BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Doug Wilson, author of "Honor's Voice: The Transformation of Abraham Lincoln," another Lincoln book?
MR. DOUGLAS WILSON, AUTHOR, "HONOR'S VOICE: THE TRANSFORMATION OF ABRAHAM LINCOLN" That what I think the first reviewer said, `Another Lincoln book?' Luckily, he went on to say that he thought it was worthwhile.
LAMB: What is it?
MR. WILSON: It's a--it's about Lincoln's early life, the period from the time that he left home in 1831 to the time that he got married in 1842. And it doesn't try to cover everything that happened to Lincoln. Instead, it tries to explore themes and certain episodes that seem important to his rise, since the story of those years is--is a--is a legend. It's--it's the rise of a boy who--uneducated, poor, penniless and so forth and who rises to success as a politician and as a lawyer and he rises in society. And s--so I--I stop him at the point of his marriage, but it's essentially the story of his emergence.
LAMB: Early in the book, page 12, `"Lincoln openly and candidly and sincerely told me that his mother was a bastard."'
MR. WILSON: That's William H. Herndon, his partner. Herndon wanted to put things like that in his biography, and he got a lot of static for it because people thought it was shameful. And if it was true--as his friends kept saying, `Even if it's true, they shouldn't put that kind of thing into a biography.' Herndon had this kind of difficulty, but he thought that that was an important part of Lincoln's story. He thought that what Lincoln went through, through this sort of family shame, was part of the reason he wanted to distinguish himself.
LAMB: And so the explanation? Was she a bastard?
MR. WILSON: The--I think that most--it's still a--a conten--still a--an area of contention, but I think most people accept the evidence that she probably was illegitimate. And there's just a lot about the Hanks family that's very hard to unravel because there are so many Hankses and they were so obscure and they all had very similar names. I--there--there are I don't know how many Nancy Hankses that people have been chasing. And sometimes you get the wrong one and so forth.
I'm not an authority on this, but Herndon, I think in this instance, knew what he heard from Lincoln and he--he repeated it deliberately. And he said where it happened and when it happened and what the circumstances were. Nobody thinks Herndon's a liar. Pe--a lot of criticism of Herndon for his opinions and his psychologizing and perhaps the selective use of evidence, but I don't think anybody accuses him of lying.
And so I think what we do know is that Lincoln--with--with a reasonable amount of assurance, is that Lincoln told him this. Now it's hard to--it's hard to take that too much further, but there is--there is a new study of Lincoln's background in the works and maybe that'll tell us more when it comes out.
LAMB: How many years did you spend at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois?
MR. WILSON: I was there for 33 years.
LAMB: Where's hometown originally?
MR. WILSON: Originally, I grew up in Grand Island, Nebraska.
LAMB: Now the little house of Carl Sandburg's and the gravesite right there in Galesburg...
MR. WILSON: Yes.
LAMB: ...did that ever play a role in your life? Did you ever go out there?
MR. WILSON: Oh, I've been there many times and--and--and, of course, Carl Sandburg is Galesburg's most-famous citizen. That's where I taught for 33 years. So he is an important presence. We celebrated his centenary in '78. We had a big collegewide, townwide celebration, and I was--I was the chairman of that event. So I learned a lot about Sandburg. I met his family and...
LAMB: What's the difference between the way Carl Sandburg wrote about Abraham Lincoln and, say, the way you do?
MR. WILSON: Well, Sandburg wrote two separate works about Lincoln, which are nowadays combined. The first one was called "The Prairie Years." It was about his pre-presidential life, and it started out to be a children's book. But Lincoln got very interested in it--or Sandburg got very interested in his subject, and so he converted it into a kind of fictionalized biography. So he makes up a lot of conversations and so forth. He--he really did a lot of research. He wanted to get it accurate, but he did think that he ought to flesh it out with fictionalizing. He got a lot of criticism for that.
And he wanted to go on and write the story of his presidency, which he called "The War Years"--huge work--and that's a very different kind of book. He doesn't fictionalize. He tries to write as accurately as he can. But it's maddening for a scholar because he doesn't tell you where he gets any of these anecdotes. And if you don't recognize them, you don't where to find them to test them out.
But I think maybe James G. Randall said one of the most interesting things about Sandburg's book. He s--Randall said, `It's more like a pageant. It isn't what an historian would write. It's what a poet would write.' But I think "The War Years" especially is--is well-regarded. It's regarded as a--has great powers of evocation.
LAMB: So if you buy your book, "Honor's Voice," what do you get here that you say you might not get in any other book?
MR. WILSON: Well, what you get is a--a--an exploration of certain themes that are not nearly as much explored in other books: his self-education, his problems with women, his venture into politics--his first venture into politics, the transition from country to town and especially the difficulty that he ran into--his--his career was taking off. He was really sailing along. And he--when he got involved with Mary Todd, his life hit a huge snag and he went into an emotional tailspin. It's a very obscure event, and I think what I try to do in the book is to try to figure out what that was all about and to try to give a better account. The accounts that we have are not very satisfactory. They make a lot of assumptions that don't pan out and that are at odds with the evidence.
