Outlook: Five myths about Abraham Lincoln

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Harold Holzer
Monday, February 21, 2011; 11:00 AM

Abraham Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer will be online Monday, Feb. 21, at 11 a.m. ET, to chat about Abraham Lincoln and his latest Outlook piece, "Five Myths about Abraham Lincoln." In it he writes, "On Presidents' Day, it's well worth dispelling some perennial misconceptions about the man on the $5 bill."

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Harold Holzer: check local listings in case of a government shutdown!

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Lincoln and depression: This may be more of a comment than a question, but I would be interested in your response.To claim that Lincoln did not have chronic depression because he did not descend into madness or commit suicide strikes me as being an overly simplistic view of chronic depression. As with most illnesses, there are degrees of severity, and many people with mild depression can function reasonably well even without medication or other therapy. It is entirely possible (if not necessarily likely) that Lincoln could have had a mild case of depression and still been able to function, even in as difficult a position as he was in during his Presidency. Of course, it is also completely possible that he did not suffer from depression at all, but did react appropriately to the tragedies and difficulties of his life. Without much more information about his moods and thoughts day-to-day, I think that it is impossible to know one way or the other.

Harold Holzer: I do know that my friend Josh Shenk has already expressed his dismay at my conclusion as published in the Post--so maybe he'll weigh in today.

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Lincoln profit from Transcontinental Railroad?: I was wondering what is the truth behind di Lorenzo's charge that Lincoln manipulated the town of origin of the transcontinental railroad in order to realize a profit on property he owned on the banks of the Missouri River?Also, what do the the stable of scholars think of diLorenzo's Lincoln scholarship and his relentless attacks on the rest of them?

Harold Holzer: but the idea that he so argued because he might profit from his own investment is absurd--yet no more so than the fantastical, loony, extreme right-wing junk that comes from Di Lorenzo, now a Tea Party favorite who blames Lincoln for runaway federal power, international adventurism, etc.--and no serious scholar takes him seriously, i promise.

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Bankruptcy?: Some particularly tasteless bankruptcy lawyers contend on their websites that bankruptcy isn't so bad, for even the revered Abraham Lincoln did it! Any truth to that?

Harold Holzer: he called it his "national debt."

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Lincoln's sexual preference: I recently read speculation that Lincoln might have been gay. Do you have any information that would support or refute that?

Harold Holzer: asked and answered

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Blackhawk Wars: I understand that in his younger days, Lincoln fought in an Indian war against Chief Blackhawk in the midwest. Is it known whether he killed anyone?

Harold Holzer: he added that being elected captain by his regiment gave him more satisfaction than any of his political triumphs through 1860

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His mother Nancy Hanks: There is a lot of myths and legends surrounding Abraham Lincoln's mother, right? She was illiterate or she read the Bible daily. She was illegitimate and her father was either known or unknown to her. So what is the truth about Nancy Lincoln and what are myths in the many blurry areas? What is you own best guest?

Harold Holzer: My own guess is that she died so young that Lincoln forever remembered her as his "angel mother" and her image will remain as blurred and rosy ion our own minds as it did in her son's.

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Queen Victoria and Prince Albert: I think I remember reading that while the British government was a bit more supportive of the Southern rebels, Prince Albert was more supportive of Abraham Lincoln. Am I remembering this incorrectly?

Harold Holzer: no, the battle continued--and it was not until emancipation and a few more Union victories (plus good work by secretary of state seward and ambassador adams) that the Confederates were denied

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Legacy Project: With all the Reagan worship going on right now (I don't even remember Ronald Reagan ever being so beloved during his time in office), did something like Grover Norquist's "Reagan Legacy Project" happen to Abraham Lincoln? Was there an organized project to boast the legacy of Abraham Lincoln or was Lincoln's "beloved" legacy more genuine?

Harold Holzer: those powerful emotions conspired to turn Lincoln into a national saint, not that he didn't deserve it.

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Rhode Island: Greetings from th Ocean State.Just curious if Abraham Lincoln ever visited Rhode Island or any connections he had with Rhode Island?

Harold Holzer: check www.thelincolnforum.org and become a member.

