Monday, April 12, 2010

It’s only just begun – Lincoln’s legacy beyond the Bicentennial

The first message started like many others over the past couple years: “Hi Ann! We'd love to have you add our upcoming event to your blog!”

The follow-up message contained the one word I knew I’d dread when I saw it – "closing."

I became interested in the Bicentennial nearly a decade ago, when I first read of plans for a nationwide celebration to honor Abraham Lincoln’s 200th birthday. I set into place a seven-year plan, vowing to do “significant Lincoln-related work” myself by the time Feb. 12, 2009 rolled around. That plan didn’t play out exactly as I planned, but it turned out pretty good after all.

Little did I know then that I’d be writing a blog about Lincoln nearly every day for a year. Heck, back then, I’d never even heard of a blog!

Now, the official Bicentennial is coming to a close, and I’ve been asked to invite you to the last big hurrah! I didn’t want to just share the canned news release many others might share. I wanted to give you a “value-added version,” so I went right to the top.

U.S. Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Co-chairman Harold Holzer, also author of more than 30 books on Lincoln, came through for me with a wrap up I think you’ll all enjoy. And, Matt Pinsker, who will speak on Lincoln in the digital age at the closing event, provided some insight on where we’re going from here. I think you’ll enjoy reading what both of them had to say.

The Bicentennial Commission’s closing program

The commission wants you to know:

“On behalf of the Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, you're invited to attend the Commission's closing program on April 19, 2010 from 12:00 noon. - 1:00 p.m. at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Building in Washington , D.C.“We will celebrate Lincoln once more, reflecting not only on his life and legacy beyond this Bicentennial year but also challenging the latest generation to apply Lincoln to our present and continue to struggle for ‘a more perfect union.’

“Join us for an engaging presentation by Matt Pinsker, Brian Pohanka Chair of Civil War History at Dickinson College and author of “Lincoln 's Sanctuary: Abraham Lincoln and the Soldiers' Home.” Dr. Pinsker will share his thoughts on the impact of an emerging digital age of Lincoln scholarship. He will then open the floor for questions and conversation with the audience. We hope you will join with fellow esteemed scholars, elected officials, students and community leaders for this exciting event.

”For more info and to register, please visit”

Here’s the scoop:

Monday, April 19, 2010
12:00 p.m.-1:00 p.m.
US Department of Agriculture Building
Patio Room1400
Independence Ave., S.W.
Washington D.C.

Harold Holzer wraps up one heck of a present

Harold Holzer has been there for me time and again over the past few years, patiently answering what seemed to be a gazillion questions. This time, I asked him if he would address the life of the commission - how it was born, what it hoped to achieve, an example or two of how it morphed to be perhaps even better than he'd imagined, what it feels like to have to "close" it.
Here’s what he had to say:

“I’m proud that the Commission—a truly creative and diverse group of scholars, collectors, and Lincoln authorities—together with a very devoted and energetic staff, not only fulfilled each and every one of its legislated mandates, but helped stimulate other individuals and organizations around the country to make 2009 a truly unforgettable ‘year of Lincoln’ nationwide. As our final report will show, we certainly organized countless events from coast to coast, worked on the Mint’s new pennies and the Postal Service’s new stamps, and staged widely attended town halls to continue Lincoln ’s ‘conversation’ about America ’s ‘unfinished work.’

“Few of us who participated will ever forget Denyse Grave’s concert at the Lincoln Memorial, or President Obama’s 200th birthday speech in the Capitol Rotunda—official events, and great ones. But much of what we’ve done can’t adequately be recorded in a report: it involved encouraging, promoting, and supporting state-by-state initiatives to commemorate Lincoln, to help promote individuals and communities, or simply getting the idea circulated that Lincoln’s big birthday was approaching, and then participating with gratitude as corporations, libraries, museums, and theaters responded with remarkable programming of their own that added inestimably to the celebration and the legacy. Thus we’re not only proud of our own work, but thrilled that so much happened in so many other quarters, at least in part as a result of the groundwork we laid from 2001 on. These results included more than 200 new books, plus TV documentaries, museum exhibitions, new plays and dance works—a fantastic legacy.

“Am I said it’s ending? Well, I will of course miss the formal interaction with my colleagues and the staff, but I’m also sure many of these relationships will continue. Lincoln people stay in touch, work on projects together, meet at conferences and such. That will continue as long as we’re standing.