One of the things that I'm doing in this book is I'm trying to face up to the fact that the evidence about Lincoln's early life is a very dodgy kind of evidence. It's almost all recollections and reminiscences of older people about what happened in the past. And historians are very suspicious of that kind of evidence, and because of that, they have for the last 50 years not done very much with Lincoln's early life because they--they'd rather just stay away from this kind of evidence. And it is dodgy.
We know that memory is faulty and so forth and unreliable. We know that people made mistakes. We know that the stories conflict. But the re--what I decided to do was to try to see what could be made just by looking very carefully at all of that evidence. And there's a lot of stories and anecdotes and testimony that's really been kind of pushed aside and not looked at.
LAMB: What's the most valuable source for you?
MR. WILSON: Far and away, the most valuable source is the collection of letters and interviews about Lincoln that were collected by his law partner, William H. Herndon.
LAMB: What was Billy Herndon like?
MR. WILSON: Well, he was very, very different from Lincoln. He was outgoing. He was effusive, loquacious. He--he ha--had strong opinions, he had radical opinions. He was an abolitionist, for example, and--and Lincoln was not. And he had a drinking problem and Lincoln was a person who rarely drank. But they apparently made a good team because the--the firm of Lincoln and Herndon, as we're finding out from the Lincoln Legals Paper Project, which is really coming to a--a boil in Springfield right now and--and turning up marvelous things, turns out that this was a--a very important firm and that Herndon really pulled his weight in that firm.
And so Lincoln knew what he was doing when he put that firm together. Herndon tells us that when Lincoln came, he was just a young man, had just gotten--just a law student, really, hadn't gotten his license. And Lincoln came to him and said, `Would you like to come in with me?' And Herndon thought he was joking. And Lincoln said he--no, he--he meant it and Herndon was overwhelmed. He was thrilled, and he never forgot that. He thought he owed Lincoln a huge debt.
So Herndon was a man who really did r--who owed Lincoln a great deal and who revered him. But, typically, the kind of biography that he wanted to write--he wanted to tell the whole truth. He wanted to get into everything. In his day, biography was supposed to be done sympathetically by your friends, and it was supposed to only talk about the positive and--and the honorific. And he wanted to--to tell the whole story. And he got a lot of difficulty, a lot--drew a lot of flak for that.
LAMB: Buried in the book on page 183, there's a--there's an anecdote. Herndon offered his collaborator an anecdote that presumably enlarges on an earlier hint. And I'll just read a little bit of it. `Mr. Speed'--by the way, who is Speed?
MR. WILSON: Joshua Speed, Lincoln's closest friend in Springfield.
LAMB: `...told me this story of Lincoln. Speed, about 1839 and '40, was keeping a pretty woman in the city and Lincoln, desirous to have a little, said to Speed, quote, "Speed, do you know where I can get some?" And in reply, Speed said, `Yes, I do, and if you will wait a moment or so, I'll send you to the place with a note. You can't get it without a note or by my appearance.'" Now what is--what am I reading?
MR. WILSON: This is a--an account that--it--it's an hilarious account that Herndon wrote to his collaborator after they--the biography was pretty well complete, I think, and it wasn't to go in the biography. And it's hard to know why Herndon wrote it to Weik except that he thought that it was interesting and he also thought it was true. But it's a--it's an hilarious story. It sounds like a parody of the Honest Abe Lincoln story because it's a story about Lincoln going to bed with a prostitute and then determining that he didn't have enough money and decided that he wasn't gonna go through with it because he didn't want to go on credit.
LAMB: `Mr. Lincoln says, "I've only got $3."' She wanted $5? Is this true, by the way?
MR. WILSON: Well, what we know is that Herndon thought it was true, and what I try to show in there is that even though it is a preposterous-sounding story and most Lincoln scholars reject it, Herndon thought it was true. Now somebody like David Donald will s--will say--'cause I--I know, I was on a radio program with him recently--he would say, `Well, Herndon's leg was being pulled and he didn't know it.' So that's an explanation. It may be that Herndon had the wool pulled over his eyes. It's...
LAMB: The pu--the punch line on this is, `You are the most conscientious man I've ever--I ever saw.'
MR. WILSON: Yeah.
LAMB: Why did she say that to him, allegedly?
MR. WILSON: Well, of course, this is Herndon recalling a story that he'd heard years and years and years ago presumably, and so the--you can't put any stock in the exact words that he's using. He's trans--the gist of the story is about all you can go with ex...
LAMB: Did you ever worry in any of the s--s--things that you have in the book that people would say, `Why do we need to know all this?'
MR. WILSON: Well, I try to--I try to say in the beginning that--that this kind of evidence can't be--for--for the most part, we're not dealing with certainty. We're dealing with likelihood and probability. And I say that even though everything that I present in here--it's not equally valuable. It all has, it seems to me, some evidentiary value.
What I show in that anecdote is that at the time that it's supposed to have happened, we know that Lincoln was very nervous about debt. He have stories about his worrying about his debt. We know that he was very awkward with women. He had a terrible time with women. This was a big problem for him. And so he--he didn't--he didn't have a regular girlfriend. He had gotten himself into a--a--sort of an engagement with Mary Owen, another almost comic affair. So what I'm saying is that this story, even though it sounds like a parody and it may be a joke, fits with the other things that we know about this. And that's why I don't think we should just throw it out.
