, the Lincoln Inquiry emphasized proximity and personal encounter.

    On the...

  9. 4 Lincoln’s Indiana Environment
    (pp. 85-105)

    The “Best Witnesses” meeting at Prince ton marked the first attempt by the Lincoln Inquiry to synthesize its information into a single presentation. For half a decade, Inquiry workers had not only been inter-viewing witnesses but also scouring court house rec ords, searching out documents and artifacts, plumbing old newspapers, reading written histories, and thinking critically about what had been uncovered and about where missing information might still be found. By encouraging and assigning hundreds of people to pursue questions about local and family history, the Lincoln Inquiry sought to produce—eventually and collectively—a rich history of southern Indiana that...

  10. 5 The Klan and a Conspiracy
    (pp. 106-133)

    On the rounded crest of a small, tree-covered hill in southern Indiana’s Spencer County lie the buried remains of Nancy Hanks Lincoln, the mother of the sixteenth president. After succumbing to milk-sickness, a chemical toxin transmitted to humans who drink the milk of cows that have grazed on the white snakeroot plant, Nancy was buried in a wooden box built by her husband with the likely assistance of her nine-year-old son. Her grave rests with others of her generation who were likewise buried in the rough, pioneer-era cemetery. A succession of markers has identified the site, but the trees and...

  11. 6 In the Lincoln Atmosphere
    (pp. 134-160)

    Throughout the decade of the 1920s, the Lincoln Inquiry took its message to the American public in a variety of ways. When the society was organized, its members expressed the vague belief that if they researched southern Indiana’s frontier environment then their correct findings would be cited by future writers. However, through their clashes with Indiana’s public history establishment, the state’s civic promoters, and Albert Beveridge and other Lincoln biographers, they slowly learned that it was not enough just to research about the past and publish in obscure journals—they needed to put their findings into a format that was...

  12. Conclusion: “A Thousand Minds”
    (pp. 161-170)

    Eight months after John Iglehart’s death, James Randall called for the banishment of “amateurs” from the field of Lincoln studies. Born in Indianapolis, the young boy who liked to draw Lincoln’s face grew into a constitutional historian trained at the University of Chicago. In the 1920s, he turned his attention to the field of Lincoln studies and was not impressed. The Greek temple at Lincoln’s birthplace enshrined errors in granite carving, a host of publications trivialized Lincoln and his legacy, Carl Sandburg’s poetic and pop u lar biography of Lincoln was defective. As a solution to the host of historical...

  13. Appendix A. Members of the Southwestern Indiana Historical Society, 1920–1939
    (pp. 171-184)
  14. Appendix B. Papers, Publications, and Works of the Lincoln Inquiry
    (pp. 185-204)
  15. Abbreviations
    (pp. 205-206)
  16. Notes
    (pp. 207-242)
  17. Index
    (pp. 243-250)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 251-252)