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Five myths about Abraham Lincoln: If it is "best to throw up our hands" on the question whether Lincoln was gay, then why did you put the matter on a list of "myths," and why belittle the credentials of those making the assertion while ignoring the manifestly biased, homophobic reactions among some longtime Lincoln experts when Tripp first made the claim? How is this different from the sneering, dismissive attitude that Sally Hemmings' descendants encountered?

Harold Holzer: But I might add that one if my e-mail pals told me yesterday that I shoud certainly have pointed out that most Illinois lawyers shared beds on the judicial circuit in the 1850s--indicative more of the scarcity of beds than the affectional preferences of the legal community.

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The little Upstate New York girl and Lincoln's beard: Is there a story about a little girl from somewhere in Upstate New York (I forget her name, Grace?, and which town) as the reason that Lincoln grew a beard?

Harold Holzer: it's a great story--and a true one--and little grace lived into her 80s and spoke about her meeting with lincoln for the rest of her life.

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Lincoln's Ghost: Have recent residents of the White House recently seen Lincoln's ghost?

Harold Holzer: well, i asked Presidents Clinton and Bush and while both said they felt his "presence," neither acknowledged any paranormal sightings.

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Lincoln's Honesty: What about Lincoln's honesty? Did he deserve the reputation of "Honest Abe" or was it a campaign exaggeration?

Harold Holzer: Remarkable.

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Thomas Creekmoe McCurry: Apparently as a young boy, Thomas Creekmore McCurry (1850 - 1939) shook hands with Abraham Lincoln. Thomas Creekmore McCurry is the third-great grandfather of Barack Obama. The McCurrys were also known for having big ears, so I guess Obama's love of Lincoln and big ears can be traced to Thomas Creekmore McCurry.

Harold Holzer: so many presidents are related to each other it wouldn't surprise me.

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Mary Todd Lincoln v. Robert Todd Lincoln: Another thing that historians seem pretty divided on is Mary Todd Lincoln, in particular when her only surviving son, Robert Todd Lincoln, had her committed. Either she was actually crazy or her son simply wanted her out of the way and control his late father's estate totally. So are you more pro-Robert Todd or more pro-Mary Todd?

Harold Holzer: he was not the man his father was.

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Both Lincoln and Mary Todd lost their mothers when they were children: I read that both Abraham Lincoln and Mary Todd lost their mothers when they were children. Mary tried to get her father's attention by being accomplished. Abraham's father struck him and made him work on the farm until age 21. Maybe having lost their mothers and not good relationships with their fathers gave Mary and Lincoln that lifelong sadness and a common bond.

Harold Holzer: very strange

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Reviewing the bad presidents: Like many other presidents, Barack Obama talks a lot about reading biographies of Abraham Lincoln as well as Abraham Lincoln's own writings.But I figured it's also important to read and research the bad presidents, Herbert Hoover, John Tyler, Frankin Pierce, etc...What they did wrong seems pretty important to learn from as well as Mount Rushmore presidents.

Harold Holzer: he later said it convinced him that the Union the founders created was worth saving, no matter what the cost

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Lincoln: Why do you think people have such fondness for Lincoln? What made him so likable?

Harold Holzer: He wasn't particularly popular with women--shyness, homeliness, and awkwardness conspired to make him less than a ladies' man to be sure--but men gravitated to him, and once they entered his political orbit, for the most part, they were mesmerized and remained loyal for life.

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Man of mystery?: What is something many people DON'T know about Lincoln?

Harold Holzer: Any one who didn't take him seriously, one of his legal colleagues once remarked, would wind up with his back in a ditch.

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Trading with the South: I've read that Maryland slave holders sold their slaves into the deep south at the begining of the war. Was there really commerce between the North and the South during the way that would have allowed this? I always assumed there was no commerce during the war - but I don't know that this makes sense when I think about living in an agrarian time.

Harold Holzer: i've no doubt that human beings, like medicines and other "property," was smuggled south from Maryland during the war.

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McCurrys: Interview with Thomas Creekmore McCurry's granddaughter and a first cousin of Madelyn "Toot" Dunham, Obama's grandmother. Chicago Sun-Times did a pretty good profie of Harbin Wilburn McCurry, Thomas's father and his anti-slavery stance (apparently the family had a black man hide with them for a time and he later took "McCurry" as his surname in their honor). Barack Obama wrote about a photograph of Thomas Creekmore McCurry and his second wife in his first memoir "Dreams from My Father" when he mentions a photograph of Toot's grandparens on the bookshelf. It's on page 15.