LAMB: For the person that's not a Lincoln follower, do go down the list of little things, like what years did he live?
MR. WILSON: He was born in 1809 in Kentucky.
LAMB: How long did he live in Kentucky?
MR. WILSON: Lived there seven years, and they moved to southwest Indiana, which was really just a woods then, and--and cleared a farm and built a house and this kind of thing. And that's where he grew up.
LAMB: How long did he live in Indiana?
MR. WILSON: He lived there 14 years. He left when he was 21.
LAMB: What year did his mother, Nancy Hanks, die?
MR. WILSON: She died in 18--I think it was 1818.
LAMB: In Indiana?
MR. WILSON: Yes. Mm-hmm.
LAMB: Still buried there?
MR. WILSON: Yes.
LAMB: He left Indiana to go to Illinois what year?
MR. WILSON: In 1830.
LAMB: And you start this in 18...
MR. WILSON: '31.
LAMB: And where was he then?
MR. WILSON: He's--he was living with his father and he helped his father build a new cabin near Decatur, Illinois. He'd lived through what they called Winter of the Deep Snow; '30-'31 was a huge blizzard winter. And he took a job working on a flatboat--actually, he had to build the flatboat because they didn't have a--have one when he got there; working for a man, taking a cargo of goods down to New Orleans in 1831. And when he came back, he went to work in a store that the man who had the flatboat, Denton Offutt, had set up in the little village of Du Salem, which is near Springfield.
LAMB: You can see here on the map in the center of the state that all those towns you mentioned are right there, including Quincy and you can see Jacksonville there, Pru--Peoria and Bloomington. How many brothers and sisters did he have?
MR. WILSON: Well, he had an infant brother who died and he had a sister--a slightly older sister.
LAMB: When he was in New Salem, where did he live?
MR. WILSON: He lived with various people. He lived, apparently--it's hard to trace exactly. He apparently lived--because he would--he would sleep one place and take his meals in another place. So when people say, `He boarded with us,' usually it means he took his meals. Sometimes it meant, `He lived with us.' But he lived partly in the tavern. He lived with various people, Mentor Graham, Roan Herndon.
LAMB: Ron Herndon's relationship with Bill--William Herndon?
MR. WILSON: He's a cousin of William H. Herndon?
LAMB: Mentor Graham was?
MR. WILSON: Mentor Graham was the village schoolteacher.
LAMB: Who is Dennis Offutt?
MR. WILSON: Denton Offutt was a...
LAMB: I mean, Denton Ontun--Offutt.
MR. WILSON: ...a--an entrepreneur who came into the neighborhood trying to make money. He was apparently something of a con man and a scoundrel. And when the store in New Salem didn't pan out, he disappeared and left town, leaving his creditors holding the bag.
LAMB: Did Mr. Lincoln work for him?
MR. WILSON: He did.
LAMB: What'd he do?
MR. WILSON: Well, he was the storekeeper and the mill operator because Offutt not only rented a store--or bought a store full of goods, he--he rented the mill at New Salem.
LAMB: Jack Armstrong--who was he and what role did that play in his life?
MR. WILSON: Jack Armstrong was a--a--supposed to be the strongest man in the--in the area, the toughest man. He was--hung out with a group called the Clary's Grove boys. He lived in Clary's Grove. And when they wanted to test Lincoln, as most newcomers had to be tested, he looked like a pretty tough customer, so they put him up against the best they had, who was Jack Armstrong.
And they wanted him to fight, but Lincoln would not fight. And then they said, `Well, let's tussle and scuffle,' which is kind of roughhousing, and Lincoln said he wouldn't do that. But he would wrestle. Wrestling had rules. There--there were prescribed rules for what--what could happen. And it was basically--wasn't a fight. It was basically a test of strength.
LAMB: And about what age is he when he's in New Salem and he's about to wrestle Jack Armstrong?
MR. WILSON: About 22.
LAMB: How old is Jack Armstrong?
MR. WILSON: I think Jack is a few years older than he is, if I recall.
LAMB: What happened?
MR. WILSON: Well, because John T. Stuart, Lincoln's first law partner, told a--a campaign biographer or a reporter who was gathering evidence for a campaign biography--because he told him that this wrestling match had been the turning point in Lincoln's life, that reporter went and dug up some more stories about it and it appeared in the first campaign biography in 1860. And because it was such a hit and became a standard part of biography, Herndon went around and interviewed as many people as he could who claimed to know something about it. So we have a lot of testimony in Herndon's letters and interviews about the wrestling match.
LAMB: What's important about it? Why was it a turning point?
MR. WILSON: Well, I don't think it was a turning point. I--I try to say that. I--I use the wrestling match in the first chapter as a way of showing how you have to gauge the kind of evidence that this is. What Herndon has is all of these interviews and letters, all of this testimony. Well, it--it's wildly conflicting. It doesn't tell the same story at all.
So what are we going to make out of it? It's--it's like the evidence in general. The evidence about Lincoln's life that Herndon gathered is--doesn't all agree. Some of it's clearly wrong. Some of it's irreconcilable. But I try to show that it is possible, by sifting through the evidence, to sort some things out and sh--and show that they were clearly wrong.
And some things--for example, the betting, which, of course, the campaign biography doesn't talk about, was apparently a very important element in the wrestling match. And if we lose sight of the fact that it was--that there was much betting involved, then we have trouble understanding what the issues were.