“For another thing, while the Lincoln Bicentennial may be ending, the Civil War sesquicentennial is only beginning. And while no national commission was established to manage that anniversary, state commissions have sprung up in the key battlefield states to organize events and conferences. November marks the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s election, March 2011 the 150th of his inaugural, and April the 150th of the start of the war. So we’re already in a new cycle that will carry enthusiasts through 2015. Is it confusing? Well, it just requires us to sort of close down the old computer and reboot with new software, at least metaphorically speaking. Now everything tracks to the anniversary of the war. The good news is that we have a new opportunity to remind people how important this history is.

“Besides, the ALBC will in a sense continue its work in new forms. The ALBC Foundation will live on and support important initiatives. And the ALBC website,, survives and thrives. I urge everyone to log on after April 19 to read our final report and make use of its many enduring and important features.

“As new technologies develop, our goal will be to make sure that Lincoln has a place in their content. Whatever the medium, Lincoln will always be part of the message—always part of the national conversation—not only because he believed ‘we cannot escape history,’ but because he believed so earnestly in ‘a vast future.’

“Let me end with one cautionary note. This connection between history and the future is important—crucial, really. We can’t make proper use of the past unless we learn from it—and apply it to the present. It doesn’t require us to rewrite history; but it does call on us to analyze and understand it with honesty and sensitivity. Just a few days ago, I’m afraid, the State of Virginia began promoting its upcoming Civil War observances by talking cheerfully about secession and state’s rights, and all but ignoring the issue of slavery. The official explanation was that the idea is to promote tourism, so why bring up all the old ‘unpleasantness’? Well, because the issues of freedom, opportunity, and self-determination are as important—and sometimes as open to challenge—now as then. The debate over the Civil War may go on. But the battles are over—the main issue has been settled —and let’s never forget what that involved, or all these commemorations will have no value at all.”

Matt Pinsker forecasts Lincoln studies in the digital age

When the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum opened five years ago this month, I had the opportunity to meet a patriarch of Lincoln scholars, the late David Herbert Donald, as well as Holzer and Pinsker. I was excited that this article seemed to cry for comments from the two living scholars, and I wanted to share a little of Pinsker’s expertise on Lincoln and technology with those who can’t make to the closing.

I wrote to him, saying, “A few years ago, someone like me, who is not on the staff of a university with sabbaticals and university grants, would likely never have been able to do significant research on Lincoln . Because of time and financial constraints, I couldn't have gone to where these collections were housed. Yet, with all the resources that are now digitized, it opens doors in ways we might have never imagined.

Then I asked,“How do you see this changing Lincoln scholarship, and even more, how do you see it changing how we can keep the legacy alive in new ways and through new mediums?”
Pinsker wrote back:

“As you wrote [above], the future of Lincoln studies is likely to be quite bright because more people have more access to more evidence than ever before in the history of history. This flattened hierarchy and information superhighway will lead to both good and bad developments -- in addition to the new voices and new documents, for example, we will also have to address a growing problem of bad information that goes ‘viral’ (to use the expression of the day) and creates myths and misunderstandings faster than ever before.

“It's also true that new information doesn't always translate into better understanding or fresh concepts. For that, I believe we still have to rely mainly on the creativity and persistence of trained scholars, but I do believe that training these scholars for the next generation means teaching them not only about the fundamental precepts of history and historiography but also about the new digital tools and their application for subjects such as Lincoln.

“My particular view is that new tools will help us decipher the political Lincoln in a fashion that will revolutionize perceptions about his leadership because it will reveal his behind-the-scenes actions in ways that have previously been obscured.”

This Lincoln general store isn’t closing

For nearly 30 years, I shared one of Lincoln’s early professions. I was a grocer. The store where I worked didn’t close at night. It was open 24 hours. They say old habits die hard. Sometimes, I think they live forever. So, folks, the bicentennial may be “closing” in a sense, but Lincoln Buff 2 blog isn’t. Just as we shut a few cash registers down during the slower hours of the day, my posts have slowed some. I won’t be writing two or three a day now, as I did sometimes in February 2009, but I’ll still be watching for Lincoln events and publications, I’ll still share them, and I’ll be beginning work on my next Lincoln venture.

Who knows? Someday, you may even pick up a Lincoln book and see the author is Ann Tracy Mueller.

Blogger’s note: Thanks to Harold Holzer and Matt Pinsker and to Malorie Janasek of Jasculca/Terman and Associates, Inc. for their generous sharing of information and perspective.

© Ann Tracy Mueller 2010


Geoff Elliott said...

Fascinating, Ann! Thank you so much for sharing the comments of the leading Lincoln scholars of our time. I love Holzer's words, especially.


Lincoln Buff 2 said...

Thanks for your kind words, Jeff. I was thankful Harold and Matt could offer some insight. Their friendship and support is truly a gift, and their words are always powerful.