Harold Holzer: assume today's paper? thanks.

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slaves: Why wasn't Lincoln's plan to return the freed slaves to Africa in 1866 not acted on?

Harold Holzer: A few days later, Booth murdered him.

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All Presidential Legacies: Concerning the question about the bad presidencies, Aren't all presidents victims of their times? Don't they all have positives and negatives and it is in how history plays out the importance of their individual decisions. I think of the debate raging today about Roosevelt: War-time president hero or nasty expander of federal programs?

Harold Holzer: President Clinton would certainly agree that circumstances play a major part in forging top-tier presidential reputations.

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Morality or Expediancy?: I cannot find a link to your Outlook article, so please forgive me if this was already answered there. I have heard that Lincoln was not against slavery because of any morality but because it was politically expediant to be againstslavery. Is that true? Thank you...

Harold Holzer: But morally, and i can't stress this enough, Lincoln believed every human being should be allowed to eat the bread he made with his own hands.

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Lincoln Myths: A recent book "The Last Lincolns" makes the claim that Thomas Lincoln Beckwith's chauffer was skyjacker D.B. Cooper. What do you think? Are there in fact any Lincoln descendants still living?

Harold Holzer: Any blond, 6'4" Lincoln lookalikes in Stockholm, anyone?

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John Wilkes Booth: What are some of myths of John Wilkes Booth?Wasn't he engaged to the unattractive daughter of U.S. Senate from Dover, New Hampshire?

Harold Holzer: i tend to think he was killed as reported

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Lincoln the Abolitionist: What were Lincoln's true feelings toward the abolition of slavery. I have read that the GOP at that time did not include abolition as part of their platform. The argument could be made that had the South not seceded that emancipation would not have occured during Lincoln's presidency. It is not hard to imagine that slavery could have endured until the 20th century.

Harold Holzer: i don't believe, however, that without war emancipation could have been introduced--it was after all a military measure from the commander-in-chief.

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Lincoln's Family Tree: Do you have a diagram of Lincoln's family tree? I have a friend that claims she is a descendant of Lincoln. I would love to surprise her with a link to help her prove it to her friends.

Harold Holzer: for more info on the collateral line you might want to contact "Hildene" in Manchester, VT, the wonderful home of Robert Lincoln now a museum and research center

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Tea Party Lincoln: I firmly believe that if Lincoln were alive today, he would be an enthusiastic member of the Tea Party. Lincoln freed the slaves of his day, but today we are all slaves to the federal gubmint. Is this something that Lincoln would consider fighting a Civil War for, today, if he were alive, to make all men free once again?

Harold Holzer: But that's what makes these discussions fun.

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Mary Surrat: One of those executed for Lincoln's death was Mary Surrat of Waterloo, Md. I've read that historians are divided on her guilt and whether she ought to have been put to death. Just wondering on your take on Mary Surrat?

Harold Holzer: not only is this untrue--not only does the film take enormous liberties with the truth--but Mary was as they say as guilty as sin.

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Worst then or now: For all those wacky and awful rumors about Abraham Lincoln faced in his lifetime, did anybody think he was Kenyan illegal immigrant?

Harold Holzer: no, just an unqualified babboon who couldn't make a decision, had radical ideas, and believed in a ridiculous premise called democracy and human freedom

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Clone Abe Lincoln!: I've seen a lot of blood-stained clothing, bedsheets, and blankets that are alleged to have been worn by Abe Lincoln on the night he was killed. Could these gruesome artifacts be used as a source of Lincoln DNA for cloning sometime in the future? I'm not talking about cloning by fans of Lincoln, but cloning by the mad scientists community.

Harold Holzer: i say go for it.

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Harold Holzer: DON'T FORGET THE INAUGURAL SESQUICENTENNIAL EVENT AT THE US XCAPITOL VISITOR CENTER SAT. MARCH 5 10AM EST, LIVE ON C-SPAN IF YOU CAN'T GET THERE


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