What seems to have happened is that they had agreed to wrestle. They had agreed to a wrestle in a certain way, not the kind of way that we're familiar with, which is called catch-as-catch-can wrestling, where you try to get ahold of your opponent and get the best hold you can and throw him. They agreed to wrestle in a--by taking certain holds. And the rules are that you're supposed to throw your opponent down to the ground, but you can't break your hold. If you break your hold, you--you lose the fall. It's like--it's like being thrown. You decide how many falls there are gonna be and then you--and then you go at it.
Well, what happened was that Jack Armstrong didn't wanna wrestle this way. This was dull. And most people--if you had two well-matched people, they'd--they'd struggle together for a long time. But he--he finally agreed that he would. And after they had grappled for a long time, he finally reached down and legged him--that is, he grabbed ahold of his leg and threw him up over, which was unfair.
Apparently what happened, if you sort this evidence out, is nobody thought that was so terrible. This is what you expected from Jack, and Lincoln went along with it. He--he took it in good humor. But then when--when the people who had backed Armstrong, had bet their money and their jackknives and their whiskey on Armstrong, tried to claim that they had won, then Lincoln said, `No.' And he would fight anybody who thought that they--that he had been beaten. And that's, apparently, what people admired; that he--he took the--the legging in good humor, but he drew the line at having his friends lose their money and so forth because he hadn't been beaten. He'd simply been fouled.
LAMB: Was President Lincoln's mother a wrestler, like you say in the book?
MR. WILSON: Well, there's one story that she was. It's a very interesting story, and it's hard to tell because the guy who tells it is--is not particularly known for the truthfulness of his stories but the colorfulness of his stories. But it--it would not be--it--it would not be out of line with other things that we know about his mother, who was apparently known as an independent person, had a mind of her own, unconventional behavior, some people said. So it's possible that she was a wrestler.
LAMB: Who was Ann Rutledge?
MR. WILSON: Ann Rutledge was the most beautiful and most eligible young woman in New Salem when Lincoln came there, but she almost immediately, at the time that he came--by the time he knew her, she was already engaged to another man. His--he was--his name was MacNamar. He left town, saying he was going back East to get his parents, and he would come back and marry her. But he was gone two years and she apparently thought that she'd been deserted.
And Lincoln, who ha--had a fondness for her all along apparently, courted her and she agreed to marry him. She was taken ill in the summer of 1835, which was a terribly hot, wet summer, and there was a huge typhoid epidemic. And she was suddenly taken ill and she died in a few weeks' time. Lincoln is supposed to have taken this, according to the testimony of "Herndon's Informants," very hard. And, in fact, people were afraid that he was on the verge of insanity; that he was becoming suicidal. And he was finally taken in hand by some of his closest friends, who sort of took him in and looked after him for a few weeks until he--be began to come around.
LAMB: Who is Elizabeth Abel?
MR. WILSON: Well, she was apparently--she was a--a wife of a--a man from Kentucky, well-to-do family, who settled near New Salem. And she, apparently, was a person who befriended Lincoln and thought that he was--he--that he had real ability and encouraged him and--and was very fond of him. And al--as often happens, this inspired rumors about Lincoln and Elizabeth Abel, though I--I--I doubt that there was anything to it.
LAMB: There's a--I'm trying to see whether it was a letter--there was a document here that you quote from, from Elizabeth Abel, where she wrote--has to do with Ann's death: `The courtship between him and Miss Rutledge I can say, but little this much I do know. And he was staying with us at the time of her death and it was a sh--great shock to him. And I never seen a man mourn for a companion more than he did for her. He made a remark one day when it was--it was raining that he could not bear the idea of its raining on her grave. That was the time the community said he was crazy. He was not crazy, but he was very desponding a long time.'
MR. WILSON: Yes.
LAMB: Did he really--i--is there evidence--and you go on to talk about that--that some people thought he was gonna commit suicide. Was there--is there actual evidence that he might've tried to commit suicide?
MR. WILSON: Well, no more evidence than we have of the kind that you just described and that is the stories of friends. But Mrs. Bowling-Green--Bowling-Green was a sort of father figure for Lincoln. He was the justice of the peace and a--a great friend of Lincoln's. And Mrs. Bowling-Green says that she and her husband took Lincoln in and--and looked after him for a--a good while until he got better. And she thought that he was in--in a very bad way.
So I don't--and there--there's a great deal of testimony about his so-called crazy spell. He obviously got very despondent, very distressed after her death. And--and so you get the kind of testimony--it doesn't all agree. Some of it says, as Elizabeth Abel, `Well, no, he wasn't crazy. He was just despondent.' Other people say, `Well, he took it very hard.' But har--no matter how you cut it, everybody agrees that talks about it that he--he--it was more than a normal reaction to--to the death of his fiancee. It was excessive, and people were afraid.
LAMB: You say later, `Herndon's theory that the death of Ann Rutledge was the cause of Lincoln's lifelong melancholy may have had great appeal in the 19th century, but it now appears simplistic and hopelessly overdrawn.' But the `melancholy' word is something you see all the time...
MR. WILSON: That's right.
LAMB: ...with Abraham Lincoln. What does it mean?
MR. WILSON: Well, Lincoln--not in Indiana and not in New Salem, but when he comes to Springfield in 1837--he's about 28 years old--we begin to get these reports that Lincoln is a sad man, is a gloomy man; that his basic demeanor is of melancholy. Even though he was known as a great storyteller and could convulse an audience at will, he still--his basic demeanor begins to be reported as sad.
And by the time that he was a very prominent man in the 1850s, Herndon said, `Melancholy dripped from him when he walked.' And almost everybody talks about this. People who didn't know him and came along later, like Jesse Weik, Herndon's collaborator, couldn't believe that a guy who told such funny stories could be a melancholic person. So he went around and he interviewed everybody that he could find that knew Lincoln, and they all told him the same thing, that he was a very melancholy, sad person.
That's something that happened to him that ca--that--that came on him a--after his maturity. And so Herndon, who was always wondering about what was the cause of his melancholy, when he discovered the Ann Rutledge story and discovered that Lincoln had gone--was temporarily deranged after her death, thought, `Ah-ha, this must be the cause of his melancholy.' But I think that eventually he moderated that view and said that he thought it was consti--basically, it was constitutional.
LAMB: You even talk about the possibility that he had syphilis.
MR. WILSON: Herndon says that Lincoln told him that he had thought he had contracted syphilis. That's what we know. We know that if we believe Herndon--and I do--that Lincoln told him that he thought he had syphilis at one time.
LAMB: Who's James Short?
MR. WILSON: Short was a friend of Lincoln's in New Salem, good enough friend that when Lincoln's--who had incurred debt in a bad mercantile venture, the noteholders came around and had his--all of his worldly goods put up for auction, including his surveying equipment. He was making his living surveying. So his friend James Short bought his surveying instruments--instruments back at the auction and gave them back to Lincoln.
LAMB: Now where do you get things like this? I'll read: `Once when Mr. Lincoln was surveying, he was put in bed in the same room with two girls, the head of his bed being next to the foot of the girls' bed. In the night, he commenced tickling the feet of one of his girls with his fingers. As she seemed to enjoy it as much as he did, he then tickled a little higher, and as he would tickle higher, the girl would shove down lower, and the higher he tickled, the lower he moved--she moved, that is. Mr. Lincoln would tell the story with evident enjoyment. He never told how the thing ended.'
MR. WILSON: Well, this is Short--this is James Short telling Herndon this, and I'm inclined to believe that he's--he's not trying to put Lincoln down and he's not trying to embarrass him. He's--he t--says to Herndon, `This is a story that you won't be able to tell your readers, but I'll tell you 'cause you'll enjoy it.' Unless he's making it up, it probably happened. It's interesting to me that the story doesn't have an ending, just--it's just sort of a beginning. It's left hanging there. And Short says Lincoln would never say how this story ended.
LAMB: Now do you go to events where you have lots of Lincoln scholars?
MR. WILSON: Mm-hmm.
LAMB: And--and do--when people read a book like this and it's a concentration on this kind of stuff, do they ever get mad because of the w--image that Abraham Lincoln has?
MR. WILSON: The--the problem--the problem with Herndon's evidence is, I think, twofold. One is that it is difficult evidence to work with, and you can't be sure--we can't be sure that really happened. We know--what we know is that--that James Short, who knew him well and who liked him and regarded himself as his friend, told Herndon this story. So w--whether it happened that way, it--it--it's--it's not a--a question of yes or no; it's a question of likelihood; it's a question of probability. And not everybody is gonna gauge these things the same way.
But what happened to Herndon's evidence was that it got a very bad odor in the first--the second quarter of this century. And the professional Lincoln historians said--who--who preferred documentary evidence, evidence that's contemporary and evidence that's reasonably objective--said, `Look, this evidence of Herndon's is non-documentary; it's after the fact; it's subject to all the failures of human memory--highly subjective. And therefore, it's not conclusive and, therefore, we shouldn't have anything to do with it.'
And they had in mind things like the Ann Rutledge story, which James G. Randall, the great Lincoln scholar, said had usurped the spotlight. In other words, it--it--it occupied too much attention, and people's--and--and was too critical in the forming of people's opinion about Lincoln. What we ought to do is concentrate on the presidency and forget about this sort of folklore that Herndon dug up about Lincoln's early life.
What I've been arguing for the last several years is that if we get rid of all of this evidence, if we follow Randall's standards for this evidence--and incidentally, Randall, I think, inadvertently--but when he laid out the case against the Ann Rutledge story, he defined the standards that you need to follow for historical evidence. And he des--fined them almost on a parallel with the evidence needed to convict in a criminal trial. Well, on that basis, we have practically no historical evidence. And even his student, David Donald, has admitted that if we follow his rules, there's almost nothing that we can use.
So what I'm saying is if we want to talk about Lincoln's early life, we have no alternative but to try to make something out of Herndon's evidence. And that's what I try to do in this book, in this period. We don't--we can either say we don't know anything about Lincoln's early life or we can say, `Well, this is what we know, and you have to understand going in this is the kind of evidence it is. And here's what--here's what--if you sift it out, it looks like this, possibly this, this is a likelihood,' and so forth.
LAMB: How many books have you written in your life, and how many of them have been about Abraham Lincoln?
MR. WILSON: Well, most of the work that I've done in--that's issued in books has been editorial work. I've edited some work by George Santillana. I've edited books by--edited a--a manuscript of Thomas Jefferson, his literary notebook, "Commonplace Book." I spent almost 10 years working on an edition of Herndon's materials--the letters and interviews that he gathered about Lincoln, and those have just been published under the title "Herndon's Informants." My--I did that with Rodney O. Davis from Knox College. So most of the--and I'm--I'm involved in bringing out a--an edition of Jefferson's Paris writings. Now most of the things I've done have been editorial. I did publish last year a collection of my Lincoln essays.
LAMB: After 33 years at Knox College, you left to go where and why?
MR. WILSON: Well, I--I went to the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation in Charlottesville, the owners and proprietors of Monticello. And I went because they wanted to start something that I thought was a really good idea. They wanted to start a center for Jefferson studies. They wanted to develop a place in conjunction with the University of Virginia and Monticello that scholars interested in Jefferson could come and work. And they wanted also to produce educational programs and sc--conferences, seminars and so forth, publications, mainly for scholars concentrating on Jefferson.
I thought this was a terrific idea, and I--I encouraged the idea. And then they asked if I would come and help get it started. So I thought, `Well, I hate to leave Knox College because it'd been my whole life and my whole career, and I liked it very much. It was a great place to work and teach.' But I thought, `Well, retirement isn't all that far away. I will--I will give some time to help starting this Jefferson center in Charlottesville.' So in 1994, I went to Charlottesville, and we started the International Center for Jefferson Studies, of which I'm the Saunders director.
LAMB: We shouldn't let it pass that in 1994, we did the Lincoln-Douglas debates at Knox College, the--the only site left of the seven that is just like it was then.
MR. WILSON: Yeah.
LAMB: What was that, the fifth debate there?
MR. WILSON: That was the fifth debate.
LAMB: I--in a--a review by Benjamin Schwartz in the Los Angeles Times--I just want to read this paragraph about your book--it says, `There are more books published in English on Lincoln than on any other subject except Jesus. Since 1934, when the great Lincoln scholar, James G. Randall, famously asked in his address to the American Historical Association, `Has the Lincoln theme been exhausted?' more than 12,000 new titles on Lincoln have been added to the pile.' Twelve thousand titles. Will a book like yours sell? And if it does, who--who wants it? Who's--who do you think'll buy it?
MR. WILSON: I think--I don't know whether it will sell or not; I hope it will, of course. But I think because Abraham Lincoln's early life is a--is a famous American legend, and, in fact, it's really part of our national identity, I think we identify with Lincoln and his career. He is the person who rose from poverty and obscurity to a--a professional--a pr--gained a profession, gained position in politics, became president and, many think, saved his country. We identify with that--that rise.
I think that there are important things about his rise that we--that we don't know. We don't know how difficult it was. And in this period, he went through great difficulty and struggle. A couple of times--we've referred to one of them--he--he really had great mental problems. He was emotionally very vulnerable and seems to have--to have just lost it. He had to struggle, and I think that the actual story doesn't belie the legend, it simply shows that there's a human being behind the hero.
LAMB: Here's a couple of lines I underlined from the book. `I knew she was oversized, but she now appeared a fair match for Falstaff. She put him in mind of his mother,' quote, "from her want of teeth, weather-beaten appearance in general, and from a kind of notion that ran in my head that nothing could have commenced at the size of infancy--infancy and reached her present bulk in less than 35 or 40 years." Do you remember that passage?
MR. WILSON: Yeah. It's hard to know--that seems a very cruel way to describe the women that he proposed marriage to. Partly, that letter was written for fun. It was dated April 1st; it was written to a female confidante of his. And she thought, when she got it, that he was making this story up and that he was just having fun.
LAMB: Who's it about?
MR. WILSON: But it's about a woman--it's about his relationship with a woman named Mary Owens. And he did court her. We have some letters from that courtship. They are very revealing letters; they show that he was very definitely of two minds. He didn't want to be rejected. He sort of encourages her not to accept his suit, which seems very strange. He says in that letter to Eliza Browning that you quoted from that he eventually bec--had to propose to her, and that when she turned him down he was shocked, and he proposed again. She turned him down again, and then he says he began to feel that maybe he was a little in love with her after all.
It's a very strange kind of thing, but it--it's indicative of the ki--of the situation he was in. He was not the self-confident person that he is on the stump or in the legislature or in court. He was full of self-doubt. He was trying to figure out how to conduct himself. And you see this a lot in this period, that this is things that are not part of the legend, but I think they're worth knowing.
LAMB: Back to the letter or--or--and what you write, too: `She--she put him in mind of his mother, quote, "from her want of teeth."' Did they not have teeth in those days?
MR. WILSON: Well, a lot of people wonder if--if--if Lincoln is really describing his mother. Is this a description of his mother or is this part of the joke, he's just trying to say she--she was ugly? And it--you know--how is that--what kind of a way is that to describe your mother? And it's a very vexing thing.
LAMB: `Weather-beaten appearance in general and, from a kind of notion that ran in my head that nothing could have commenced at the size of infancy and reached her present bulk in less than 35 or 40 years.' And you dance around this, whether she was 5'7" or--Mary Owens--and let me see back here, 5'10" is t--and--and weighed as much as 180 pounds.
MR. WILSON: We get these different reports. And what I say is that probably what we can agree on is something that Mrs. Hardin Bale says, and that was she was over standard size for a woman.
LAMB: Other women in his life--Ann--we've mentioned Ann Rutledge. Who is Matilda Edwards?
MR. WILSON: Well, Matilda Edwards was a very beautiful young woman. She was about 18 years old in November of 1840 when she accompanied her father, who was a state senator, Cyrus Edwards, to Springfield for the legislative session. She stayed with her uncle, who was Mary Todd's brother-in-law; in other words, she stayed in the same house that Mary Todd was living in. And she apparently attracted attention of practically every eligible bachelor in Springfield, and she apparently got a lot of attention and more than a few proposals, if we can trust the testimony about it. And one of the people who was attracted to her was Abraham Lincoln.
LAMB: But there was a--a moment in th--all this where--Was it Matilda Edwards was staying with Mary Todd, tha--that...
MR. WILSON: S--staying in the same house.
MR. WILSON: And some people think she was--they were sleeping in the same bed. I'm not sure we have real evidence for that.
LAMB: What was--what was the--where--when did Mary Todd come into his life?
MR. WILSON: She came to live with her sister, Elizabeth Todd Edwards, in 1839--in late 1839--just as they were getting geared up for the 1840 campaign. And that's how she knew Lincoln, because her--her brother-in-law and her cousins were all Whig politicians who were associated with Lincoln.
LAMB: So when did they start dating?
MR. WILSON: Well, this is very hard to say? We don't have any real evidence about this. We have testimony that Lincoln was fascinated by her, that she was a creature of excitement, that he would sit and listen to her talk, that they had a lot in common. But we don't--and--and most people just go ahead and say, `Well, they started seeing each other, and they became an item in 1840, and by the--by the end of 1840, they were engaged.'
But it's very hard to find the evidence for that. And I think that--I try to show that her own letters suggest that she--she may not have been engaged to Lincoln, but they--they may have had some kind of relationship, but she doesn't talk about it in her letters. But it--what seems clear, if we can believe Speed, who was Lincoln's closest friend, is that after Lincoln and Mary were going together, Lincoln changed his mind and decided he wanted to take up with Matilda Edwards and that Mary told him that this was dishonorable, he couldn't do this. And that--this--he had a violent reaction to this, according to Speed, that he sort of lost it again. And they were--they feared for his life, and they were afraid he was suicidal and so forth.
LAMB: What's the Mary Todd--and is it embroilment?
MR. WILSON: Embroilment. The Mary Todd embroilment is simply the fact that as a result of this situation where Lincoln wanted out of their relationship and Mary resisted and Lincoln became emotionally--began to sink into kind of a despondency for--and for a week in January of 1841, he was simply out of it; he was dysfunctional. Then she presumably released him, according to some of the testimony, and--but she wanted him back. And Lincoln felt guilty that he had made her unhappy by breaking up the relationship.
And this situation went on for a long time, almost two years, until all of a sudden, unbeknownst to most of their friends, they had been seeing each other and become reconciled, and they announced, to the amazement of their friends, that they were gonna get married that very day.
The embroilment is this entanglement that Lincoln got himself into with Mary Todd that he never really could get himself out of. And so the solution was to marry her.
LAMB: Jane D. Bell wrote her correspondent the following: `Poor fella, he is in a rather bad way. Just at present, though, he is on the mend at--now, as he was out on Monday for the first time for a month, dying with love, they say, and the doctors say he came within an inch of being a perfect lunatic for life.' Who's Jane Bell, and what's that about?
MR. WILSON: Jane Bell is repeating what she's heard. She d--doesn't claim to know anything at--firsthand. But it--what she's describing fits very well with other contemporary letters about Lincoln's condition in this time. He apparently went into this situation where he w--he'd--he would--simply couldn't function.
LAMB: What's `having two cat fits and a duck fit'?
MR. WILSON: John J. Hardin, one of Lincoln's political associates from Jacksonville, had a sister, Martinette Hardin. The time of the Legislature was a social season for--from all over the state. People would come from all over the state to socialize in Springfield during the Legislature. And har--Martinette Hardin went just as Lincoln was beginning to s--his slide into despondency and debility. And so just as she was leaving town, she heard this story that Lincoln was sort of out of commission. And she wrote back to her brother with this memorable line: `We hear that Mr. Lincoln has had two cat fits and a duck fit.'
We don't know exactly what Lincoln did, but he says in a letter at that time to his law partner, who was in Congress, `I've been making a--a disgrace of myself, a terrible exhibition of myself, because of my hypochondri-ism.'
LAMB: You write, `Mary Todd seems to have had strong feelings for Abraham Lincoln. The problem was that there--that her behavior then, as well as later, did not always look like true affection or love.'
MR. WILSON: No, because we have her letters and we have contemporary letters that make it very clear that she was having a gay old time the s--at the same time that Lincoln was in the tank, as it were. And she was flirting with other men. She was--she gave people the impression that she wanted to marry, was serious about at least one of these people. So if she was pining away for love with Lincoln, it--it's very hard to see that. And her friends couldn't tell it. You can't tell it from her letters.
LAMB: Who is Sarah Rickard?
MR. WILSON: Sarah Rickard was the young sister-in-law of one of Lincoln's friends, William Butler. Lincoln boarded with the Butlers and probably stayed with them a fair amount of time for a number of years. And he saw a lot of Sarah Rickard, and she says that he took her out and that he actually, although jokingly, proposed marriage to her once.
LAMB: What's the title about, "Honor's Voice"?
MR. WILSON: The title comes from--"Honor's Voice" comes from a--a poem that Lincoln knew and referred to, "Gray's Eulogy," that says `Can honor's voice provoke the silent dust?' And it means `Can honorable testimony about the dead do justice to their--to their deeds or what they d--bring them back to life in that sense.
LAMB: Where did you get this cover photo?
MR. WILSON: This is a--a daguerreotype, and I think it's reproduced pretty faithfully. As far as I can tell, it was taken in the late '40s. It's the earliest photographic image of Abraham Lincoln.
LAMB: Religion--you spent a lot of time on whether or not he was a believer. You s--start one paragraph `Lincoln's fatalism.' Later, you say `outgrowth of the Calvinistic religious world view in which he was raised.' Did he believe in predestination and--and did he believe in God?
MR. WILSON: He certainly believed in God and he seems always to have believed in predestination. The testimony of his friends and much of what he says, I think there's no doubt. I don't think there's any doubt either that as a young man, he was not religious, he was a skeptic where Christianity was concerned, and his family don't claim him for religion. And there's a great deal of testimony about people who knew him well who told Herndon that he used to be a free thinker and that he even went so far as to make fun of some Christian doctrines, that he was a scoffer a--as a young man. He clearly stopped scoffing. He eventually portrayed himself as a--as being unfortunate in his unbelief. And--and later than that, apparently he--he indicated to people that he would be g--pleased if--if they could bring about his conversion. But that he--that he was an unbeliever until the time he went to the presidency, I don't think there's any doubt. And I meant--don't mean unbeliever in God; I mean unbeliever in Christian doctrine.
LAMB: What do you think you would've not liked about him if you'd have known him?
MR. WILSON: I think that depends on when you're talking about. The period here, Lincoln, I think, was really trying to define himself. He--we know him as a very honorable person, but--but he did some things that weren't so honorable. And I think he was trying to figure out, as I--anybody who's ambitious and wants to get ahead: What is fair? What is honorable? What price are you willing to pay for getting ahead? Can you do underhanded things? Do you pay a price for them? Can you live with them? How candid do you have to be with people? How--how c--much can you shave the truth? I--are there situations in which it's OK to dissemble? A s--a number of people think that he thought that in political matters--when you're in political fights, you're fighting a political enemy, you didn't have to be candid. You could say what you wanted to. `Fight the devil with fire,' he would say.
LAMB: Let me read a quote you have at the--almost the last page of your book from Abraham Lincoln: "Always bear in mind that your own resolution to succeed is more important than any other one thing."
MR. WILSON: That's something that I--we could--you can easily take that for granted. I think that's something that he earned and learned in a very hard school, and I th--that's what I think--one of the things that I show in this book--how he--he became--he was a fairly resolute person, but then he--he had a lot of difficulty. And he discovered, as he says to his friend Speed in the summer of 1842, `I've lost the gem of my character, which is my ability to keep my resolves once they are made.' And he said, `Until I get it back, I can't--I can't really do anything.' And I think that's true, and I think he did get it back. He took--he took the means to get it back, and that's really the m--the most important story that I have to tell, I think.
LAMB: In the beginning of your book, you dedicate this, `For Sharon.' Who's that?
MR. WILSON: That's my wife...
LAMB: Where'd you meet her?
MR. WILSON: ...without whom not...
LAMB: Where did you meet her?
MR. WILSON: I met her at college--Doane College. We both went to Doane College and graduated in the same year.
LAMB: Where's Doane?
MR. WILSON: It's in Crete, Nebraska. It's a liberal arts college in Crete, Nebraska.
LAMB: What did you study there?
MR. WILSON: I studied--I majored in English.
LAMB: Did you-all have children?
MR. WILSON: We do. We have two children. We have a girl, Cynthia, and a boy, Timothy.
LAMB: Where did you go from Doane College?
MR. WILSON: I went to the University of Pennsylvania, and--graduate English program, took graduate degrees in Pennsylvania.
LAMB: What was your dissertation in?
MR. WILSON: It was about George Santillana and his literary career, not his philosophical career.
LAMB: And what did you personally learn from writing this book?
MR. WILSON: I learned a great deal. I learned a great deal about Lincoln. I learned, I think, a--along the line of what I was just telling you, that he had to struggle, he went through a lot, he had to learn a lot, and that his resolution that everybody takes for granted wasn't--he wasn't born with, he earned by going through the experiences of his early life.
LAMB: Of the 41 men who've been president, where do you put Abraham Lincoln?
MR. WILSON: I don't claim to be a student of the presidency, and so my vote doesn't count very much, but I, like most historians, put him at the top.
LAMB: This is what the book looks like. It's called "Honor's Voice." Our guest has been Douglas L. Wilson, the author. And we thank you.
MR. WILSON: Thank you.
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